Becoming infertile creates a social minefield all its own. I thought I was used to strained awkwardness, given that I’m both a person with a disability and a person who spends a lot of time talking to philosophers. But I still wasn’t prepared for the interactive weirdness of being an infertile woman in a world obsessed with women’s fertility.
People who know about my infertility often assume that I will be upset at any interaction with ,or mention of, babies. When I visited my family shortly after my operation, my sister (my only sibling) tried – painfully, sweetly – to make as little reference as possible to the fact that she was about to have her first baby. If you want to see something hilarious, watch a petite, 5’2 woman try to be subtly eight months pregnant. It doesn’t really work.
The truth of the matter is that I feel about other people’s babies the same as I have always felt about other people’s babies: I like them very much, so long as I incur no diaper-changing or babysitting responsibilities. I do tend to dislike how child-centric our culture can sometimes be. But while infertility may have sharpened that dislike a little, it was something that I felt long before I became infertile. (This is worth emphasizing, because I’ve found that knowledge of my infertility often colors the way in which people interpret me. And this tinged perception is usually misleading. If I seem a little reluctant to look at a new set of pictures of your baby, it’s not because I can’t look at pictures of babies without risking emotional breakdown. It’s that you’ve already shown me 400 hundred other pictures of your baby, and I – like most everyone else – have my limits when it comes to admiring baby pictures.)
That’s not to say that my infertility doesn’t affect my social interactions. It does, just not in the way you might think. I often feel pressure to conceal my infertility – particularly from parents and even more particularly new parents – in order to avoid their concerned glances and sweet-but-needless attempts not to upset me. It’s hard enough, when you’re permanently childless, to keep friendships intact once babies enter the picture. (Not, I should add, because we childless ogres hate children and anything to do with them, but simply because children, naturally and inevitably, change things.) The added social discomfort that infertility can add to the mix just doesn’t seem worth it. But the pressured silence this creates is alienating. And being in the company of lots of parents and children can often, as a result, feel deeply saddening – not because I can’t see babies without crumbling into a pile of emotional wreckage, but because they reinforce a specific kind of social isolation.
And this brings me to the Scylla and Charybdis of social interaction when you’re infertile (at least as I experience it. Your mileage may vary.) If people know about it, they treat you differently – they creep around your precious infertile-feelings as though walking on eggshells. But if they don’t know about it, there are no eggshells – and they proceed to stomp all over your already-weary heart with gleeful abandon.
When I was growing up, we were always taught that you simply do not, by way of casual conversation, ask people – particularly people you don’t know very well – about their reproductive plans. Nor do you make any assumptions about what those plans might be. If the person you’re talking to brings it up, then fine. But you don’t ask and you don’t assume. My father is a therapist, so I suppose he had particularly vivid first-hand knowledge of how important this is. He would often remind us that you simply don’t know what you’re putting your foot in if you bring up baby-having by way of small talk. You could be talking to someone who desperately wants to get pregnant but can’t. You could be talking to a couple on the brink of divorce because one wants a child and the other does not. You could be talking to a survivor of childhood abuse who is terrified of bringing a child of their own into the world. You just don’t know. Whatever mild benefit you might gain from casually prying into other people’s reproductive plans is surely outweighed by the risks.
I grew up thinking this was a social (and moral) norm. But if it is a norm, there are certainly a lot of people who either don’t know about it or take pleasure in ignoring it. About two weeks after discovering that the operation I needed would lead to permanent infertility, I attended a conference. An interesting – and wonderful – thing about this conference was that you could scarcely move without tripping over either a pregnant woman or a baby. Having babies was thus, quite naturally, the hot conversation topic at this conference. But because of how people handle this topic, the conference remains in my memory as one of the most socially painful experiences of my life. By the end, I was reasonably certain that if one more person said something to the effect of “Wow – all these philosophers having kids! I guess you’re next!” my head would explode.
People had occasionally said these kind of things to me before, of course. But it had never bothered me all that much. It had always annoyed me. But I would generally just use that annoyance as an excuse to catapult onto my soapbox and rant to my partner or friends for a while; and if I’m honest I’m rarely happier than when I’ve got a good rant going. But the onset of infertility turned offhand remarks like these from a mild annoyance into salt on an open wound.
“No,” I wanted to say, “I am not going to be ‘next’. Regardless of my preferences, my body can’t grow babies anymore. Thanks very much for reminding me, and for reinforcing how abnormal this is.” But much as I might’ve wanted to, I never said anything like that. And I don’t really know why. Somehow it always seemed that the same social rules which allowed people to make me uncomfortable forbid me from making them uncomfortable in turn. Maybe it just comes back to this: having babies is something we talk about (regardless, it seems, of how much damage we may casually inflict), but infertility is not something we talk about.
Whatever the reason, I felt the onus was on me to endure people’s insensitivity, rather than to call them out (and in so doing, to transfer the burden of discomfort). And as a result, I spent a lot of my time at that conference – and several subsequent ones like it – hiding in my hotel room, not wanting to go out and talk to people. Not wanting to go out and talk to people, because I worried that if one more person asked me when I was going to have a baby I just couldn’t take it.
I’ve developed a thicker skin about this as I’ve become more accustomed both to other people’s comments and to my own infertility. When people make casual enquiries or assumptions, it still makes me uncomfortable, but it doesn’t evince the sort of raw pain that it used to. There is one kind of comment, though, that never fails to floor me, both for its insensitivity and its absurdity. “(When) are you guys thinking of starting a family?” is something that people have, on many occasions, had the gall to ask my partner and I.
My partner and I are a family. We are a childless family, but that doesn’t make our family any less real or legitimate. The implication that people who don’t have children don’t have families – don’t have parents and siblings, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, partners, friends, pets – is beyond insulting. People have sometimes clarified their comment by saying that they were talking about a “nuclear family” (whatever that means). But just as I have an extended family, I also have a nuclear family. We are simply a family of two, rather than some n greater than two. Likewise, people without children and without romantic partners have nuclear families just as much as I do – those families are simply composed a little differently than my own. Whatever child-bearing abilities infertile women may lack, they do not lack families.
And with that, I draw these little ramblings to a close. Thank you very much for reading.