Is there a right time for women to have kids?

As high-tech companies start offering women the chance to put their fertility on ice, Christine Armstrong talks to a range of high-flying mothers about whether it's best to have children early or late.

by Christine Armstrong
Last Updated: 22 Mar 2016

A friend at an investment bank was recently advised by her boss to have her kids in her 20s so she could 'hard pedal' in her 30s and really get ahead. Meanwhile, firms such as Apple and Facebook are offering female employees egg freezing as a 'perk' so they can delay motherhood even further, into their 40s if it suits them.

Should they take up this chilly offer? For women who want a family and a decent career, putting off kids has certainly become the norm. The baby window has been well established at between 35 and 40, the point when your network, seniority and income are thought robust enough to survive the arrival of children, but right before fertility starts to decline perilously. I conformed to this protocol to the letter, punctually delivering daughters at 35, 37 and 39. But what will I advise them about the best moment to have their own children?

TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp ignited a twitchunt last year when she tweeted the imagined advice she would give a daughter if she had one: 'Darling, do you know what? Don't go to university. Start work straight after school, stay at home, save up your deposit - I'll help you, let's get you into a flat. And then we can find you a nice boyfriend and you can have a baby by the time you're 27.'

But many at least partly agree. Amanda Mackenzie, the CMO of Aviva now on secondment to a UN special education project, says: 'We shy away from having the conversation, and then people get into that cycle of "I'll just get the next promotion, I'll just buy a bigger house" and before they know it - boom - they are 45 and struggling to conceive.'

Rachael Forrest, director of the Natural Fertility Centre, recognises this pattern. 'Women come to see us at an average age of 37. Some assume that fertility treatment and/or IVF can magically fix the issue but fertility is a complex balance and nothing is guaranteed.' Even the biggest proponents of egg freezing agree that nothing is better than natural conception.

To understand more about the pros and cons of defying current convention by having your kids younger and then building your career afterwards, I talked to three women who did it that way.

Nikki King, honorary chairman of Isuzu Truck (UK) Ltd (a title she translates as 'the fat old lady we don't know what to do with but we don't want to work at Mitsubishi'), Sally James, formerly general counsel, EMEA at UBS Investment Bank, now a non-executive director of Rotork, Moneysupermarket.com and Towry and Anne Owers, chairman of the Independent Police Complaints Commission and formerly Chief Inspector of Prisons.

Sally James (left) already had two children before she did her A levels, while Nikki King's career only started motoring when she was in her 40s

King married and had her children early but two weeks before her 40th birthday, her husband walked out, leaving her with 'the kids, the dog, cat and goldfish - everything with a stomach basically - no maintenance and half a crumbling house'. So she applied to be an admin manager at a local Ford dealer in Kent. Seven years later as group fleet director and MD of a dealership, she was headhunted by Lex and, when it took on the Isuzu franchise in the UK, became MD.

She says that the advantage of starting work after having kids is the life skills you have accrued: time management, anger management, negotiation and political acumen. 'I remind other women to remember those life skills, they are more important than a degree.'

James got married at 18 and had her children at 19 and 21. She went back to night school to do A levels and then a degree after she had separated from her husband. She qualified in law and later qualified again the US.

While she thinks she may have provided a more stable environment for her children had she had them in her 30s, she also thinks she was a fun and energetic mum for being younger. And by the time she was senior enough to have really big jobs, her children were more independent, so she had more time for travel and long hours in a competitive environment.

Owers got her first job in the UK aged 34 as an administrative assistant. She spent her 20s as a researcher and teacher in Africa, doing voluntary work and having her three kids. Attributing her success to 'luck and some happy accidents', she says that starting later meant she was more mature and had had time to explore what really interested her. It also meant that she never had to take any maternity leave or shoulder expensive early years childcare costs.

In marked contrast to many of the current generation of high-fliers, none of these successful women had a grand career plan. Instead, they did the things that interested them and took up challenges as they arose.

Of the current generation they say three things. First, we overprioritise our careers at the expense of the other important things in life. James is concerned that students are being pushed into the milk round in the first year of university and becoming overly focused on academic and work experience rather than simply living. All the women had time in their 20s to explore their real interests before they embarked on a career.

Second, we seem to be in a dreadful rush. Do we really need to have starred in MT's 35 Women Under 35 list to get anywhere in life? We have more time than we think, says Owers. 'You don't have to have "made it" in a straight line by 30 to be successful.'

And, finally, we forget that we can make big life and career changes as we go. If you get to 28 and realise you loathe accountancy, it's perfectly possible to switch to something very different. James reckons that even in her 60s she could still make a big life change, and it is her unconventional route to success that has inspired this confidence.

There are also downsides to having children younger. You miss out on the chance to build a strong network at university and to revel in getting irresponsibly drunk without worrying about going home to feed the baby. There are the moments of isolation when everyone else seems to be powering ahead, leaving you trapped at the school gate.

It's also notable than none of the three remains married to the man she had her babies with. If you find yourself responsible for children, but without the day-to-day support of the father, that's likely to make pursuing a career even more stressful.

They do all acknowledge that it would be more difficult to have kids young and succeed today. The marketplace is so competitive and, amid the deluge of CVs for every role, career gaps, a lack of work experience and a less-than-super education are a challenge. Not to mention the pressure of mortgage and childcare costs and the working hours culture that requires people to be 'always on'.

There are also social expectations to grapple with. A friend who works in a PR firm broke with the convention and had a kid at the tender age of 26: her colleagues were so nonplussed that on her return no one ever mentioned the baby.

So while there are pros and cons to being either a younger mum or a more experienced one (with or without egg freezing), neither way will be easy, warns King. 'I hear a lot about "having it all". If we define having it all as a great career, a great marriage and great kids, I reckon Meatloaf had it right. Two out of three ain't bad. Unless you have a lot of money and a lot of support, you'll struggle. But it will be worth it.'

Main Photography by Sam Peach and Tora Davidson

MUM FACTS

Average age of UK women giving birth in 1975: 26.4 years

Average age of UK women giving birth in 2013: 29.9 years

FOR UK WOMEN BORN IN 1958

Average age at motherhood, graduates: 32 years

Average age at motherhood, non-graduates: 22 years

Source: ONS, University of Southampton


WOMEN WHO WERE MUMS IN THEIR 20s

Young parents are fun parents, but can you have your kids before 30 and still build a decent career?


SALLY JAMES, 66 - Non-executive director, Rotork, Moneysupermarket.com and Towry, and former general counsel, EMEA at UBS Investment Bank

'I wonder if people are too focused on planning their careers now. I had my first baby at 19 and my second at 21, and I was on such low wages as an articled clerk that the children qualified for free school meals.

'It wasn't easy but I had a lot of energy and never worried much about the future. Life is about so much more than just your job.'


ANNE OWERS, 67 - chairman of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (and formerly Chief Inspector of Prisons)

'I don't want to judge and it's unfair that women rather than men have to make a binary choice about whether or not to have children in their late 30s. But there is never a "perfect" time, and I'm not sure that you can think of children as a kind of project that you can fit in around the rest of your life.'


NIKKI KING, 67 - Honorary chairman of Isuzu Truck (UK) Ltd

'As the children got older they had more complicated needs.

A 15 year-old will tell you that no, they are not spending the summer holiday at their grandmother's house again. And what do you do with sick teens? Leave them home alone, get a sitter? It's tough.

'One downside is that being an older grandmother is hard work. Three years ago my daughter had her own twins in her 40s. Now I look after her twins two days a week.'


CLARE EVANS, 34 - Book-keeper and office manager, Maddie and Marks Shoes, Edinburgh

'I think Kirstie Allsop is absolutely right. You can have your kids young and work. I see my friends having kids for the first time now and it all seems very serious and very stressful. We didn't have a lifestyle to give up and we just did what we thought best. Now we feel our kids are quite grown up and we're living the life of Riley!'


CLAIRE BUTT, 41 - Partner, Now Surveyors

'I became pregnant in the spring before my A levels, married the day after my results and turned down a place at Oxford.

'The pros of being a young mum were that total ignorance was helpful. I couldn't afford baby books so went on instinct and it felt easy. Parenting wasn't a verb or a lifestyle in 1993, you just got on with it.

'The cost has definitely been my career. I think at some point I will do something that's just for my own fulfilment, and because by then I won't have childcare costs I won't have to worry about how much it pays.'


THE KIRSTIE ALLSOPP KIDS BY 30 CAREER PLAN

Pros
- Dodge the potential fertility crisis
- More energy and time for your kids
- Less 'grieving' for your old lifestyle
- Still time to land a big job after they go to school

Cons
- Hard to catch up on higher education if you miss it
- Sense of isolation as school friends stride ahead
- Peers and bosses may see you as 'less committed'.
- No money (but this won't be anything new)


Women who were mums after 30

Maturity brings life skills, self-knowledge and seniority at work. But trying to beat the biological clock can be a risky business.


MARGARET HEFFERNAN, 59 - CEO and author

'I'd be more impressed if the companies offering egg freezing were offering free sperm freezing at the same time. I think the initiative reinforces an error, namely that women having kids is bad for business. I think that women - and men - having children is good for business.

Businesses may seek to get the undivided attention of their employees but, should they succeed, it harms the individuals and it harms the companies. It is precisely the wrong thinking.'



RACHEL AGNEL, 42 - Director, Villas4Kids Italy

'Encouraging women in their 20s/early 30s to delay having children so they can to dedicate themselves to achieving company targets is ridiculous, and a risk to the health of the women and their unborn child.

Instead of employers trying to work out how they can defy the biological clock of female employees, they should be embracing flexible working hours which respect child care responsibilities and routine.'


SARAH COWARD, 40 - Development director, the Holocaust Centre

'Imagined conversation with my daughter.

Me: 'Ellie, you know you've been desperate to strike out on your own and go to university? Well, why don't you stay at home instead? We could save up and get you on the property ladder.

'Don't worry about university or a career until after you've met mister right. What you really want to do is get on with having babies.'

Her: 'Yeah riiiight, mum, thanks a lot.'


GILLIAN THOMSON, 37 - COO, Act Clean, former head of operations for Gordon Ramsay

'Aged 19, I was working full-time while doing a degree and I loved it. I earned rubbish money, thought credit was my friend and that Armani jeans were a benchmark of success. I didn't delay my child because of any pressure from society, but because I wanted to.

My 36-year-old self, parent of one child and one injured dog, still thinks I made the right choices. I simply didn't have the maturity, financial stability or even desire to have a child back then.'


NICOLA WYATT, 29 - Planner, Ogilvy, not yet a mother

'As I get closer to 30, all of a sudden it feels like there is a lot to fit into 15 years. If fertility is the only really fixed event in your life, then why not reassess the order in which we do things? I truly believe that education and a stimulating career are life-long privileges, not something which you bust out in three alcohol-and-hormone-soaked years straight after school.'


THE 40+ KIDS AND CAREER PLAN

Pros
- More chance of financial security
- High enough profile to step out of work for a while
- More time to find the right partner
- More life experience and stability

Risks
- IVF/egg freezing may not work
- You may not have time for as many children as you hoped
- Motherhood may demand big changes in your expensive lifestyle
- You'll be an older granny

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