Some of you will have had enough of reading about the Get Britain Fertile campaign, fronted by broadcaster and mum of two Kate Garraway and fertility expert Zita West and sponsored by First Response, makers of the pregnancy test kit (it’s important to mention First Response as we could easily overlook the fact that this is, primarily, a marketing exercise).
Others won’t have heard of the campaign at all. Such is the nature of our individual antennae: tuned in to what we want to see, hear, or read about – particularly sensitive to things that relate to what we’re experiencing or to our priorities at any given moment in time, often blind to things we deem irrelevant to our lives.
I mention this because the research I’ve been doing for my book – The Baby Gap – has shown me just how selective my reading of the media and my awareness of what’s going on around me have been over the years. Not long ago, I interviewed Dr Gillian Lockwood, medical director of Midland Fertility Services, on the topic of egg freezing for my book and for a magazine feature. I pointed out that when my contemporaries and I were of a good age to freeze our eggs – early to mid-30s – there was very little about the technology in the media. In reply, Lockwood noted that the first frozen egg baby was born in 2002 and that she was frequently in the press at the time and in subsequent years up until today, talking about egg freezing and the possibility of putting our eggs on ice for ‘social’ reasons (to delay motherhood for professional or financial reasons or because we haven’t met anyone we want to have a baby with).
So where was I in 2002 and why weren’t fertility, egg freezing and the biological clock on my radar? I was finishing off my time as a foreign correspondent in Brazil, moving to London to take up a post as a political reporter in the House of Commons and travelling with the prime minister for work. I was in my early 30s and not in the slightest bit perturbed (as far as I recall) about my fertility. Oh yes, and I was still stuck in a cycle of binge eating, compulsive exercise, excessive drinking and unhealthy relationships with the opposite sex. The prospect of motherhood was the last thing on my mind (not a bad thing given I truly was struggling to take care of myself).
Today, after doing a lot of research and back-reading, it’s clear that if my fertility had been of interest to me a decade ago, I would have come across plenty of articles on the biological clock, the promise of egg freezing and the ups and downs of IVF in newspapers, magazines and on the Internet. Nowhere near as many as today – has there been an explosion of interest in this topic or do I just notice it more now? – but enough to make me ponder where I stood in relation to motherhood.
So, as I said at the start, depending on your individual antennae and where you are in your life right now and, no doubt, your gender, you’re either feeling bombarded with information about the Get Britain Fertile campaign or this is the first you’ve heard of it.
When I came across Kate Garraway’s article in the Telegraph, ‘I wish I’d had my babies younger’ – on Monday morning as I’d had a news-free weekend – I was pleasantly surprised. I thought it was a good idea that Garraway was speaking out honestly about her regrets around not having children at a younger age. And I thought it was good to raise awareness about the link between a woman’s age and infertility. I thought this because scores of women who’ve faced the heartache of age-related infertility have told me of the importance of talking about this issue in interviews for my book.
I admit that when I then clicked on the Get Britain Fertile link and realised First Response was using the campaign to further their brand and boost their profits, the campaign went down in my estimation. And when I saw the photo of Garraway made up to look like a 70-something pregnant lady, I thought the image was rather misguided – leaning towards scaremongering.
That doesn’t mean to say I don’t think Garraway is sincere in her motives. She desperately wanted a third child at 45 (she had one at 38 and another at 42) and her eggs weren’t up to the task and I genuinely believe she wants to help other women avoid the pain and disappointment she went through.
I say that not as someone who thinks all women are ignorant or complacent about their fertility, who thinks every female should procreate or who believes women should be criticised or made to feel bad for the choices they make: having children early, late, when they’re ready, when they’re not, having too few, too many or not having any at all.
I say that as someone who’s interviewed dozens of women in recent months, women who are in their late 30s, 40s or 50s, women who are trying to get pregnant and failing, who are worried about their declining fertility, who have spent thousands of pounds on infertility treatment or who are childless by circumstance, not by choice, and who are grieving. Women, too, who like Garraway wish they had started having children earlier in life so they could have had more than one (or two in her case).
Of course, as many bloggers have made clear, telling women that they should have thought about their fertility when they were younger isn’t going to go down too well. Where was the willing partner? The financial security? The emotional stability? The childcare? The sympathetic employer?
But putting these very valid and real questions aside, many women I’ve spoken to do wish they’d thought about their fertility sooner, been more aware of their ticking clock and less worried about having their lives ‘just so’ before they thought about kids. And many would like to pass this message on to the younger generation, while also empathising with all the challenges mentioned above.
Many bloggers and columnists have slammed the Get Fertile Campaign and I agree with a lot of what has been written, particularly about its links to big business and the absence of any reference to the role of the male. But I don’t agree with those who’ve said that all women are and have been totally clued up about their fertility, aware of their declining egg count and tuned in to their ticking biological clock throughout their late 20s and 30s.
That’s not what the women of my generation are telling me. It’s not that they made a conscious choice to postpone motherhood – it’s that they didn’t think the years would pass so fast. “I thought I had plenty of time,” is a phrase that has come up repeatedly in interviews with women aged 40 and over. Many of us thought we didn’t need to worry until we we hit 40, perhaps lulled into a false sense of security by the stories of celebrity mothers aged 42, 44, 46 – some of whom did women a disservice by not revealing they used donor eggs.
And then we hit 40 and realised that a willing partner still wasn’t on the scene and we started to do the maths and saw that it wasn’t as simple as saying “I’m 40. I’m ready for a baby. Let’s get on with it”. We had to meet a guy, get to know him, often decide to break up with him, meet someone else, get to know him, persuade him it was a good time to try for children even though he wanted to postpone parenthood for a few more years because he didn’t feel ready – perhaps despite being around our age – and then TRY and get pregnant (the average couple takes about a year to conceive).
That can add up to a lot of years.
For many of the women I’ve spoken to, and myself included, those years were not factored in to our thinking. And that’s one of the reasons why I’m now interviewing scores of women who found themselves in their late 30s or early 40s without a partner and decided to take motherhood into their own hands, deciding that walking into a fertility clinic and trying a few rounds of IVF was potentially a much swifter and more straightforward process – albeit a more expensive one and a potentially devastating one if it didn’t work – than trying to get to know a guy and to work out whether you want to have a child with him before your fertility hit a wall, without sending him running for the hills by talking about babies too soon.
There’s no two ways about it: being a single, dating woman in her early 40s who thinks she might want the chance of trying to have a baby (note I say ‘the chance of trying’ because it’s not a simple process and nor are we all demanding instant babies, more often an exploration of the possibility) is a minefield.
And I’m right in the middle of it, tiptoeing around apprehensively, shuffling in one direction and then another, holding my breath at times, aware that I could trigger a potentially painful explosion if I put my foot down in the wrong spot.
But that’s on a bad day.
On a good day, I can be grateful for where I am and all that I have and be thankful that women like me today have a whole array of options and choices available to us. I can also be grateful for the lengthy, challenging and at times painful journey of self-discovery I’ve been on over the past decade and the self-awareness that has given me, bringing me to a place where I feel more able to make informed choices about my life and where I can, sometimes, forget about tiptoeing around in the minefield, not worry about any explosions and run freely in whatever direction I choose.
This, I think, is called taking things one day at a time and it’s a gift of recovery.
So back to the Get Fertile Campaign. Do I think a photo of Kate Garraway looking like a pregnant 70-year-old woman as part of a marketing campaign run by a massive company is the best way to help women make more informed choices about their lives? No. But do I think it’s important that women – all women and not just those who write the blogs saying we’re all totally clued up about our fertility – are aware of the facts around the biological clock, how quickly our 30s pass us by, how time-consuming it can be to find a guy with whom we want to have a relationship and possibly a family and how long it can take to conceive? Yes.
And do I agree with the writers who’ve pointed out in recent days that it takes two to make a baby and it’s the men we need to be educating around the fertility debate, encouraging them to step up to the plate before it’s too late for their partners or prospective partners and sensitising them about the challenges faced by would-be mothers of a certain age. Yes, indeed. Many women who are childless by circumstance, not choice, point to the absence of a suitable, willing, responsible partner as one of the main reasons for their situation.
So where do we go from here? Well, for a start, I do hope my book – once written and published (I’ve had three very complimentary rejections from very big publishers so far) will make a valuable contribution to this whole debate (she says modestly).
But there are no easy answers. Ask me what I would have done differently, looking back over my 20s and 30s, and all I think I could say is that I’d have tried to accelerate my journey of self-discovery and self-awareness – but that kind of journey is precious and it cannot be rushed. And perhaps I’d have educated myself better about the inner workings of my body (I pick up the results of a fertility test tomorrow, purely for academic, book-related purposes, you understand!).
For further reading on the Get Britain Fertile campaign, I can recommend an excellent blog by Karen Ingala Smith: Infertility, patriarchy, profit and me, or: “KERCHING!” – Infertility and woman blaming, woman shaming, woman controlling. And I also found the following Atlantic article a very good read and relevant to the debate about the apparent absence of suitable men for women in my age group: What if men stopped chasing much younger women? An interesting question, although I’d add that in relationships, just as in baby-making, it takes two to tango.
I’d love to hear your thoughts so feel free to comment, men and women …