Mind the Gap

Are millennials to blame for the current trend of mid-life motherhood?

RÓISÍN: To be a woman is to know the entire world feels entitled to comment on your body and what you choose to do with it. This is a truth universally acknowledged and applied: how you dress, how much or how little you weigh, how your genitals look, what you put on your body, what you inject in your face and, most recently, whether or not you have children, and at what age. The news that record numbers of women in the UK are child-free when they reach the ripe old age of 30 has triggered another wave of criticism that “selfish, child-free women” are single-handedly contributing to some sort of dystopian Children of Men-style situation for the future of Britain.

Of course, there are flaws to this kind of one-sided blame that feel so glaringly obvious it’s funny: namely, you need a man to have a child, so this is a relatively universal problem, not just the problem of mean, horrible women who won’t go gently into the good life of trad wifedom, stretch marks, and being constantly covered in baby sick and Wotsits. Most of the articles wringing their hands over childless women in their 30s don’t even mention how old the average first-time dad is (it’s 33, I checked).

So men and women, both, are choosing to settle down later. Honestly, can you blame us? The future doesn’t look bright for first-time mums. The cost of living is skyrocketing, we never get a decent pay rise, childcare costs a fortune, rent is soaring, we’ll never be able to buy our own home, and the climate crisis means our skint kids might not even reach adulthood without bursting into flames along with the rest of the planet. It’s not exactly enticing!

And who do we have to blame for all that? Is it millennial women, gobbling up their contraceptive pills, encasing every inch of their bodies in prophylactics and electing for choice over life? No (despite what the internet would have you believe if you were susceptible to contagious misogyny) it is – it will not surprise you boomers to learn – the fault of boomers. If it wasn’t for boomers hoarding up all the houses and then moaning at us for not being able to buy them back, if it wasn’t for boomers constantly voting for a Tory government who have jacked up our student debt and forced us to rent mouldy little hovels that would never allow a child to thrive, if it wasn’t for boomers spraying hairspray directly into the ozone layer and then pretending the earth wasn’t getting hotter as a result… then maybe, just maybe, we’d be a little more enthusiastic about reproducing.

But as it stands: no thanks.

COSMO: Róisín, if you or anyone else thinks I’m going to make the stupid, insulting and sexist argument that young women have a duty to start pumping out loads of babies asap then you’re insane – well, unless you’re the Daily Mail and will pay me lots of money.

You claim that to be a woman means that the entire world feels “entitled to comment on your body and what you choose to do with it.” Good point. But you forgot to mention that half of that world is made up of women who feel entitled to comment, condemn and shame other women. That’s the female gaze for ya!

Of all the terrible things women – young and old – have to put up with every day of their lives, I can’t help but wonder: are the opinions of a bunch of overpaid, button-pushing pundits really one of them? Who cares what they think? Isn’t this just a double dose of imagined victimhood: as a gender and a generation? I call it genderation grief.

But you do make many points that I agree with, like: “You need a man to have a child.” Funny, when I say that to my lesbian friends they always get cross; but now I can quote you! They will say: to conceive a baby you need only male sperm, not a man. You’re becoming so heteronormative!

And where did you get this image of the traditional wife as being one awash with stretch marks and constantly covered in baby sick? The fiction of Margaret Atwood or ’70s feminism? And by the way, you shouldn’t be judging other women’s bodies – especially making reference to their stretch marks!

You ask: can your generation be blamed for settling down later and having later babies than previous generations? The answer is no. But it’s not just first-time mothers who have lost faith in the future: it’s just about everybody.

Now I want to ask you: can you really blame us boomers for all the ills and injustices – the housing shortage, ecological devastation, student debt, Tory power etc – that have killed your faith in the future?

Beware of boomer-bashing – it’s a classic trope of the Right who want to cut government spending in the NHS and lower taxes. Why should the young pay for the old, they argue – well, one day they’ll be old and the young will pay for them.

I know you millennials hate us boomers. I get it. We had the best music, the best drugs, the best sex, the best festivals – what’s not to hate? We had Susan Sontag and Joan Didion. You have Sally Rooney and Caitlin Moran. Life’s not fair.

Get over it – and start stacking up them nappies!

Love and peace, man.


RÓISÍN: Thanks, Cosmo, for reminding me that there is, in fact, one appealing aspect to bowing to the pressure to fill the UK with babies. Conversing with a tiny screaming creature, who makes no sense and yet demands attention – like all women, I have a lifetime of experience of this already. I speak to men like you! With more regularity than I would like!
The caveat though, is I do my current babysitting and conversing in exchange for money. One day I’d like to focus my daily energies on just one small person shitting their pants for attention, rather than the thousands of over-sized infants who log onto Twitter to do so. But for that I need parental time off work and enough money to pay for childcare and escape the dystopian baby sick.

Far from being a “genderator” I think one of the things being missed about the stats is that they’re actually a good sign – at least for older women, not for millennials who don’t have enough money to choose to have kids. They show we live in a world that now empowers (boomer-adjacent) Gen-Xers to have children older, and they shouldn’t face ageism for doing so. If Naomi Campbell is doing it (in her 50s) then why not the rest of us?

Stats like this hopefully indicate we’re heading towards a future where – as you point out, Cosmo – you don’t need a nuclear family and you don’t need to settle in your 20s for something less than perfect, just to have a child. All you need is some sperm if you want to do it by yourself. And if not, then there’s always adoption. Or you can content yourself with a child-free life, which women shouldn’t be shamed for choosing, either.

COSMO: Róisín, as you may one day discover, we screaming creatures who make no sense and demand attention have their charms. And if you think they come in one gender – male –you need to get out more.

It’s interesting that only half of millennials are delaying having babies until after 30 – how come? Don’t they buy your boomers-killed-my-future fantasy? The really interesting question is why women would have babies at all if the future is as bleak as you claim.

I agree you don’t need a nuclear family – you need a loving family. But that doesn’t mean fathers have no obligation to the children they bring into a world facing ecological disaster and Ed Sheeran.

And if you think you can avoid having to “settle for something less than perfect” – whether it’s children or partners then all I can say is: oh, you poor innocent baby!

Journalist Cosmo Landesman believes that journalists should not bore readers with lists of publications they’ve written for or books they’ve published

Róisín Lanigan disagrees! She is a writer and editor based in London. She is Editor at i-D and her work has appeared in VICE, The Atlantic, New Statesman and Prospect Magazine. In 2020 she was the recipient of the BPA First Novel Prize for her debut novel “Brotherhood”

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