How can it be TABOO to advise girls to plan to be mothers?

How can it be TABOO to advise girls to plan to be mothers? From the head of a Cambridge college who’s come under fire this week, a defiant and personal cri de coeur

  • Dorothy Byrne is the new President of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge
  • She has been blasted for reminding female students not to lost sight of fertility
  • Reveals her drive to speak out comes from her own experience of forgetting  

Over more than 30 years as a television journalist, I have worked on countless controversial programmes; secretly filming MPs, going undercover to expose extremist preachers, examining Tony Blair’s finances.

But this week I caused controversy by saying something which many might imagine was not in the least contentious: that girls and young women should be given more information about fertility.

In my new role as President of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, I wanted to remind female students not to lose sight of their fertility.

This has long been a taboo subject for some — but the vitriolic response on Twitter and in the media took me by surprise. Some called my comments reductive, saying that educated women should not be browbeaten about fertility. Others said there are more important issues to tackle first — maternity rights and childcare, for example. But I stand by my point that it’s perfectly reasonable to emphasise biological truths.

Dorothy Byrne (pictured), who is the President of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, has been blasted for reminding female students not to lose sight of their fertility

It’s my own experiences of very nearly missing out on motherhood that drive me to speak out. It was only when a relationship ended when I was 42 that I realised I’d forgotten to have a baby.

When I started to look into my fertility, I was surprised to discover that if I had embarked on the journey two or three years earlier, I would have had around double the statistical chances of falling pregnant.

Many young women may think they can fall back on IVF, but it’s not the silver bullet everyone seems to think it is — age very much determines success rate.

In 2018, according to the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority (HFEA), birth rates for patients younger than 35 were 31 per cent per embryo transferred, compared to below 5 per cent for patients aged 43 and above when using their own eggs.

I don’t believe that children are essential for happiness and quite a number of my friends never wanted children. But I have several friends who always just assumed they would have children one day and never did for a variety of reasons. Some are fine about it and some are sad. They succeeded in their jobs but feel they missed the joys of parenthood and, as we get older, miss having grandchildren.

All of us older adults should be encouraging young people we know to think not just about educational and professional success, but also about what they feel will make them happy in life. I wish someone had done that for me.

I moved blithely through my 30s and through an exciting career, travelling widely on the investigative ITV programme World In Action, where I became a producer, before being appointed editor of ITV’s The Big Story. I had relationships, but nothing that lasted. My job was all-consuming.

By the time I realised I wanted a child, I had to do it on my own, using a sperm donor. If it didn’t work, maybe I would adopt or foster, but I knew if I didn’t try I would always regret it.

Dorothy said she was lucky to have a baby at almost age 45. Pictured: Dorothy with her young daughter in 1999

I found out that I could have gone to my GP much earlier to have a basic test of my fertility, and that more complex tests were also available. Luckily, my fertility was pretty good for my age but it took two years to become pregnant. I didn’t have to use IVF but I needed expensive drugs to boost my fertility.

Aged nearly 45, I had a baby. And I was lucky — really lucky. By her mid-40s, a woman’s chances of falling pregnant stand at a mere 3 per cent to 4 per cent. I tried briefly to have another child but it was clear I had left it too late.

Of course, most people know the basic fact that fertility deteriorates with age and, indeed, some young women say they get annoyed by being bombarded with ominous warnings about their biological clocks.

However, there is a big difference between general understanding and specific knowledge on which a person can act.

Many don’t realise there is a significant difference between trying to fall pregnant at 38 to 40 and between 41 and 42.

I would never urge anyone to have a test or even suggest it to them. What each person does is up to them and I am not going to start setting myself up as an expert in reproductive health. But giving people the opportunity to have the facts is important.

Young women have told me confidentially that they don’t dare to let their line managers know they are even thinking of having a baby because they are worried they will not be promoted. This is scandalous. Ultimately, society has to change. Employers have to become less prejudiced towards those who leave the workplace for a time to have children and towards those who want to return part-time or work flexibly.

Dorothy (pictured) said employers offering women free egg-freezing are implying that a woman is expected to put her work first 

And it should not be assumed that it will always be a woman who wants to do that. We need a complete overhaul of the laws on maternity and paternity rights.

There are now more women undergraduates than men in this country. Lots of these young women are going on to have successful careers in all walks of life. Sexism still exists in the workplace, but women are succeeding in places where previously men dominated. For example, roughly half of those in charge of colleges at Cambridge University are now women.

Although women in staff jobs have maternity rights, the promotional structure in lots of workplaces counts against those who do. In too many professions, people are expected to make the key advances in their careers in their late 30s and early 40s, the very time when women who want children are worrying that time really is running out.

Some leading employers are offering women free egg-freezing. But this implies that a woman is expected to put her work first. Instead, a good employer should make clear that a woman will not be held back in her career if she takes time off to have children.

And an increasing number of women are freelance.

When I was considering having a baby, I was a freelance editor of a television current affairs programme. The amount of statutory maternity pay I would have received would not have covered my mortgage. I worked out that the only way I could have a baby was to go back to work after six weeks.

The birth rate has fallen from 1.92 children per woman in England and Wales in 2011 to 1.53 this year (file image)

I was lucky that the birth of my daughter was easy, so I was fit and well enough to do so. I could afford a live-in nanny. So, while leaving my daughter each day was a terrible wrench, I could manage physically and financially.

Some days, I missed her so overwhelmingly that I’d ask the nanny to bring her to the office. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

That said, plenty of women I knew in television with less well-paid positions gave up on motherhood entirely. Today, about 10 per cent of British people say they are remaining childless because of the costs and lifestyle changes which would be involved in parenthood.

There is concern that the birth rate has fallen from 1.92 children per woman in England and Wales in 2011 to 1.53 this year. This is not the Soviet Union or communist Romania; it is not the personal duty of young women to populate our islands.

But if the Government wants to encourage women to have children, it needs to do a lot more to help them. It’s wrong that some women feel they have to choose between having children and a successful career. But it’s also important they understand the limits of their biology before they even reach that point.

I would hate for my daughter — or indeed any young woman — to miss out on motherhood through lack of information.

That is why I have always talked to her about fertility. Now 24, she works in television production and has a boyfriend. She is clear she doesn’t want to follow my example and wait until she’s 45 to have a baby.

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