Kirstie Allsopp and her fertility debate

I’ve been watching Kirstie Allsopp’s ‘fertility debate’ on twitter with interest over the past few days.

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In case you’ve missed it, Kirstie thinks we should be very open about what she says is the “fact” that female fertility “falls off a cliff” when women hit 35.

She first dabbled in the murky water of female fertility in the summer when she said she thought it would be better if women had a family first, and went to university later.

“I don’t have a girl, but if I did I’d be saying ‘Darling, do you know what? Don’t go to university. Start work straight after school, stay at home, save up your deposit – I’ll help you, let’s get you into a flat,’” she told the Daily Telegraph back in June. “‘And then we can find you a nice boyfriend and you can have a baby by the time you’re 27.'”

Last week she pointed out that IVF is not a lifestyle choice and that women shouldn’t think they can put off getting pregnant and just have IVF if it doesn’t work out.

“IVF is not a lifestyle choice,” she told Good Housekeeping. “It’s a wonderful medical innovation which helps couples suffering from infertility, but it’s not designed to be done because you are and your husband thought 30 was the new 20.”

As a working mum in her 40s, with young children, I’ve got quite a lot to say about this. So I thought I’d write it all down.

First and foremost, I don’t think this is a debate. I think it’s buying into the myth of the selfish career woman who’s putting off becoming a mother to concentrate on work. I am fortunate enough to be friends with lots of very successful, very clever women, a lot of whom are also mothers. Lawyers, nurses, police officers, teachers, company directors, civil servants. Not one of them consciously ‘put off’ having kids until they hit 30 because they wanted to concentrate on their career. Maybe they put off getting pregnant until they’d met the right partner. Perhaps until they could afford to buy a house. Possibly until they were secure enough in their job that taking maternity leave wouldn’t affect the rest of their career. I’ve got other friends who had children in their 20s, who were equally settled and solvent at that time.
It’s not a debate, it’s about doing what’s right for you at the right time.

I’m also not convinced fertility is as clear cut as it’s claimed. Apparently the accepted wisdom that women are past it at 35 is based on figures from the 1700s.

But Kirstie wants a debate, so let’s discuss what else she’s been saying.
Putting off university until you’ve had your family, is fine. I’m sure it works brilliantly for some people. In fact, many people begin or return to studying later in life. If all women did that though, what would happen?

Firstly, jobs are hard to come by. They’re hard to come by for graduates. They’re even harder for school leavers. Salaries are tight. Wages are topped up by benefits. House prices are through the roof. The rental market is crazy and unpredictable. Some school leavers are lucky and get themselves into a good job, with good prospects, but it’s tough. If you want to broaden your career prospects, you’re better off going to a good university and getting a good degree. Plus, university teaches all sorts of life skills – paying bills, dealing with landlords, time management – that can help throughout your whole life.

Secondly, imagine you’re one of the lucky school leavers with a good job and a partner who’s willing to start a family. You’re 27 and you have a baby. Lovely. Well done. Maybe you have another one. Maybe even one more after that. Perhaps you’re done with babies by the time you’re in your early 30s. Time to go to university? Maybe. If your partner earns enough to cover the mortgage, and the bills, and the childcare you’ll need. Or maybe you’ll wait, until the kids are at secondary school. You’ll be in your 40s then, of course. And it’ll a good 20 years since you studied anything, or wrote an essay, or handed in work. But going back to university will be a breeze, won’t it…?

And imagine the knock-on effect. In a generation or two’s time when there are no female doctors, or lawyers, or teachers, or scientists, or any of the other jobs that require a degree. Because all the women decided not to go to university until they’d brought up their families.

I could go on and on about this. But really all I want to say is Kirstie is aiming her ‘debate’ at the wrong people. I think her heart’s in the right place, but the end result is she’s (inadvertently, perhaps) bashing women – again – for something that’s not necessarily within their control.

Don’t make women feel guilty again about choices they’re making. Instead, why not make those choices a bit easier? Why not campaign for changes to the rental market to make it tenancies more secure and rents in line with wages? How about improving the condition of rented properties? Why not focus your energy on making childcare a realistic, affordable choice for working parents? How about addressing the problem of the soaring house prices, particularly in London, that mean kids leaving school now will probably never be able to own their own homes. Or tackling all the empty houses in Britain that could be turned into homes for young families? Or designing worthwhile training schemes for school leavers that pay them properly, and set them up in a career?

Everyone’s trying to do their best in a difficult world and there are lots of things that could be changed. But making this all about women and their choices without looking at the bigger picture isn’t helpful.

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