A “top NHS chief” has become the latest person to warn against waiting until your 30s to have children but Prof Geeta Nargund has gone a step further by calling on the government to teach teenagers about the dangers of delaying parenthood.
According to news reports at the weekend, the consultant gynaecologist wrote a “strongly worded” letter to education secretary Nicky Morgan stating that fertility lessons should be included in the national curriculum.
She appears to be motivated by witnessing the “agony” of older women who are unable to have children along with the “spiralling cost to the tax payer” of expensive and often unsuccessful IVF treatments, according to one report.
Her advice is that women should start trying for a baby before they reach 30 because their chances of getting pregnant start to dwindle as they age – a fact which she seems to suggest comes as a surprise to many.
I am sure witnessing the undoubted heartbreak and devastation of women who want to but are unable to have children in their 30s and 40s is hard for her to see day in and day out but I do wonder whether she, and the others who have waded into this debate, are missing the bigger picture here.
When I think back to when I was 15, and 21 seemed ancient, I wonder what someone telling me that my biological clock was already ticking would have done? While I am sure it would be taught in a sensible way, as a teenager I had the ability of only hearing certain bits. The headline, mainly. What if I took from it was that if I wanted children, I needed to get pregnant? And fast.
Haven’t we spent many years and lots of money trying to curb the rates of teenage pregnancy? According to a different story earlier this year, a study by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) has found that “rates of conception for under 18s in England and Wales are at their lowest rate since 1969”. Finally. That doesn’t mean we can be complacent.
Meeting the right person.
I was 35 when I got pregnant the first time and, after two losses, 37 when I had a healthy baby. It wasn’t so much a choice to wait until I was in my 30s to try for children but more a necessity – I didn’t meet the man who would become my husband until then.
What difference would it have made if I had been told as a teenager that I needed to get on and have children before I was 30? Would I have, in something of a panic, simply settled on someone I knew, deep down, probably wasn’t right for me simply so I could have a child?
It also seems assumed that people are putting off having children in favour of a career – and isn’t being able to go to university, be successful and, if we are lucky, have a job we love something we have also rightly promoted? In my opinion, it shouldn’t be an either or situation. What is needed is not extra sex education but work further down the line to encourage a more flexible working environment where women can take a career break without being penalised.
Of course, even that wouldn’t have made a difference to me. In my case, I spent my 20s working long and often unsociable hours but I still managed to date. The problem was, I couldn’t see myself having children with any of them.
Anyone who thinks IVF is an easy option should read some of the blogs of those undergoing what is often painful – physically and mentally – treatment. And yet often it is portrayed as the answer to our prayers. Perhaps if more honest accounts of what undergoing IVF is like were mainstream rather than just the success stories, it might also help?
We are not stupid.
There are also many reasons why women wait. Illness, for example. We should also remember that just because you are young doesn’t necessarily guarantee you can have children. However, in my case it wasn’t like I was unaware of the fact that I might find it harder to conceive, how could I be? The message that our fertility fades – and the problems in pregnancy increase – as we get older is not new. Aside from it regularly appearing in the media, I was often reminded by, hopefully well-meaning relatives and even women at the bus stop, that I needed to get a move on or it would be too late.
And it almost was.
After my losses, at one point it seemed like we wouldn’t be able to have children and it was, as Prof Nargund, said “agony” but how could I have wished I’d got down to it sooner when I didn’t know my husband – the only man I wanted to raise a child with – then? I remember thinking at the time that I wouldn’t have done anything differently, I wouldn’t have given up any of the experiences I had over the years because those are what would make me a better mum.
Not that I am saying older mums are better. I know some fabulous teenage mums, who are now becoming grandmothers just as I have started my parenting journey. I often, after yet another sleepless night, lament the fact that I am not younger but I think long-term sleep deprivation would take its toll even if I was 25. I believe, no matter what your age, we all have the potential to be a good or bad parent (or somewhere in the middle which is possibly what many of us feel we achieve on a daily basis).
So what to do?
I don’t doubt that what Prof Nargund says is true, the inability to have biological children when you desperately want one is heartbreaking – and that’s an understatement – but I don’t believe fertility lessons in schools are the answer.
What do you think? Should it be included in the national curriculum?