Sunday, August 16, 2009

Damn, I forgot to have fertility guilt

By Jennifer O’Connell

For a time, it was the accessory no self-respecting feminist’s pinboard would be without: the cartoon postcard of a woman with a Duran Duran-style haircut, weeping dramatically under the caption which read: ‘I can’t believe it. I forgot to have children.’

It lampooned a certain kind of minority thinking; a misogynistic and wrong-headed mentality which treated women as though they were such idiots, they regarded having children as on a par with going to the gym or sending a thank you card - something you knew you should really get over with, but could probably wait until after you’d finished nipping out to the wine bar for a quick glass of Vermentino.

These days, it doesn’t strike me as quite so funny as it once did. Perhaps that’s because I’m no longer sure it is minority thinking.

Last week, yet another ‘expert’ – this time the professor of obstetrics and gynaecology of Sheffied University in Britain, Bill Ledger– came out to warn women that their fertility is a ticking timebomb, and that they shouldn’t be ‘sticking their heads in the sand’ and postponing having children until their 30s.

He suggested that women should be given a ‘fertility roadtest’ at 30, to assess their ovarian reserve and the likelihood of their bearing children in the future. That struck me as just about the most nonsensical thing on the subject I’ve heard so far.

Any such test can only come back with one of either two results: a good supply of eggs, or a poor one.

If the results are good: fine, you can go on happily ‘forgetting’ to have children for another few years. Problem is, as anyone who has taken even the briefest ride on the fertility rollercoaster could tell you, a crude egg count is no way to measure your capacity to carry a baby healthily to term.

There are myriad other problems that can contribute to a difficulty getting or staying pregnant – ‘unexplained infertility’, where there are no obvious biological barriers, accounting for at least one in four cases.

If the results are poor, then yes – it could accelerate the process of you getting the intervention you need to have the family you might want. But it could also cause a great deal of heartache and stress – which are arguably not the best preconditions for conception in any case.

And it might be wrong.

In the past four years, I’ve been told - based on blood tests - that I had very little chance of having children without fertility treatment, and then (two children without intervention later) that I was very fertile and should be careful unless I wanted a whole football team. Neither result was ‘wrong’: I have a hormonal condition that means blood tests are an unreliable indicator of what’s really going on.

What irks me most about these regular imperious missives on the state of women’s biological clocks is that they seem to reflect a need by society at large to judge the choices women make - or don’t make - in their lives.

I would love to meet this mythical creature we keep hearing about: this woman in her twenties who is so breathtakingly well-organised that she can sit down in her well-appointed, three-bed, affordably-mortgaged home with her lovely life partner, to have a mature, considered conversation about the possibility of her bearing children soon because, you know, her fertility will start to decline in a few short years.

And yet, despite her generous support network, her good career, her stable relationship and her understanding boss; despite her foresight and her maturity; this otherwise exceptionally-together young woman selfishly decides to postpone motherhood until she’s (cue horrified gasps) in her 30s.

And all this – or so we’re lead to believe – happens without her lovely life partner muttering something strangled and incoherent about football practice, and racing out the door quicker than you can say ‘sperm sample, please’.

Of course, this vision of contemporary womanhood is about as real as the one in the postcard consigned to an eternity of weeping anguished tears over all the children she suddenly remembers she forgot to have.

Young women are brought up with different expectations than they were two decades ago. Now we are raised in the understanding that we won’t waste all that expensive education and opportunity by getting pregnant before we’re ready to look after a child properly. And looking after a child properly involves being part of a relationship, having somewhere secure to live, earning enough money to meet the expenses, being established in a career that you’ll be able to return to.

Generally, it’s tricky to have all those boxes ticked by the time you’re 30. Even if everything worked out exactly as we confidently predict at the age of 16, and we manage to work out way down through the list without a hitch, we would be left with a window in which to have babies before our fertility begins it tragic downward trajectory of maybe two years.

But of course, that’s a harsh reality, and harsh realities have no place in scientific studies or hysterical newspaper headlines. So now, along with maternal guilt, career guilt, friendship guilt, mother-in-law guilt, we are expected to deal with fertility guilt.

Fair enough. Of course, there are biological deadlines that can’t be shifted – such as the one which dictates that on average, a woman’s fertility halves by the age of 35; or the one which shows that, at the age of 40, she has less than a one in two chance of becoming pregnant after a year of unprotected sex.

But men have a part to play too. Problems with the male partner account for exactly the same proportion of cases of infertility as problems with the female – one third.

So where are the urgent missives warning would-be fathers that alcohol can seriously affect their sperm count? That they need to remove stress from their lives? That cigarettes could be affecting their chance of conception? That they shouldn’t be standing near hot stoves, wearing tight boxer shorts or balancing their laptop on the knees?

Where are the hysterical articles about the risks of older fatherhood, and the experts sagely advising men to stop selfishly sticking their heads in the sand and get on with it?

I have an idea for a cartoon that’s funnier and probably more relevant than the original. A man, staring glumly into his pint, as the words swim over his head: “Oops! I forgot to have children”.

Now that’s one I’d stick up on my pinboard.


  1. The problem with having children is that you need a man or money. If you don't have either, you might be out of luck in conceiving.

    I didn't forget to have children. I want them so badly, but there are obstacles to be overcome. If I overcome them before my fertility is zero, there is a good chance I could become a mom. If not, I will mourn my loss and move on.

    Thank you for your article. I enjoyed the humor in it as well as hearing its truth.

    I'm 40 now, so this article hits home.

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