Kirstie Allsopp (finder of houses and a dab hand with a glitter pen and a staple gun) is in the Twittersphere firing line for the advice she would give a daughter, were she to have one: don’t go to university; start work straight after school; stay at home and save up for a deposit [on a house]; find yourself a nice boyfriend and have a baby by the time you’re 27.
Allsopp is known for her blunt and outspoken views, but this is a difficult message in an era of female equality. Among other outraged reactions, a headteacher from Berkshire has deemed her remarks ‘rather patronising‘ to teenagers. But Allsopp qualifies her opinion: “Women are being let down by the system… At the moment, women have 15 years to go to university, get their career on track, try and buy a home and have a baby. That is a hell of a lot to ask someone.”
I can’t speak for Kirstie, or Twitter, or the headteacher from Berkshire. I can however speak as a woman who has benefitted from living in this era of female emancipation. I worked hard at school; I got a good degree from a top university; I have nearly 14 years of successful work experience behind me and, before leaving to go freelance a couple of years ago, I achieved a senior position in my field of choice. Like Kirstie, I am a ‘passionate feminist’ – I think that all people who want men and women to be equal are feminists. I am also a woman who has just survived nearly four years of fertility treatment.
I was lucky enough to meet my partner at university and, with a few blips (we were young!) we have been together ever since, finally tying the knot nearly six years ago. At that point, at just over 30, we both knew we wanted a family but wanted to ‘be married’ for a few years first and in all honestly were having too much fun to want to trade it in for sleepless nights and a hanger on.
After a few years, when we felt we were ready, we started trying for a baby. We felt excited, scared and a bit naughty. I think we thought we were pregnant the first time we tried. In the following first few months, I would say things like “let’s not try this month as I want to be able to drink at my brother’s 40th…” If only I had known. By that time, at nearly 33, we were already a bit late to the party – a good proportion of our friends were already one down and thinking about a second (or third) but it wasn’t until after six or seven months of trying that we sensed something might be wrong.
The three years that followed were the hardest of my life. Our lack of ‘bump’ became all consuming. We stopped drinking alcohol, ate organic, monitored ourselves to within an inch of our lives but still – nothing. We tried to remain positive but suddenly bumps and babies were everywhere. When we moved to ‘assisted fertility’ we were very open with our friends and family which proved to be both a blessing and a curse. Whilst we were grateful for our friends’ concern, the constant “how is it going?” was tough to deal with (“it’s not going very well guys”).
It is only now, four years on, that I realise quite how horrific (and I don’t use that word lightly) the last few years have been. IVF is intense. I put my body through constant physical abuse – the multiple daily injections; the journeys in and out of enforced menopause; the yo-yo emotions; the weight gain and general bat shit craziness. Our strong marriage was tested and tested again, our finances took a battering but worst of all was the indescribable feeling of anguish and loss of hope when yet again a cycle had not worked or a precious embryo that you had loved from the moment it was a speck on a screen in a petri-dish had simply vanished or stopped growing inside me.
I am one of the lucky ones. I delivered a healthy baby girl at Christmas but I have friends who for emotional, physical or just plain financial reasons have had to stop trying and look for a different dream. My friends and I are not alone – the NHS cites that around one in seven couples has trouble conceiving (around 3.5 million people).
I don’t know whether our amazing daughter will be the only child I carry. The likelihood of us being able to extend our family naturally, given our history, is small. We have decided not to pursue IVF again, both for the sake of our marriage and our daughter. I don’t want to be a (single) mess of a mother in the first few years of my daughter’s life for an outcome which is uncertain.
So, where am I going with this? I am overjoyed to have a daughter. There’s still a fair way to go before true equality is reached, but it’s a great time to be a woman. I want my little girl to understand that she can be anything she wants to be, have anything she wants to have and be judged on her talents and intelligence and not on her weight and her looks. But… I will be arming her with knowledge – that, in the absence of major scientific breakthroughs, nature still plays a large part in female fertility. It isn’t fair and it is still one thing that men don’t really have to think about (although many infertility problems are experienced by men too) but for women it does get harder as you get older, and there is a time limit.
Not everyone will have problems and I know many women who have conceived naturally into their 40s. For that I am truly thankful – I would not wish the pain and hopelessness of infertility on anyone. But, just as we don’t know what lies ahead for us in old age, we don’t know what our own unique fertility window is. That being the case, I wish that women could have better access to basic fertility screening in the same way that we are offered screening for different cancers and other illnesses. I wish for earlier intervention (if there is a suspected problem) and help that is not governed by your postcode. Our GP told us we needed to prove that we had had sex every other day for three years before we could be classed as ‘infertile’ and therefore receive basic testing. I want to see greater support and advice for women where there might be a problem or where age might be a factor but where the woman is not ready, hasn’t found the right person or is not financially able to consider a child. All this would allow women to take control of their family-planning decisions based on knowledge.
Some women may not want to be mothers, but many will and any early indicators that it may be a rocky road may help inform the decisions that we make. Do I regret my degree and my climb up the greasy corporate pole? Not a bit, but I would have definitely have made different decisions were I to have known what was ahead of us. For me, having a family would have been more important than that pay rise or that deadline.
So, whilst I may not agree with Kirstie’s generic advice for girls, I believe that she raises an important debate – our girls should be aware that there may be choices to be made for some if they want to have what they want, what they really, really want.
Guest blogger: Nicky
Currently on maternity leave with her first baby having temporarily escaped the world of Broadcast Media. Loves her friends, good food, cuddling her cat and annoying her husband when not pureeing everything in sight.