“You’re not getting any younger,” mutters your crotchety great aunt. “A woman’s fertility starts to decline at 22,” proclaims a new study. “A-list star shares her fertility nightmare!” shouts the media.
Yet now, amid reports of historically low birthrates in Australia, there’s been a call to teach fertility classes in high schools around the country. Dr Howard Smith, medical director of Westmead Fertility Centre, believes that both men and women (or boys and girls) need to be better educated about “life planning”. “Age is by far the biggest contributor to infertility,” he told The Daily Telegraph this week.
Of course knowledge is power, and men and women alike need to be aware of the realities of reproduction – and our limitations. (Yes we’re working harder and settling down later than ever before, but no, you are not going to get pregnant at 54, like actress/model Brigitte Nielsen.)
But still, you’d have to have been living under an egg-shaped rock to miss the fertility memo.
Like so much of the rhetoric surrounding women and their wombs, the call for high school fertility education falls wide of the mark, minimising the issue to a couple of cringy sex ed classes and a two-digit number (though the jury’s still out on the golden age to conceive: 31? 28? 25?)
Of all the mothers I know, a circle of women traversing age brackets, sexual persuasions and professions, starting a family was not a neatly scheduled appointment, but a rich jumble of life and circumstance. Never did I hear: “My partner and I are working hard so we’ve decided to wait until we’re 40 – and we’ll have IVF as a back-up.” Rather, babies came about when they were lucky enough to find themselves in a loving, committed relationship, when both partners felt ready, and when biology (or assisted reproductive technology) worked in their favour.
As a recent study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynecology revealed, most women who freeze their eggs aren’t doing it to further their career, they’re doing it because they need more time to find a suitable mate – to avoid what’s been dubbed “panic partnering”.
I think I first became aware of my so-called biological clock in my twenties, probably via a bad Katherine Heigl romcom. Had I been taught about it in my teens, would it have made any difference to my life now? Not a smidge. Would it have made me rush to start popping them out with the prince I was seeing in my “prime”? A 25-year-old with a drug conviction and a mum who still did his washing? Thankfully not.
But I’m intrigued to find out how fertility education would be taught in high schools. Tutoring randy teenage boys on how difficult it really is to conceive – “Forget condoms! A girl can actually only fall pregnant a couple of days each month” – seems counterproductive, so the lessons would no doubt fall to the girls. And aren’t they already under enough pressure? School work, social media, not getting pregnant … getting pregnant.
If we (misguidedly) believe our slowing population growth is solely the byproduct of ambitious career women “leaving it too late”, there are myriad ways we could give birthrates a boost: longer maternity and paternity leave, flexible working hours, on-site childcare, equal pay ...
Or, we could look at the role men play in the fertility (or infertility) discussion. Of course there are many exceptions to the rule, but generally speaking, our culture glorifies “the bachelor” (and not the one who hands out roses on Channel Ten, for a change). A bucks party is seen as “the end”, and commitment is something – at least during blokey banter – to be feared. Perhaps if we created a curriculum for men on how to man up and settle down, we’d experience a baby boom.
Here’s the thing: fertility is an unknown quantity. Nobody knows who has it and who doesn’t. Implying that it’s within our control can be damaging and painful for those unable to have a baby – via biology or social circumstance – as well as those who simply don’t want to.
Fertility cannot be taught. Let’s not make it a class for women to pass or fail.