Jen had her son at 25. When she found out she was pregnant, the decision to have him mostly involved working out whether she and her son’s father could practically support a child. When it came to wider societal issues, such as the climate crisis, she says that her "desire for a child was stronger than [her] fears for the world".
It’s a fact that fewer people are having children. Many people are deciding to forgo, or at least delay, having children for a number of different reasons, including personal choice, environmental concerns and financial fears. The cost of living crisis, coupled with a cost of childcare crisis, has meant that many mothers are effectively forced to stay home. Those who do choose to have kids, tend to do so later: the average age of a first-time mother in the UK is now 31 years old.
Younger parents still exist. But those who decide to have children in their early to mid 20s may not see themselves mirrored in current conversations about parenting. So what is it like?
For Jen, from Brighton, the most immediate challenges as a young mother were financial and social. Having children is expensive and as average earnings are lower for younger people, young parents can find it particularly hard to make ends meet. Jen admits that she was "quite naive to the economic realities of how expensive it was [to have a child] and how much it would affect my life. I had no idea how expensive childcare would be and that I wouldn't be able to afford to go back to work."
Then there’s the problem of isolation. Helen, who lives in London and had her first child at age 24, explains that "the decision to have kids is more complex these days so people put it off for longer. You’re a rarity when you do it young and therefore you’re the only one in your friendship group [to have kids]."
This leads to a lot of FOMO, which Sandra Igwe, founder and CEO of The Motherhood Group and author of My Black Motherhood, expands upon. "There's the fear of not being able to 'live your life to the fullest', achieve all the aspirations and the dreams you might have. [You feel like] you’ll miss out on activities that other young people [get to] do – travelling, hobbies, going out with friends. When you’re a mum under 25, that feels like it’s been snatched from you."
Igwe explains that this can be "a leading cause in mental health problems like depression and anxiety". It can also lead to mothers feeling insecure in themselves. Jen says she felt there was a significant stigma attached to being a young mother. Besides the stigma they consistently experience from the media – how many of us remember watching 16 And Pregnant growing up? – young mothers report feeling stigmatised by the people in their lives and by professionals they thought they could trust. Despite being an adult, Helen "felt quite judged, and like everyone thought I'd made a crazy decision". This judgement went so far that people told her she’d "ruined her career" in the film and TV industry, where most of her colleagues didn’t have children until their 30s.
Igwe has discovered through her work that young mothers often struggle with a lack of personalised care in the perinatal healthcare space, feeling like a "tickbox exercise" for healthcare professionals who don't have the time or space to listen to the unique needs of younger mums.
When mothers or their children are from groups who are already marginalised, this can exacerbate the ageism experienced by young mums. Igwe recounts the fact that Black mothers are four times more likely than white mothers to die in childbirth, while mixed-race and Asian women are twice as likely to die. Many of these mothers will also struggle to access support for any mental health difficulties that arise perinatally. "These factors make going on the motherhood journey extremely anxiety-inducing and won’t necessarily allow you to prepare in the ways you wanted to throughout your pregnancy, or even carry out your duties as a mother as you’d like to," explains Igwe.
Helen’s son is disabled and she references how the lack of social and governmental support available for him is one of her largest concerns. "When you’re dealing with this system that’s underfunded by the Tory government, that can make you lose a lot of hope, because you’d think that, surely, disabled kids are the one group of people that there’s no argument about helping. But actually it’s always a battle," she says. "It was eye-opening for me at a young age to see that wow, you’re quite alone in this. That’s the thing I worry about most in terms of the future, like how will he be able to navigate the future if we’re not there?"
So how could things get better? Igwe has some clear answers. Firstly, she says, institutions need to take a much more proactive approach. "Rather than waiting until a mother is in crisis mode, worn out, begging for some help, [healthcare practitioners] should intervene at a much earlier stage." Policy changes are needed, including more funding for a maternity service that has been severely cut over the past decade. Secondly, Igwe encourages empowerment through community and peer support groups, both before and after birth, to deal with the isolation and gain more guidance – a sentiment that Jen and Helen echo passionately.
While Helen and Jen both struggled with being young mothers, they focus on the positive aspects of having a child in the tough world we live in, and neither of them regrets their choice. Jen says that since becoming a mum, she hasn’t really had the time to worry about the awful state of the world, at least not in the same fixated way as people who spend hours hooked up to the news cycle might. "I just have to put my worries into a little box because my son needs me to be present and happy with him in the moment," she tells me via voice note as her son repeatedly asks her to play with a pirate ship.
Helen reflects this beautifully: "Even if everything goes to shit in the future, I try now to be a bit more present, just thinking day to day: Are we happy? Are we content? How can we have a good day, a good hour, and be present with the kids and life in a way that doesn’t allow all the bad stuff to get in too much?"
Jen argues that "if everyone who cared about the world stopped having kids, [the world would be] even scarier. We need to teach a new generation of people to make the world a better place." Helen adds: "Kids kind of give you hope because they’re these little people who are fundamentally loving and joyful, and it does become infectious…except when you haven’t had any sleep."