I awoke this morning to what I thought was good news: a campaign to raise awareness of the relationship between a woman’s age and infertility.
I’m 45. I’d assumed that I’d become pregnant when the time was right. The time felt right when I was around 36 years old; I believed I’d been a mixture of lucky (not to have had an unplanned pregnancy, to have had a decent-enough education, to have a challenging and rewarding job, to have a home/mortgage and to have met someone I wanted to share life and parenthood with), unlucky (it had taken a while and a few ‘not so great choices’) and sensible (it had all taken effort). The ages 38 to 41 brought the delights of temperature/ovulation charts, followed by drugs to control ovulation and eventually four failed IVF attempts, one reaching the dazzling ‘success’ of an early miscarriage; complete with a side order of giving up alcohol and caffeine, vitamin and mineral supplements, losing weight, acupuncture and – and it pains me to admit this – listening to awful visualisation CDs, surrounding myself with ‘fertility colours’ and a strategically placed piece of rose crystal (no, not internally). I’m going to blame the mind altering ovulation and IVF drugs for my descent into those, please allow me and also grant me lifelong forgiveness for any adverse reaction that I might have to the phrase ‘positive mental attitude’. I’m now, jointly with my partner, about twenty thousand pounds lighter in pocket. 1
The years between the ages of 40 and 44 were not easy ones for me, with grief, loss, depression, jealously, bitterness, emptiness and despondency the companions of dwindling hope. I found out that our first IVF attempt hadn’t worked the day before my 40th birthday. I can still see where I was when I received that phone-call.
I didn’t have a seamless transition into acceptance of childlessness but one Saturday morning, in February 2012 came across this piece by Jody Day on her work to set up Gateway Women, and – once I’d stopped sobbing – I contacted her and eventually enrolled on her group work programme. It set me free, allowed me to move on.2
I’ll probably never know why I didn’t get pregnant, none of the testing involved with infertility treatment found any problems, I have ‘unexplained infertility’ but certainly age is a – if not the – most likely significant contributory factor. Fast forward to this morning and the issue of women, age and fertility being discussed on the radio and in social media and I was pleased. Pleased because I genuinely believe that there is insufficient attention paid to infertility, in society, in education and also in feminist discourse on women and reproduction.
However there are awareness-raising campaigns and ‘awareness-raising’ campaigns. The one people were talking about this morning is part of First Response’s “Get Britain Fertile”, campaign and is purportedly about warning those women who want to and are able to delay motherhood about the risks of doing so. First Response is a registered trademark of Church & Dwight Co. Inc., a £1.7 billion ($2.6 billion) company with headquarters in New Jersey, USA with brands including Arm & Hammer, Trojan, Nair, Oxi Clean, Orajel, Lady’s Choice and First Response. Whether they knew it or not, people were talking about an awareness raising campaign that is funded by a multi-million pound company that also trades in diet foods and hair removing products, products that rely upon misogyny created self loathing like chips need potatoes. The campaign is lent legitimacy through the backing of Zita West, the self-called “UK’s no. 1 for preconception planning, natural fertility, assisted fertility, pregnancy coaching and post-natal support”. I found three active UK companies registered is her name, all selling fertility products and treatments.3 In other words, this awareness raising campaign is about selling products through the medium of raising awareness. There doesn’t appear to be any of this messy business stuff referred to in the campaign.
When I think about raising awareness of issues relating to women, age and fertility, I want us to be talking about the facts. Whilst the average age of a first-time mother has been increasing, a woman’s fertility peaks in her early to mid-twenties after which it begins to decline, this is true of both natural and assisted conception. Three out of four men and women overestimate by five years the rapid decline in women’s fertility at 35 not 40.
When I think about raising awareness of issues relating to women and fertility, I want us to be talking about how women are judged for getting pregnant too young, for getting pregnant without a long term and male partner, for getting pregnant or failing to get pregnant when too old, for getting pregnant and remaining in or leaving paid employment, for only having one child, for having too many children, for having abortions, for staying in abusive relationships or leaving and breaking up ‘happy families’. Teenage mothers, single mothers, lesbian mothers, older mothers, women who work, women who stay at home, woman who have ‘x’ number of children, childless women, women who leave, women who stay –whether through choice or lack of choice- what unites us is that according to someone, we’re doing it wrong!
When we’re looking at why some women are delaying the age at which they have children and why some choose to have them as soon as they can, we need to look at how hard we make it for women to afford to be able to have children, how hard it is to have children and rewarding paid employment, how expensive and for many, unaffordable, childcare is, why for some young women their aspirations do not go beyond motherhood or why for some a child is seen as the solution to their sense of isolation, loneliness and worthlessness. We need to look at equality issues, we need to show the concept of ‘reverse-Darwinism’ – the panic about the trend for women with higher levels of education to have children in later life and fewer of them (and therefore more likely to face infertility) – the contempt it deserves, whilst looking at what we can do to support women of any social background in their decisions to have, or not to have children and to be able to plan the size of their families.
We need to look at the roles of men in raising families and at the effects of their ages, their jobs, their contributions in the home. We need to look at gender stereotypes and their impact on family life, relationships and woman and men’s ‘choices’. We need to make it no big deal for families to be made of people in same sex relationships whether or not they have children.
We need a global perspective. We need to look at poverty, inequality and fertility rates and ensure the relationship between higher birth rates and countries with lower GDPs and higher gender inequality, are seen as problems of international poverty inequality and gender inequality.
TV presenter Kate Garraway fronts the new campaign; she said that she “agreed to become Ambassador to the campaign” because “I want to alert women to start thinking about their fertility at a younger age than our generation did. They should get prepared and make informed choices early so there is no chance of sleepwalking into infertility.’ According to a report in the Telegraph, as part of the campaign, Garraway spent a day being transformed into a heavily pregnant 70 year-old by a prosthetic make-up artist, to “shock and provoke debate about how old is too old to have a baby”.
The thing is I’ve never met anyone who planned or plans to delay having a baby into their 70ies. Women’s fertility declines through their 30ies and 40ies, what’s the point in an awareness campaign featuring a woman supposedly in her 70ies? Isn’t this confusing the message? Isn’t it telling women that they don’t want to delay motherhood until their 70ies, not that they cannot? The only way that this photo has impact is by exaggeration based on misogyny, the special misogyny reserved for older women in a society where women are valued by what they look like and an ideal of beauty rooted in youth.
This new campaign is not about raising awareness of the relationship between women’s age and infertility; it’s not about supporting women to make informed choices and making society more supportive of women’s choices. This campaign is about persuading women to start spending money on fertility treatment at a younger age and it relies upon misogyny to do so.
1 Yes, I know that not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to make the choice to spend a lot of money on unsuccessful fertility treatment.
2 Gateway Women was hugely beneficial for me, and I’d encourage any woman struggling with issues around childlessness by circumstance not choice to find out more: gateway-women.com
I’d also like to acknowledge that the support of Jodie and the group that I was part of contributed to me daring to start blogging.
3 They’re not legally required to disclose their annual turnover and I wasn’t able to find it.