Family or Career? A debate as old as time… and a debate we’re tired of

Who would’ve thought that this would land Medwards a spot on The View

Recently it was announced that students in Murray Edwards College were to be taught that if they wanted a family, they should plan to start one in their mid thirties, or risk ending up childless. A fairly wild headline, I know. When the news was first announced, I know that many Medwards students in different years rushed to groupchats, I certainly know that the second year group chat was alight with opinions and outrage about the news that had been reported. One student commented that ‘it feels so backwards, especially because as modern women we’re always being told to put your studies and career first, but these classes feel like we’re moving backwards and being told what to do with our lives once again.’

Not only was the idea of fertility workshops downright odd, it was also highly offensive to many different marginalised groups such as the LGBTQ+ community in Medwards who may need fertility treatments to have children with their partners, as well as Black women who not only suffer from horrific and deadly levels of medical racism during every stage of both pregnancy and childbirth, but are also 25 times less likely to be able to access fertility treatments that their white female counterparts, never mind those with multiple intersecting identities, as well as others who may be suffering from conditions that cause infertility.

It was an all around offensive idea and frankly shocking idea which was why it was taken up so quickly by media such as The Sunday Times (who initially reported the story) and it was even discussed on the popular American talk show “The View”. It was honestly surprising that this idea was even announced in the first place and the very quick turnaround and by extension, denial of these comments by the new Medwards president Dorothy Byrne who, in an open JCR meeting claimed that the media had twisted her words and that her main point was that everyone should know the facts about fertility, made the situation even more confusing and to some extent outrageous.

Whilst these fertility workshops may not actually be happening, they also do open up much bigger issues for the college, as well as discussions about fertility and the way society often treats women as nothing more than vessels for continuing the next generation of people. I would say that one of the biggest issues that these “classes” raise is that Medwards is not just a women’s college, and it hasn’t been for a while now. This focus on women’s fertility not only acts another reminder of the “ticking time bomb” that women are forced to constantly think about if they want to have children, but it also adds insult to injury to other Murray Edwards students who are not women whose desire for recognition and respect has once again been ignored through the college’s reinforcement of a “female-only” focus.

It is important to note, though, that teaching about fertility about the options concerned when having children could have been a positive idea and useful for everyone in the university, if framed differently. If the hit Netflix show “Sex Education” has taught us anything, it’s that this country’s SRE course is in desperate need of updating; and learning about the different options for fertility such as being able to freeze your eggs or learning more about adoption or IVF could be helpful for those who want to know. But alas, it wasn’t framed that way and instead seemed less like a progressive idea and more like something that Margaret Atwood would use for inspiration in “The Handmaid’s Tale”.

Ultimately Byrne’s focus on fertility is one that is derived from her own experiences of having to undergo IVF at the age of 45 after deciding to put her career first, as well as the falling national birth rate, which has dropped from 1.92 children per woman in England and Wales in 2011 to just 1.53 this year. Whilst this focus may come from a somewhat well-intentioned place, the idea of zooming in on women’s fertility seems like a return to the reductive argument of career vs family, and I have to ask, must it always be a binary choice? As much as learning about fertility may be important, everyone’s situation is different. Maybe the better sentiment to teach is that deciding what is right for yourself and your own life is vital, and if you’d discover what balance works for you, you should be allowed to make it happen without any guilt, both external and internal.