The unexpected guilt of fertility
Sitting in a science lab while a teacher explained the biology behind sexual reproduction, I'm sure I wasn't the only one in the class thinking that pregnancy was 100% guaranteed if contraception wasn't used during sex. I suppose that was the point – we needed to take safe sex seriously, otherwise an unplanned child was something we'd be living with for the rest of our lives.
Many of my friends and I are now in our early thirties, which society deems the generally accepted time for us to be starting our own families. A couple of babies have already arrived, and I can happily say that one is also on its way for me – in 4 months' time, I will be welcoming mine and my partner's first child into the world.
It's almost impossible for me to put into words the emotions that I am feeling because there are so many. Exhilaration, excitement, joy, confusion, fear, tentativeness, and calm are just a few.
But an emotion that is also very present – and one that I really wasn't anticipating at all – is guilt.
The emotional burden of societal expectations
It's hard to describe exactly why I think this emotion has arisen without providing a bit of context first. So let me take you back to young me sitting in a science lab.
What I didn't mention was the other topic I was learning about at that age: rites of passage. Taught to me by my religious education teacher (which I always thought was slightly bizarre), my understanding of these rites was that they represented landmark moments in our lives. Events that society places above all else as signifiers of our growth that ultimately represent the next step on our path to achieving a happy and fulfilled life. Things like going to school, graduation, passing our driving test, getting married. And of course, starting a family. So when I was sat in that science lab, surrounded by a bunch of fellow pre-teen boys feeling incredibly awkward at the whole experience, as far as I was concerned, I was just learning about one of those rites.
There's nothing truly 'wrong' with placing these events on a pedestal. But the flip-side to associating them with such great importance is that there's a much harsher reaction when they can't be attained.
In my life, I've seen friends spiral into a world of anti-depressants and counselling because they haven't been able to 'achieve' these landmarks of life. A friend of mine spent almost a decade of their life in and out of therapy with depression that stemmed from body image issues, all because they hadn't been in a long-term relationship by the time they were in their mid-20s. Another has been prescribed anti-depressants for almost as long because they are struggling to figure out their career path.
The unpredictable challenges of childbearing
Now that I'm of an age where children are almost expected to be a part of life, the same pattern continues. And the reason why I think this is happening is because of one pretty major thing that we aren't told when we're younger: successfully having a child is hard.
Forgive me for taking you back to your own sex-ed experience, but let's revisit the fertilisation process. To begin with, the timing of the parents needs to be spot-on. Ovulation windows can not only vary in length, they aren't always regular, and on top of that, an egg might not even be released.
In the event that the aspiring parents do nail it with their timings, the ingredients then need to be of a high enough quality to fuse: the sperm needs to be healthy and mobile enough to reach the egg, while the egg needs to be of a high enough quality to fuse with the sperm. That's not even mentioning that the whole process needs to occur in an environment that is 'just right'.
If the sperm and egg fuse, we then enter a nine-month period of quite literally building a human, which as you can imagine is a fairly complicated task, one that is fraught with an inconceivable number of opportunities for something to go wrong.
An ageing generation
There is one massive shadow that looms over all of this, influencing success at each stage: age. Generally as we get older, our chances of conceiving reduce as the quality of both sperm and egg diminishes. By the age of 40, quality has dropped so drastically that the chance of conceiving is very low in most cases.
What I wasn't aware of was how low the chances of conceiving once you hit your 30s, ranging anywhere from 15% to 40%. Up until finding that out, I was imagining a figure more around 80%.
But then again, perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised based on what I'm witnessing with my friends and loved ones. Some are now taking part in counselling sessions to come to terms with the barriers they're facing, while others are being prescribed medications to help with their mental health. These are all people desperate for a child, desperate to start their own family. People who, up until they started trying for a baby, had no reason to believe that they couldn't be successful. One friend for example told me that they never thought they'd have issues because of their particularly 'fertile' father. But of course, that's not how it works.
And this is where the guilt kicks in. Although I know that none of these people in question would want me to feel it, knowing of their struggles and how it's affecting their mental health brings a sombre edge to what I always imagined would be the happiest things to ever happen to me. And I don't mean that in a blaming sense, as if their plight is in some way taking away from my happiness. Equally, the sympathy I have described for the people in my life who have been affected is not at all intended in a condescending manner. Instead, I think the core of my guilt is from not being aware of how difficult this whole making-a-baby process actually is.
It's time to take action
So what can we do to change this? Well from my perspective, it feels like the time in our lives when society expects us to have children is outdated.
To explain, unlike generations before us where perhaps between 20 and 30-years-old would have been a more accepted time to have children, between 30 and 40 is actually a far more realistic decade for my generation. That's because (and I hate to think that money drives these kinds of decisions but...) we're dealing with a variety of new pressures that make being able to support a child financially far more difficult. To name a few, we're affectionately known as 'generation rent' because we can't afford to buy our own place; for those of us who went to university, we're living with a massive amount of student debt; and now, in 2022, as our average age floats around 30, we're faced with the biggest cost of living crisis seen in decades.
If things keep going the way they are, it feels like attaining some sort of relative stability to bring up a child will only get harder for younger generations, pushing the realistic 'family bracket' even later in life. And as I mentioned earlier, the later we try to have children, the harder it becomes.
Of course, people will continue to be starting families at many ages, and 'stability' is a broad concept that is governed by far more than just money. But I can't help but feel this is a growing issue that needs to be highlighted.
So let's start talking about it. Let's open up about the mental health pressures of starting a family, the paternal mental health concerns, the maternal mental health concerns, and the mental health concerns of everyone else involved. And let's start talking about how our societal standards need to evolve to accommodate them.
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