Why is there so much pressure on women to have children? It seems that as soon as a woman hits adulthood, society becomes fixated on the timeline of when she will become a mother. And if a woman hits the age of 30 and does not have children, well everyone loses hope. For centuries, women have been warned about their ticking biological clock. Women’s bodies, and more specifically, their fertility, seem governed by time, and it is plaguing all aspects of their life, from their relationships to careers. However, up until now, men have been assumed to be safe from this biological ticking time bomb. Recent studies on the other hand show that the reality may be quite different.
For women, it is a widely held belief that their fertility is at its peak during their 20s and after the age of around 32 it begins to dwindle. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, women can hold as many as 7 million eggs in their ovaries when they are a baby in the womb. This number gradually decreases over time, and around 300,000 to 500,000 eggs remain when most females reach puberty. When women begin menopause, usually around the age of 51, they hold around 1,000 eggs. This gradual decrease in eggs, therefore, means their fertility is generally thought to decrease with age.
Men on the other hand, produce new sperm daily, and therefore, have been presumed to be immune from this biological clock. However, since the 1980s, there has been a growing body of research which shows that the quantity and quality of sperm decreases over the years. Recently, an anonymous clinical study from the UK fertility regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, has proven just how much of an impact this has. The study analysed the interaction between the maternal and paternal age in 18,825 IVF and ICSI cycles after a single fresh embryo had been transferred.
Professor Geeta Nargund, who contributed to the study, revealed how the results “indicate[d] that the eggs from younger females have the capacity to repair the much higher incidence of DNA damage found in the sperm of older males.” The egg quality for women older than 40, however, is lower and therefore the egg is less capable of repairing damaged sperm. Interestingly, the man’s age had a more significant impact when women were aged between 35 and 40. When the paternal age is under 35 the live birth rate is 32.8%, however, when the paternal age is between 40 and 44, the live birth rate drops to 27.9%. For males aged 55 and over, the live birth rate drops to 25%. Therefore, it is clear that the paternal age is having a much larger impact than previously thought for live birth rates, particularly for women in a certain age bracket. This suggests that the biological clock phenomenon is not just reserved for women. Nargund highlights the complexity of the relationship between the ageing egg and sperm during conception, believing that we need to better understand the capacity of both the egg and sperm to “repair the effects of the ageing process.”
Whilst the scientific data is important, one must also consider the societal impact of the biological clock – in particular, attitudes towards women. The biological clock has come to represent immense societal pressure on women to become pregnant by a certain age, resulting in feelings of failure if they are unable or do not wish to. This notion was first coined in 1987 when The Washington Post published an article, ‘The Clock Is Ticking for the Career Woman,’ by journalist Richard Cohen. The article described a “composite woman,” who prioritised pursuing her career rather than having babies during her peak fertile years. The woman described in the article is later seen to deeply regret her decision. This sent the message to contemporaries that whatever progress women made in their careers; they would always naturally yearn for a family and be less successful than men. It also denied the possibility that maybe, just maybe, a woman might not want children at all.
This article was published at a time where second wave feminism, which strove for female liberation and empowerment and encouraged women to transcend their traditional societal roles, was in full swing. This notion of a ‘biological clock’ completely contradicted these ideals. It placed women in a predicament: pursuing both a career and a family was just not realistic.
This predicament has not waned with time. The modern-day woman is plagued with anxieties surrounding having children. The ticking biological clock makes progressing up the career ladder more difficult as women fear wasting their prime years on work when they could be having children. And it doesn’t stop there. Women’s dating lives are also governed by time. Often, after a break-up, women refer to their relationships as ‘wasted time’, valuing them only in reproductive terms. Another failed relationship signals another year wasted without having children. Whilst no person should feel this immense pressure, it seems these anxieties should be more evenly spread between men and women, especially in light of the new evidence around men’s biological clock outlined above.
Furthermore, the normalisation of procedures such as IVF and egg-freezing once again place the burden of fertility on women. Not to mention that they can be very dangerous and invasive. Both procedures began as a solution to a specific medical problem: IVF originated in 1978 to help a woman unable to reproduce due to a blockage in her fallopian tubes, whilst egg-freezing was designed to help young female cancer patients going through chemotherapy. However, nowadays both procedures are an option for healthy women too, with egg-freezing even being actively encouraged as early as possible. The average cost of IVF in the UK is around £4,000 to £8,000 per cycle, and it is also an invasive procedure, carrying great physical and emotional risks. Society has normalised the fact that women will suffer and spend thousands to become pregnant, and implies that women alone must take on the burden of managing reproduction.
Sociologist, Barnes, highlights that couples seeking treatment for infertility often do not consider the man’s age. Even if the infertility is linked to male-factor issues, IVF practitioners will usually investigate the women’s body first. Women are encouraged to undergo medical treatments even though there are simpler and less invasive male fertility treatments available, such as investigating for swollen veins or infections. Barnes believes that this attitude is “of course...linked to gender beliefs.” Therefore, rather than placing the burden onto women, there needs to be greater awareness of what factors effect fertility to ensure that medical professionals provide the correct support and couples can share the anxieties of the biological clock.
So, what impact could these findings have on men and women, as well as society’s outlook on fertility? For a start, it would dramatically reduce the current pressures and burdens facing women, altering society’s gendered outlook on fertility. Instead of infertility being a primarily female issue, it would encourage both men and women to consider the role they play. It will also potentially lead to greater education for men surrounding fertility, which will carry many benefits. These findings should not deter older couples from having children, but rather, should be a factor that both men and women actively consider when planning their families. Men need to acknowledge the effects of aging on their fertility to ensure safer and more successful pregnancies. The data shows that as well as a higher paternal age decreasing chances of fertility, it can also affect the success of the pregnancy and/or health of the foetus. Even if the female partner is young and healthy, the research reveals that an older paternal age can lead to a higher chance of miscarriage and cause pregnancy complications, such as, preterm birth and gestational diabetes. It also means the offspring are at greater risk for autism or psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia. Therefore, understanding the male biological clock not only alleviates pressure from women, but is also vital for the success of any pregnancy.
Furthermore, these findings may encourage men to take greater control over managing fertility, including considering having a semen analysis to evaluate the quantity and quality of their sperm. It may also lead to more men thinking about freezing and storing sperm to ensure it is of greater quality, even if they want to wait a few years before having children. Professor Geeta Nargund, believes that “our increasing awareness of the influence of male fertility highlights the need to ensure fertility education both for school-age children and couples planning a family.” Clearly, the current pressure placed on women and their biological clock is largely down to a lack of education and is fuelled by sexist attitudes. Now that we are realising that the biological clock is not solely a female issue, we must respond accordingly and do all we can to spread greater awareness.
Ultimately, these findings could transform society’s outlook on the biological clock, ensuring it is used as a universal term for men and women rather than representing a unique burden for women. This is not to suggest that the ticking biological clock should similarly plague men’s lives as it has done for women for centuries, but should signal progression, allowing for greater education and planning for individuals who wish to have children.
Written by Hannah Robinson