Happy birthday IVF. Maybe in another 35 years we’ll be using women’s hair to make eggs

On the 25 July 1978, Lesley Brown gave birth to Louise Joy Brown – the first baby ever to be conceived using in vitro fertilisation. After 12 years and 80 failed attempts, the Cambridge medical had final achieved a medical breakthrough. Some thought doctors were ‘playing God’. For those people who desperately wanted a baby, it offered hope like no other.

In the early days the procedure was treated with suspicion. The media fuelled the controversy, referring to those like Louise as ‘test tube babies’ – an unfortunate label which stuck despite the fact the magic happened in a dish not a test tube at all.

The "father of the test tube baby," Robert G. Edwards, holds Louise Brown, who was born on July 25, 1978

The ‘father of the test tube baby’, Robert G. Edwards, holds Louise Brown born on July 25, 1978

35 years later, the ethics and morality of IVF is no longer hotly debated. In fact with more than five million babies born worldwide since and with an annual IVF birth rate of more than 17,000 babies in the UK, the procedure has gone from being controversial to almost ordinary.

As a new mum, I know at least three babies conceived using IVF. The parents are some of the most committed, loving and self-aware people I know. Not to say single teenage mothers who have an unplanned pregnancy don’t make good parents too. It’s just that IVF babies are some of the most wanted babies around.

It would seem some of the fears about IVF babies suffering from higher rates of infertility and other health problems have been overblown too. As one IVF pioneer, Dr Van Steirteghem of the Brussels Free University Centre for Reproductive Medicine insists, most parents accept the risk that their children could have fertility problems – and that future doctors would be able to treat them. But, and this is the crucial bit, ‘overall these children do well’. Louise Brown for one has fallen pregnant naturally twice.

So where next? The UK is already set to become the first country in the world to create babies with the DNA of three people. Director of Guy’s and St Thomas’ IVF unit, Yacoub Khalaf, believes the future of IVF lies in stem cell research. ‘We do see patients who are struggling at 40 to 45, and the only thing which would change the face of treatment would be…if we could make sperm from men’s skin cells, or eggs from women’s hair cells.’

So is this a step too far, a bit Brave New World? Or will these pioneering procedures, just as we’ve seen with IVF, become just another acceptable form of fertility treatment in 35 years time?

As Kate nears the finish line, it’s time we banished the word failure from labour

I remember when I was literally on the verge of giving birth. I was in the reception area of the labour ward waiting for a couple of midwives to finish their Sudoku – I mean seriously pressing paperwork – when I was finally taken into a room where I hauled myself on to the bed and promptly gave birth. I was very lucky. Most of the hard work was done at home.

What I do recall was contemplating with horror a ‘visitors book’ at the reception desk. It had lots of names, followed by their due dates mostly come and gone, and in the last column the phrase ‘failure to progress’. It’s a clumsy clinical phrase to describe when labour stalls or slows. Not only is it unhelpful (what’s labour got to do with failure after all?) but it’s also a depressing and terrifying prospect for any heavily pregnant woman. I was in so much pain yet there was still a chance that I too would ‘fail’ and be sent back home again to start the waiting game over.

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But home might be the best place after all. Contrary to what you might think, just setting foot in a hospital can stop labour dead in its tracks. In the same way that healthy people can appear to have raised blood pressure in a clinical setting, it seems the anxiety of being in a maternity ward makes some women clam up too. Fast and furious contractions simply fade away.

In the days leading up to giving birth I could have chucked my mobile out the window every time I received another ‘any news?’ text. Instead I just ignored it and stayed at home for as long as I possibly could.

So, and I never thought I’d say it, poor Kate. The pressure on her to ‘progress’ is immense.  Not only does she have family, friends, doctors and midwives monitoring her but she also has the rest of the world and its media too. Don’t they know a watched pot never boils?

Anyhow, whether Kate gives birth today or tomorrow or the next day, on the hottest day of the year, no one in their right mind would think of using the word failure to describe any part of her labour. It’s high time hospitals stopped using it for the rest of us too.

Three stories. Three examples discrimination is alive and kicking

A quick glance at the news today and three stories immediately jump out at me.

The first relates to a black woman who owns a cafe in Yorkshire who’s taken to ‘warning’ people about her race. She’s so sick of folk walking in to her place, clocking her (or more importantly her colour) and then walking out, she’s resorted to putting this up:

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I don’t blame her. Why bother trying to ignore blatant racism? You may as well call a spade, a spade. It’s clearly palpable. Despite being a serious issue evidently, the sign is funny and somehow I think this makes it all the more powerful. While I think it’ll take a bit more than this to convert racists, it may cause some people to think a little more about their actions and motivations which has to be a good thing.

The next story tells of the train boss forced to apologise after a conductor told a woman breastfeeding her 4 month old to ‘do whatever she’s doing’ in the toilet. The mother felt, quite understandably, publicly humiliated. Do these people have no idea about the 2010 Equality Act? I’d have loved for this pompous dolt to have approached me while I was discreetly breastfeeding my newborn is all I can say.

But it’s the last story I came across that’s the most shocking. It comes from Chile and it’s about an 11 year old girl who was repeatedly raped by her mother’s partner over a 2 year period. She’s fallen pregnant and has ‘decided’ not to have an abortion. Instead of attempting to protect this little girl from further trauma, the president of Chile – whose strict abortion laws have remained the same since Pinochet’s regime – has applauded her ‘decision’.

Let me clarify further. President Pinera: ‘She’s 14 weeks pregnant and yesterday she surprised us all with words showing depth and maturity, when she said that despite the pain caused by the man who raped her, she wanted to have and take care of her baby.”

Further clarification. In an interview the girl said becoming a mother would be “like having a doll in my arms”. Depth and maturity. Really?

I rest my case. All that’s left to say is the fight for equality is a constant battle and, women especially, should take nothing, nothing, for granted.

Forget Photoshop. This is what mothers’ bodies really look like

You could say it all started with Demi Moore and her flawless, naked bump on the cover of Vanity Fair. It was a provocative photograph that signalled a change in the way we viewed the bodies of pregnant women. There was nothing to hide anymore. Today bumps have never been more flaunted or fetishised.

But what about a woman’s body after birth?

I’d imagine Vanity Fair might be less keen to slap a saggy belly with stretch marks on their front page. (I challenge their editor to prove me wrong of course!)

That’s why the work of photographer Jade Beall is so refreshing. Her latest work, entitled A Beautiful Body, documents the female form after birth in all its glory.

Copyright: Jade Baell

Copyright: Jade Beall

The project began when Jade posted a semi-nude self-portrait of her un-retouched postpartum body on Facebook. Surprised by just how popular it became, she was inspired to do a series of similar portraits which she hopes to turn into a book.

It couldn’t have come sooner in my opinion. I get the feeling that we’re all (and not just women) growing a little tired of being sold images so airbrushed they look more like avatars than people.

Who wants perfection anyhow? We all know it’s the quirks and oddities we fall in love with. If only someone would tell the advertisers. Even the Dove campaign gets on my nerves with its charade of authenticity. I wonder if any of those women are mothers.

That’s why this project deserves our support. Yes, the pregnant woman is beautiful but so is the same woman after birth. Her body has changed, sure. She may have stretch marks, scars, a softer, rounder belly, but this same body has produced life. Mothers should feel proud not ashamed. But for this to truly happen we’ve got to stop feeding this stultifying notion of female beauty. Jade’s work is a step in the right direction. It’s just shocking this hasn’t been done sooner.

It’s time we stopped writing women out of history. The female on a fiver is just the start

I watched a brilliant BBC documentary on black holes this week. But I’ve one major problem with it. There’s no mention of the physicist Jocelyn Bell-Burnell. For me it’s a glaring omission given it was her discovery of pulsars that essentially paved the way for the acceptance of black holes at all.

Jocelyn Bell-Burnell has been snubbed once before of course. She discovered the first pulsars while studying for her PhD at Cambridge under supervisor Anthony Hewish. Yet despite helping to build the four-acre radio telescope and diligently and persistently recording the anomalies it was picking up – initially dismissed by Hamish – it was he, not her, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974.

Jocelyn has been very gracious about the whole affair since, insisting she’s not upset, arguing instead that ‘we hear of cases where a supervisor blames his student for a failure, but we know that it is largely the fault of the supervisor. It seems only fair to me that he should benefit from the successes’.

While I commend her modesty, for me it’s just another example of a woman who has a rightful place in history being written out – and not only written out but replaced by a man.

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Labour leader Ed Miliband is right. We need to change how women are portrayed today and yesterday.

Will Jane Austen grace the next fiver? Indeed she should – along with Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and so many other women who’ve earned their place in history. If we care about tomorrow, this is serious stuff.

The price of everything and the value of nothing

This month is the last of my maternity leave where we’ll be surviving on only one wage. The quick transition from DINKY (“Dual Income, No Kids Yet) to ORCHID (One Recent Child, Heavily In Debt)* has caused me to reevaluate how I spend my time and, of course, my money.

Yesterday was a lovely day. Babe and I went for a long stroll and then headed to a local library. I signed us up as members and explored the nooks and crannies of the children’s library. Not only were there loads of parenting books to leaf through instead of impulsively buying them on Amazon, but there were also tons of other resources to make use of as well as free events and activities for babies on offer. Before I knew it, we’d pleasurably spent the whole afternoon there – and it hadn’t cost a penny.

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It got me thinking. Do I really need to spend so much money on cappuccinos, groceries, clothes, treats and other items every day? Does it actually make my life any fuller or more meaningful?

Laden with books promising to get our baby sleeping through the night, I also picked up one other book, just in case the first set actually did the trick. The book is Tony Judt’s Ill Fares The Land which, despite its Spartan, austere looking cover, is a very readable and very passionate polemic.

But it’s no picnic. Judt insists ‘something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today’ mainly because we ‘know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth’.

Why? Because we’ve lost the ability to discuss the things that matter to us and to society – in other words real politics. Instead of meaningful debate, we’re caught in a charade that sees us lurching infinitely and pointlessly between unfettered capitalism with its dysfunctional free markets on the one hand and the well-documented horrors of socialism on the other.

Our obsession with the pursuit of material wealth, he argues and I would hasten to agree, is above all else, unfulfilling.

It’s taken me the final month of my maternity leave to realise this. There is a value outside of economics. It’s only a shame that, as I’m on the verge of returning to payroll once more, my exploration into another way of living will be cut short.

Who knows where it would lead and how valuable a journey it would be.

So if you’re struggling to find meaning in politics, if you’re feeling disillusioned or incensed with the way of the world today, then read this book – and get it out the library too. It could be the most valuable thing you do this summer.

* Ridiculous but funny – more here

 

Want a baby and a career? Keep calm and carry on

I was 31 when I fell pregnant. A good age you might think given a woman’s fertility nosedives after 30.

Or does it?

Not quite, if the findings of research psychologist, Jean Twenge, writing in The Atlantic,  is to be believed.

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She’s had a good look at lots of studies and her conclusion is that the decline in fertility over the course of a woman’s 30s has been oversold:

One study, published in Obstetrics & Gynecology in 2004 and headed by David Dunson (now of Duke University), examined the chances of pregnancy among 770 European women. It found that with sex at least twice a week, 82 percent of 35-to-39-year-old women conceive within a year, compared with 86 percent of 27-to-34-year-olds…The fertility of women in their late 20s and early 30s was almost identical.

So to all those friends of mine forging ahead with their careers, living abroad or simply embracing the last days of hedonism, but who want a baby at some point, don’t worry. You can wait. What’s more, you might even be able to afford childcare if you do.

As Jean, who had three babies after 35, points out, ‘an analysis by one economist found that, on average, every year a woman postpones having children leads to a 10 percent increase in career earnings.’

Well worth it then given our nursery – by no means an exception – will cost at least £100 per day.

As long as you don’t have to fork out for IVF of course. But if Jean is right, it’s not age that’s the most important indicator of fertility anyhow.

If only I’d known eh?

Joking aside, do you agree? Is it ok for women to wait?

Should weddings be for adults only?

I’ve not posted in ages. I was hijacked by the travelling circus as the freakish, one-tit-bigger-than-the-other breastfeeding woman. Not quite. Actually we’ve been to three weddings in a row. So we’ve now experienced the exquisite pain that is a hangover with a baby. People without kids: enjoy your hangovers please. In fact, luxuriate in them.

But I digress.

As we’ve discovered, the wedding is quite a different animal with a 10 month old. Not only do we have to get to the church on time but we also have to arrive fully clothed with a clean baby. It’s hard enough finding a dress that works for breastfeeding (in the end a ‘choice’ between a ridiculously stretchy bodycon number or a dangerously racy halter neck) let alone for the three of us to turn up looking presentable – in other words without mash in our hair and ladders in my stockings.

But once we’re there, it’s great. We get to catch up with old friends and new, enjoy a drink and feel like adults again. Whatever you call it – babymoon, hibernation, house arrest – after our postnatal domesticity, it’s exhilarating to be out again. Meanwhile babe delights in all the new spaces, lights and faces. He loves the music, the laughter, the dancing and the occasion. After the speeches he falls asleep in the pram and we hit the dance floor for a few precious footloose and fancy-free moments.

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The only problem is, for some of the weddings, I’m not sure our babe is entirely welcome.

I’m no expert on weddings or wedding etiquette but quite a few invites are asking for adults only. If little ones are allowed it’s restricted to ‘babes-in-arms’ which I think our babe – by the skin of his non-existent teeth – just about qualifies as since he’s still nursing and can’t walk.

The thing is, I always thought weddings were a family affair. You have the embarrassing uncle, the grumpy granny and the kids. The babies are there to cry out, surely, at just the time in the ceremony when it’s asked if anyone knows of a reason why the bride and groom shouldn’t tie the knot? I know babies are messy and noisy but surely it’s all part of the fun?

Or maybe not. A quick straw poll among mates including some new mothers reveals many in favour of adult-only weddings.

Obviously it’s up to the bride and groom who comes to their big day but have I missed a change in thinking? Am I wrong to think of weddings as a family affair?

Good on Romola for making a quip about her poor old vagina

The English actress Romola Garai revealed she had to have 23 stitches, poor girl, after giving birth. She thought she’d never laugh again. It was a quip she made at the BAFTAs presenting the award for best comedy. Watch it here.

Who’d have expected that eh? Brilliant really. In fact I couldn’t applaud her frank witticism more. It’s about time we all got real about what some women endure during childbirth. Why are we so squeamish about it? It’s clear from the clip that some men weren’t laughing. Perhaps they found it distasteful. Why I wonder? They’re not French are they? Well, it’s about time they grew up.

And no. I don’t think it’s too private, or shameful, or inappropriate. We talk about dicks all the time don’t we? Plus, in an age when people announce their miscarriage on Facebook (a girl I went to school with really did do this), we’d be kidding ourselves to think the private is still private.

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Romola’s quip comes of course in the same week that Angelina Jolie revealed in an op-ed for the New York Times she’s had a double mastectomy.  Good on her for laying the truth bare I say.

So what do you think? Too much information or about time we all faced up to the reality of what it means to be a woman?

Nevermind what the feminists say, More! gave a voice to female sexuality

Today the newsstands will be one magazine poorer. More! the lifestyle and celebrity magazine or ‘your daily fix of fashion and men’ is no more. With a circulation figure of 90,000, its owner Bauer media decided it was time to give it up.

So ‘position of the fortnight’ is a thing of the past. As is also the magazine’s seemingly tireless appetite for candid boudoir confessions and the sex lives of celebrities. I’m hoping it will be missed by schoolgirls all over Britain but the truth of the matter is they’re probably playing Chatroulette or crowd sourcing sex advice off teen forums. At the very least they’re reading Grazia.

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Some, like the New Statesman, welcome its downfall:

Journalists who produce sexist content designed to sell women products they don’t need to fix physical deficiencies they don’t have are engaging in an exploitative mode of production for pay, for sure

I think they’re missing the point.

This may be how it ended up but this wasn’t how it started. I confess I hadn’t bought More! in years (I suppose when you’re having sex, reading about it isn’t so alluring) but I do remember what it was like reading it back at school in 1993. It was electrifying, exciting and empowering.

Why? Well, unlike any other magazine, More! gave a voice to female sexuality.

I don’t care what the majority of feminist bloggers and Twitter trolls are saying about how it touted filth and promoted body fascism, the bottom line is that in the 90s no other magazine was saying, in a friendly, approachable way, you’re a woman and it’s ok to want to have sex, to enjoy it and to know what you like and what you don’t like. It’s not as if we had any useful sex education to speak of – unless you count our chemistry teacher tossing a tampon into a beaker of water!

In an attempt to stay alive, More! may have lost its way and resorted to stories that made girls feel fat and insecure, but this was never its aim. In its heyday, More! was a brave pioneer and it changed the way girls, like me, talked and felt about sex.

So I lament its demise. And I do so even more when I see how its male equivalents (FHM, Maxim, Nuts etc) read by schoolboys all over are, without much public dismay, turning more and more into hardcore, misogynistic porn.

So are you glad to see it go? Was More! mindless drivel or daring journalism?

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