Rhiannon Cosslett of the Guardian laments that Women are still being blamed for society’s problems with fertility. In the sage words of Turd Flinging Monkey, “women have the babies”. So how are women not to blame?
Female students at the single-sex Cambridge college Murray Edwards are to be given fertility seminars, because they “risk childlessness” if they leave motherhood “too late”. It’s irksome news – the seminars are only the latest example of the myth that women somehow need “reminding” our ability to procreate won’t last for ever, as though a baby were something we had simply lost down the back of the sofa.
And yet many women are waiting until their child bearing years are almost past, then freezing their ovum in the hope of conceiving via in vitro fertilization. The seminars were being given by a woman who had done exactly that, and hoped to prevent others from going through what she did.
This idea that women might “forget” to have a baby is perpetuated in modern culture. My generation spent much of their teenage years being told not to get pregnant lest it “ruin your life”. In our 20s, that changed almost overnight and we were told not to leave it too late, lest it (again) “ruin your life”. When women enter their 30s and 40s, they face a maelstrom of misogynist peer pressure, from “when are you going to have a second child” to “is it not unfair to have a baby in your 40s?”, not to mention the classic levied at the child-free: “but who will care for you when you’re old?”
Getting pregnant out of wedlock can ruin your life, assuming you keep the child, though it certainly doesn’t have to. If you have a child as a teenager, few men are going to want to partner with you to raise another man’s child. When a woman enters her thirties, she has a fairly short time to find a suitable mate. The more years she waits past her mid twenties, the harder she will find the search.
The head of Murray Edwards college said that asking a woman about plans to have children had become “almost forbidden”. It is true that asking a member of my generation about the inner workings of her uterus is considered poor form, because who is to know what private pains she may have suffered: miscarriage, stillbirth, IVF, mental health issues, to name just a few. It is unfair and unkind to put women and their partners on the spot in this way, not to mention that it’s no one’s business. Keeping one’s own counsel is not the same thing as being blissfully ignorant about the matter. We are all well aware that fertility does not last for ever, and that a significant proportion of women without children did not choose that situation.
Asking a woman about whether she plans to have children is hardly asking about the inner workings of her uterus. It is neither unfair or unkind to take an interest in a woman’s life. Women are free not to answer these questions. A significant portion of women without children did choose that situation, and then later regretted that decision. Not all women are truly aware how quickly their fertility will begin to fall.
Where does this patronising belief that women need teaching or reminding about their fertility come from? There are a number of factors, one of which is an overcorrection led by older women. My mother recalls that, in the 1990s and early 2000s, the newspapers were full of “career” women (as I always point out, the term “career man” does not exist), raised in the belief that they could have it all, lamenting that they had “left it too late” to have a baby. One only needs to reread Bridget Jones to understand the “post-feminist” cultural context of women’s lives then: increasing emancipation coupled with extreme social pressure to couple up and start a family.
Is it an “overcorrection” if older women (like the college head) were raised believing they could have it all, and then did lament after leaving children too late? Women do not desire to mate solely because of social pressure. Rather, it is often due to their instinctive biological drives.
As a result of this overcorrection, women of my generation were bombarded with the “fact” that your fertility “falls off a cliff” at the age of 35, though this statistic is based partly on a study of French peasant women living 300 years ago, which has been largely debunked.
Hardly. Here’s recent data from CCRM Fertility:
As you can see, at 35, women are only 60% as fertile as they are at 25, and by age 40, they are 80% less fertile. This means that on average, if a 40 year old woman tries to get pregnant every month for a year, she still only has a 60% chance of conceiving.
I do not know a single woman who has not internalised this piece of disinformation, which has caused fertility panic, and though we are well aware that fertility does decline into your 30s and 40s, we apparently still need reminding of it. It is not helped that the media narrative continues to be dominated by voices from the baby boomer generation; as a result, the barriers to parenthood that exist for younger adults, such as high property prices, zero-hours contracts and the extortionate costs of childcare, are not fully appreciated or talked about.
High housing prices and the cost of childcare dominate the mainstream media and are constantly harped on by the political class. If you don’t want a zero-hours contract (what we call a casual labour arrangement in Canada, which typically provides flexibility to both employer and employee), don’t accept one.
Another reason that women are routinely reminded of their fertility is an increasing panic about the birthrate, which has been framed in the media as a “baby shortage” with drastic economic consequences. Yet little effort is made to bring about the structural changes that could better support would-be parents. This fear is compounded by the increasing number of women who are choosing not to have children, and are refusing to be stigmatised for that fact.
Women should ignore the “growth at any cost” nonsense that drives the “fertility crisis” propaganda. Little can be done by government to better support would-be parents, other than getting out of the way of businesses that can provide well paid jobs. Many countries have now tried to increase their birthrates by offering financial incentives. These attempts have universally met with resounding failure.
There are far more fruitful discussions we could be having about why many young people feel unable to have children. Instead, the myth that women need reminding of their fertility keeps being perpetuated. The issue here is not the concept of a fertility seminar; giving women more information about their health is no bad thing. But no one ever seems to think that men might need speaking to about this too. Some scientists are concerned about declining sperm counts, while male factor infertility contributes to 40-50% of all infertility cases and declining sperm quality as men age has been implicated in a number of developmental problems. Many men – especially those with older mothers – seem to think that women can go on conceiving well into their 40s. What about the men? Where are their seminars?
According to the CDC, men are the sole cause of infertility 8% of the time, whereas woman are the sole cause 65% of the time, not 50-60% of the time as stated above. Most men know that women can’t reliably conceive well into their forties. This is why men almost always prefer women in their mid twenties when looking for a mate.
As usual, the burden of assuaging society’s concerns about fertility falls on women of reproductive age. If only people listened to us, they would hear that the question of whether or not to reproduce is an incessant background hum to women’s lives. The real conversation that needs to be had – about remedying the inhospitable society that has been created for young parents – continues to elude us. If there is one thing that is being left too late, it’s that.
You don’t need to bear that burden. You do have to live with the consequences of the choices you make. If you want to have children, it’s wise to consider doing so while you’re young. Yes, it will be hard, no doubt harder than it was 30 years ago, though we certainly had to be careful with money and endure excessive hours commuting from the towns we could afford to live in. I feel great sadness for women who don’t want children when they are young and realize that they desperately do once it’s too late.