Colin Brazier: No-one should sneer at choosing motherhood

Colin Brazier
Colin Brazier

My late wife, who gave up a big job in journalism to have our six kids, felt her generation had a responsibility not to stay quiet about fertility.

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Smiling faces in the newspapers this morning. The headline: Britain’s youngest grandmother at 33. The glamorous granny in question is 33-year-old Gemma Skinner from Buckinghamshire who had her daughter at the age of 16. And now that daughter, Maizie, has also become a young Mum, at 17.

As a father of five daughters, I’d be disappointed if any of my girls started a family this young. Disappointed, but not heartbroken. I’d be far more upset if they didn’t have children at all.

So, I read with interest and recommend to you, the words this weekend of Dorothy Byrne. She’s the former head of Channel 4 who’s now in charge of an all-female college at Cambridge University. Dorothy has done something quite remarkable, deeply counter-cultural and, in its own way, wonderfully shocking. She’s introduced fertility lessons for her students.

She told the Sunday Times. “Young women are being taught that they all have to do well in school, get a degree, be successful in their career and be beautiful. The thing that is getting lost along the way is that you forget to have a baby.”

Of course, as Byrne knows, no woman forgets to have a baby. A small, but increasing minority don’t want any at all, often citing environmental misgivings, while a far greater number succumb to one of, if not the, slow-motion tragedy of our age. The women who leave it too late.

Why is Dorothy Byrne saying this? Because she was almost one of those women. She just managed to have her daughter when she was 45, and then only with the help of IVF. So for her it’s personal.

But there may be something else behind Dorothy Byrne’s decision, and I find it deeply encouraging. Byrne was a former investigative journalist, a woman who built a career finding true stories that people didn’t want telling or didn’t want to hear about. And that’s exactly what the story of Britain’s baby gap is - the gap between the number of babies born and the number of babies women want - currently put at over 100,000.

First the facts, and these are biologically indisputable. A woman aged 25 has a 25 per cent chance of conceiving per month. By 35, it’s dropped to 15 per cent. At 40, one or two per cent. You might say women know this. But even among those who do, a great many choose to simply hope for the best. Others place their faith in things like egg-freezing, which a growing number of companies now offer as a perk, as they would a company car.

And this brings me back to Dorothy Byrne. Here is a story that really matters. When someone wants a child, but can’t have one, it’s a regret they often take to their death-bed. It’s big stuff, life well-spent stuff. And I suspect Dorothy Byrne knows that we’ve created a culture which encourages thousands of women to sleepwalk into a future, if pressed, they would’ve avoided.

I see it with my own daughters. Go to university. Do a master’s degree. Take a gap year. Find a job. Find a mortgage. Find yourself. Move around for a few years to shin up the greasy pole. Locate a man who’s not just another feckless, Tinder-obsessed commitment-phobe. It’s not easy to cram all this in, before the fertility window starts to inch shut.

And so, again, I come back to Dorothy Byrne. Why am I encouraged? Because Dorothy is the very essence of the New Establishment. A former head of news at Channel 4 who goes onto run a college at Cambridge. Almost a cliche. I have no idea what her politics are, but I strongly suspect she’s not a social conservative.

So for her to say this….Not just say this, act on it too. Her students will attend countless seminars which reinforce their liberal prejudices - what an oxymoron that is! Seminars about men, environment and race. You know the drill.

So it’s a big deal. And we need more women like her to speak out. My late wife, who gave up a big job in journalism to have our six kids, felt her generation had a responsibility not to stay quiet about fertility.

Were she still alive, I think she’d point to the lorry drivers and say: “Look, it is possible for society to value things it forgot to value.” I think she’d point to Gemma Skinner, a grandmother at 33, and tell people to stop effing sneering. That’s tonight’s Brazier Angle.