In news no one needed to be taught today it was revealed that women at Murray Edward’s College at Cambridge University will be told they should start to plan for children by their mid-thirties or risk ending up childless. The fertility seminars, which will be taught alongside classes on consent and sexual harassment, have been bought in by Dorothy Byrne, the new president of the college. Bryne has said she wants to “empower” female students – she herself had her daughter as a single parent aged 45.
It is hard to imagine though, that having paid thousands of pounds to embark upon an education at one of the most prestigious universities in the country, that you would feel empowered by being reduced to a potential baby making machine before your first semester was out. And even harder still to think that these classes would be needed, because to suggest that there may be women who would benefit from this information, is to suggest that they are women who have lived in a societal vacuum for their whole lives.
At 33, I can’t think of a single moment in my adult life where I haven’t been aware that I may end up childless. Despite not knowing if children are something I want, I am reminded on a nearly daily basis. I am reminded by curious friends and by nosy family members – both close and distant – by co-workers, by dates and even relative strangers. If I had a pound for every time I’ve been asked, ‘Do you want children?,’ or, ‘Don’t you worry you might leave it too late?,’ I’d save them up and move to a remote island to avoid being questioned again.
As women we are reduced to the sum of our wombs from the second we exit our mother’s. And in the small slithers of time where the pressure doesn’t come from the outside, I have been conditioned to bring it upon myself. Potential childlessness is something I’m aware of every time someone makes a pregnancy announcement or I see the small features of a swaddled newborn staring back at me on Instagram. I’m aware of it when my best friend’s 18-month-old son slides his sticky little hand into mine and I wonder if I’ll ever have that feeling with my own child. I’m aware when a bouncing three-year-old smiles at me on the bus and I smile back, wondering if the parents notice the flash of melancholy that drifts across my face at the thought that it might never be me.
I’m so painfully aware of the ticking timebomb that is my body clock that I’m surprised I can’t hear it. Sometimes I’ve actually longed to be past the age where it can happen, just so I don’t have to think about it anymore. But this news isn’t just frustrating for that reason, it’s frustrating because once again it is women – and women alone - who are left to field this pressure. In September it was revealed that the birth-rate in England and Wales had dropped to 1.58, way below the 2.1 needed to sustain the population. But instead of looking at the reasons as to why this might be; low wages, economic instability, lack of sustainable childcare and the fact that having multiple children is known to have a damaging effect on the environment, the fall back is always to pressurise women into having kids.
What’s more, these classes negate the fact that there are many women who can’t have children, many who won’t find the right partner, many who will long for them their whole lives and for whom it will never happen and many who simply don’t want them. Women for all of whom this discourse is extremely damaging.
Byrne said, “Young women are being taught that all they have to do well in school, get a degree, be successful in their career and be beautiful. The thing that is getting lost along the way is that you forget to have a baby, which I nearly did,” and it reading that it makes me wonder if she has actually spoken to any young women lately or even surveyed the shifts that have happened in the 24-years since she had her daughter, shifts which make these classes completely redundant.
I wonder further if she has even thought beyond her own experience into what might be really “empowering” for women. Recently I was walking down the street with my own mother when she said something I never thought I’d hear her say, ‘Recently,” she said, “I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I’ve realised that if I hadn’t have had you, I could have still lived a very happy life.’ They were probably the most powerful words she’d ever said to me, because what I heard in that moment was that it might just be ok, I might just be ok, if I didn’t have children. She wasn’t telling me not to, I wasn’t telling her I definitely wouldn’t, but to believe that without them you can be happy, content, fulfilled and loved, well, that’s just about the most empowering thing in the world.