We know this already
Today! (Yesterday! It’s midnight! Happy New Year!) From the Guardian:
The message that ages 20 to 35 are the best for a woman to have a child should be taught in schools alongside education about teenage pregnancies and contraception, the leader of the UK’s maternity doctors has said.
Firstly, as a recipient of UK National Curriculum sex education between about 1999 and 2005: it was a) pretty shit, and b) so terrified of being titillating that it took refuge in mind-numbing dullness; only the unintentionally-traumatising bits stuck. (To this day, I wince at the sight of a Teletubby.) They did at least mention contraception, though: J (RoUKNCSE 1997-2002) went to a Catholic comprehensive, and informs me that their “sex ed” course never mentioned contraception at all, not even in the context of “Don’t use it.”
So there’s that. Sex ed in this country has to get a lot better at the fundamentals before even looking into complicated life issues like when to have children. I also think that, in the grand category of potentially complicated life issues, it’d do a lot better to cover things like sexualities-other-than-hetero, the differences between sex, sexuality and gender, trans and intersex issues, and the basic principles of affirmative consent before even getting on to anything about children other than how to prevent them. Parenting advice in sex ed class sounds like . . . well, it sounds like the state pushing a particular lifestyle model (you will grow up and have children at the appointed time!) on its children to me, and I don’t like that.
Secondly, I think they are missing the point, once again, in a fairly spectacular manner. Information campaigns are fine for getting the word out to people who don’t know what’s safe or best, but worse than useless when people do know, and are still judging it in their best interests to do otherwise. They fuel resentment and they increase popular perception of the government as wildly out of touch with the concerns of actual people – which, to be fair, is true.
Teenage pregnancy is sufficiently vilified (including the annual tabloid shriekathon and broadsheet tut-tutting when it turns out that, once again, the UK has placed unusually high in the teenage-pregnancy table) that I suspect everyone in the country knows it’s generally not the best of ideas, not least because of the shaming that will immediately ensue. Teenage parents are stereotyped as feckless, stupid, uneducated, a drain on the system; it’s assumed that they will, inevitably, be incompetent, neglectful or abusive parents. (As if propensities to incompetence, neglect or abuse were confined to teenagers.)
And yet teenagers still get pregnant and carry to term, which should give us pause. When that’s the least worst option, something is wrong. It might be a lack of other routes out of poverty and into adulthood. It might be a lack of affection and care to the point where a baby seems like the only chance of getting someone to love you unconditionally. It might be a lack of access to sex education and contraception before the fact, or a lack of access to abortion after it. In practice, it’s all of those.
ETA: And everyone should go and read Seamus’ comment gently (more gently than I deserved, I think) pointing out me falling into precisely the same hole I was trying to point out, as it were, and concentrating solely on the negative reasons why teenagers become parents, as if none of them do it happily and willingly – whether planning the pregnancy itself or deciding to run with an unexpected one. Many do. And trying to examine why so many people, myself evidently included, are so uncomfortable with the notion of teenagers sorting out their own priorities and making their own Serious Life Decisions™, including deciding that early parenthood is the thing for them, is a whole other kettle of fish. But in short, and in supplement and correction to the above paragraph: better information, better support and less stigma around young parents would ease the burden, both on individual teens and on society, whatever the reason they have children.[/edit]
At the other end of the scale there’s the equal amounts of media flailing about women who have children late – again to a degree of saturation that’s hard to avoid. Once again, women having children at a perhaps-unadvisable time is treated as the problem in itself, rather than a symptom. If the medical risks of waiting until 35+ are well known, and they are, again – why do people do it? What wrongnesses are in place to make this the least worst option?
For instance, the misogyny directed at women who dare to wait until their career is on a solid footing before pregnancy is breathtaking: they’re stereotyped as ruthless careerists or, bizarrely, somehow killing the romance of parenthood by wanting to ensure their child’s future is financially secure. (Because being born into uncertainty is so amazing . . .) Perhaps if it weren’t such a guaranteed career-killer to drop out of the workplace for several months, or several years, to raise children, more parents would have them earlier. (And this leads into a whole other can of worms about the hideous capitalist work-culture here in the West.)
And then there’s the way that the aforementioned medical risks get used practically as a battering ram. Now, informed is armed. Everyone should know the risks when undertaking stuff. But on the one hand there’s pointing out the higher risk of, say, Down’s syndrome, in children of older mothers and noting that the expense of accommodations, potential stress, etc., may be a complicating factor in a decision, and then there’s treating having a Down’s child as if it were A Horrible Tragedy of Unimaginable Proportions and something that you couldn’t possibly ever risk ever. This comes up in almost every mainstream discussion about later pregnancies, and nobody ever seems to pause to consider what this is, in effect, saying to actual people with Down’s and their families. “It is a horrible tragedy that you exist” is not something anybody ever wants to hear.
(And maybe parenting children with disabilities would be less likely to be expensive, stressful and life-changing if assistance were readily available for things like accessible housing, accessible schooling, specialist medical care, and so on.)
I find it hard to believe that there’s anyone of childbearing age in this country who hasn’t absorbed the messages about why very young mothers and middle-aged first-time mothers are foolish/irresponsible/evil, because they’re all over the newspapers, all over the television, all over the Internet, all around us. And that’s why this proposed campaign to add it to the sex-ed curriculum will likely not do very much: people know this already, and yet our birth statistics look the way they do.
(The average age of UK first-time mothers is hovering around 29, by the way. The vast majority of first pregnancies fall within that 20-35 bracket.)
Shaming people won’t and can’t cure problems of the system, and it is wrongheaded, and also wishful thinking, in the extreme to even contemplate that it will. It’s like thinking that painting over chickenpox spots will make the chickenpox go away.
ETA: I guess the moral of this whole post as revised is that merely providing someone with information a la public health advisories won’t guarantee that they do what those public health advisories think is the best thing. It seems to be a vice of all of those of us advocating better access to information to assume that people given better access to information will then agree with us. Sometimes that’s how it works. And sometimes it isn’t.