Since it’s Canadian Infertility Awareness Week, I thought it would be a good time share why I haven’t posted anything in nearly a year. I’ll start by saying that I’m pretty sure I don’t have a biological clock.
I have never experienced a burning, nearly uncontrollable desire to procreate.
I have never worried about reaching age 35 when, according to the way some people carry on, all of my eggs would suddenly shrivel up and waste away to nothing.
Despite occasionally thinking that I might maybe/perhaps/someday want kids, I’ve always been pretty agnostic about the whole business. I’ve spent most of my adult life utterly baffled – not in a judgmental way, mind you – by the way some of my female friends have planned their relationships, careers, and very lives around having children. Likewise, I’m sure they were just as baffled by my standard response to questions about my own reproductive stance: “It’s not that I’ve decided not to have children, it’s that I haven’t decided to have them.”
A few years ago, I started thinking more carefully about that position.
In 2011, I had an ovarian cyst, as well as part of my uterus, surgically removed. After the surgery, my OB-GYN told me, straight up, that instead of first trying to conceive “naturally”, I should let him know as soon as Just Husband and I were ready to become parents so that he could recommend me to a fertility clinic.
I don’t think I have the words to describe how visceral my resistance to his advice was. If I was baffled by my friends’ hopes and dreams about having children (and, relatedly, their anxieties about not being able to), it was nothing compared to the sheer bewilderment I felt about possibly spending thousands upon thousands of dollars on trying to have a child. I simply couldn’t comprehend ever making that decision, even in light of my reproductive issues. Just Husband shared this perspective, so we decided that for the first year of our marriage, we were going to give it the ol’ college try. If we didn’t conceive, then we’d consider beginning fertility treatments.
In retrospect, I think I made this decision partly because I’m a stubborn, Super-Achieving-Smarty-Pants™ who likes to be in control of her life, which includes being in control of her body’s operations (ha!). Seriously, though, it felt as though my decision to have children had been taken away from me, and I didn’t like it. Not one little bit. So, delaying seeking fertility support was my way of trying to regain that feeling of control.
The year went by, and nothing happened, so I made an appointment at a fertility clinic. Then, before I actually went to see the doctor, I discovered the reason I’d been feeling so nauseous and disgusting for the past several weeks was because I was six weeks pregnant. (Sometimes, I really am just a pretty face!)
You might expect that my immediate reaction was one of elation but honestly, I was simply too stunned. After all, I’d spent at least four years thinking that it would be difficult for me to get pregnant the “old-fashioned” way. My parents and in-laws were elated, of course, but I think Just Husband and I spent most of our time in a daze. This is not to say we weren’t happy; it’s just that we couldn’t quite wrap our heads around the fact that we were going to become parents.
One week later, I had my first pregnancy ultrasound. A fetal heartbeat could not be detected.
The next day, the person who’d made an offer on our condo changed their mind. There were only four weeks left before the closing date on the house we’d just bought.
So, in the space of 24 hours, I was faced with the loss of a potential child, and the potential loss of Just Husband’s and my “forever home”, the one we could see raising a family in.
That’s really all I can say about that time. The last half of 2014 well and truly royally sucked.
Earlier this year, Just Husband and I decided that we were ready to try conceiving again. I went back to the fertility clinic, had a series of very painful and invasive tests that definitely put the guy in “gynecology”, and started taking drugs and hormones to increase the chances of conception. I also dutifully go for regular monitoring – based on her description, I’m pretty sure Siri Agrell and I attend the same clinic – but all the while I’m thinking about how far down this road I want to travel, or even whether I’ve already gone far enough.
To be clear, it’s not that I’m ambivalent about wanting to have a child at this point in my life; it’s that I am resistant to our society’s unrealistic and hypocritical Motherhood Ideal, and the expectations for how that role “should be” performed by women. Namely, that motherhood is the be-all and end-all of women’s existence, and that we are somehow incomplete if we cannot have children. Even worse, if we choose not to have children, we are selfish, shallow and self-absorbed. As Jesse Ellison has written,
Deciding to be agnostic about child-bearing […] doesn’t mean becoming immune to the onslaught of messages about the importance of motherhood […] they reinforce the message that there’s little that women won’t do in pursuit of the motherhood ideal: Give birth as a grandma! Breastfeed till college! Quit your job at the State Department to raise a troublesome teen! Between all of that—not to mention incessant questions from meddlesome aunts and uncles and wannabe grandparents—the cacophony of voices can seem deafening. It can get so loud that it becomes difficult to silence our self-doubt.
Last summer, I had three subsequent ultrasounds to confirm that my pregnancy was actually a missed miscarriage. Afterwards, I could sense the unspoken expectation – from medical staff, friends, and even family – that I should have been far more upset than I was. It seemed as though I was expected to be devastated, rather than “merely” sad and disappointed. (To be sure, the day I got the results of the ultrasound, I asked to leave work early, then went home and cried.) Perhaps, if I’d had more than one week to adjust to the idea of being pregnant, if the fetus had had more time to grow and develop inside me, I would have been devastated. But, for whatever reason, I was not. And I felt guilty about it. And then I felt resentful for feeling guilty. But, the Motherhood Ideal is just that powerful, despite the fact that it’s a relatively recent invention, a socio-cultural artifact of 19th-century Western industrialized society.
Which brings me to 21st-century Canada: as I perused some of the online material about Infertility Awareness Week (which I’d never even heard of until I stumbled across the article about Ms. Agrell), the primary focus seemed to be on providing people with support and solidarity to help them manage the pain, struggle and isolation of being infertile. And, I have to say, I found myself wondering if I could even be part of the awareness activities this week since, at least for the moment, I do not experience infertility in that way. While it’s true that I haven’t told all of my friends and family about it, it’s not because of shame: it’s partly because I’m just a very private person (this blog post notwithstanding!), and partly because I just don’t have the energy to spend on managing other peoples’ expectations when I don’t behave according to the Motherhood Ideal.
So, I’ve been wondering if, as part of “breaking the silence about infertility”, can we also break the silence around the Motherhood Ideal? Can we talk about what “infertility” would mean if we didn’t consider motherhood to be the default setting for women? Can we consider how this might change our approaches to infertility, medically, socially, politically, and economically? Can we consider how it might help to lessen the stigma around it?
Can we talk about what would happen if we treated peoples’ reproductive desires, choices, restrictions, and reactions – whatever they may be – with respect?
This week, I’d love to find out.