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Jun 3 / Caro

Fertility vs. Career: My Two Pence on Kirstie’s Latest Crusade

Like many other parents, I’ve been reading the reactions and debate prompted by the interview with Kirstie Allsopp in yesterday’s Telegraph with great interest. And whilst I neither passionately agreed not disagreed with many of the statements in the piece, I found myself, for the second time in 18 months feeling like she may have slightly missed the point.

To be fair to Kirstie, I’m not sure that these comments were ever supposed to be the focus of the interview, which was initially intended to promote an upcoming craft venture and began by discussing the death of her mother – which carried important messages in itself that have been largely ignored in the media storm that’s followed.

To be fairer still, her appearance on Newsnight, where her opinions were not subject to the direct sweep of an editor’s hand, she was able to clarify that women should “Do what you want, but be aware of the fertility window. Make your choices in an informed way. This has been a taboo topic. People have not discussed it.”

That is a statement that I can wholeheartedly agree with: The idea of informed choice (not so much the part about it not being discussed. Are there really many women who aren’t aware of the finite nature of female fertility?) And that statement contrasted sharply with the slightly prescriptive and didactic tone of her opinions as they were written in the Telegraph article.

You see, I don’t believe that there can be a “one size fits all” approach to when to have children, which was the first thing that struck me on reading it. Her thoughts seemed like a mass over-simplification. It seemed to me that there were too many assumptions being made. Such as the fact that finding a partner – the right partner – to have children with is easy. Many people simply aren’t ready to settle in to a relationship that, if children result from it, will be ongoing to a greater or lesser degree, until they are older and have matured more. Had “life experiences” or “found themselves”, use whatever cliches you will, but I know that I was a very different person at 28 to the one I was at 21.

Kirstie’s pathway also relies on the fact that all women have the kind of support from family that allows them to disregard some of the financial implications of having a family young – such as the cost of housing, whether rented or bought. Sadly that isn’t the case for vast swathes of the population.

And finally, there also seemed to be the massive assumption that starting a career as a thirty-something is any easier than conceiving as a thirty-something. For many people fertility hasn’t yet become as issue in their mid-thirties, and equally some people will establish careers successfully at this stage in their life. But we cannot ignore the fact that society is not set up to accept this “alternative” pathway, and for many women the barriers are huge either way. And this is why I think Kirstie is missing the point. The problem is not simply when women choose to have children. The issue is much bigger than that.

I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who has done exactly what Kirstie seemingly advises against. I spent over six years at University and subsequently established a successful professional career. Then I settled in to a relationship (and got married, though that is slightly beside the point) where I wanted to have children. For me, that urge did not arise until my late twenties, and had nothing to do with my career, and everything to do with simply not wanting children until then. So we bought a house together and then had a baby, at the age of 31. You could say it’s easy for me to disagree with Kirstie based on my circumstances alone.

But I’m not naive, I know that it doesn’t work out that way for everyone. And I’m also writing this from the perspective of someone who is knee-deep in infertility and all the heartache it brings – one of the very things we are supposedly being warned about. We’re the prime example that even if you start well before 35, the unexpected can happen. For us, that was Ian’s fertility “dropping off a cliff” at the age of 32. In short, we’re a prime example of just why a “one size fits all” approach won’t work. And for us, the very fact that I have a good career has allowed us to afford all of the expensive fertility treatment necessary to (attempt to) overcome our problem. (The bill now stands at around fifteen thousand pounds. Infertility is an expensive business.)

I’m both lucky and unlucky. Unlucky that we’ve been hit by infertility in the way that we have but so lucky that I managed to essentially “have it all” initially with both a career and family elements falling in to place. And it really is luck, as much as anything else. For the heart of the matter, the root of the problem, is the reluctance of society as a whole to accept, never mind support, anyone trying to do more than one thing at a time. Women are constantly derided for trying to do it all, warned they are foolish for putting career before family or lambasted for “only” wanting a family, yet often totally unsupported In the workplace if they try to combine both things.

I agree with Kirstie that, in general, fertility is the most immovable obstacle. We can’t overcome the hurdles that nature has placed with any amount of medical science. In an ideal world, it would be the priority. But for that to happen we need a societal shift. What is really missing is the support for women entering careers later in life and an end to pervading ageism. And what we really need is an end to the notion that family and career are mutually exclusive options. We need greater acceptance of flexible working options for both men and women. We need more affordable childcare options. And we need an end to the attitude that work and family can’t co-exist. We need to eradicate the fear – an the opinions and policies that drive it – that women instinctively feel for their careers when they begin to contemplate family.

So yes, I think Kirstie has missed the point. I don’t think the answer is to tell the daughters of our generation to focus on having babies first at the exclusion of all else. Nor do I think we need to remind them that they don’t have all the time in the world in which to have children, because I think that message is already being delivered loud and clear. I think the focus should be on changing the attitudes of all the children of our generation – both male and female – and our own attitudes at the same time. We need more help for everyone to live their life the way that is right for them, without having to make a choice about whether “family” or “career” dictates the way.

Right now, Kirstie’s suggestion might well be the best of all options, but that in itself isn’t good enough.

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4 Comments

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  1. Carie / Jun 4 2014

    I think you’ve put it beautifully. I’m another one who on paper has done quite the opposite to Kirstie’s advice and seemingly has it all, but not without sacrifice that isn’t always so visible. And that’s even before you look at the fact that I was spectacularly lucky both to find my husband and to be able to have my children if not exactly when I wanted to start a family, then not a million miles away. I think my overwhelming feeling about the whole thing is that I don’t have the kind of choices that she advocates, and whilst in an ideal world that shouldn’t be the case, it is what we’ve got to work with!

    • Caro / Jun 4 2014

      Ah, thank you. I wasn’t sure it felt all that beautiful to me! I’m not good at “timely” blogging in reaction to current topics, but obviously wanted to get this written, so I did it whilst also watching the programme about IVF quads and ‘The Secret Life of Babies’, which may have frazzled my brain slightly. I’m glad you understand what I’m getting at though, and that it all feels very “damned if you don’t, damned if you do”. I wish there were better choices for men and women!

  2. Very well put and much better argued than my garbled post along the same lines about Kirstie slightly missing the point! Also a very good point about needing good financial backing for expensive fertility treatment – can’t imagine that being at all possible without having a good career or the time to save the money beforehand.

    • Caro / Jun 4 2014

      I think the assumption that fertility is only an issue for older women irked me a bit. At 34, I’m continually being told by our fertility clinic just how “young” I am! And the decline in fertility isn’t some instant overnight thing either! If you do put everything on hold in order to have a family first, and then struggle to achieve that, I think you’re left with a lot less than if you at least attempt to do a bit of everything. But I recognise my perspective on that is skewed by our current fertility difficulties, and I do know that lots of women don’t really give their fertility the consideration that they perhaps should.

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