Thursday 18 July 2019

'People might say maybe there's a price to pay for being a career girl' - Dearbhail McDonald on Ireland's 'baby bust'

Dearbhail McDonald says Ireland is facing a baby bust and it's time to wake up and take action, writes Niamh Horan

DEARBHAIL McDONALD: ‘Whether or not you have kids, or are male or female, everyone goes on a fertility journey. Physiological and psychological. Nobody escapes.’
DEARBHAIL McDONALD: ‘Whether or not you have kids, or are male or female, everyone goes on a fertility journey. Physiological and psychological. Nobody escapes.’
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

Most women have been on the receiving end of an unsolicited comment or piece of advice about their fertility and prospects of motherhood.

As Dearbhail McDonald, INM group business editor and the journalist behind new documentary Fertility Shock, says: "It's a very Irish thing to ask a woman if there is 'any sign?"

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"In the olden days, a couple would have barely returned from honeymoon when they would have people harassing and chasing them."

Having undergone her own personal journey, she says: "I am very, very sensitive. I would never ever ask about anybody's fertility or pregnancy expectations."

Dearbhail, who has risen to the top of her profession without marriage or children, describes how the warnings were dished out to her: "Over time, people might say 'oh well there is a price to pay for being a career girl'."

Now in her 40s, she made the difficult decision to have her eggs frozen while she was still in her 30s - and she has now made a documentary about how Ireland is facing into a ''baby bust''.

As Dearbhail explains, fewer babies means fewer people of working age to support the bulge of a rapidly ageing population.

Sitting in the afternoon sunshine in Dublin Grand Canal Dock, she says the documentary is a "call to action", before warning that falling birth rates will have huge implications on our social welfare system.

But the truth is most people don't connect with talk of GDP or future economic doomsday scenarios, they identify with the human story.

And, although Dearbhail is reluctant to speak of her own experience, she understands that it will help to start the conversation.

She was in her 30s when she decided to freeze her eggs. Reflecting on the ''career girl'' comment, she says: "You didn't want to heed [the warnings] because you had come through a fantastic education system, you have your independence, you're striking out into the world and maybe part of you doesn't want to be reminded."

Asked how she felt when she heard the remark, she says: "I suppose my attitude has changed over time because the reality is we do have biological clocks."

She reflects on her personal choices: "You do ask questions. You do say 'well, would I be at this level if I did have children?' 'Would I be able to sustain the pace of this career?' Did I not have children because I was working 70 hours a week?'"

In the end, she says: "Career was not the reason I decided to freeze my eggs. And it wasn't seeing friends and family have children - although that makes you confront your own fertility every time that happens." But when a number of friends were diagnosed with cancer - which impacted their fertility - she decided to make a practical plan.

"I tried to have a conversation with my 50 or 55-year-old self and ask 'what would she say to that young woman?' and all I wanted to do was say 'well, I did something when I could'."

She acknowledges she was very lucky to have financial resources. "It's expensive," she says. How much? "Thousands, thousands…" she replies, "you can pay up to €10,000."

She sees me balk and laughs: "I know - I didn't change the car that year."

Asked about the moment her biological clock began loudly ticking, she says: "Playing violin at endless weddings."

"It's a bit like when someone passes away and it makes you confront your own mortality. Every time someone gets [married] and I play violin - I have played at countless weddings and events - I have been confronted with these big matters of life and death probably more than most."

She says: "My friend and I used to have a little bit of a joke as we saw our friends getting married and having families one by one. We used to joke and say 'every time it happens, a little piece of you dies'. And then we would kind of laugh it out."

As part of the documentary she was told "in very stark terms" her chances of successful egg freezing and conception. In Denmark, a doctor said: "Let me tell you about the value of your insurance policy. It's five per cent."

She was adamant to continue with the process, however: "It was still a gamble I was willing to take."

The journey to the clinic in Britain each day was difficult.

Were there tears?

"There were. St Paul's Cathedral in London became my little place of solace that I went to every day. You're having drugs on a daily basis and it's a really, really intense journey."

She says: "It can be a lonely journey even though I had the most amazing support.

"I remember one day having a little cry and laughing absurdly afterwards and realising it was St Valentine's Day... Here I was going through this incredibly emotional journey and just wanting a hug and then realising [what day it was]. I just thought 'this is crazy'."

Far from fertility being a woman's only issue, she says: "Whether or not you have kids, or are male or female, everyone goes on a fertility journey. Physiological and psychological. Nobody escapes having to think about it."

Her most shocking finding in the hour-long special was discovering the reality of the crisis facing men's biological clocks.

She says: "Male sperm counts have declined in Western countries by almost 60pc in 40 years." She recalls how, while interviewing teenage revellers at Electric Picnic, she found "some of the younger men were looking at celebrity dads like Mick Jagger and actually not thinking that this could be a problem for them".

"[They] had a blind faith in technology - and more or less thought there would be 'an app for that' by the time they came of age."

She wants her story to be a forewarning for other women who think they have all the time in the world.

"Maybe I am the ghost of future for a lot of young women in their late teens and early 20s.

"When you are that age you never imagine that you are going to be the age you are now. The message for them is to really, really be aware of this."

Now that she has taken the initial steps, she says she is examining her options: "I am 41 now so I am still on my journey and I know I have some big decisions to make in the next couple of years."

Can she see herself becoming a solo mum, forgoing the necessity for a male partner?

"I am not ruling it in or out," she says. "I think that the reality is that most of us - if we want children - want to do it with someone else." But she adds: "For some, the desire is so, so strong that they will do that and I take my hat off to them."

So is it a possibility?

"That is within the realms of possibility," she replies.

Asked how old is too old to become a mother, she says: "One of the things I have learned from my own experience is that I would never judge another woman or a man for the fertility choices they make."

As for feeling unfulfilled if she never becomes a mother, she says having a child would simply be "a bonus to an already fulfilled life".

"I don't feel a lack or that my life isn't worthy because I don't have that. I think for so long women have been judged for so many things - whether they have children or not or whether they have a career or not - and sometimes women can be the harshest critics of ourselves. We can be sometimes quick to judge each other about the decisions we make.

"Because I've been through this process and I have encountered those [assumptions] I think it's a poor reflection on society if we value people less based on whether or not they have had children. We all need to be mindful that perhaps the reason someone didn't was not because of some selfish choice but maybe some deeply personal and painful reasons of their own."

'Fertility Shock', Monday, March 11, 9.35pm, RTE One.

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