There has been heated debate in the last week about Professor Geeta Nargund's leaked email to the Education Secretary calling for fertility education in schools, with accusations of scaremongering and arguments about fertility statistics. Some women feel they are having the call to breed shoved down their throats on a daily basis and that the result is the ideal fertility window has essentially been reduced to just a couple of years between 28 and 30. Certainly that's the case if you combine it with the advice of many of our mothers not to settle down before our late twenties. In the last nine years that I have been running a fertility clinic I have met about 1000 women who are trying to conceive. I can honestly say that fewer than 20 of them made a conscious decision to delay pregnancy - the vast majority were in a very similar position to me.
I met a lovely chap at university and amazingly we stayed together for six whole years after that, surviving for a good while after our first jobs took us to different parts of the country. I thought he was The One. We talked in a dim and distant way about marriage and kids, and we were sincere, but it would no more have occurred to us to actually get married and have a baby at the age of 25 than book a one way ticket to Mars. In the 70's and 80's it was drummed into me constantly by my mother, "wait until you're 30 before you even think of having babies". She had had three by the age of 29 and she knew how hard that had been. She wanted me to have a career and, above all, independence, and everyone thought at the time that we could have it all. Declining fertility wasn't mentioned - ever.
Unfortunately, during the long distance phase University Boyfriend met someone else and there followed 3 years of frog kissing. I met a good contender at 29 and we stuck it for 3 years, with me regularly and surreptitiously surfing the HR pages on my company's intranet, calculating maternity benefits. But his heart wasn't in it and at the grand old age of 33, I found myself back on the starting blocks.
I definitely felt panic. My younger sister had beaten me to it and had a baby by this stage - I couldn't believe I would ever be able to meet Mr Right, let alone have it all come together 'in time'. It caused me real anguish. A year later, however, I met my husband at a mutual friend's wedding and it was love at first sight, whatever that means. It's not that I was a raging impregnate-me-now-harpie, but I made no bones about the fact that I wanted a family and I certainly encouraged him not to waste my time.
Luckily he felt the same way - 18 months later we were married and I was pregnant with twins two months after that. A good friend counselled us just before the wedding, please don't get pregnant straight away - get to know each other, be a couple for a while, build resilience. She knew how stressful it is adding a baby into the equation. But by that stage my biological clock was in overdrive. With hindsight I'm glad I didn't wait and would do the same thing again. I consider myself very lucky indeed to have had twins at the age of 36. I now know that they were probably due to the last surge of hormones before my ovaries started a gentle decline towards my 40's. We tried again for a while but I had early miscarriages at 41 and 42 and after that we called it a day.
It's so much harder for young people these days. I bought my first house at the age of 27, a two-up two-down in Cambridge for £65,000 on a salary of £25k. I would have been relatively well set up if pregnancy had happened. Imagine being able to get your first home so easily now! It's not about haranguing young women to get on and breed earlier – what actual difference can that make when these decisions are so much more complex than scheduling a baby into your Google calendar?
It is about giving young women and men all the accurate information so that their long term choices are more informed. More subtle than that, I believe it's about creating an atmosphere where starting a family earlier is seen as sensible and understandable in the great scheme of things rather than rash and precocious. I don't know whether I would have made different decisions if we'd known then what we know about fertility. But I think if there had been more of a climate of acceptance about starting a family in our 20's I might well have done. Hardly anyone I knew had babies in their twenties - you really had to be quite a renegade to do it.
I don't have daughters and I’m certainly no Kirstie Allsopp. But to my sons I will be saying, "when you find a good woman and she thinks it's time to have a baby, listen to her. If she's The One, don't run screaming for the hills in a panic". I will be encouraging them to think that starting a family is every bit one of life's great adventures as much as flinging themselves off a bridge on a bungee rope. Victoria Falls will still be there when they're 45.
On the other hand, we may have to accept that despite the fact that we want our daughters to do things differently, the rubicon has been crossed in terms of what women want and expect for their lives. And it is pretty tricky to get a decent education and a career well enough established before you're 30, without adding in the complication of finding the right man. We end up saying to women yes, concentrate on career and money between 20 and 30 if you're sensible, and then, oh quick, get pregnant in a tiny window before you hit about 32/33 otherwise it's going to be really hard! All this means that education about fertility and contraception and good healthy lifestyle choices in youth is a no-brainer. It has to be better to know what you're up against.
Nargund’s subsequent letter to the Guardian in response to all the furore (and her interview today on Woman’s Hour) actually sums it up better than the original piece:
“I am not in the business of proscribing life choices to anyone. The myriad circumstances of individuals and families who seek to start a family make nonsense of the idea that one size (or age) will ever fit all. What I absolutely do stand for is the power of education and knowledge. With accurate data on fertility, women can make informed choices at every stage of their life and career.Women do not wish to be fobbed off with lies and half-truths. The only way they can make educated choices is to be educated.”
Professor Dr Geeta Nargund