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Should I Give Advice To Younger Friends?

At the end of a few years doing battle with infertility I feel old, sad and, dare I say it, a tiny bit wise.  Wisdom is not something you claim for yourself lightly.  But there is something ancient about this yearning, and once you’ve gone head-to-head with this need and lost, it does feel like you’ve made your own tiny discovery about being human. 

I sometimes wonder if I would have done things differently if I had had this knowledge earlier in my life.  And if so, should I be trying to give advice to younger friends?  My starting point is that giving life advice to friends is a bad idea.  Be present, listen, share the good times and the bad.  But giving advice has always looked like a recipe for irritation now, and potentially resentment later.  Life isn’t like baking or making a job application.  There are no simple do’s and don’ts.  It’s different for everyone.

But, but, but.  Does everyone have to learn these lessons the hard way?  As a girl and young woman, no-one was talking to me about my body and what it could and couldn’t do.  Not my family (lovely people, but not over-blessed in the talking-about-difficult-stuff department).  Not friends.  Not school or university teachers.  Just occasionally, a woman’s magazine (bless them for trying!) though their messages were a bit caveated.  I fear bluntness was needed to break through the cast-iron insouciance of a 20-something who felt she had the world at her feet.

And part of me cheers on that insouciant 20-something.  I embarked on independent adulthood feeling I could rely on myself to build the life I wanted.  I felt I was negotiating with life from a position of strength.  I knew I wanted children, and never really doubted it would happen.  That particular bit of insouciance is slightly surprising from a late developer on the relationships front, but such is the power of unreflecting confidence and optimism – it gets everywhere! 

The tragedy for women is that their negotiating power declines with age - quickly after 30, and precipitately in their late 30s.  (That’s if they want children - obviously if they don’t they can happily ignore all this cr*p!)  That feeling of your stock plummeting as a result of nothing more than the passing of a couple of years is brutal, and it is a uniquely female experience.  One minute the game of attraction is exhilarating and equal, the next it feels like a battle for survival.

And the fact it felt like a shock is a bit surprising, because as Ariel Levy said in The Rules Do Not Apply, it’s not as if the research on female fertility is just in.  This is one of the oldest truths.  Almost all women feel the pressure of their biological clock from a young age.  If they’re lucky they just get the pressure from every corner of the media.  If they’re unlucky, they get it from family and friends too.  So it’s shrill panic on one side, and on the other an education system and workplace culture that mean that by the time you’ve made the first few steps into independent adulthood, 30 is rushing towards you and with it a feeling that it’s now or never for getting your baby-making plan in place.

Well, 30 came and went and I lived to tell the tale.  I know the “turning 30 panic” is rubbish.  And maybe as more and more women go for solo motherhood with sperm donation, we’ll start to chip away at the gender power imbalance.  But as one of the unlucky ones, you won’t hear me suggesting that women should relax about their fertility.  I would much rather we – families, schools, universities, media – spent a bit more time talking to young men and young women about the realities of their bodies.  About the fact that many people have children without difficulty, but many don’t.  About miscarriage, about chromosomal disorders, about IVF.  About the fact that everyone’s fertility declines at its own rate (so don’t take comfort from Meghan Markle getting pregnant at 37, much less the famous women in their late 40s who are probably using donor eggs).  The main message I imbibed as a teenager was that pregnancy was the worst fate that could befall a young woman.  That’s not an education that sets anyone up for what’s ahead.  

So do I give advice to my female friends in their mid-late 30s?  Nope.  These are women walking a high wire, acutely conscious that time and nature are against them, trying to be true to themselves while making choices about relationships that they know they will live with for the rest of their lives.  I’m not going to do anything to increase the pressure they’re under.  But I do think we can do better to help younger men and women understand the realities of their bodies than school-grade sex education, and a clichéd diet of faux concern about “career women leaving it too late”. 

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