Why is fertility just women's problem?

Why is fertility just women's problem?


Why is fertility just women's problem?

Sex education. We’re all for sex education in this house. The earlier the better; nothing too portentous; as and when the subject comes up.

“Why has the dog got nipples? Why is he mounting his sister?” That’s the easy peasy stuff (God made him that way, darling, the mucky pup). It can also be a little bit more technical — but to be honest, I try not to let it. “How do babies get out? How do babies get in? Why do boys have willies?” My standard response to any question is usually a serious nod followed by, “Ah, you see, it’s all about the birth canal…”, which sounds both satisfactorily scientific and suitably dull.

Daddy used to try and explain (surprisingly hesitantly for a man who can recite the name and reign of very Roman Emperor since Augustus), but now he leaves it to me: “Well, they are girls, after all.” He has a point and I’m not sure the “I, Claudius” stuff will be relevant — and, on a domestic level, that sort of crassly sexist delineation works as long as he takes the bins out on a Tuesday morning.

Anyway, I’ve always visualised sex conversations as enormous oxbow lakes that meander on and probably won’t return for weeks, maybe years. The elder one, who is now 14, once asked me if sex was enjoyable. “Not with your father,” I quipped. No, I didn’t, of course I didn’t. What I said was: “Yes, it is enjoyable, but sex can also be not at all enjoyable. It’s like going to cinema: would you rather go with someone you know and like, or someone you’ve just met in the queue? Who might eat all the Pic ‘n’ Mix and leave before the lights go up so you have nobody to chat to about the movie?

Because if you go with a friend, even if the film is a bit rubbish, you can have a right old laugh about it afterwards.”

Genius, huh? Feel free to use it and mention my name, because I am seriously considering putting myself forward as the National Curriculum Sex Tsar.

Especially since Professor Adam Balen, chairman of the British Fertility Society and professor of reproductive medicine at Leeds University, announced that he would like nine-year-old girls to be taught about their fertility window. And, take it from me, he’s not talking about the pots of watercress and parsley growing in the classroom. He actually means informing them how to stay healthy to maximise their chances of pregnancy, before it’s too late. Having dealt with a great many women who desperately try to conceive in their late thirties and early forties, he has more reason than most to despair about the modern disconnect between age and stage.

Just the girls

We live in such an appearance-obsessed culture than youthfulness is equated with being young. A woman might not look 38, but as sure as eggs are eggs, her supply is dwindling and diminishing in quality, year by year. There’s a myth that you’re fine to hold back until you reach 35, which is just that — a myth. Professor Adam — and he ought to know — says that fertility declines from the age of 28 or so. I’m all for correcting that misconception. But why just tell girls? It’s outrageous to think that boys might not be
included in this very important debate.

One very striking reason why a generation of women are “leaving it too late” is because their boyfriends and partners aren’t ready to man up and settle down. I know a good handful of women who have spent years trying to persuade their reluctant menfolk to start a family.

Why does nobody want to impress upon nine-year-old boys that they too have a fertility window? That sperm counts have plunged by more than half over the past 50 years, that in the foreseeable future one in five men will suffer fertility problems, and that the quality of sperm also declines with age?

It enrages me that we have gone full circle in placing responsibility for reproduction on women alone. Also recently we have seen women being urged to “ditch the ovulation timetable” when they are trying to get pregnant, because it gives men performance anxiety. He may well be right; in fact, he probably is. There are fewer more emasculating sights than a beady-eyed alpha female brandishing a thermometer and pulling back the sheet.

But his words can also be construed as a get-out clause for men, who want children in theory but, after the novelty wears off, aren’t so keen on the practice. Babies are a joint enterprise and young men must be educated to understand that, biologically speaking, it’s also in their best interests to have children earlier rather than later: the risk of a child having autism increases with a father’s age.

There are a great many other pressures on most young couples these days: stressful jobs, long hours, daunting childcare costs, unaffordable housing. Filing fertility under the rubric “well, they are girls after all” creates division and disharmony and will not do. Fertility concerns should be shared by partners for the sake of fairness and equality.