Friday 23 August 2019

Katie Byrne: There’s a disconnect between scientific fact and wishful thinking when it comes to fertility

Under fire: Carrie Underwood was criticised for her comments
on having a second child. Photo: Getty Images for CMT
Under fire: Carrie Underwood was criticised for her comments on having a second child. Photo: Getty Images for CMT
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

What do you say to a 35-year-old woman who has yet to have children? Absolutely nothing - if the reaction to Carrie Underwood's recent interview is anything to go by.

The country singer is in hot water over comments she made about having a second child in the latest issue of Redbook.

"I'm 35, so we may have missed our chance to have a big family," she told the magazine. "We always talk about adoption and about doing it when our child or children are a little older," she added.

It didn't take long for the comments to roll in on social media. Some applauded the singer for laying out the cold, hard facts on fertility, while others denounced her opinion as "ridiculous" and "unrealistic".

The so-called biological clock has always been a touchy subject but this debate was something else entirely. Women weren't splitting hairs on the chances of getting pregnant after a certain age. No, they were up in arms over media scaremongering and the pressure that society piles on childless women the moment they turn 35.

More and more women are choosing to have children later in life, which has led to a fast-growing cohort of people who are questioning conventional wisdom.

They don't like the panic that the term 'biological clock' evokes (or the fact that it was coined by a male journalist). They don't like sensationalist sound bites about fertility "falling off a cliff". They especially don't like the idea that infertility only affects women. Men's fertility dwindles with age too, after all.

The well-trodden stereotype about older parents becoming a burden to their child as they grow up is another bête noire for the later-in-life parent. Life expectancy has dramatically increased, they rationalise, and it's ageist to suggest that an older parent is inherently incapable.

A shift is occurring and even Mick Jagger, the poster boy for later-in-life parenting, has been let off the hook. Earlier this year, his bandmate Keith Richards apologised for suggesting that the 73-year-old frontman should have a vasectomy during an interview with The Wall Street Journal magazine. "Those poor kids!" he said of Mick's children.

From body-shaming to slut-shaming, we're starting to pay closer attention to the subtle forms of discrimination that pervade modern society. And it looks like 'fertility-shaming' is about to be added to the mix.

Indeed, it probably won't be long before the term 'biological clock' goes through the euphemism treadmill, and the word 'childless' is replaced with the considerably more PC 'child-free'.

As for the people who tell their older friends to "get a move on"? Their days are numbered.

The increasing awareness around fertility-shaming is progressive, but it's equally important that we don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Sure, women don't like the media peddling fear (special mention to the Netherlands research that says women who want at least three children should start trying for a baby by the age of 23) but they don't like the media peddling hope either.

Like it or not, fertility declines at a more accelerated pace after the age of 35, which is why the medical community describes these mothers as 'high-risk', or worse, 'geriatric'.

And while older women are reminded of their many options, they ought to remember that IVF is physically and emotionally debilitating, egg freezing isn't the 'insurance policy' that it has been marketed as, and adoption has an age cut-off.

The celebrity effect has to be considered too. Nicole Kidman gave birth to her first biological child at 41, Halle Berry gave birth to her second child at 46 and, sure, look at Rachel Weisz! Later-in-life pregnancy is the new normal in Hollywood. However, we don't always know if these pregnancies are naturally conceived or medically assisted. Therefore, we don't know if we can get away with deferring pregnancy too.

A recent study published in the journal Human Fertility found that less than half of Australian college students know when a woman's fertility declines, while less than one in five know when a man's fertility declines.

What's especially interesting about this research is that 90pc of the participants said they were interested in having children some day.

It just goes to show that there is a striking disconnect between scientific fact and wishful thinking when it comes to the subject of fertility.

And while it's clear that women don't respond to fertility scaremongering - or anything that compares their ovarian reserve to a 'cliff edge' - they can't go on closing their eyes and hoping for the best either.

Irish Independent

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