On becoming infertile – part 2

[Moderator’s note – After the positive response to anonfemphil’s posts on breast cancer, we’ve invited a series of posts from another female philosopher on another taboo women’s health topic: infertility. Please note that we’re allowing comments on these posts, but we will be moderating them very strictly, given the sensitive nature of the topic.]

I never wanted children. And I spent a lot of effort convincing my doctors that infertility was something that wouldn’t have a drastic impact on my life. So I assumed – rather naively, perhaps – that actually becoming infertile wouldn’t be a big deal for me.

But it was a big deal, for reasons I still have difficulty articulating. It was also, and at the same time, both a massive relief and oddly liberating. My reactions to infertility have been complex, to say the least. But what seems clear enough is that, though actually having children wasn’t something I cared about, the ability to have to children was something I cared about much more than I would’ve expected.

The trouble wasn’t that I wanted my childlessness to be a matter of choice. My childlessness is a matter of choice. My disability makes me infertile, but it’s my preferences that make me childless. Childlessness and infertility are two very different things.

But whether or not you want children – and whether or not you want to have your own biological children – most everyone will grant that having babies is a truly amazing thing. And it’s an amazing thing that is intricately bound together (probably incorrectly, given what we know about trans men, but bound nonetheless) with our conception of womanhood and the female body. Whenever I’d been around babies, I’d never felt that “Oooooh, babies – I want one!” tug on my heartstrings that I guess is common to many women. But I had, subconsciously, thought: “Hey, those things are pretty awesome. I could totally make one of those, if I wanted to. I don’t want to, so I won’t. But I could.”

And now I can’t. And that’s hard in way I would never have expected it to be.

It isn’t simply a matter of losing an ability. I’ve lost plenty of those before, and while it can be inconvenient and at times upsetting, it’s never had the sort of effect on me that infertility has had. This seems odd, given that I’ve lost abilities – the ability to drive, for instance – that had far more impact on my everyday life than a non-utilized ability to have babies ever did. But somehow differences in ability always just seemed like a natural part of being disabled: there are things “normal” people can do that I can’t, because I ride the special bus to life. This has never bothered me all that much, and it’s certainly not something that makes me feel ashamed.

But infertility made me feel broken – made me feel somehow less than – in I way that I’m not used to, and in a way that I never would have predicted. What surprised me even more was how many of these feelings of inadequacy were tied to feelings about my relationship with my partner. We’re constantly bombarded with the thinly-veiled assumption that women should be able to give their men babies. When my partner and I had been merely uninterested in having children, we were making an alternative lifestyle choice. When I became infertile, I was suddenly the sort of woman that couldn’t give her man babies.

Let me hasten to add that my partner has never been anything other than kind, supportive, and generally wonderful. Like me, he has never wanted children. What he does want, in his charmingly overprotective way, is to keep me from harm as much has he can. He always had a lurking fear that I would get pregnant, matched with a sincere hope that I would get an abortion immediately if I ever did get pregnant. To him, my infertility has been a profound relief. (And quite a lot of the time, I’ve felt the same way.) So feeling inadequate in my relationship with him made pretty much no sense whatsoever. And I knew that. But I still felt bad.

I have no idea what roots these feelings of inadequacy and brokenness – and they are no doubt complex and multi-faceted, without a single source or impetus. Perhaps part of it is tied into innate biology. Perhaps some of it comes from a basic recognition that babies are amazing, as is the ability to grow them in your own body. Who knows, maybe some of it is just residual earth-mother-goddess stuff leftover from the Second Wave (I did, after all, read Mists of Avalon at a very impressionable age). But I suspect – though I don’t know – that quite a lot of it comes from how we treat infertile women, and infertility more generally.

What I am certain of is that social attitudes and assumptions about both fertility and infertility do not help. Baby-having is something that we celebrate publicly and openly. Infertility is something we, for the most part, simply do not talk about. I learned very quickly that infertility is not a topic for polite people in polite societies having polite conversations. (Heaven forbid, it could make people uncomfortable.) And so women who cannot get pregnant are left with a less-than-subtle message created from contrasting norms. Having babies is something we should shout about from the roof tops, something we should encourage, something we should expect from normal women. The inability to have babies is, in contrast, something uncomfortable, unnatural, something we should pretend doesn’t exist – at least once the hope of medical/technological/divine intervention has officially been extinguished.

No wonder people like me feel ashamed, inadequate, less than. I’m a well-educated feminist who never wanted children, partnered to a well-educated feminist who never wanted children, and I still, at times, feel embarrassed about and ashamed of my infertility. I cannot imagine what women who desperately wanted to be pregnant must feel.

Part 1

Part 3

13 thoughts on “On becoming infertile – part 2

  1. Would it be ok if I wrote a post linking this post and part 1 at New APPS? They offer a beautiful, insightful account of a significant life experience.

  2. Of course! Please feel free to link to them. (And thanks for the kind words.)

  3. I think something similar (but certainly not the same) comes with getting older without having had children. It’s also hard to express why this passing of fertility — and the hint of social stigma attached to being a “selfish woman who prioritised her career over family” (not true) — should be so difficult to express when we might not actually want to have children. It’s hard to explain to other people, but I think it’s also the loss of choice (especially if you don’t have a partner). I am sorry for your sadness.

  4. I am also childfree by choice. For various reasons, I am probably infertile, although it’s not for certain so I still take birth control just in case. So, I can’t precisely relate to your feelings. But I can say this: People always ask me if I have children, and when I say “no,” the next question is usually, “why not?” I find myself stunned by that question not only because of its intrusiveness, but also because people never seem to stop to think that I might simply be infertile (and thus that their question might be painful for me). To me, this is anecdotal evidence for your assertion that “Infertility is something we, for the most part, simply do not talk about.” Don’t talk about, don’t think about — doesn’t even cross our mind as a possibility, even when it is an obvious candidate.

  5. @justanotherfeministphilospher. I have the same experience. Due to biological make up it would probably be hard for me to conceive, but I do not want to, so that’s ok, then. I am amazed how people always tend to make assumptions about admitted childlessness that seem to fall on the voluntariness side, so to speak, whereas I think that most cases of childlessness actually aren’t particularly voluntary. Indeed the “why not” is very intrusive and can be very painful.
    Yet another misconception is that when you have made the choice not to have children, therefore you do not regret any of the side effects of that choice, like never having grandchildren and being left out of a lot of things as they are restricted to parents (for instance, in the Netherlands, celebrating St Nicholas is pretty much restricted to parents with children, although it’s not that strict).
    I think my partner and I have made a good choice in not having children, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a happy choice, certainly not at all times.
    To get more on topic, I can totally understand your sense of loss at losing the capacity to reproduce and I think you explained it very well, anonymousfemalephilosopher. Thanks.

  6. Ha. Part three (the gripping conclusion!) of these little essays is in large part about the amazingly insensitive things people say.

    It’s a bizarre kind of comfort to know that my experiences with that are shared by others!

  7. These remarks even extend to people who have one child. I have one daughter who is approaching 10. She’s a beautiful happy girl. My partner and I wouldn’t mind having another child, but until now it has not worked in the natural way, and as we feel happy as a family, I don’t see why we would resort to fertility treatment (which I do see as a viable option for those people who feel their family is incomplete, of course), I do not see it as an option for us, especially given that we both have demanding jobs, and I heard from friends it’s an emotional roller-coaster ride.
    It is amazing how many times we get prompted by well-meaning friends, family etc. about why we have only one child. People even try to make us feel guilty that our daughter is an only child. The reasons why are complex: on the one hand, we are happy with one child, on the other, there is an unexplained infertility problem. We tend just saying, “Demanding jobs, you know”.

  8. I was always child-free by choice (which I tend to volunteer 1) so people don’t wonder if they should feel sorry for me, and 2) to spread the word that this is a legitimate way to be), and now I’ve just aged-out of the option. I have *not* experienced the kind of regret you’re talking about, although I think I kind of understand it. Just wondering what makes for the difference, and if I’d have felt as you do if I’d had my tubes tied, or required a hysterectomy — is the difference just because my infertility came on so gradually?

    Not a hugely compelling question for me, just something your story makes me wonder, and I figured another datum point could contribute to the overall picture.

  9. It’s incredibly difficult to come to terms with the inability to bear children, and I think your desire for children (or lack thereof) only plays a part in it. There’s pressure from society, family, friends. There’s a biological pull for most people that causes us to grieve.

    I’ve decided not to pursue parenthood after infertility treatments and a cancer diagnosis. I feel like I’ve been through enough heartbreak and I’m not interested in finding another through trying to foster or adopt. I wish there weren’t such a stigma against deciding not to have children, because I feel like I have to justify myself when people ask why I don’t have children and why I’m not planning on any.

  10. Sorry to go off on a tangent here, but when I hear of the smug superiority expressed by breeders with no understanding of the selfish greed of *their* behaviour, I can’t help wishing for them to be told in no uncertain terms that childlessness is probably the higher moral choice these days.

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