Do listen to the interview here on BBC Radio 4 with the excellent Robin Hadley about living without children from a male perspective. We hear so much about what this is like for women, but Robin speaks very eloquently and honestly here about how it feels for him.
A word of warning that the section of the programme immediately before Robin is a mother talking about how much she didn’t enjoy having children – the section with Robin starts at about 7.20 into the programme.
You may be interested in this great blog post from Lesley Pyne about her experiences joining a BBC discussion panel for the 100 Women project to talk about living without children – and wince at the comment she got from one of the other women on the panel. For those of you who aren;t familiar with Lesley, she has become a voice for women who are involuntarily childless and offers support services to those who are coming to terms with living without children. You will find a lot of interesting and inspiring posts on her website!
You may be interested in a weekend workshop to be held in London on the weekend of 7th and 8th of November for people who are childless. Anyone who has experience of fertility problems or unwanted childlessness is welcome. The workshop is run by fertility counsellor Gill Tunstall, and aims to help people to explore their emotions and to open up the possibility of moving on in their life. Women, men and couples are welcome.
You can read more about the workshop on Gill’s website here
Today I went to meet a PhD researcher from the University of London who is keen to talk to women about their experiences of living with involuntary childlessness. Her work is focused on women in midlife who are involuntarily childless, and she is looking for women who meet the following criteria-
Are you a woman, aged between 45 and 55, who wanted to have your own biological child and are no longer trying to have a child?
Are you in a long-term heterosexual relationship with no adopted, step-children or children of a partner from a previous marriage/relationship?
There are some other criteria for the research which researcher Megumi Fieldsend will discuss if you might be willing to share your experiences confidentially. She is conducting face-to-face studies with the women who are willing to take part, and this will involve between an hour and an hour and a half which will be spent talking about your thoughts, feelings and experiences. All information will be kept confidential and anonymous.
The research aims to provide information to help other people who have been through similar experiences in midlife. It will also add to the psychological understanding about what life means for people living with involuntary childlessness.
If you are interested in taking part, you can email Megumi, who is studying at Birkbeck, at email@example.com for more information.
I’ve just been watching this really interesting documentary by Al-Jazeera journalist Amanda Burrell who is trying to decide whether to freeze her eggs as she approaches her forty-third birthday. It’s a fascinating look at egg freezing through the eyes of a childless woman who is wondering whether she really wants to be a mother, and whether she should consider freezing her eggs.
We are often told that women know all too well about the biological clock and that we don’t need to keep reminding them – and yet the huge gaps in Amanda Burrell’s knowledge show that the message is still not really getting across. Of course, she was aware that female fertility declined with age – but she had little idea of the reality of what happens in your late thirties and early forties. She is delighted when a doctor tells her that her ovarian reserve is better than might be expected for her age, but appears to quickly gloss over what he also explains to her – that this doesn’t guarantee the quality of her eggs.
Freezing is discussed as an “insurance”, but even with a good ovarian reserve, freezing your eggs at 43 is going to be a pretty huge gamble. Amanda gradually becomes more aware of this, but what isn’t ever fully explored is the fact that even with good quality frozen eggs you are still at the start of a journey as anyone with experience of fertility treatment will know. Eggs have to fertilise, embryos have to implant – neither of which can be guaranteed – and when you are using eggs produced at the age of 43, your chances of having a miscarriage even if you did get pregnant are high.
I have a new-found respect for TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp for speaking out about fertility and the biological clock. If you haven’t heard about it, you can read her comments in an interview in the Telegraph here, but to summarise she said she thought we needed to be more honest about the biological clock. She suggested that as we all lived much longer, it was perhaps time to think differently about the order in which we did things and that having children and settling down earlier, and going to university later might be a better way.
Inevitably, she’s come in for a lot of criticism – often from people who haven’t read what she actually said and from those who see her thoughts as some kind of reactionary anti-feminist stance. In fact, what she’s suggesting is far from reactionary or anti-feminist. It’s actually quite radical, and I think she may be right.
She went on to explain herself very clearly in this debate on Newsnight, where she spelled out that she wasn’t just talking about young women thinking differently, but about young men thinking differently too. We may live longer, but the average age of the menopause hasn’t changed and if people want to have families, it’s both men and women who need to think carefully about when they do this.
We don’t want to scare young women, to make them limit their choices or to prevent them achieving their full potential – but doing things in a different order doesn’t have to be limiting. As a society we tend to have rather negative and judgmental views of women who have children very early, but the handful of women I know who had children in their late teens and early twenties have all gone on to have very successful and fulfilling careers – and are getting on with the rest of their lives post-children at a time when many of their contemporaries are finding themselves on the fertility treadmill. Maybe it’s time we did rethink the way we do things?
You may not think Kirstie is right, and of course it isn’t always going to be right to have children earlier for all kinds of reasons – but hats off to her for being brave enough to speak out and raise the issue.
For those who weren’t able to be there, Saturday’s discussion on Fertility Myths at the Women of the World festival at the Southbank Centre for International Women’s Day proved to be a fascinating debate. I was chairing a panel with obstetrician Dr Susan Bewley who is known for her concerns about women leaving it later to conceive, Zita West who runs a very popular and successful fertility clinic in Central London, Jody Day founder of Gateway Women which supports those who are childless by circumstance and Jessica Hepburn who wrote a powerful memoir about her experiences of fertility treatment.
Each of the speakers began by giving their own brief introduction, and we then launched into a discussion about fertility myths. The key theme which we returned to time and time again during the discussion was age, and how so many women are still under the misapprehension that IVF offers a solution to age-related infertility. Susan Bewley spelled out some key facts about women’s fertility which many of the audience weren’t aware of – the alarming increase in the miscarriage rate once women are in their forties, and the fact that we stop being fertile up to ten years before the menopause itself. She explained that although the age at which women’s periods start has got younger as we are stronger and healthier, the average age at menopause has remained firmly stuck at 51.
There were some really interesting questions and comments from the audience, and a lively discussion about why women were leaving it later to have children and how to address this. As a generation encouraged to delay motherhood, to work hard and have careers, many women who are now in their late 30s and early 40s are finding that following a male career pattern of establishing your position before thinking about starting a family doesn’t fit with a female reproductive pattern – but how we begin to change this is a real challenge. Why do so many women find it hard to meet the right partner to have children with? Do we think too much about potential obstacles before we have children? Are men enjoying the chance to delay fatherhood at the expense of women’s fertility? Is teenage pregnancy really such a bad thing? Are we guilty of glorifying motherhood?
Thanks to the brilliant panel and the audience too. In conclusion, it’s clear we can’t change the female biological clock, and perhaps we need to start thinking about how we change society and our own attitudes – your thoughts or suggestions are welcome!
If you’re in London this weekend, you may want to come along to the Women of the World festival at the Southbank Centre, where I’ll be chairing a session discussing fertility myths with a fascinating panel – there’s obstetrician Dr Susan Bewley who is known for her concerns about women leaving it later to conceive, there’s Zita West who runs a very popular and successful fertility clinic in Central London, there’s Jody Day founder of Gateway Women which supports those who are childless by circumstance and Jessica Hepburn who wrote a powerful memoir about her experiences of fertility treatment.
It promises to be a fascinating debate – and I hope you may be able to join us at lunchtime on Saturday – details here
BBC Woman’s Hour are looking to talk to someone who has had unsuccessful IVF and is no longer pursuing further treatment. This is an urgent request – if you would be willing to talk to them it can be done without using your name, or just with a first name. To find out what would be involved, you can contact Kate at firstname.lastname@example.org
You may have heard about the forum organised in New York last month for women struggling to conceive who had experienced unsuccessful IVF. It is an important subject because it is so often ignored but looking at a review of the forum this morning, I was interested to read about an apparent “Generation IVF” of women who “were raised to believe that science can surpass Mother Nature in the tricky dance of conception”.
I know there are women who will leave it until they are approaching 40 to try to get pregnant and hope that fertility treatment will help if they’re too late – but I think most women in this situation are there by circumstance rather than by the assumption that IVF offers miracle solutions to reproductive ageing. I wonder whether the situation is slightly different in the US where the marketing of fertility treatments does seem to be more aggressive and where there is not the same regulation around clinics and the reporting of success rates.
Here, the HFEA publishes the IVF success rates for each age group nationally, and for each clinic – and so it is quite clear to anyone considering IVF that the success rates for a woman of 43-44 are 5% and for a woman of over 45 drop to just 2%. The age cut-off for treatment in the NICE guideline also sends a message that IVF is not advised for women who are over the age of 42, and would only be suggested for women aged 40 – 42 who still have a good ovarian reserve. For women in this age bracket the national success rate is 14%.
So what does drive women who are given very low odds of success to try IVF over and over again? The report says that the women at the forum talked about the pressure to keep trying even when the odds were very low, but where does that pressure come from? Should we blame clinics for agreeing to treat women who have a low chance of success? Or the media for hyped headlines about how fertility treatment can work and stories about celebrities who have had babies in their forties? Or is it something more fundamental to do with human instinct and the desire to reproduce?
Interestingly, the report says that the women of this Generation IVF have grown up with “the reproductive freedom to delay pregnancy” as if this is a given. Of course, women are free to prevent pregnancy, but they certainly don’t have the freedom to confidently delay it. I have never come across a fertility expert who would suggest that fertility treatment gives women the freedom to delay pregnancy either. Education is obviously key here – we need to work harder to get the message across that IVF cannot turn back the biological clock – but can we lay the blame for hope against the odds at any one door? I’d be interested in your thoughts..