With news stories from all over the world regularly dictating at what age a woman should have a child, it’s no wonder that a lot of us feel a certain amount of pressure when it comes to starting a family.
But for many women, the pressure doesn’t just stop there – family, friends, and even, in some instances, complete strangers can feel the need to weigh in with advice on when you should have kids. And in most cases, they’ll be advising you to get cracking now.
“My mum put a lot of pressure on me to have a baby, and started talking about it when I was only 20,” says Jo Madden, a mum of one. “At that time I had only been in a relationship for a few months, had just finished my degree, and definitely wasn’t ready for kids.”
So what was it that drove her mother to nag her about starting a family? “I think Mum was just really desperate to become a grandparent sooner rather than later,” explains Jo. “But the worst times were when she would mention it in front of relatively new boyfriends.”
Ironically enough, it was when Jo was eventually trying to conceive – and having little success – that the pressure from her mum became particularly unbearable. “I dreaded seeing my parents because I didn't want to hear about it anymore. That time was quite painful for me and my husband,” she says. “Although I can look past that now because we have a beautiful daughter whom they adore.”
Jo’s situation is far from unique though, as Cath Moore* explains. “When I was 28 I broke up with a long term partner. One of the first things my mum said to me was that I was now at an age where I had lost 20 per cent of my fertility.”
The pressure didn’t stop there: Cath’s doctor has also warned her about the dangers of leaving pregnancy until later on in life, and she is regularly asked by friends when she will be having a child. She also has a sister and best friend who constantly tell her of the joys of motherhood that she simply ‘has’ to experience.
“It feels like a cult where everyone is desperate for you to join them in the enlightenment,” says Cath. “At every social event these conversations come up because all our friends are having babies, and I think that my parents just feel like they are running out of time.”
“I feel frustrated about it all, to be honest. I just want to relax and wait until I'm ready. It's my body and my life, and I will make my own choices,” she says.
“But I have to admit that when so many people around me tell me the same thing, it’s hard not to be influenced.”
Psychologist Jocelyn Brewer says that the people who ask about when you’re having a baby don’t necessarily realise they’re a source of stress, and that sometimes the pressure is only in a person’s perception. She says that people asking may “genuinely just be curious about a couple’s family plans or development of their relationship”.
Likewise, she says that parents may just be asking in consideration of their own retirement plans, as they want to factor in grandkids and babysitting duties as part of that.
“No one can really 'pressure' you into getting pregnant,” says Jocelyn. “Pressure might just be annoying and unwanted regular questioning around your family choices. It reveals an expectation, usually a social one, that a couple are in the stage of their life or relationship in which babies are the next 'logical' step.”
But Jocelyn acknowledges that feeling under pressure to have a baby is hard for women. “There can be a sense of having to keep up with other couples or siblings, and needing to please family members, especially mothers and mother-in-laws,” she says. “Certainly with modern women, there are dual expectations around career and motherhood, and there is a definite pressure to get optimally balanced and make the 'right' and best choices.”
So how can women in this situation best deal with this unwanted pressure?
Jocelyn advises that, as a general rule, providing positive information tends to be the best way to keep the pressure hounds from the door, although she does acknowledge that this may be different for couples who are either having difficulty conceiving or are going through fertility treatments.
“It’s important to be clear on your boundaries, and if you want to keep your plans private, you need to be able to assert that,” advises Jocelyn. “Depending on the relationship and the person, couples might deflect questions politely and with mild humour.
“In other situations, like the stereotype of a meddling mother-in-law, it might be a very direct yet polite response assuring her that any pregnancy news will be delivered directly to her.”