When she was a teenager, Maya Dupre wanted more than anything to be an actor, like her idol, Emma Watson. By the age of 19, Dupre, from Leicester, was performing in local productions, and attending the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama on weekends. But when she unexpectedly got pregnant, her plans changed. “I had to put things on hold,” she says.
Although she quickly accepted her new reality, not everyone around her did. One family party, when Dupre was about four months pregnant, stands out. Her bump was showing, and a family member pulled her aside to express their dismay. “They said: ‘Oh, it’s such a shame: you had such a bright future ahead of you,’” Dupre recalls. “That really annoyed me, because it wasn’t a shame. It was a massive blessing.” The comment left her feeling “really low”, but it also made her “determined to prove them wrong”.
Dupre is now 22, and mother to 18-month-old daughter Ayana. She and her partner Biniam look back fondly on the time before Ayana was born, when their lives changed dramatically. “We always reminisce about when it was the two of us and how different it was.” They rarely go out, but Dupre is content. “My dreams have changed, but I’m equally happy.”
Dupre’s story is striking because of the gradual decline in British people having children in their 20s. According to the Office for National Statistics, the average age of mothers and fathers continues to rise: 55% of first-time mothers in 2017 were aged 30 and over, up from 43% in 1997; 69% of fathers were over 30, up from 60% in 1997. This trend is particularly pronounced among professionals, where the average age of mothers is between 31.7 and 33.5. Meanwhile, teen pregnancy rates have halved in the past decade.
But this tendency to have babies later in life, if at all, isn’t necessarily a cause for celebration: an ageing population that is living longer, thanks to advances in modern medicine, combined with fewer adults entering the labour force as a result of our falling birth-rate, creates the risk of an economic timebomb.
It also means that if you have babies in your 20s, it can be an isolating experience, something 25-year-old Liberty Cordal from Brighton can relate to. When she first had her daughter Ari, friends were excited to visit. “People were constantly messaging me, saying: ‘Oh my God, I’m going to come and see you.’” But the messages tapered off as Ari, now three, got older. “People love babies, but no one really seems to love kids … now no one ever messages me.”
For 28-year-old Sahirah Mohammed from Ilford, the arrival of her son Yusuf when she was 23 came as a bit of a shock. (Mohammed now also has a seven-month-old daughter, Aminah.) “I’m not going to lie, it was very stressful.” She remembers wondering: “‘How am I going to cope with a baby?’ Because I was still a baby myself.” When Yusuf was born, her whole lifestyle changed. “At that age, you’re used to going out and doing things. And when he was born, I was literally stuck at home every day.” For Mohammed, the daily practical support of her extended family, which enables her to work part-time for Transport for London, is critical. “I couldn’t have done it without them. If they weren’t there, I wouldn’t have been able to cope.”
There are good reasons why fewer people are having children in their early 20s, not least because we are living in precarious times, and many of the economic inducements to early parenthood are no longer in place. “The job market has tightened in certain significant ways, at least for those who have gone to university,” explains Dr Jonathan Cave, an economist at Warwick University, with expertise in population growth and change. For example, “those who have a job are expected to spend more time in relation to that job, just to retain it, because there are more people competing for it … This removes some of the ability to generate savings and plan for children.”
And gone are the days of jobs for life. Today’s workers subsist in a fragmented labour force where they could be laid off at any time – or rather, find that their services as an independent freelance contractor, rather than a salaried employee, are no longer required.
Another factor is the cost of housing, with buying a home out of reach for many. Cordal’s rent on her Brighton home is £1,200 a month, more than she makes in the part-time bar job she took on after Ari was born. According to a recent report from the insurance firm Royal London, 49% of children born in 2016 and 2017 were in families living in rented accomodation, with the prospect of eviction by a private landlord never far away.
“I think people who get married and have kids young are risk-takers,” says Prof Ellie Lee of the University of Kent. “They are throwing caution to the wind and giving it a go.” She describes having kids in your 20s as the new punk. “Founding a family in your early 20s, it’s quite a countercultural thing to do.”
Sophie Murray, 23, from Darlington, met her partner when she was at college. They were married at 21 and she gave birth to her son Isaac, now 15 months old, when she was 22. She says that she has never been happier. “It’s what I’ve always wanted,” she explains on the phone from a cafe, as Isaac burbles away happily in the background. “I came from a family of nine kids, and my mother had them young.” Murray took the decision to look after the children full-time, while her husband supports the family working as a personal trainer.
But, for single parents, things can be much more difficult. Gareth Gibson, 21, from West Lothian, has custody of his two sons, four-year-old Ross and two-year-old Oscar. A former cleaner and kitchen porter, Gibson gets by on universal credit and child benefit, which he describes as “enough”, but only because he never buys things for himself. He lives with his two sisters and his mother, who often chide him to be more strict with the boys, but he can’t bring himself to tell them off. At the moment, Oscar is testing his boundaries. “Even if you tell him not to do something, he does it anyway. Then he puts on a cute face, and I just think: ‘Ah, I have to tell that face off. I have to make that face upset.’” Gibson wonders if his age is a factor. “Sometimes when they’re misbehaving, it’s hard trying to handle it. I think they can sense that I’m sometimes not in control, so they take advantage of that. That stresses me out.”
When you have children young, it seems people are more forthcoming with their views on your life choices than is helpful, or polite. “One guy asked me: ‘Are you still with the dad?’” says Cordal. “He just assumed: you’re young, young people are basically idiots, so obviously you’re not together any more.” Murray finds the hostility from older mothers wearing. “Someone I know from playgroup says: ‘Ooh, you got everything done quickly then, didn’t you?’ There’s a bit of a stigma around having children when you’re young, because it’s not the norm any more.” She mostly brushes it off, but sometimes it affects her: “It makes me feel like she’s belittling me or being patronising. Like I’m young and I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t criticise anyone else for how they do things.”
Many of the parents I speak with echo this anxiety. Dupre generally avoids mother-and-baby groups because she finds them intimidating, and she found going to antenatal classes when she was pregnant particularly stressful. “I was so nervous,” she says. “There’s a mum scene and I always feel like I’m going to be exposed. There’s so much pressure to break the stereotypes of being a young mum.” Murray attends two playgroups a week, as well as a parent-and-baby swimming club, but she keeps to herself, as the majority of the parents are much older than her. “I don’t really speak to anyone,” she says of the swimming group. “I just get into the pool with Isaac and do my own thing.”
This stigma could be due to our changing societal expectations of what parenthood – and motherhood particularly – should entail. Lee talks about “intensive mothering”, a term coined in 1996 by the sociologist Sharon Hays to explain the total redefinition of contemporary parenting. In this new paradigm, children eat organic, wear natural fibres, and sail between playdates. They are cared for, cosseted and coached by hovering, solicitous parents who have read all the parenting literature and are anxious not to get it wrong.
“One should not necessarily think that raising children has become significantly harder,” says Prof Mikko Myrskylä, an expert on European demographic trends at the University of Helsinki. “It’s rather that the expectations about what is an acceptable way of raising children have got much stronger. One generation ago, children went to school and came home and somehow survived until the next day.” Social media reinforces a sense of relentless perfectionism, with parent bloggers and Instamums driving the bar to unprecedented heights. “Parenthood has come to appear so demanding, and so difficult,” says Lee. “It’s like you’ve got to jump off a cliff, abandon your former self, and become a different person.”
Having children in your 20s is a way of sticking two fingers up at this Bugaboo-pushing, #proudmama schtick. “I hate the whole ‘I was born to be a mum’ and ‘I was put on the planet to be a mum’ and ‘children are a gift’ thing,” says Cordal. “They’re not a gift, really. They’re just a product of life.” She is determined that Ari should fit into her life, not the other way around. “I don’t need to put myself into her life. She’s a child!” Cordal’s able to have a relaxed attitude towards parenting because she is not being benchmarked against her peers: none of them have children, so there are no impossibly high standards to live up to. But she knows of other parents who are tyrannised by their children’s every whim. “A lot of the older mums I know from Ari’s nursery, their lives revolve around their children, and everything they do is with their children.” Lee believes this model of hyper-vigilant parenting doesn’t work. “I think it’s probably very bad for children.”
Becoming a parent young has its advantages, one of the most obvious being that you are literally built for it, from conception to chasing them round the park. “I have the energy to take them out and do things, whether it’s playgroups or taking them to their nan’s house,” Mohammed says. “As a young mum, I just feel like I’m more up for it,” Murray agrees. “I can get up for the day and think: ‘Let’s do this.’”
Probably the most common sentiment young parents hear, as routine as the sound of a baby’s 3am cry or the clank of a nappy bin, is some variant of: “Aren’t you missing out?” “I don’t really feel like I’m missing out, because every so often I’ll still see my friends and we’ll go to a pub; it’s just less than it was,” says 26-year-old sound engineer Rich Holden, from Hertfordshire. Gibson is also relaxed about not participating in the hedonism that characterises many people’s early 20s. “I do go out and see my mates, I do talk to them. Obviously not as much. But it’s not a big deal, to be honest.”
And being a young parent can be wonderfully invigorating. Dupre is setting up a maternity lingerie business and credits motherhood with catalysing her ambition and sense of purpose. “It just gives you such a drive,” she says. “Before I had Ayana, I had very low self-esteem and self-confidence, and a child just gives you such a boost. This little person is relying on you … It encourages you to achieve everything you want to achieve, because you’re doing it for someone else.”
You could even take the view that, from a long-term perspective, having babies young might be better for your career than having them later. Presenter Kirstie Allsopp caused a stir a few years ago by telling young women to have kids first, and “do your career afterwards … If everyone started having children when they were 20, they’d be free as a bird by the time they were 45”. There’s an undeniable logic to this: by the time Dupre hits her mid-30s, Ayana will be a teenager, and she won’t have to interrupt a career in full-flight to take maternity leave.
Still, for many young parents, it is an exhausting slog. In addition to a bar job, Cordal is currently studying part-time to be a speech therapist. As a result, she is either at university, working, or looking after Ari, meaning that she doesn’t get a day off. “I’m a bit mad, aren’t I?”she says.
Far too often, we are told of the burdens and bothers that child-rearing brings: the late nights, the money worries, the tedium of nappy-changing and tantrums. But all the parents I spoke to were quick to mention the positives. “On TV, you see people struggling with kids, and they’re really frustrated because they’re not getting any sleep,” Holden says, but for him, being a father is “just great”. His favourite part of the day is making five-month-old Oscar laugh before he leaves for work. And even if he has all the accoutrements of adulthood, it doesn’t mean he feels particularly like one. “I’ve got a child, but I still buy cereal with chocolate in it. I’m that level of a grown-up.”