Sunday 18 March 2018

Katie Byrne: 'Biological clockwork - can we really plan parenthood?'

Features writer Katie Byrne
Features writer Katie Byrne
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

My mother's handyman recently asked me if I'd had any kids yet... and he wasn't taking no for an answer.

"You really should," he said with about as much tact as the hammer he was using to pound a nail into a wall. "You really, really should," he continued, "kids are the reason for everything."

He soon went back to measuring the cornices while I calculated the life expectancy of my eggs. It's hard not to in these situations.

Childless women sometimes take offence when people make presumptions of this manner. I didn't. He's a devoted family man who brings his boys around with him in the van during their school holidays. His children changed his life and he wants everyone else to experience what he did.

Also, he looks like a bear. It's hard to get angry with men who look like bears.

A few months later he was back in the house, but this time his query was rather more urgent. "Have you... er... had any kids yet?" he asked, trying his best to feign casualness.

On this occasion I reminded him that I was single and, no, I hadn't had sex since the last time we spoke. Again, I didn't take offence... even if I became ever so slightly paranoid.

I should have mentioned that this handyman has a superhuman sense of smell. Really. I kid you not.

Could he smell waning fertility like one of those sniffer dogs that detect disease? Is this why he told me that I "had better get a move on"? What does he know that I don't know... ?

My transition from footloose and fancy-free 20-something to biological-clockwatcher happened in about six hours.

It feels like only yesterday that aunts and friends' mothers were telling me to "play the field". Now the advice is more along the lines of "freeze your eggs".

It's as though I've been rehearsing for a play only to be told that the opening night has been brought forward by two months. And the show must go on!

The media warnings urging women not to put their careers ahead of motherhood don't help matters.

Ostensibly these reports are aimed at all women of a certain age. Actually, they are for a very niche market: women who are in loving, financially secure relationships with men/women who want children as much as they do.

If you meet all these milestones, well then you've won the Lottery trifecta.

Unfortunately life isn't always that neat. You can be with the wrong person at the right time and the right person at the wrong time. Likewise, babies come when they're not expected just as they don't come when they are expected.

If medical chiefs strongly believe in this message, then they ought to be delivering it in universities. They seem to forget that motherhood generally starts with finding a partner. The rest happens in baby steps.

Still, I can't help but notice that plenty of women got the message by virtue of their proximity. I always marvel at groups of female friends that marry and give birth to their first children within months of one another. It's as though their ovaries are synchronised by a collective consciousness and their biological clocks come complete with an inbuilt alarm siren.

I didn't hear the alarm - I must have slept through it. My theory is that you either subscribe to the belief that fertility is finite or the belief that youth is finite. Rightly or wrongly, I chose the latter.

Life expectancy in Ireland has increased by 15 years since 1990, and many of us chose to consolidate our 20s and early 30s into a chapter called Freedom. Evolution should really hurry on and give women a proportionate amount of biological leeway.

Yet even if it did, can we engineer the process? We can prioritise finding a partner, yes, but a life partner who wants to have a child as much as you do? It feels like chasing a tricast in the 12:18 at Monmore.

The vast majority of women don't consciously choose career over motherhood. Have you ever tried to finish a report in the first flushes of love? All bets are off! The truth is that work can become a distraction when you can't find the right partner or when you're with the wrong partner. It's only later on that it becomes a barrier.

More to the point, some women (myself included) can't even conceive the idea of having children until we're in love. Love is the evolutionary device that motivates us to procreate and the magic dust that makes night feeds and school fees seem like a wonderful idea.

It's a delicate process, and it happens so incrementally that it seems like folly to think that you can hurry it along or give it a helping hand.

Yes, you can scope out function rooms and nightclubs like a CIA agent protecting the president from assassination. However, you can also follow your passions and trust that what's meant to be is meant to be.

I know which one I'm choosing.

Irish Independent

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