Chitra Ramaswamy: Older parents can be happier

The film Baby Boom with Diane Keaton. Picture: Kobal
The film Baby Boom with Diane Keaton. Picture: Kobal
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THERE is a lot to be said for the modern woman delaying having children, as research shows older parents can be happier parents, writes Chitra Ramaswamy. However, the trick is to not wait too long.

Happiness is found in all sorts of unlikely places when you become a parent. Like the other day, when my son and I were visiting family in London. They live on the Heathrow flight path and it is outrageously noisy. Edinburgh Hogmanay noisy. From 4am most mornings, a procession of planes screech directly over the flat with the persistence and decibel level of Russell Brand talking politics. Every two minutes. It could drive you mad if you didn’t already have a one-year-old keeping you up all night driving you mad.

Yet here’s the thing. My son loves planes. His face lights up whenever a jumbo jet thunders past, giant wheels skimming the tops of our matching bedheads, engines writing a sad story of pollution across the sky. Every single time he sees another one carrying ever more people to and from places they probably don’t need to go, he shrieks “WOWDER!” (his word for wow) as though it’s his first. The same goes for helicopters. We saw a Chinook recently and it was like that time Elvis came to Prestwick airport. Except more wowdery.

So now I love planes. Being on the flight path rocks. The very thing that used to drive me mad about visiting my parents in my twenties and living with them prior to that has become my main reason for going (apart from seeing them, obviously). This is what entering the state known as parenthood has done to me. I find joy in small, mundane, otherwise irritating things. I am a happier person.

Last week, new research was published suggesting I may not be the only one having this peculiar response to a life of hard (and unpaid, and undervalued) labour, poo management and back-to-back viewings of In The Night Garden. The study, carried out by London School of Economics and Canada’s Western University, found that couples who have children later in life – between the ages of 35 and 49 – experience the highest and most lasting levels of happiness. The study’s authors, who followed English and German parents over 18 years, thought this could help to explain why more people start families at a later age.

So at last we have some research suggesting that 21st-century women aren’t in fact nasty, selfish and – the subtext is there, so I’m just going to say it – unnatural, nurturing their careers above all else and putting off having children while their eggs rot, the health of the babies they eventually have is put at risk and society falls apart.

No, it turns out that older parents can be happier parents. And, as other studies have shown, they might even be better ones too.

I am approaching 36, my partner is 40 and our son is one, which, according to the study, is also the time when the happiness associated with child-rearing can start to dip. Oh dear. I presume this is something to do with the reality that gatecrashes the warm, cosy, cuddly baby party right about now. You know, the horror of nursery fees, the virtual impossibility of being a fulfilled, fully functioning, sane, working mother who can follow a sentence from start to… whatever, the dearth of state support, the psychological impact of all those back-to-back viewings of In The Night Garden, and so on. I admit it was all so much easier when I was lost in a fug of muslin squares and sleep deprivation.

In fact, the study showed it is parents of my age who are least likely to experience this dip in happiness. For us, the gift of children keeps on giving, as opposed to couples aged between 23 and 34 who experienced less of a positive response to becoming parents. Those aged between 18 and 22 actually saw their happiness decrease.

There is a lot to be said for waiting to have children (though the trick is to not wait too long). After all, having a baby literally changes everything, from your perspective on life to the time you go to bed at night (9:30pm, since you’re asking).

When I was younger and sillier, such sacrifices would have appalled me, not to mention bored me to tears. Now, from my ancient perspective, happiness proves to be a small, demanding child. That’s because I did it when I was ready. Ready to stop thinking about myself, to sacrifice my body and mind to the gruelling task of pregnancy and parenting, and to devote the rest of my days to helping a funny little person become himself. I longed for a baby, so even on a bad day, of which there are many, I tend to feel lucky that I got one. It’s the biggest job I’ve ever undertaken – as well as the one that’s valued the least – and I think being older has made me more up for it. And more up to it, for that matter. Aside from the back pain, broken bones and memory loss, but you can’t have everything.

There is a bigger pattern at work here that tends to be neglected whenever “older mother” stories appear. The fact is, personal decisions are never made in a political vacuum. What appears as an individual choice to postpone parenting is, on closer inspection, driven by how a society and its policies views and treats parents. And in particular women.

I am part of a generation of women who waited because we had to wait. I couldn’t afford a mortgage in my twenties. Those years, and great fun they were too, were spent renting, partying and working ridiculous hours for not enough money.

This remains the case for most women in a country that has dropped to 26th place in the world – below Rwanda, Ireland, and South Africa – for gender equality. Where the average salary for women has fallen from £18,000 to £15,400 in the past year alone. What choice did I really have? Having a baby in my twenties would have spelled the end of my career. I couldn’t afford it then, and can barely do so now. “Having it all” is a fantasy cooked up by capitalism.

Around 20 per cent of babies are born to women aged 35 or older, the highest proportion since records began in 1938. I bet that not all of these women chose to postpone parenthood. Perhaps parenthood didn’t feel like an option for them until they hit their mid-thirties, realised it was now or never, and did it anyway. Under such circumstances, the notion that waiting might have its benefits should be welcomed, especially when that benefit turns out to be happiness, one of the great pursuits of life.

For this mother in her mid-thirties the old adage really is true: the best things do come to those who wait. Or, as my son would put it, wowder.

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