Ova simplifying things

Twenty years ago as my twenties shifted into second gear, I gradually found myself the receptacle for sharp intakes of breath at the state of my finances. My eyebrows. My employment prospects. My singlehood. My doublehood. My hair. My ovaries. My leek and pasta bake.

“Make the Credit Union your friend”.

“Have you thought about waxing?”

“Don’t knock the Public Service”

“Have a bit of fun, you’re too young to think about settling down”

“You’re not serious about him, are ya?”

“What did you ask the hairdresser for? A Herman Monster cut?”

“Don’t leave it too late”

“You’ve loads of time”

“That is delicious”

I had only asked these people whether they wanted a cuppa tea. But life is never that straight forward.

Reading some of the commentary in the aftermath of the US corporate offer to keep female employee eggs on ice, one would be tempted to conclude otherwise.

Mechanisms for media commentary are generally set up in favour of polemics, so there was the predictable rush to panels with contributors enthusiastically for, or adamantly against, the proposal. Nothing wrong with this; every “much needed debate” needs a starting point. When I first heard the announcement, my first thought was “wankers” as I worked up an appetite for the ensuing discussion.

The problem with a much needed debate is that everyone tends to have their own terms of reference for what that should be. Inevitably, the dominant strains of consensus wrestled one another to present the “greatest disservice to women”. Given their vantage point, the loudest voices tended to come from those already with children.

There was much level-headed concern regarding the messages the ‘perk’ was sending out on the status of women in the workplace; the inadvertent pressure; the need for employer measures to combat inequality through more equitable parental leave, and corresponding work/life balance supports. Cogent arguments in favour of assisted conception were forwarded by women who “for various reasons” are not in a position to start a family. Insurance measures, however unreliable, are nothing to be sniffed at, or a rule of compliance.

Between the jigs and the reeling, the “various reasons” were neatly stacked up in the shape of a greasy pole for which women are deferring family life in order to have a crack at climbing. From what I could gather, the biggest disservice to women is the attempt to prop up the myth that their fertility is safe under the sphere of human intervention. Oh and women are not sufficiently supported to have children in their prime.

I don’t doubt these career-climbing compromisers exist. I rarely meet them, if ever. But then I don’t tend to move in corporate circles. Even so, most of my band of contemporaries would likely be considered relatively successful, somewhat driven, with a college education and some semblance of a career behind them. Or at least a failed one, or the slowly dying embers of a fantasy of one. Most of them broke, many bitter. All overworked regardless of ambition.

Women are wise to implore their peers to become attuned to their bodies and the sobering realities of decline in fertility, but is this really instructive? Do women not draw their own conclusions? And for how many are the warnings relevant? Far from exploring the “various reasons” women “delay” having a family, we’re given the “career” as a shorthand answer, with the idea of “delay” freighted with the assumption of choice.

Having starred down the barrel of childlessness in my late 30s along with many of my peers, I can’t help but feel the biggest disservice to women is buoying up the myth of the go-getting woman forever hedging her fertility bets, therefore masking the topsy-turvy complexities of her life in the prime of child-bearing years as it is actually lived. Formulae rarely apply.

Kate Spicer attempted to shine a light on this during the debate with Sarah Carey and Kathryn Thomas on Friday night’s Late Late Show. The main weaponry she had in her artillery was a quiet philosophical sense of regret, a succinct reference to the instability of modern relationships, and a pair of shrugged shoulders. These don’t make for raging debate, but they do define the silenced reality for many women who find themselves the receptacles for a great deal of warnings of which they are acutely aware.

Mainstream media is flooded with profiles of challenges to fertility and the personal journeys of couples on the turbulent road to IVF, adoption and so on. Rightly so; they’re important, they’re common. But there’s a distinct stench of silence around the legacy of childlessness pervading the lives of many women in their 40s who desired another outcome but didn’t get there for failure of a relationship. Or having their confidence or financial security pulled out from under them, and umpteen other unanticipated collisions along the firmament. The complexity of women’s lives doesn’t square with the narrow commentary of the go-getting careerist. It’s a pity so much of their experience is silent but where would the women start to articulate their loss, to whom, and how? Theirs is the quietest voice in the room. Add to this the number of women who sought abortions in their earlier years and a further dimension may potentially have relevance. Or not. We don’t know.

In an era when the realities of mental health awareness are no longer fresh, in a world where we’re heading towards one in four women being childless, with many more confronting that prospect, it’s not possible to reconcile women’s fertility with the threat of decline. Or the pros and cons of engineered conception. Or the introduction of more family friendly incentives. It demands another reality check and support of a different character. It’s a much needed debate.

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7 thoughts on “Ova simplifying things

  1. Well said. I still have complex feelings about actually having a child. I was in my late twenties when the Experts said I wouldn’t be having any. At the time, I hadn’t intended having children. Not because of my career, I don’t recall having one of those. But because of very personal reasons which were mainly about my mental health. So although I was disappointed at having the choice taken away from me, I wasn’t devastated, as many would be. Then of course, a few years later I had a child thrust upon me. I still well up thinking about the joy he has brought me. And I honestly don’t know how I would feel if I had got to my forties without having a child.

      • Exactly! So far the Kid seems remarkably grounded and sensible, well, more or less. I just wonder if I would ever have got an urge if the Kid hadn’t got his own ideas about just turning up.

  2. Oh this is a brilliant piece of writing. You are so right that the complexity of women’s lives doesn’t square with the narrow commentary of the go-getting careerist: I love that sentence, I wish I’d written it. It sums things up: I would be a prime example of it. ‘Career’ had nothing to do with my own strange trajectory of trying to have kids in my late 30s (exactly at that code-red age – 37 – that we are warned against), and not being able to have them, then washing up in my 40s wondering what my excuse was, and whether I regret not trying harder, or whether I’m glad I didn’t. My crappy admin job, that I haven’t moved from because of the weird funk the infertility put me in, certainly cannot claim any responsibility. I’m average, not very ambitious; I want to be lots of things but don’t make enough effort to be them. So yes, complex is the word.
    And on a practical note, they really do do women a huge disservice by suggesting their fertility is always safe with ART: the success rates with egg freezing are still appalling to this day, I believe.

    • So I hear. Like your post on IVF treatment success rates – the parallel world of commerce and deception around fertility is eye-popping. And I so get what you mean about ‘career’ and the impact of dedication to one area of life has on others, which were always gonna be given scant attention. Like success, the word ordinary is beginning to take on a broader meaning. I always think of Dylan Moran’s skit on locked potential – it’s always more palatial in our minds. He advises not to open it – there’s a chance of it containing a dodgy bed with an undernourished cat on it. 🙂

  3. That’s good advice about locked potential. I think lots of people think they should be doing something else, but probably best not to let it corrode you if you can mange that (I tell myself). Yes the whole arena of fertility treatment absolutely flabbergasts me: is it even regulated at all; I think not in ROI.
    It’s funny (and was why I kept it secret at the time) how the whole IVF thing rouses such polemic and for-and-against debate, it’s almost the only area of health where there is free dispensation to hurl abuse and unsolicited, nasty advice: I don’t think obesity dredges up such venom, and can’t think of any others. It’s why I barely told any members of my family, even, knowing that some of them had had that ‘not with my taxes!’ conversation at some stage in the past.
    Interesting, how explosive it can get.

    • Ireland’s a basket case as you’ve probably gathered. For all the slagging the NHS gets, at least they recognise it as valid medical treatment. The costs are heart ache on top of everything else. But, you know, Ireland likes to cherish all the children…strictly on their own terms. Looking forward to reading more from you.

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