The smartest career move for ambitious women? CLARE O'REILLY advises having babies in your 20s

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The tone of disgust was palpable when my line manager appeared and said, ‘What’s that?’ I presumed he was referring to the two-week-old coffee mug on my desk. Until I looked up to see him pointing at the child’s buggy beside me. 

Sitting inside was my 14-month-old son, Eddie, who was busying himself with some toast. 

It was 7am on a cold April morning and I’d popped into work to send a few emails en route to dropping Eddie at nursery. I’d hoped I’d be in and out, with crumbs cleared away, before the rest of the office arrived. 

I was only two months into the job of a lifetime and, while human resources knew all about my son, I could see by my line manager’s expression he did not. 

Aged 26 Clare O'Reilly was headhunted to join a celebrity magazine in New York. At the time she had her 14-month-old son Eddie. She explains why her line manager was surprised that a woman her age in her position had a young child

Aged 26 Clare O’Reilly was headhunted to join a celebrity magazine in New York. At the time she had her 14-month-old son Eddie. She explains why her line manager was surprised that a woman her age in her position had a young child

I hastily explained we’d be out of his way in just a few minutes. As he nodded, shocked, I headed towards the lift, smiling as nonchalantly as I could muster as the door closed. 

His surprise was due to my age. I was only 26 and had just been head-hunted from my newspaper job in London to join his celebrity magazine in New York. He was clearly struggling to reconcile my ambitious, go-getting work persona with my role as a young mother. 

This was 17 years ago and journalism, like many other fiercely competitive industries, was hardly renowned for equal opportunities for women, let alone young mothers. Like my line manager, many wondered why on earth I had chosen to get bogged down in nappies and sleepless nights at the start of my career. Surely it was better to build my reputation first — have babies second. 

And it seems not much has changed in this regard. A new report from University College London shows women are still delaying motherhood to focus on their careers. Even in 2022. 

The women who took part in the survey were asked to choose from 11 factors that affected when they would want to start a family. 

Career — and the fear that motherhood would stall its progress — was the biggest reason for delaying, scoring higher than concerns about finances. 

I can certainly understand why women would feel deterred by soaring childcare costs and financial insecurity, so my advice will sound counterintuitive. But from my experience, having children sooner rather than later can be the key to success. 

Rather than hampering you, starting your family in your 20s frees you up later on so you can press your foot on the accelerator when it really matters. 

Clare O'Reilly and Jon Axworthy with their children Annie, Eddie and Sammy. Clare advises women to start their families in their 20s to focus on their careers later and put their foot on the accelerator when it matter

Clare O’Reilly and Jon Axworthy with their children Annie, Eddie and Sammy. Clare advises women to start their families in their 20s to focus on their careers later and put their foot on the accelerator when it matter

I was in a junior position when I had my son, so I could be back at my desk after two months’ maternity leave without anyone really noticing I’d been gone. In other words, I wasn’t juggling breastfeeding and pick-up times with the kind of role where the boss really missed me. 

It also meant that by the time I held my most senior position of associate editor, my son was seven and already settled at school. Long gone were the teething and tantrums days and we had our routines sussed. My career went from strength to strength as a result. 

Over two decades, I’ve run features desks in Sydney, London and New York. This allowed me to step away from the office altogether in favour of ghost-writing best-selling books ten years ago. 

Of course not everyone meets the father of their children so young. My husband Jon and I knew as soon as we met in a North London pub, when I was 23 and he was 30, that we wanted to be together. Within two years we were engaged with Eddie on the way. 

Pregnant at 24, I brought the average age of our North London antenatal classes down significantly. I was working as a journalist at a national newspaper supplement at the time. 

Thankfully when I told my boss about my pregnancy, he was pretty blasé. I was on a freelance contract but they told me they’d hold my job open for me. 

I only took two months off, keen to get back to the job I loved. 

Thankfully my husband Jon, also a freelance journalist, picked up the childcare slack, working in the evenings. We barely saw each other, but both as passionate about our careers as we were about each other, we made it work. 

While I had to eschew nights out and networking, I was adamant having Eddie at the start of my career would help, not hinder it. And my hunch has proved to be right. 

When I was headhunted to apply for the Manhattan job when Eddie was ten months old, I was trembling with excitement. My mum, a cleaner, thought I was mad to make such a big move when Eddie was so young but I was undeterred. Jon could see how much the opportunity meant to me and, being freelance, he wasn’t tied down to a particular location. 

I waited until I was down to the final two to tell my soon-to-be boss that I had a son. He didn’t bat an eye, just made a note for HR to ensure I had a dependant added to my visa and a month later we were on our way. 

Once there, I didn’t realise my direct line manager hadn’t been informed until the buggy incident. I didn’t keep Eddie a secret exactly; I just didn’t mention him. If I was asked about children I’d happily reveal his existence but in such a fast-paced industry, no one really asks much about each other. 

Admittedly, the downside of such a junior position meant Eddie’s Manhattan nursery fees swallowed the majority of my salary. And almost every penny left over from that went with much of Jon’s salary to pay our rent. But I was playing the long game — dropping out of my career to be a stay-at-home mum would have derailed all the hard work I’d put in so far. 

When colleagues did find out I had a baby, they were in awe that I had so much on my plate at a time when they were juggling happy hours and hangovers. I like to think it made me look more competent.

We spent 1 8 months in Manhattan, during which time I was promoted twice, had a decent pay rise, and was then able to walk into a dream job as head of department on a multi-million-pound magazine launch in London. 

If that’s not proof that having children young doesn’t have to curtail your career, I don’t know what is. 

Since then, my family has grown alongside my portfolio. Sammy arrived in 2008 when I was 29 and Annie in 2011 when I was 31. I continued working throughout. 

Making the decision to go freelance in 2012 was a tough one. I either continued to climb ever higher or became my own boss, able to dictate my own workload. I chose the latter. 

In recent years, I’ve watched plenty of friends go on to have their families in their late 30s, when well entrenched in their jobs. Their juggle always seemed a lot harder than mine. They manage teams that need immediate answers on sports days, during assemblies and parents’ evenings. 

And yet so many women continue to do it this way round. Earlier this year, the Office for National Statistics revealed that for the first time since records began, as many as half of women haven’t had children by the time they reach 30. 

Some say there’s never a right time to have a baby. But when it comes to careers, I say there is. The younger and more junior your position, the better. And yes, childcare is expensive but we cut our cloth to fit. To afford it when Eddie was young, I bought all my clothes from eBay, never paying more than £2 for a single item. 

Clearly, not everyone finds their life partner in their 20s. But if you do, don’t let ambition delay motherhood. If I’m anything to go by, your career will benefit — in the long run 

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