Are Older Mothers Selfish?


Barry Walters, an obstetrician at the King Edward Memorial Hospital in Perth, recently called older women who planned to get pregnant after 39 ”selfish and self-centred”. There was a huge number of critical responses to his accusations, and a good deal of support for his views that older mothers were putting their offspring at risk. What drove the intensity of commentary on this issue? What are we really saying when we accuse someone of selfishness? Is there such a thing as free choice when it comes to having children? Is younger always better?

My daughter and I were sitting in our favourite cafe having breakfast last week, when she pointed out the piercing adorableness of a tiny boy at the table next to us. Both of us are quite illicitly longing for a baby. Her transgression is related to being too young, and mine to being too old. She is 15 and I’m 44. Both of us would be heavily criticised were we to become pregnant, and both of us would be labelled selfish and irresponsible. This is of course not a charge that would be commonly made against the father of any of our imaginary children.

There is a great deal that each of us have to offer a child. My daughter has a huge biological advantage. Statistically speaking, she has healthier eggs and a decidedly stronger body and the possibility of fewer pregnancy and delivery complications and birth defects. Having spent a lot of time working with young pregnant women and young mothers, I also remember the envy I felt as they bounced back and handled the sleepless nights with far more ease than my relatively ancient 30-year-old self.

But older mothers generally have an enormous advantage in the stability department. I know that I would be a better mother now than I was even at 30. Maybe at 50 I would be even more able to offer the kind of parenting and care that babies need. I’m more financially stable, but the real advantage for older mothers is the potential for a greater level of emotional and psychological maturity.

Obviously there are drawbacks to having children very young or later in life. There are potential problems in any family configuration for children. But where does the charge of selfishness come from?

An accusation of selfishness often hides our envy that someone is able to make a choice we either didn’t have or didn’t know we had. If we did know the choice was there, then it can mean we’re envious that they’re letting themselves make a decision we wouldn’t allow ourselves to make.

Concern about good parenting is a relatively new concept. My parents’ generation didn’t think so much in terms of being good parents emotionally. Just have a look at an episode of Mad Men if you want a snapshot of white middle class western parenting for Generation X.

I suspect that comments like Barry Walters’ are often fuelled by envy. In this case the charge of selfishness is coming from those who were part of a generation that did not make such active choices about the timing of their pregnancies and in fact had far less reproductive choice than we do now. But how much personal choice are we really exercising here anyway?

Recent research has pointed to social factors having more impact on a woman’s decision to delay having children than personal choice. Finding a partner who wants children, a lack of maternity leave and higher education debt appear to have more impact on later pregnancy than personal choice. Wider social phenomena are determining this decision to a greater degree than many of us recognise or are comfortable with. Maybe part of our reaction to the charge of selfishness comes from our understanding that our choices really are governed by circumstance. And that’s a bit hard to take.

Social psychology was the first discipline to identify the universal faulty thought process that we call the fundamental attribution error. This is the tendency we all have to view our own choices as determined by outside circumstances, while at the same time criticising others for a personal character flaw when we see them making what we feel are bad decisions. In other words, when I make the mistake, it was out of my hands, but when you do, you’re just a selfish person.

We all do this without exception. And we need to take this reasoning flaw into account when we’re making pronouncements, particularly when we’re providing so-called expert opinion on the motivations of others.

The difficulty with seeing our own attribution bias is that it can be quite depressing to understand ourselves and our decisions as socially determined. We like to think we’re rational creatures who make decisions based on information and a reasoned survey of the available options. But a great deal of social research points not only to our behaviour being situational, but also to the terrible effect that understanding this determinism can have on our wellbeing.

Of course it’s depressing to think that as women our reproductive choices are largely governed by our social circumstances. If I look back open to these facts, I had a baby not just because I deeply wanted one, but because I had a partner who wanted one too. We both had functioning organs of reproduction, I had paid maternity leave and we had a small inheritance. Not much freedom of choice involved here, more like desire meeting opportunity. This doesn’t mean I had no choices, but it does mean my choices were severely limited and controlled by my situation. For women today, the social circumstances that have resulted in later pregnancy have been dishearteningly restrictive.

In order not to fall victim to either the error of blaming women for making choices that are largely socially determined, or becoming depressed when the veil of our freedom of choice is lifted, we need to shift from an individual to a social response. Instead of striving for the perfect individual solution, we need to accept our social determinism and put the focus on changing circumstances for women and children.

Blaming women is not only misplaced, it insidiously moves the focus from social change to personal sacrifice. If we see things as they really are here, perhaps it’s not a recipe for depression, but a blueprint for political action. It’s an unusual thing for a therapist to say I know, but often it’s the world that needs changing.

At the same time, we do have some personal choice within our current restrictions. What can we do with the information we have about the biological advantage of having children young and the emotional advantages of middle age?

If we were simply making parenting choices based on the available information about what was best for children, then perhaps we would look to cultures such as those of the Trobriand Islands, where the children of young women were often raised by their grandmothers. In this way children would have both the benefits of youth and the wisdom of age. It might just solve the problem of the current intergenerational cluckiness in my household too…

ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.

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