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.