And here’s the funny part of the whole thing: I identify with her. Yes, I know. Comparisons are odious, and all that. But it’s a common phenomonon, this identifying with an idealised version of yourself.
I hated Princess Diana. I love Meghan Markle.
Princess Diana wasn’t much older than I was when she walked up that aisle in her silk meringue.
Oh, how I loathed the example she gave, as I stomped around in my Doc Martens in a feminist rage. But Meghan! Meghan is different.
Meghan is younger than me, of course, but she was, like me, an elderly bride.
She carried it off rather better than I did, but that detail is lost in the glow of identification.
We had something else in common, too: We were in our mid-30s getting married and we wanted children.
As Meghan walked down that aisle in St. George’s chapel, Windsor Castle, looking like a Disney princess, I could hear the biological time-bomb ticking behind the white silk.
She’s 37, even older than I was when I married, and her best hope was to become an “elderly primagravida”. Thank God for the news, just in this week, that she and her little “Ginger Snap” have managed it. I was so anxious for Meghan to quickly become pregnant.
It would have been hard enough for me if I’d had difficulty conceiving, but imagine trying to conceive when you’re a public figure and everyone’s waiting on the outcome.
It’s a testament to her obvious nerve that she could. And she did, within eight weeks of getting married.
If she was anything like me, I presume she gave it both barrels, if you’ll pardon the expression, and, just like me, she got pregnant immediately.
She’s not stupid and she knew she had no time to lose. The hard truth is that by the time a woman has reached her mid-30s, her fertility has begun an accelerating decline.
Today’s statistics suggest that 80% to 90% of women in their late 30s will still be able to conceive within a year or two. If they don’t, however, fertility treatments are often useless, with 33% of 35 to 37-year-olds being rewarded with a baby after IVF, while only 12% of 41 to 42-year-olds are as lucky.
Miscarriage rates rocket, standing at 28% when a woman is 40, to 60% when she is 44. So do the rates of chromosomal disorders, standing at 1 in 526 at 20, 1 in 384 at 30, 1 in 127 at 37, and 1 in 21 at 45. I have a child who has an autistic spectrum disorder, a condition twice as likely in children of older mothers.
Back when I wore Doc Martens, I thought articles like this were an anti-feminist conspiracy. When Garret Fitzgerald wrote an Irish Times article saying it would be better for everyone if women were in circumstances to have their children younger, I was determined to write an outraged letter and went into my nearest bookshop, where I read statistics similar to those I have cited above. The penny dropped with a hard clang.
It’s hard to tell whether your fertility is long-lived or not before you test it out. I ended up with four children, but, then again, my mother was surprised by me in her mid-40s and her mother was surprised by my uncle in her mid-40s.
It’s an undeniable fact that age is a massive factor in women’s fertility and one we can defeat, simply by having our children earlier.
Simple, huh? Not simple at all. If, like Meghan Markle, you want to establish yourself in a career before you have your first child, you are likely to be in your 30s before you even try.
In Ireland, we have our first babies later than most Europeans, at 31 years old. Maternal age is steadily going up, while the general fertility rate is going down, standing, now, at 1.890 children per couple, as opposed to 2.007 10 years ago (2.1 is regarded as enough to replace the population).
What we are talking about is engaging young women in a complex and brutal game of chance. Middle-class young women are shuttled into third-level education and into a long career progression, which often takes most of their 20s.
They earn more than young men, on average, and if they couple up, they are expected to come up with at least half the income, all of which is needed to pay extortionate rent, not to mention a mortgage.
Something which is never admitted, either, is that for middle-class women, a good job is as necessary as a dowry used to be, if they want to couple up and have children. Men with careers won’t marry women without them.
Getting pregnant while this career-building is going on seems nearly as damaging to a young woman as getting pregnant “out of wedlock” would have been for her grandmother. It is often viewed with the same horror and it is not surprising that economic reasons are the most common for women who have abortions in their twenties.
Meanwhile, they know their fertility is declining. Presuming they have a man in the frame, they have to judge when to pull the ripcord and chance a baby.
Too early and they hit the ground economically. Too late and there’s no baby.
I know some of these young women. I always tell them to go for the pregnancy, because career lasts a life-time, while fertility doesn’t, and jobs don’t give you love.
Life-long regret doesn’t always follow, presumably, if you leave it too late to have a child. I know lots of incredibly fulfilled, childless women and I envy their freedom, their finances, and the resources they have to give to their communities.
I don’t know how I’d feel if I hadn’t had children, however, and I feel lucky I didn’t have to find out.
Earlier this year, journalist Dearbhail McDonald addressed the Institute of Directors, with a brave speech in which she said she had frozen her eggs to give herself the option of having a baby later in life.
She emphasised that this was not the answer to society’s fertility conundrum and she’s right. The answers can’t all be found in cheap childcare and flexible working opportunities, either.
They won’t be enough to make pregnancy possible for women in their twenties.
We need to radically rethink the value we place on pregnancy, child-birth, and child-rearing, rewarding them as necessary to all our economic activity, rather than tolerating them as interruptions.
A beautiful, 37-year-old pregnant princess would be no less celebrated, but not because she won a war, specific to women, between fertility and opportunity.