Little girls have been brought up to believe in fairy tales for decades. From a young age, many girls believe that they will meet their prince and live happily ever after. Films and books and most importantly, the parents of girls; all condition women to believe that the ideal way to live is to fall in love with a gorgeous man of wealth and status, then go on to create a happy family. Unfortunately, real life isn’t like that. As women have become better educated, able to have fulfilling careers and to choose whether or when they have children; they are increasingly opting to postpone the fairy tale plans until their thirties or even forties. In previous decades, women have married relatively young and had little choice but to remain with their partner regardless of whether or not the relationship was fulfilling. Women today don’t have to stay with a partner who isn’t making them happy, and divorce is now socially acceptable. It is also socially acceptable to live with a partner or two before choosing to get married and/or have children; which means that women no longer have to accept the first man who comes along in the first flush of youth. All these advantages of choice and independence are fantastic, however, modern thinking and gender equality do not account for the fact that the best time biologically for a woman to have a baby is in her early twenties.
In Singapore, the government has been so concerned about the fact that the population is ageing fast and those who are of childbearing age are simply choosing not to have children; that they’ve gone back to the fairy tale analogy in an effort to appeal to women about the importance of being mindful of their fertility. One fairy tale handed out as a pamphlet to women in their twenties told the story of ‘Careless Alice’. Alice discovered that enjoying herself with teenage exuberance and carelessness during her twenties came at a cost when she wanted to have children later on. The tale concludes with a loud ringing in the ears: ‘After 40, fertility drops 95%’. According to The Observer, ‘Fertility problems are estimated to affect 1 in 7 couples in the UK – about 3.5 million people’. The ‘getting pregnant’ industry has exploded to the extent that there is now a series of apps designed to help you optimise your chances of becoming pregnant and make the process a manageable task. It’s inevitable that declining fertility, ageing and the ticking of the biological (or societal) clock will influence how women choose a partner, and how quickly they settle down, or is it?
Barbara Ellen of The Observer offers one perspective on women who choose not to have children or wait until they are considered elderly in antenatal terms. She describes ‘the urban myth of women “refusing” to have children because of careers, partying or holding out for Leonardo di Caprio’. Ellen attributes the issue to an entirely different notion, that is that ‘many women at their fertile peak didn’t refuse anything, their men did’. This suggests that lots of women do want to settle down and have children in their twenties, but that their partners aren’t interested. As a result, they get on with their lives, and shockingly, dare to have some fun along the way! When they reach their thirties and forties, after being burned a series of times by relationships that culminated in a dead end; it could be thought inevitable that women become more likely to consider a marriage with a man they would never have considered in their twenties. Is this because women are blindly following the tick of their biological clocks? Or, is it simply that our priorities change, and as we mature, qualities that once seemed important in a partner are imbued with a new sense of perspective?
The media often sensationalises fertility issues and debates about women becoming mothers later in life; but what are the facts? Should we really fear for our ability to bear children as we reach our thirties and forties? According to the NHS, ‘In women, fertility declines more quickly with age. This decline becomes rapid after the age of 35’. And, just when we thought that was slightly worrying, the National Health Service (UK) also states that ‘Around one third of couples in which the woman is over 35 have fertility problems. This rises to two thirds when the woman is over 40’. It is not difficult to draw the conclusion that knowing these facts about fertility; some women might consider the decline of their ovaries to be a ticking time bomb; and therefore choose a partner with less consideration than before.
Is it really the case that all women want to have children; and will therefore make different choices of partner as they age and their fertility is considered to be ebbing away? That certainly doesn’t appear to be valid for one woman, who addressed the issue on BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour. She said ‘My friends and I have occasionally likened coming out as (voluntarily) child free to coming out as a gay person 40 or 50 years ago. There’s the same sense of shock – perhaps that’s too strong a word. But it’s a lifestyle people don’t expect and may challenge their world view’. It could be said that this kind of societal pressure on women to become mothers directly impacts on their choice of partner and they age at which they bow to that pressure.
In August 2008, scientists conducted a study of 2,500 women that examined how the consumption of the contraceptive pill impacts on the kind of man they choose to settle down with. The Telegraph reported that they ‘found women taking the pill when they met their partner were less satisfied with their sexual lives and less likely to opt for “masculine” or “dominant” partners’. It would seem then, that women who are using the pill lack the natural hormonal drive to choose a mate that they are truly physically attracted to. Does this mean that women are choosing their partners because of a completely different set of priorities, such as the ability to be a good father and provide for their families; at the expense of sexual fulfilment? Many people would consider that basing your choice of husband/long term partner on more than just physical attraction is a logical and eminently practical thing to do; but should sexual happiness be that price that is paid?
Social scientist Dr Catherine Hakim talked to The Guardian about the fact that women have ‘become better educated and…(are starting) to outnumber men among higher education students’. As a result of this, Hakim says that ‘it becomes impossible for all to marry an even more highly educated and high earning spouse, so they are increasingly forced to marry equal or down’. This suggests that women are marrying men who they wouldn’t have looked twice at ten years ago; or who have some niggling negative qualities that they brush aside. However, it’s my assertion that women are simply more mature, grounded and realistic about what a real long term partnership should entail. Instead of relying on myths and fairy tales, they are more likely to make a considered choice to marry or stay single, to have children or to choose not to be a mother; and that’s why we should be glad of our educational opportunities and the increasingly narrow gender gap when it comes to opportunities of every kind. What do you think?