The Frog Pyjamas

Two mums, one blog, two takes on parenting

Feminism and fertility: The IVF perspective

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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.

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6 thoughts on “Feminism and fertility: The IVF perspective

  1. Moved me to tears but then I am biased as autnie of said little miracle! As a proud mother of 2 who went through all the infertility testing too and IUI I agree abotu the pain and confusion and uncertainty. I was luckier with the NHS, but so often it’s unfair. My daughter is 3 1/2 and I’m still not sure what advice I’ll be giving her (at the moment it’s about not walking in roads just to avoid dogs!). Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and keeping this debate alive. We were told we could have it all, but it’s not that simple!

  2. What a beautifully written and insightful article. Thank you for sharing the highs and lows that you went through. What ever each individual parent’s approach to this issue, I feel that openness, communication, love and respect of choices (yours and your child’s) go a long way to bridging the gap between dreams, realities and expectations. Big love to your little miracle – she’s lucky to have such a loving mum. x

  3. This could have been me writing. So glad that you finally got the child you longed for. Our iVF twins are the best thing in my husband’s and my lives. born when I was 40, they were also our most expensive purchase apart from the house – in terms of £ and emotional pain. Do I wish we had started earlier – not sure. Had they been born earlier in our lives they would have been different people. They are who they are because we are who we are and we are who we are because of what we went through and our choices. Beautiful article, thank you for sharing your experiences – you’ve reminded me how lucky I am.

  4. Pingback: How having a daughter has made me more of a feminist | The Frog Pyjamas

  5. I’ve always considered myself a post-feminist. I guess that means different things to different people, but to me it means wanting equal rights and responsibilities for men and women, while recognising that there are certain things over which biology has control and we don’t: there will always be more men than women in the army and more women than men in the nursing profession, which is simply a manifestation of our hormone levels and the behaviour and desires that those hormones engender. But I will absolutely fight for the right for a woman to be in the SAS or a man to be a midwife, as everyone should have equality of choice, even if they don’t wish to exercise it in all circumstances.

    Your post was a perfect embodiment of my post-feminist beliefs: Emily MUST be able to get the best education she possibly can and she MUST be able to pursue any career she wants. But as you say, she has to be made aware from a young age that her biological clock is something she has to consider, should she want kids.

    Hopefully, by the time she is in a position to have kids, we will live in a society where a woman – or, indeed, a man – can step away from their career for a few months/years to have kids and be able to step back into it without having to start again several rungs below where they were before. I’ll keep my fingers crossed!

  6. Thanks for this post!!

    It is amazing how some people continue think about female fertility some mythical thing: as if it is some magic wonderland, where good, relaxed women in touch with their femininity will be allowed to have children but where career-focused, stressed out, ‘desperate’ women will have a hard time…. It’s sexist and condescending and is actually irresponsible if this advice makes someone put off getting a medical opinion and treatment.

    In fact, infertility involves a medical diagnosis, a fact so many people don’t bother thinking about. Relaxing, going on a cruise, stopping ‘trying so hard’ will NOT solve infertility. A cruise does not unblock people’s tubes, or remove endometrial scarring, or make PCOS cysts disappear. Half the time, the issue is with the man, as you mentioned. Most people don’t tell men to ‘just relax’.

    I didn’t meet my husband till late in life. Started trying at 36. Listened to all the uninformed advice that I shouldn’t stress, don’t think about it, just relax. Wasted 2 years. Ended up finally going to see a specialist. Diagnosed with diminished ovarian reserve, failed 4 IVFs. We are now looking at donor eggs.

    As you point out, it doesn’t have to be a crap shoot. We need to be advocating for the medical profession to standardize hormone testing for women to give us scientific information about our fertility so that we can get the information we need to make informed decisions. Doctors should be required to provide regular AMH/AFC/FSH tests to give women information on their ovarian reserve. We could make it every two years after age 25 and an annual test after age 30. These are inexpensive tests and it is only because female fertility is widely mystified and misunderstood that this hasn’t happened yet.

    I’m in Canada but hoping to achieve some of the same goals you’re working on in the UK.

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