There’s more to being a woman than work. And is it just me, or does anyone else feel like International Women’s Day is a high-speed train that’s missed a very important station?
Yes, I did just say the ‘F’ word. Not very popular in the halls of feminist rhetoric and women’s rights. But there it is, because none of us would be here if fertility wasn’t the elephant in our parents’ bedroom. Moving right along…
My concern is that, for all the talk of women’s liberation into meaningful careers with remuneration on a par with her male counterparts, we’ve forgotten that she has a finite number of eggs with a very particular shelf life. The gargantuan societal shift towards having babies later is costing us dearly. A recent Flinders University study found that many Australians are clueless to female fertility, and overestimate the effectiveness of IVF. Other research by Royal Women’s Hospital, Melbourne University and Victoria’s IVF regulator pointed to a phenomenon of young people delaying having a baby because of “unrealistic expectations” of what they want to achieve beforehand.
“They want to be advanced in their profession, they want to be financially stable, they want to travel, they want to be in a stable relationships,” the paper’s lead author, Eugenie Prior, said.
“Fertility is one of those things that does have finite limits, even with all the medical technology that we have,” Dr Prior said.
Have you paused to consider why the female body reaches its fertile peak in the early to mid 20s and starts to nosedive at 35?
Prime fertility, 20-30
Here’s the truth of it. When a woman is aged in her early-20s, her body is primed for motherhood. She is entering her fertile years, a window in her lifetime that means she has around a 25% chance of conceiving naturally each month. She has youth on her side, all the energy in the world to channel into those challenging newborn years, through to the toddler stages when you really do need agility and stamina to keep up. Despite all of that, the messages young women are fed throughout schooling up to this stage encourage her strongly to steer clear of her body’s natural proclivity. The discussion is around her education and career choices, and there is little if any discourse around the timing of motherhood.
We’re not suggesting she give up on education and career. Far from it. We just wish that motherhood/parenthood was explored with as much gusto as safe sex and career choices. It also wouldn’t hurt educating the fact that choosing to start making a family later in life may indeed rob you of that ability altogether. That choosing abortion could mean you never have a baby. Knowledge is power. We just want our young people better equipped to make fully informed life choices.
Your body says: create new life!
Society says: study, establish a career, save money, travel (and have an abortion if you have an ‘accident’).
Waning fertility, 30-35
The window is closing. In Australia, and much of the Western World, this is when couples are STARTING to think about having babies. People in their 30s are more comfy in their careers and finances, and they feel ready to step into the wide unknown savannah of parenthood. There are some serious downsides to delaying parenthood to now. Firstly, while this may be when society has deemed it appropriate for you to “settle down” and make kids, your fertility may have since jumped off the proverbial. Sorry. But the truth often stings. By the age of 35, there is a 15% chance of conceiving naturally each month.
Your body says: quick, quick!
Society says: it’s worth thinking about making a family now… but if you don’t feel that way inclined, freeze your eggs, sperm or some embryos. There’s always IVF.
What fertility? 35-45
There is a growing trend towards having children in this age bracket. In 2016, 23% of birthing mums were aged above 35, up from 21% in 2006. And, granted, fertility can be a fragile thing, affected by so many delicate balances. Some of us (and my heart goes out to you dear people) reach this point having tried for many, many years to fall pregnant. That is so hard. Which is why we need to be well informed of our fertility window and the repercussions of holding off too long.
By the age of 40, a woman’s fertility is about half it was when she was 30, and the quality and quantity of her eggs is on the decline. If dad is in the same age bracket, his sperm quality and quantity also come to bear.
“All good,” you say, “we’ll just do IVF”. Yep, let’s talk about that. Even IVF success is dependent on the age of the mother. Don’t believe me? Most recent data compiled by UNSW’s National Perinatal Epidemiology and Statistics Unit (NPESU) confirms that the success rate of IVF was greatly dependent on the age of the mother. The effectiveness of IVF technology plummets from around 36.9% for fresh cycles (33% for frozen cycles) of women in their 20s, to 9.5% and 18.6%, respectively, for women aged 40-44 (see adjacent graph).
And that’s not taking into account the high financial expense and the physical trauma of the invasive IVF procedures.
It rather puzzles me that we live in a world that values all things natural and holistic. Organic vegetables, seasonal produce, homemade and handmade. We want ethical and sustainable products, chemical-free cleaning products and home births. As non-interventional as possible.
Well, the most natural thing in the world is to listen to the body’s ingrained fertility meter, and plan accordingly. I know that statement will make me very unpopular in many households. Please know this: I am not for a minute suggesting IVF is wrong. My gripe is with our culture, which has carved out a lifestyle norm that’s out of sync with women’s real-time fertility, thus building demand for artificial services like IVF and pregnancy termination.
Louise Johnson from the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority (which regulates IVF in the state) agrees.
“We all read the magazines and newspaper articles about miracle babies, but for many IVF treatment isn’t successful and age is something that IVF treatment will not necessarily cure. We need to educate young people about the limits of fertility.”
Your body says: I’m getting ready to shut up shop here!
Society says: IVF.
This is a lot to take in. And for many, we’ve already made our family choices. Sure, we might have done things differently had we known a thing or two, like the time it would take to fall pregnant, or that we might be that one in six couples who face infertility.
The knowing is key. As a parent of pre-teens, it’s something I’m conscious of speaking about when the time is right. Because I’d be surprised if fertility was even a sub-heading in the national curriculum’s sex education material.
As Australia’s birth rate continues to decline, from 3.45 births per woman in the 1960s to 1.74 births per woman today (according to ABS, 2017), lower than replacement level since the ’70s, we need to ask why. And here are three more questions to mull over:
Do we educate young men and women about the way their body is naturally designed?
Do we tell them that there is a fertility window and if you try to have kids outside of that timeframe, things get much harder?
Do we inform them that delaying children, including via abortion, could limit their chances of ever having a family?
Fertility Fast Facts
- A woman is born with all the eggs she will ever have and, as she ages, so too do her eggs. With time (from age 35), their number and quality reduces significantly.
- Women reach peak fertility in their early to mid- 20s. At this point, they have a 20-25% chance of natural conception.
- By age 35, fertility has dropped to a 15% chance of natural conception.
- By age 40, a woman’s chance of conceiving is about half what it was when she was 30. By 45, she has about a 1% chance of natural conception.
- The average age of mothers giving birth is 30.5 (in 2016), and 29 for first-time mothers.
- 23% of birthing mothers were aged over 35, an increase from 21% in 2006.
- The proportion of birthing mothers aged under 25 decreased from 19% to 14%