When the head of an all-female Cambridge college last week revealed a plan to teach students about fertility, she said it felt ‘perfectly, obviously right and a good idea’.
‘We have swung too far one way,’ said Dorothy Byrne, President of Murray Edwards College. ‘We are teaching about consent, we are teaching about harassment, but we are not teaching them the facts about their own fertility.’
Ms Byrne knows the dangers of delaying motherhood. The former head of News and Current Affairs at Channel 4 had her daughter via sperm donor at the age of 44.
It’s unlikely, then, that she was expecting the criticism which came her way.
Accusations that she was ‘unfeminist’ and comments that it was ‘not OK’ to ask a woman when she would have a baby, came mostly from young, millennial women.
When the head of an all-female Cambridge college last week revealed a plan to teach students about fertility, she said it felt ‘perfectly, obviously right and a good idea’. ‘We have swung too far one way,’ said Dorothy Byrne (above), President of Murray Edwards College
But I totally agree with Dorothy Byrne. It matters not a jot whether it offends people to state that a woman’s fertility steadily declines as she gets older. It’s a simple fact.
It’s not that fertility drops off a cliff on your 35th birthday but it’s beyond doubt that the odds become more firmly stacked against you with every year that passes.
These things matter and it matters, too, that women – and men – are free to discuss them openly.
By the age of 37, the two million eggs a woman is born with will have dwindled to 25,000. Of these, the quality won’t be anywhere as good as 20-year-old eggs.
In some parts of the Health Service, pregnant women over 35 are clinically classified as ‘geriatric’ due to the additional risks to mother and child.
It’s not that fertility drops off a cliff on your 35th birthday but it’s beyond doubt that the odds become more firmly stacked against you with every year that passes. These things matter and it matters, too, that women – and men – are free to discuss them openly. (Posed by model)
It’s also the reason that egg donor clinics won’t accept donations from women over 35.
Everyone is different, of course. Some women may happily hypnobirth their fifth child at 43 while others will struggle to conceive their first at 25. The problem is you just don’t know which camp you’re in until you start trying.
I know very well what it feels like to have your fertility drop away after the age of 35. I’m 40 and had the first of my two children at 33. Our son was born a few days before our first wedding anniversary.
What was the fuss about? All those scare stories were designed to control women, to get them to breed and ignore their careers. Pah!
Our second child, however, was a different story. By then, I was over 35 and things were trickier.
After three miscarriages, I went to see Professor Lesley Regan at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington. She dealt in cold, hard facts. Blood tests. Scans. She conducted a careful analysis of what the cause of the recurrent miscarriages might be.
It turned out there was nothing wrong with me. She said kindly but firmly that it was probably just that I was older and it would take longer. I was told I should see it as ‘a fertility journey’.
It was irritatingly appropriate. For me, trying to have a second child was a slog.
IVF is a lifeline – quite literally. But having watched close friends go through it, I can assure you it is not easy and should not be seen as a safety net for having children. Far aside from the expense, there is the physical and emotional torment, with no guarantee of success. (File image)
And anyone who wants to pretend fertility doesn’t decline significantly after 35 is, I’m afraid, simply deluded.
Yes, there are scientific advances today that were not available to our mothers or grandmothers.
IVF is a lifeline – quite literally. But having watched close friends go through it, I can assure you it is not easy and should not be seen as a safety net for having children.
Far aside from the expense, there is the physical and emotional torment, with no guarantee of success.
Had I known this at 25, would I have started trying earlier? In my case that’s impossible to answer because it would mean I wouldn’t have the two cheeky monkeys I have now.
But I know one thing for sure: it might have saved me an awful lot of pain and heartache. Not to mention the private healthcare fees that I shelled out in panic when I learned the length of the NHS waiting list for miscarriage diagnosis.
Some women reading this may think: ‘Well, it’s easy for you to say. I have to find a partner first.’
Absolutely you do. I’m not advocating a musical chairs approach to procreating, where you have a baby with whoever you are dating when you turn 29. Much better to be childless and happy than have a baby with the wrong person.
But if you are in a loving, stable relationship and you’re in your late 20s, then the question of if, or when, you start a family is something that you should be seriously considering.
Most childless women I know who want to be mothers aren’t career-obsessives, determined to put their job before a family. Most just haven’t had luck finding love or have had their time wasted by men who weren’t ready to start a family.
Crucially, let’s not also forget that the quality of sperm also declines with age.
And therein lies the rub. So much of the debate is concentrated on women, but men need to step up, too, and commit to starting a family earlier, rather than sail along in an extension of childhood way into their 30s.
For it is vital to recognise that while society has changed, our biology hasn’t. Although we’re living longer than our ancestors, there’s no scientific proof that there has been a corresponding lengthening of our fertility ‘window’.
Dorothy Byrne is right. We need to get rid of the taboo and start talking about these issues now.
The reaction to her sensible comments is another sign of a troubling new discourse where millennials try to bend reality to suit themselves.
The fear is that with woke cancel culture in full throttle, these concerns will be drowned out.
God forbid we risk offending someone by reminding people that women have only a finite amount of time in which to have a baby.
The truth is that you can’t blithely carry on with your fingers in your ears, whistling motherhood away into future years.
We do both women – and men – a gross disservice if we ignore the perils of leaving it far too late.