“I never regretted my abortion,” Claire* says, matter-of-factly. “I was a student at the time, my pregnancy was an accident, and I wasn’t in any way ready for a baby. Neither was my uni boyfriend.”
Twenty years later, however, and Claire’s situation suddenly feels frighteningly similar. “We felt we were ready for kids, we started trying at the start of this year and we were excited about having a family,” she explains. “Then, in April, my husband lost his job. I was lucky to be furloughed, but we’ve only just been getting by on one salary and suddenly my work doesn’t feel so secure. I went straight back on the pill. It just didn’t seem like the right time anymore, and it’s hard to know now when it ever will,” she explains, sadly.
Claire is far from alone in rethinking her plans for starting a family. While the early weeks of lockdown prompted a raft of baby boom predictions across Europe, in reality, the trend has gone in precisely the opposite direction.
From financial insecurity and fears for the future, to a lack of access to fertility support and treatment, the impact of the pandemic on family planning has been huge. Now, research carried out over spring suggests tens of thousands of couples have found themselves reconsidering plans to start or grow their families – and not just in the UK.
Falling birth rate
When researchers in Italy set out to grasp the true picture of pregnancy in a pandemic, they spread their focus across five countries – France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK. Far from finding a baby boom, they discovered that young adults across the board were either delaying or abandoning plans to have children any time soon.
In the UK specifically, 58 per cent of young couples said they were putting their childrearing plans on ice, while 19 per cent said they were now inclined not to have children at all. But why?
In Italy and Spain, the researchers claim, recovery from the previous ‘Great Recession’ was still ongoing when coronavirus hit, further exacerbating feelings of insecurity which had already prompted a fall in birth rates. Elsewhere, including in the UK, it is women’s changing role in the workplace which they feel has had the biggest impact.
“It is well-grounded in the literature that women’s employment is positively related to fertility,” explain the report’s authors Francesca Luppi, Bruno Arpino and Alessandro Rosina. “The availability (and affordability) of childcare services is one of the drivers of the female presence in the labour market.”
The shutdown of childcare services, though, combined with the unfeasibility of relying on grandparents amid a healthcare crisis has had an undeniable impact, they explain. “If we consider that the lockdown experience might have exacerbated the traditional division of gender roles, the negative returns on fertility can be expected, especially in countries where the gap in the amount of paid and unpaid work done by women and men was high in the pre-crisis period.”
It’s a situation that rings true for Alice*, 28, who says her and her partner have shelved all conversations about children, having realised in lockdown that their financial situation is simply too precarious. “We just can’t afford to start a family yet,” she concludes.
Meanwhile, for Emma*, 36, it’s the anxiety and uncertainty of 2020 that has made the choice tougher than ever. “The decision has been on my mind constantly,” she admits. “At the start of lockdown, we talked about it a lot. I thought starting a family suddenly seemed pointless – I mean, why would I want to bring a child into this? It seemed more selfish than ever. It’s very difficult because I want to experience being pregnant and being a mum, but philosophically and morally, that just doesn’t sit well with me right now. In March, I basically decided I’d never do it. Now, I’m back to just being totally unsure.”
But while delaying plans for children is all fine and well for young adults with time to play with, for those who feel their window is closing, 2020 has been particularly tough.
Across the UK, fertility clinics are reporting a surge in interest in egg-freezing from women keen to extend the time in which they can consider starting a family. The London Women’s Clinic, which has centres in the capital, Darlington and Cardiff, says it’s seen a 50 per cent hike in inquiries, while Create Fertility, which has nine branches across Britain, says demand has jumped by an average of 24 per cent compared with summer 2019.
For those seeking IVF, meanwhile, the situation is even more complex and, potentially, heartbreaking. Already a postcode lottery, the response to the coronavirus pandemic has only widened regional differences in access to care. While in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, those awaiting treatment were assured age limits would be extended to account for pandemic-related delays, across England, the NHS is yet to implement ‘stop the clock’ measures.
It’s a situation the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) says needs urgent review. In an open letter sent to Health Secretary Matt Hancock late last week, the charity joined forces with ten other fertility bodies, including the Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists, The Fertility Foundation and Fertility Network, to call for vital action to protect women’s right to IVF support.
“Without action,” the letter states, “there is a danger that some patients will be disproportionately impacted by distressing delays, and may miss out on treatment altogether. In England, individual CCGs impose their own upper age limits on fertility funding, which according to a recent report from BPAS range from 34 to 42 for female patients. Due to delays caused by the pandemic, several patients now risk crossing these age thresholds and becoming ineligible for NHS-funded fertility care.”
The letter goes on to quote a host of patients impacted by the closure of fertility clinics this spring, and by the ongoing reduction of service across health boards now struggling to catch up. “I’m very concerned about the age limit,” one unnamed patient explains. “I have a cyst on my ovary, which is causing me extreme pain as well as impacting my fertility. I need surgery before I try IVF. I’m not sure when my surgery will take place and they will make me wait at least a year trying naturally before referring me for IVF. I feel extremely let down.”
“I am frightened I may miss my opportunity. I am getting older and time is not on my side,” another writes, while a third explains, “It’s had an extremely negative impact to my mental health. I constantly feel the clock ticking away on my fertility.”
Mr Hancock is yet to respond. But for those still clinging on to hopes they’ll be able to start a long-desired family, the stresses of 2020 show no sign of waning, and a baby boom seems a very long way off indeed.
“I owe my pregnancy to the pandemic”
While 2020 might have thrown many people’s fertility plans into disarray, it’s not all bad news. When we surveyed readers of The Flock on the impact of the pandemic on their family plans, we received one reply that made our hearts soar. Here, Yvonne*, 39, explains how she credits the events of this year with helping her fall pregnant after multiple miscarriages…
“There’s no doubt about it as far as I’m concerned – 2020 created the situation I needed to have a long hoped-for second baby.
“I’d conceived naturally before, but the series of miscarriages that came after were all unexplained and a stressful job and busy life were not improving the odds for me. Of course, not all miscarriages can be prevented by self-care or reduced stress, not even close. But I knew furlough would force me into the slow lane and give me, personally, the best chance.
“As it happened, furlough was basically an extended holiday, with zero stress, good weather, and dedicated family time – for me, that’s the ultimate happy time. I was lucky enough to still have financial security, so I know it won’t be the same for everyone. But while it might sound crazy, I just knew for certain that if I was furloughed, I would conceive. And when we did get pregnant, despite all the previous losses, I also just knew that this one was here to stay.
“Being furloughed meant I could take care of myself properly, with naps, home cooked food, meditation apps and baths whenever I needed them. For the first time in years, I wasn’t steeling myself for work meetings or worrying about deadlines. And while my nausea was brutal, I had time to work out how to ease it.
“It was definitely good to be out of sight too – hiding my early pregnancy was another pressure I was relieved of. I was showing really early – mostly bloating, but enough to raise an eyebrow – yet we managed to not tell anyone until we were ready, which wasn’t until we were in the second trimester. I’ve got no doubt whatsoever that people would’ve guessed if we were all still living life as normal. And the pressure of that can’t be underestimated.
“When you fear miscarriage, it often feels like everyone is looking at you, and knows you’re pregnant. If you lose then the baby, you feel like everyone knows about that as well. It’s an enormous burden. Factor in ignorant folk who think it’s okay to ask you outright if you’re pregnant and you’re always one step away from panic stations – which is not particularly good for anyone trying to keep a grip on their fear of losing a baby.
“I appreciate that 2020 has been a horror show for so many people. But for me, it created the perfect climate for me to get through those early days of pregnancy in peace. And now, as our due date edges closer, I can’t help but think that this has been the best of years for my little family.”
*Names have been changed to protect contributor anonymity