Joining the dots

I did a couple of media appearances yesterday (as my friend said, I’m getting to be like David Jason, always on the telly) regarding the revised NICE guidelines which propose that the NHS should now offer one free cycle of IVF to couples between the ages of 40-42. I didn’t get to expand upon my points about more effective techniques, ideally I would have liked to have discussed the success rates of NaPro technology and neither was it the forum to launch into apologetics surrounding assisted reproductive techniques.

Without going into a lengthy discourse as to the ethics and wisdom of IVF as a whole, one thing struck me as being missing from the entire debate. We, in the Western World have some very confused, peculiar and disjointed notions of female fertility, which are tied into the shortcomings of a society based on moral relativism, whereby personal autonomy is king and every choice is equally valid, regardless of consequences.

One of the recurrent themes of yesterday, was not that women were choosing to have their children late, simply that life didn’t pan out the way that they wanted – Mr Right didn’t turn up until their late ’30s and early ’40s by which point, female fertility is rapidly diminishing. Whilst on the one hand I totally sympathise, having made more than my fair share of romantic mistakes, I also think this must cause us to question the prevailing mentality with regards to female choice and autonomy, without wishing to remove any of those options from women.

Suzanne Moore makes some salient points here, not least emphasising the low success rates of IVF and echoing some of my themes around society’s attitudes towards the right age for motherhood. The Holy Grail of female choice, has paradoxically led to a situation whereby women feel that they have very little choice and control when it comes to the timing and amount of children. The everyday expectation for women is that following education they should go straight into the world of work, spend some time establishing financial independence and their career and only once secure should they then begin to think about potential offspring. The problem is that building up a successful career requires a substantial amount of time and effort which leaves precious little emotional and physical resources for the business of finding a life partner, which these days is treated as an optional extra to the all-consuming world of work and career. Add in the whole business of setting up and maintaining an independent home, it’s no surprise that most women aren’t really paying much attention to any sort of long-term game plan in terms of marriage and children. It’s all about surviving on a short-term basis, particularly in these days of austerity and hoping that the future will sort of magically fall into place, once everything else is established.

One of my suggestions was that women need to take into account the fact that fertility begins to decline frighteningly early at the age of 27, and begins to drop rapidly from the age of 35. Women (and men) need to be giving some thought as to starting their families earlier and we as a society need to be implementing solutions to make life more feasible for working women with children, seeing as we are in an economic situation which necessitates dual-income households. I also think that we need to readjust attitudes towards younger mothers, whilst no-one should be encouraging young teenage mothers, there is a palpable snobbery and distain towards mothers under 25. Whilst no-one should be making value judgements in terms of the age of parents, both the old and the young cohorts have their advantages and disadvantages, my experience has been that younger mothers tend to be much more flexible and adaptable in terms of their attitude to their children, and far less prone to stress as a result. Young mothers are less likely to have become perfectionist control freaks, stuck in their ways and tend to be able to take various setbacks or the less palatable aspects of childrearing in their stride, with patience and good humour – children being just the next exciting adventure. Having had a child in my twenties and then a progression of three in my mid thirties, each pregnancy becoming progressively more tiring, difficult and risky with age, I certainly think that youth has something of an advantage here.

Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio London, felt that I was being overly prescriptive in terms of suggesting that women need to think about marriage earlier and it certainly could appear like a reactionary solution, but given not only the low success rates of IVF, but also the physical and emotional pain involved as well as the financial cost, society has little other choice and neither do women who need to accept that one day, it is likely that they are going to want to give serious consideration as to trying for a family.

Whilst Moore is indeed correct that society needs to be welcoming and accepting to mothers of all age, whether that be the teenage mother or the grandparent unexpectedly cast into a parental role as a result of unforeseen circumstances, she, in line with society as a whole, has got the whole issue back to front in terms of framing this issue of being solely about women, understandable when it is indeed women who bear the brunt of the responsibility for pregnancy and childbirth. The whole situation in terms of the growing problem of infertility, the costs of IVF and the rise in the age of the average first-time mother highlights the limitations of a society that is based solely around individualism and doing only what is right for oneself, in that our decisions always have some impact on others, especially if, as in the case of delaying motherhood, they result in others being asked to bear the cost.

Instead of thinking purely about women’s individual needs or even rights to have children, we need to start giving more consideration to children’s rights and needs in conjuction with our own.That children ideally need a loving mother and father in a stable relationship and with a permanent home is indisputable. We need to be putting that as our starting point, whilst factoring in that women have a limited window of opportunity in which they are able to conceive a child. That is not to usher people into hasty or unsuitable relationships, but that both sexes need to be giving the whole notion of finding a life partner, more thought much earlier than is currently the case. After all, who on their death bed, gives thanks for the hours spent in the confines of the office and which is a better legacy – a career as an HR manager or procurement officer for a paperclip company in Worthing, or a legacy of love and laughter in having brought and nurtured the next generation into being?

One of the whole perplexing aspects of this entire debate is that on the one hand women are being given a (worthy) ideal of being able to be in control of their reproductive destiny and then on the other, they are presented as victims who were passively and patiently waiting for Mr Right to come along. Actually I think there are several Mr Rights – Plato got this one wrong. Most women and men who marry older admit to having had several partners in their past with whom they could have had a happy and successful marriage and children, but that they had other priorities and lacked the maturity and desire for long-term commitment.

We have a situation whereby women are being enculturated into suppressing their natural fertility with long-acting hormones, (which take the body a long time to get back into sync and recover its natural rhythms of fertility), we have the NHS funding almost 200,000 abortions a year on the basis that it is not the ‘right time’ for a woman to have a baby and then on the other, they are shelling out copious amounts of cash for those who have unwittingly sleepwalked into infertility.

Female fulfilment is not solely to be found in the act of giving birth as feminists are always trying to tell us, some inelegant commentator tried to suggest that childbirth was no different to the act of defecation, but reproduction is clearly a sensitive issue that is innately and inexorably linked to our gender, which is why the feminists tie themselves in knots about it. Someone suggested that be it abortion or IVF, the whole issue is shrouded in blame in terms of women who have made the so-called ‘wrong’ decisions. Women are, according to this mentality, victims of their own Fertility with a capital F, either a rampant beast that needs to be tamed or an elusive will-o-the-wisp – but either way it should be ours to capture, pin down and use to our own ends.

Whichever way, we need to learn that we can’t have our cake and eat it too. The promotion of an ideal is not the same as shaming those who fail to achieve that, neither is it a judgement upon others’ morality, other than to note that scarce resources should not be spent on elusive and unlikely solutions that have come about as a result of a lifestyle choice, particularly when the condition does not cause an immediate and pressing threat to a person’s life, or impair their ability to go about their day to day life. The myriad of issues surrounding IVF is symptomatic of what results when sex and procreation are separated. IVF is simply a modern society’s attempt to find a solution for a self-inflicted problem. When are we going to join the dots?

10 thoughts on “Joining the dots

  1. Caroline, your attitudes towards the role of women in society are those of a primeval dinosaur: extinct apart from a few bones reconstructed from fossils in a museum of natural history,

    Nevertheless, you are entirely correct. Women and men need to get with God’s best plans for humankind, not chase after every selfish whim concocted by Those-Who-Know-Better.

    What is wrong with people getting married in their twenties and having babies in their twenties? Like you, I wouldn’t advocate teenagers to skip straight from school to Obstetrics, but shouldn’t Christians aim to build a world where young couples who take advantage of their God-given fecundity are cherished, nurtured and supported.

    Isn’t that a lot better than worrying about unplanned pregnancies, STIs and latterly an inability to conceive without a lot of help?


  2. You say “IVF is simply a modern society’s attempt to find a solution for a self-inflicted problem. When are we going to join the dots?”. So do you mean that that every single one of the 45,000 women in England who had IVF last year were all seeking it because they had put their career first? I think you need to go back to raising your 3 children (which I assume weren’t as a result of IVF), instead of spouting absolute clap-trap about something you obviously know nothing about. People who have not, and will never be in the position of IVF should keep their mouths shut.

    1. Hi “Kristine Orr”

      I am very lucky in that I have 4 naturally conceived children and as I admit, I have never faced the heartbreak of infertility, however when I was attempting to conceive my second child, it was following a break of 5 years and I was unsure as to whether or not I would still be fertile. Had I not been able to conceive it would have been a source of great sadness to myself and my husband, who would have needed to face the fact that he would not be able to have any biological children, but we had already taken the decision that IVF would be an unethical course of action, for several reasons.

      I am not claiming that every single one of the 45,000 women who had IVF last year did it as a result of having left matters too late, however the segment on Daybreak and the post itself was specifically about the issue of extending IVF to women in the age bracket of 40-42.

      In terms of not knowing what I am talking about, the poor success rates of IVF speak for themselves, not to mention the appalling physical and emotional consequences IVF can wreak upon a woman. I think all of us need to be wary about saying that we are only qualified to speak of things about which we have only personally experienced. When we are talking about correct courses of action, or objective morality, feelings, no matter how genuine, are not a reason to justify a course of action that is inherently flawed.

      IVF is a highly exploitative industry – often women are given incorrect diagnoses of infertility, I know of many women who conceived shortly before or during a cycle of IVF and indeed of many who conceived naturally afterwards which has to call into question the original clinical diagnosis. Aside from anything else, IVF creates and destroys life on an industrial scale – on average every live birth results in 32 embryos being wasted, it also involves a eugenics element with only the strongest specimens being selected for implantation. Furthermore children conceived via IVF are more likely to be born premature and last year it was revealed that children conceived using ISCI have a 10% greater risk of being born with serious birth defects. Whilst all children are welcome and equal regardless of their physical ability, there are ethical considerations in should we unnaturally being creating children who are at serious risk of health problems.

      I assume from your tone of post that you are experiencing or have experienced infertility for which you have my heartfelt sympathy and prayers. Ultimately I would say that it is not the desire to have children that is wrong, nor that any children resulting from IVF should not exist, simply I would object to the way in which they were created or procured.

      God Bless.

  3. Came close to needing IVF in 2010. God blessed us however. Happily He didn’t discriminate on mothering age – as you must know from Sarah and her famous son in the Bible.

    I spent my whole life trying to find Mr Right Caroline. Most women do. At least the ones I knew did. They may have jobs but that doesn’t mean that finding the right guy was or is secondary to that innate biological desire. Not one of my friends was ever anything but hopeful to be married and settled with the right man as soon as they could. And we all tried.

    I really resent how older mums are portrayed as in some way to have failed right-thinking society’s expectations of when motherhood should start. Is this how I am viewed by my faith? A failure?

    A final twist of the knife after a hideous day.

    And yes I shall be trying for another baby. In spite of the fact that my biological clock is now clapped out (there was me thinking Joseph beautiful). Yes I failed to find a man I wanted to marry before 35 in spite of all my heartbroken efforts. Yes I failed to get in there while the clock was ticking properly and merrily. Me, my best friend, my sister, my mates, other mums I have met since becoming a mum myself….. All high flying career women in the same boat…oh no wait.


    You are LUCKY that you met the right man and married and procreated all in good time. Some of us are not. Not because we head off down some self absorbed career route where we ignore relationships and marriage and family. Nope. You lucked out and met the right guy Caroline. All in good time. You also have a writing career to speak of. Perhaps you have it all?

    Just for once I wish some commentary on older mums reflected the enormous reality of why the majority of us are where we are. Just once it would be nice if the reason we are late to motherhood was established instead of all these projections which relate to a minority of a minority who doggedly put career ahead of anything else straight out of school. Why is it women are constantly grouped together as though we are not facing individual situations? Why am I the same as some young City career hot shot or a Hollywood actress – when I clearly am not.

    I’m about to turn 42. This post depressed the hell out of me for its inaccuracy after a dreadful day. I really wasnt expecting this post on your website but hey ho lets end the day spectacularly painfully.

    Self inflicted? Harsh. We are not all fortunate to be born beautiful blondes Caroline.

    1. I’m sorry you found the post hurtful and it was in no way directed at individuals.

      It was a general post about society, about how women aren’t encouraged to think about marriage and children until much later on, something, that I think is detrimental, not a judgement on those women who for whatever reason did have children later.

      I don’t make any value judgements on older mums versus younger mums, it’s simply my experience that I found the whole thing much harder in my mid thirties than late twenties.

      My complaint is really about the enormous expectation on women to have careers and establish themselves, then have children and go back to work. I’m not sure that society has the right attitude, but sorry you found it hurtful 😦

  4. “women aren’t encouraged to think about marriage and children until much later on”

    Women are born thinking about settling down. In spite of us all now having the opportunity to study and work and forge an identity in the modern world (a good thing as your opportunities in life with writing should surely point to) it *remains* inside us whatever path we choose to follow. As I explained it is something all the women I know who are late to motherhood tried very VERY hard to find – love, marriage, kids – but “failed” until later on. I found “Mr Right” at 34. We were in no position to start a family til later as my husband worked nights in a bar. My sister finally found a trustworthy partner at 35. My best friend at 38 following a ten year bout of depression that she couldnt. A work colleague (who successfully used IVF last year) found her partner at 38 after a string of really rubbish nasty relationships. A mother I met who successfully used IVF, settled down at 30. Early by standards these days but then went on an 8 year journey of fertility issues. It was a painfully long “journey” to love and family for all of us. But none of us were about to settle for rubbish relationships just to start a family in our 20s. I could have for sure. Why should I though? Should we really be thinking about forcing women to accept insecure crap relationships and settling for that just so they can have kids? I really think it is worth asking women why they are late to motherhood and researching it to uncover the truth. As I said I am fed up with the presumption we all leave it late for career or put it off to have some fun. That is not mine or other’s experiences and women should not constantly be judged as a group of sheep. People don’t risk spending thousands on IVF and taking that gamble because they were lazy or “selfish”. It is high time we look to men and *their* reasons for delaying settling down and starting a family as part of the wider problem.

    1. Ah now I agree with that about men, I think my point was about society as a whole and certainly feminists are very keen to denigrate the whole concepts of marriage and motherhood as being secondary to a woman.

      The head of the independent Girls School Day Trust made some remarks recently indicating that there was still some progress to be made in that her pupils were horrified to learn that she put her career before her children. She believed that all girls need to be taught that this is a sensible option.

      It wasn’t a judgement upon individuals, certainly I was never encouraged to think about my fertility other than to suppress it.

  5. Men are culturally taught to suppress their fertility. The woman I mentioned above who suffered depression as a result of thinking she would never settle down was also a School Head as it happens. Was she supposed to force all these men who didn’t want to settle down with her? Trap them into starting a family? What are women who are unlucky enough not to find a willing partner who wishes to settle supposed to do? I attended an all girls independent Catholic Convent where we were taught to appreciate and nurture academic talent as integral to our inherent worth as much as starting a family. None of that changed an innate biological desire. Mine and other friends of mine testimonies illustrate why women end up late into motherhood. I cannot relate to the Head of that school in any way at all. Perhaps we should examine what boys are being taught in school and at home and more broadly in society. Respect for women and family? Sorry but I insist, as an older mum with experience of how I actually got here, that we stop focusing this all on women.

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