Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Butting Out of Britain's Fertility

Fortunately, most people in my life concur with what my physical health and practical circumstances tell me: I shouldn't reproduce. Well, nobody has ever told me I shouldn't, but nobody has told me I should. Okay, so two people did; one is my Gran who has dementia and has forgotten a great deal about me and the other was a family friend who suggested that pregnancy hormones could kick-start a significant improvement in my health (and if that's not worth a gamble, what is?). Point is, while many women in their early thirties find themselves subject to hints, warnings and occasionally national campaigns, I've got out of that.

An unwell and unhappy looking woman with
a poorly-placed grey wig and a pregnant belly.
I have feelings about this. They're complicated, but entirely survivable and it does mean that I often find myself thinking, "It's okay - they don't mean me."

On the same day we were presented with this fabulous infographic about the dangers of pregnancy to teenage girls across the globe, we saw this photograph of TV presenter Kate Garraway, who is neither pregnant nor 70 and had to be made-up to look like someone who is pregnant, 70 and particularly unwell, because in real life, our pregnant 70 year olds actually look a lot healthier than that. They're blooming, in fact. Or they don't exist. It's one of those, anyway.

The Get Britain Fertile campaign, run by a cosmetics company, seeks to highlight the fact that women become utterly grotesque as they age, lose their youthful good looks and no longer get any TV work - statistically, at 46, it's not only Kate Garraway's "fertility door" that's slamming shut. Getting pregnant can also damage your career chances, and while only 18% of TV presenters over 50 are women, absolutely none of them are pregnant.

I'm fed up with the idea that individual women have a completely free choice about whether to reproduce. I'm also fed up with the fact any of us should be judged, wholesale, for choices which are not entirely ours and aren't anyone else's business.

First off, and this may come as a great shock to commentators and anyone else who has ever pressured or disapproved of a woman about her reproductive choices, but human reproduction requires the fusion of a male and female gamete. There's no way round this - that's just how it must be done. Getting pregnant at any age is not a matter of placing a couple of gametes in close proximity and hoping for the best; even at peak fertility, a cis heterosexual couple will take an average of a year to conceive. Not that women can't get pregnant on the single occasion the condom splits - it happens, but it's rare.

Most women who want to have children want to have them with a partner (though not always a man, or a man who can be a father). Regardless of gender, this makes the decision to become a parent almost always a joint venture, depending not only on two people's mutual desires, but both parties feeling ready, able and not having other important things to do with their life at that particular moment. A woman who makes a unilateral decision to try for a baby within a relationship is abusive, potentially criminal depending on her methods and is unlikely to make a good mother. Certainly she compromises the other parties' chances of parenting to their best ability, since they weren't asked.

A single woman who wants children may be prepared to compromise on the partner issue, but her options are incredibly fraught. If she's wealthy, she can afford IVF and to make up the added expenses of being a single parent, otherwise the obvious method - having regular sex with a man or men who she's not partnered to - isn't going to work any faster, is potentially emotionally complicated for all concerned and is not at all socially acceptable. Single motherhood is still stigmatised, and someone seen to choose this status from the outset is likely to be judged as extremely selfish.

Selfish is a word that comes up a great deal when it comes to women and our made-up choices.

After all, women who have children very young are seen as selfish. They have not established themselves, they may be fresh from education without work experiences or wealth, and their relationships will be seen as fragile and untested (You can't expect a young man to have the maturity to be a parent!). There's the general perception that a woman who has children in her late teens or very early twenties is likely to be or become a single unemployed mother reliant on state help. Selfish.

Women who have children in their late thirties or forties are seen as selfish, because they're fertility is dwindling (so in other words, they're selfish for wanting something they have diminishing chances of getting). Rates of Down Syndrome increase (I mean, there's 750 babies born with Down Syndrome in the UK each year - it's practically pandemic). Then there's weird and stupid arguments like
  • If you have a baby in your forties, your child may be teased because their mother looks different to some of the other younger mothers. It would be better not to have children at all, than to have children who might be teased because of their or their parents' physical appearance. 
  • If you have a baby in your forties, you have more chance of becoming disabled before your child is an adult. Anyone who can't guarantee their physical capacity to play football with any potential grandchildren they may or may not have, thirty or forty years from now, should not reproduce.
  • If you have a baby in your forties, you'll have been reduced to a strict lifestyle of wearing cardigans all year round, listening to classical music and visiting garden centers by the time your children are teenagers. What teenagers need is cool Belieber parents who want to swap clothes, attend the same parties and snog the same boys as they do.
Selfish, selfish, selfish. 

Even women who try for a baby at the right time (I guess the window between twenty-five and thirty-five, coincidentally, when most women have their children) can't get it right. Are you married?  Are you solvent? Can you afford to stop working? Can you afford appropriate childcare if you carry on working?  Not that (a) many mothers or parents generally have any choice whether they work while their children are small - most either can't afford to, or can't afford not to. Nor that (b) having enough money to choose will get you off the hook. Staying at home, idling about and living off your partner's sweat is tremendously selfish. It is only equaled by farming your children out to strangers or encumbered relatives while pursuing your own selfish career goals (goals such as, bringing in enough money to keep a roof over your family's head). 

Meanwhile, women who don't try to have children are selfish.  I've never really understood this.  Even if someone chooses to avoid pregnancy because they really love their white suede sofa and don't want to see it stained, they're not going to hurt anybody.  More often, people choose not to have children for very sound conscientious reasons, chiefly because in their particular circumstances their lives would be less happy if they had children.

Apparently it's selfish because, if we require care in old age, childless people will be looked after by others who they didn't personally bring into the world. It's selfish because childless people enjoy uninterrupted sleep and don't really know what love is. It's selfish because - despite the haphazard mess that is human fertility - it's somehow going against nature.

See this young woman, who is enjoying her life too much as it is (her real problem is difficulty communicating with her husband, but that's entirely glossed over). "I know I'm selfish," she writes to Mariella Frostrup (in her capacity as Worst Agony Aunt Ever) and Frostrup concurs:
I'm anxious about the absence of profundity in your decision-making. You give me no indication of the "things you love", but they appear to centre on disposable income. Deciding whether or not to have kids is, happily, your prerogative. But to treat it so lightly, to squander the extraordinary gift women alone have been given, because you're enjoying your present "lifestyle" seems a hollow victory for those aforementioned campaigners for women's dignity and rights.
I suppose that's one up from drawing a picture of a particularly ugly woman and saying, "This could be you! Somehow! If a dramatic make-up artist really went to town on you!"

Then there's folks who want children, or are ambivalent, but simply don't have the option. There's medical things - sometimes a very slight, mysterious and unseen obstacle that all the reproductive tech in the world can't fix, other times major issues like chronic illness or major injury. But there's also myriad legitimate reasons that folks who could potentially reproduce and would like to feel that that's just not possible - that to do so, would be utterly wrong.

There is no big fertility crisis in the UK just now. The population is increasing. Globally, population growth has to slow down for the quality of life of our species to continue to rise. What we need to fight for is for better sexual and reproductive health for everyone, to learn to respect one another's choices whilst also respecting the limits of personal choice and to recognise that reproduction is not something that women ever do alone.

Now go and read two much better posts: Infertility, patriarchy, profit and me or "KERCHING!" - Infertility and woman blaming, woman shaming, woman controlling. by Karen Ingala Smith and on a lighter, but not insincere not, Diane Shipley's What I think about when I think about thinking about thinking about having children.


Lisa said...

If you have a baby in your forties, you have more chance of becoming disabled before your child is an adult. Anyone who can't guarantee their physical capacity to play football with any potential grandchildren they may or may not have, thirty or forty years from now, should not reproduce.

Hahaha. My mum was 41 when I was born. By which point she'd already been disabled for 41 years.

Well, actually, she was 41 years and 3 months old when I was born. If you add in the 9 months between my nan conceiving her and giving birth to her - bearing in mind that my mum hadn't just been disabled since birth, but since conception - she'd actually been disabled for 42 years by the time I was born.

The Goldfish said...

So many arguments against older mothers are profoundly disablist in nature; the danger of having a disabled baby (which does increase, but remains unlikely and anyway so what?)and the idea that a non-disabled woman in her forties and fifties might not be physically up to the task of childcare - in which case a disabled mother of 20 or 30 is equally unsuitable.

Millitoria said...

Another good post. Thanks for the links I shall go and read them now.

I have had some truly terrifying conversations with people about children and the desire to have them or not. I've been told that if I really wanted children I'd have them by now. I've been told I shouldn't have children as I'm ill and it would be selfish of me. I've also been told I should have children as that would 'give me something to live for' and a 'purpose in life.'

I've been made to feel like a failure for not having children already. My partner has never been made to feel this way. I've been made to feel bad for wanting children by people who don't. I've also seen some horrible assumptions made about female friends who don't want children. Seriously, I've been told that one friend 'must be a lesbian' as she doesn't want children. I've also been told that friends were 'obviously infertile' or 'must have had a horrible childhood' as apparently a woman not wanting children is so completely unacceptable.

Another friend was told she was 'abhorrent' for wanting a child with her wife. Yet another close friend was greeted with shock when she asked to be referred for fertility treatment. Her GP had never considered the idea that she, as a physically disabled woman might want children or was even able to have them. If that's the attitude from a medical professional then I dread to think what attitudes she's met elsewhere.

Friends of mine who have children have also been told they did so too young/too old. One of my friends let her ex husband take custody of the children when they split up as his life was far more stable and settled than hers at that time. She has been called a bad mother and 'unnatural' for making the choice that was best for her children.

I don't think I've ever come across a man being told he should or shouldn't want children though, whatever his age or circumstances. I'm not saying it doesn't happen, just that I've never come across it when most of the women I know have experienced this at some point.

The Goldfish said...

Thanks Millitoria,

I've heard others with chronic illnesses, physical and mental, being told they shouldn't reproduce, which must be terrifically hurtful.

I think the prize for the silliest reason to reproduce goes to a commenter on the Mariella Frostrup piece who actually demanded to know "But if you don't have children, what are you going to talk about for the next fifteen years?"

And it is true that men are seen as completely removed from all this. People never seem to even ask young men if they intend to have children, or expect them to have strong feelings either way.

Which is bad for men too; I've known men who really don't want children, whose female partners can't be convinced that this won't change once a baby arrives. I've also known men who really desperately want to be fathers, and this desire is ignored by our culture - such as this chap here discovered.

Millitoria said...

I've come across that whole 'they'll come round to the idea of children when I give them a child' idea too, many times. I even knew one woman who tried to get pregnant without her partner's knowledge by coming off the pill without telling him. Thankfully she wasn't successful.

It is ridiculous that men aren't considered part and parcel of the decision to have a child in the same way that women are. It's not good for anybody. If you are intending to have a child with someone, that someone needs to be part of the decision making process.

I do think it's actively unhelpful the way the focus is entirely on women. I wonder about the effect it has on men who want children but don't or can't have them. I've known men who really want kids and had similar experiences to the post you linked to. I also know a man who is sterile as a result of cancer treatment. Nobody seems to think this is as a big a deal as my friend who was born without reproductive organs. I imagine it is a huge deal to him though, seeing as he wants to be a father.

In my initial comment, I hadn't really thought about the issue from a male perspective, so thanks for your comment. It's given me a lot to think about.

Diane said...

Thank you for the link! NOT a much better post than yours, though — as I was reading this, I was thinking how you've expanded on some really important points about prejudice and social and media pressure and the impact that has, whereas mine was just a silly list. But WOW, Mariella is a terrible advice-giver, isn't she?!

Anonymous said...

Oh, yes, old people could become disabled, so they shouldn't have kids...

You know, since twentysomethings are immune to car accidents and all.

And illnesses.

And traumatic events.

And since all children are best served by CND parents, including disabled children who might otherwise be deprived of disabled role models in real life and the wealth of information and understanding a PWD parent might offer. (That's not to say all PWDs should reproduce. It's just to say it's not necessarily wrong in all cases.)