Rather than offering women ‘fertility seminars’, we should talk about the real barriers to parenthood for many young people
Last modified on Wed 13 Oct 2021 05.04 EDT
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.
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?”
The head of Murray Edwards college said that asking a woman about plans to have children had become “almost forbidden”. “We have swung too far one way. We rightly encouraged girls to get themselves a great education and to have great careers. But it came to be seen as old-fashioned and negative to say to girls the things that an older generation used to say like ‘Are you courting?’ or ‘When are you going to have a baby?’”
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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?
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.
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist