Get Britain Fertile: another pregnancy-related guilt trip?

Monday, 20 May 2013

Kate Garraway is 'encouraging women to think about their fertility earlier in life after struggling to conceive at 45', and has been photographed made up to look like a pregnant 70-year-old to 'provoke debate' about what we think about when we think of 'older mothers'. She's an ambassador for Get Britain Fertile, a new campaign set to launch next month with a tour of the country, all 'powered by' First Response, the makers of pregnancy tests who, according to their website, 'want to be the first to advise you on getting fertility fit'.

This isn't the first time that some debate we're supposed to be having has turned out to be sponsored by some company with a product to sell. There's been a poll, of course. It's found that seven in ten women feel that having a baby in your 40s is 'too old'. Why the need, then, to have Garraway fronting the whole thing pretending to be a pregnant 70-year-old? As is generally the way, it's done the trick, and I've spotted people from student websites to various feminist blogs and, predictably, Mumsnet, discussing whether or not women need to be told to think about having children at a younger age.

Last year it was reported that the average woman in the UK gives birth to her first child at the age of 30. I’m not sure that there is, as some people seem to think, widespread ignorance about fertility. For every person who hasn’t really thought about the fact that fertility in women declines with age, there are many more that worry about it more with every passing year - even, as readers of these articles about Get Britain Fertile might be surprised to hear - women in their 20s. It seems patronising to assume that 'today's woman' doesn't give a thought to what her ovaries might be up to until it's 'too late'. For many women, I expect that everything else just gets in the way. Time passes by incredibly quickly when you're navigating our way through life's ups and downs. Being 'child-free by circumstance' is a Thing.

Judging from the reactions to the upcoming campaign it looks like encouraging women to have children when at their peak fertility is not the main issue to be addressed – this is backed up by the survey results, which indicated that women put pregnancy on hold due to their financial situation, or because they want to find the right partner. Many women would like to have children in their 20s, but are all too aware of the other pressures they face: finding a job that pays enough or an employer that will be supportive enough if they choose to have a child, for example. Affording childcare (the most expensive childcare in Europe, no less); support from family; actually being in a relationship, or achieving certain relationship milestones – living together, getting married, getting over financial hurdles. If these things stop women from having children when they want them, what are we doing to address it all?

I waited to try for a baby until I felt 'ready'. Yet there were other factors involved too - earning enough money to pay for childcare, and the fact I was keen to get a decent amount of experience in the workplace and off the bottom rung of the career ladder before I contemplated maternity leave. I had The Fear, that without being in the right sort of job first I would be expendable, disrespected, stuck in an unfulfilling job for years. The recession compounded that fear. Just before we made the decision to start trying to conceive, I remember sitting in a pub with Luke, 'calming' large glass of wine in one hand, reeling off a list of baby-related worries as long as my arm. Most of them involved money.

As women, all these ‘problems’ are highlighted to us over and over by the very same newspapers that warn us not to 'leave it too late'. As several women discussing it on Mumsnet posted, as younger women of the 1980s and 1990s, it was impressed upon them that getting pregnant 'young' was to be avoided at all costs – it would tie them down and ruin their lives as well as their careers. No, the ideal as they were sold it was to have everything else in place first: job, house, a good man, life experience, travel. As a teenager and in my early twenties I was the same and it remains a concern for a lot of women I know. By all means have children, we're told, but certain things must be achieved beforehand, the reasoning being that having a baby means you won’t be able to do these things any more.

This may be where we’re going wrong. It’s widely acknowledged that in the UK and the US we have this ‘total motherhood’ approach to parenting that makes women feel guilty and pressured from the moment they get a positive pregnancy test. Everyone who has given birth remembers the knowing remarks of other mothers, telling you that once your child has arrived you won’t have time to do anything any more, you won’t have time to relax, you won’t have time to have fun.

Women are made to feel guilty about sitting reading a magazine while their baby plays independently in the same room, or leaving them to cry for three minutes while they make a sandwich. The message is clear: children mean that life as you’ve known it is over – and that means hobbies, relaxation, and enjoyment. Children mean that you give your all to your child, and if you don’t you’d better feel bad about it. If you don’t want to go back to work you’d better feel bad about giving up on your career or inconveniencing your employer – but if you do, you’d best start beating yourself up about not being there for your child 24/7. Children will put strain on your relationship, your sex life, and your body. They’ll use up all your cash. It's a miserable state of affairs and one that, I think, has been exaggerated to the point that we need to step back and see it for what it is: that yes, children will bring enormous changes to your life and new responsibilities and pressures, but they won't ruin your life.

Is it any wonder that some people feel in a permanent state of not being ‘ready’ for a baby? For those of us who do feel ‘ready’, we have to be careful that we’re the right sort of potential mother. Teenagers, working class women, the poor and women of colour get criticised on a regular basis, while hands are wrung every time a middle class woman is interviewed about having ‘left it too late’. Particularly young women can't possibly feel ready to have children, some people say - yet at the same age they're also told they can't possibly have decided that they definitely don't want children either.

Zita West, pregnancy guru to the stars and another ambassador for Get Britain Fertile, is quoted saying "Women need support at all ages before they conceive", suggesting that the campaign has more of a focus on women preparing their bodies for pregnancy. It's support that should be the overarching theme here. Support, a better deal for women, an end to patronising nonsense that insinuates we don't know our own minds, an outlook on 'starting a family' that actually focuses on men and the part they have to play rather than blaming women at every turn for whatever their newest supposed 'problem' is. Making people feel judged for valid choices they've made about the age at which to have children - or not have children - will never do any good at all.


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