Fertile ground for change

1 Nov

It’s a familiar scene: a woman in her thirties without children attends a social gathering, and when the topic of conversation turns to babies, eyes turn to her. Has she thought of having them? Is she ‘more of a career woman’? And it’s only a matter of time before the phrase ‘biological clock’ comes up. There’s a common understanding that women’s fertility is time-limited, and that as we age, the chances of conception and childbirth fall. Strangely absent from these discussions are men – sometimes even as they stand there beside the thirtysomething woman…

There’s been a lot of talk again recently about egg freezing (e.g. here and here), the process through which women can have eggs extracted and stored frozen until the conditions are right for her to consider starting a family. Such technology was originally offered to women undergoing cancer treatment which could compromise their fertility, but it is now increasingly available as an intervention for women who wish to freeze eggs as an insurance policy for future childbearing. I wrote last year about the potential downsides of egg freezing being offered as a corporate perk – would it be another way to bend women to the corporate status quo, rather than looking creatively at more flexible working options for all parents in the workforce? The onus for timing of childbearing and achieving ‘work-life balance’ remains primarily a ‘woman’s issue’ in public talk.

But what if men had biological clocks too? What if not only women see their chances of conception decrease with age? These issues are now being addressed as fertility researchers turn their attention to men’s biology. An article in the Washington Post points out that our knowledge of men’s fertility is years behind our knowledge of women’s, and that a growing body of findings is showing that men’s fertility does decline over time. For example, a man over 45 may take five times as long to conceive as men of 25 or less. And although the risks overall are low, older fathers have higher risks of having children with certain health conditions than their younger counterparts. Shouldn’t this be part of our debate on later parenthood? Perhaps more importantly, shouldn’t this knowledge be shared widely so that couples know more about men’s bodies, and women are no longer exclusively burdened with all of the stress to do with ‘windows’ for conceiving, having attained a reasonable standard of living.

It used to be the case that research information on employment and socio-economic group was collected from men, as they were assumed to be the breadwinner determining the socio-economic group of the rest of the household. This meant we knew little about women’s employment. Similarly, in concentrating on women as the key individuals in fertility statistics, we know less about men’s childbearing behaviour, rates of childlessness and fertility trends over time. We’d no longer accept overlooking women’s economic role, so perhaps it’s time to look even more at men’s role in fertility patterns. We might even find out that they can’t have it all…

Back at a gathering of thirtysomethings, when the talk turns to having children, we should include men in the discussion. As two-earner couples are increasingly the norm, with both partners juggling work and family concerns, it’s high time we changed the conversation.

 

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