Editorial: Baby dilemma one hot potato

By Annemarie Quill

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WELL PREPARED: Tara Stewart is about to have her first baby at 41.
WELL PREPARED: Tara Stewart is about to have her first baby at 41.

Nicole Kidman did it for the first time at 41. Cherie Blair did it for the last time at 45. Bridget Jones author Helen Fielding did it at 43 and then again at 48. Halle Berry did it last year at 47. Holly Hunter topped that at 47, doing it twice in one go - with twins.

If Hollywood is anything to go by, having a child in your fifth decade is not unusual. Here in the Bay, 41-year-old Tara Stewart from Greerton is up with the celebrities. On Friday we reported that Mrs Stewart is about to have her first baby at 41.

Birth figures for 2013, released this week by Statistics NZ, show that while Bay mothers gave birth to 200 fewer babies than the previous year, across the country the trend toward older mothers' child-bearing continued, with women aged 35 to 39 having more babies than women aged 20 to 24 for the first time, Statistics NZ said. University of Otago sociologist Bryndl Hohmann-Marriott said New Zealand has one of the oldest average age of mothers having their first birth in the developed world.

In our report this trend was criticised by a local lactation consultant Trudy Hart, who said Bay of Plenty mothers are leaving it "too late". Hart seems to put the cause for this trend down to women enjoying themselves too much to get up the duff.

"They can enjoy a life, [they feel] their careers are much more important than being mothers and then they encounter infertility because they're leaving it too late."

Harsh words but perhaps predictable from someone whose business is lactation.

Certainly medical practitioners note the risks involved in birthing - both for mother and baby - increase with a mother's age. Have your first baby at over 35 years and you will be classified medically geriatric-primagravida. But as University of Otago sociologist Bryndl Hohmann-Marriott says these risks are better managed today.

There are other advantages to being an older mother. Mrs Stewart in our story says she has her "head screwed on a bit straighter than if I was a bit younger" and her finances sorted.

Anecdotal assumptions about the older mother being a more prepared mother is borne out by research. Professor Elizabeth Gregory of the University of Houston who has researched the trend for mothers over 35, found that they were more financially secure, more confident, ready to focus on family and more ready to take a break in their career than younger mothers.

While this is good news for our Hollywood mothers, and Bay mums such as Mrs Stewart, there is also something concerning about the fact that social and career pressure may mean women fear taking a break in their careers early on, when their fertility is at its peak in their 20s. They would rather, it seems, gamble on their fertility than risk slipping a rung in the career ladder.

It is not their fault. Despite the many advances of women in the workplace, the simple fact that women take and need a break to have one or more children, means that they are never on an equal footing with men.

This week, New Zealand businesswoman and rich lister Diane Foreman criticised the old boy network in New Zealand, commenting on a recent report by Harvard Business School, which noted that the percentage of women directors on boards in New Zealand was 7.5 per cent, half the global average of 16 per cent.

Foreman said more needed to be done by both the Government and the private sector.

It is not just on boards where women still are knocking their heads against the ceiling. Parental leave and flexible working for women are set to become a hot potato in this year's election.

While most would agree it is desirable for a woman to be able to take adequate time out to have a baby, the opposers argue it is too expensive.

Yet it could be affordable to extend paid parental leave from 14 weeks to 26 weeks.

The Government is still paying huge childcare subsidies to early childhood education providers who get funded by the Ministry of Education per child.

So we have the irony of a government funding a four-month-old baby to be in care while mum has to return to work. If this funding was redirected, extending paid parental leave could be a reality.

While there are challenges to grapple with, such as how New Zealand's landscape of smaller businesses would cope with this, they are challenges we must face to bring New Zealand in line with other countries.

It would certainly be a preferable spend to blanket handouts to families like the sort Labour Leader David Cunliffe has proposed.

It would also mean that if women did not want to delay having children, they need not put their careers, or their eggs on ice.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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