The leftward and other blatherings of Span (now with Snaps!)

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The taint of infertility

As part of my ever present wondering about the roles of men and women in our society, and in particular when they are in a relationship and have children, I've wandered somehow into thinking about infertility. I'm not quite sure how this happened, but I guess with my posts on the pressure on couples to have children and all the general judging that seems to go on when it comes to pro-creation,* considering gender roles and the inability to pump out progeny was bound to occur to me at some point.

It seems to me that when infertility becomes an issue there is an implicit disapproval from many other people, and you feel a heavy weight of guilt and insufficiency yourself. That somehow the inability to produce new people makes you less of a person.

Biologically, I'm not clear about why others would feel this way about the infertile, unless you are related to the barren one. After all, if another couple can't have kids doesn't it mean less competition for your own offspring? Evolutionarily I wouldn't expect the infertile to be especially valued, but it doesn't make total sense for the fertile to devalue them either - they're less of a threat in fact than those who can breed. Sure they would be of less value if our species based its judgements solely on reproductive abilities, but that isn't the case for humanity.

The family unit is of course a different environment, one where the ability to carry on genes, traditions, and names is often of great import, and from an evolutionary perspective the attitude from relatives makes sense. But my main concerns today are the general ill will from the unrelated and the harsh view we take of ourselves.

Perhaps the aversion some feel towards those who are sterile is more social imposition than biological imperative. Consider if you will the thoughts and feelings of my common foe AJ Chesswas, who feels that sex is always about the pitter patter of tiny feet, a view which seems reasonably common to those more fundamental of religion (Christian or otherwise) and goes hand in hand with desires that subjugate women.

My observation is that women have historically been the bearer of blame when a child is not produced. Certainly this has commonly been the approach within the family and often also by the father. Cast your minds back to the way royal wives were treated if they failed to produce an heir. Men now bear the guilt and hurtful rumours too, as we know these days that it can be the XYer with the medical problem that bars conception.

We seem to still feel less human if we can't reproduce, even though we now know that there are many factors at play and there is usually no one who is actually to blame in a willful sense. I wonder if part of it is that we don't feel fully adult until we have produced a child. Maybe becoming a parent is in fact part of ascending to adulthood, a rite of passage. The three ages of women have been stereotyped as Maiden, Mother, Crone. If you are no longer a Maiden and can't be a Mother then do you skip straight to Crone?

I'd be interested in some reader comment on this (as always), and I'm wondering in particular how people would feel if it became commonly known in their social or work environment that they were infertile, or having difficulties conceiving. How would you feel, for example, if one of your friends was telling other people that you had been trying to conceive for months and were having Troubles? Would you feel worse if it was untrue?

Note: If you prefer to comment anonymously on this, you can do so even if you have a Blogger profile. You simply choose Anonymous from the list in the comment box, above the orange Publish button.

* This is not the place to debate the repeal of s59. I've already written this and this and this and this on that, so kindly comment on that issue on one of the four posts you have to choose from, otherwise a deletion may offend.


Make Tea Not War said...

Interesting thoughts. I'm not saying I agree with this but I think there definitely is a societal view that once you become a parent you have officially joined "the Grown Ups Club." It is a definite rite of passage though whether it will continue to be dominant as more people choose childlessness remains to be seen.

I have been fortunate in that I haven't struggled with infertility although I guess I may if I decide to try for another baby later on- but I remember feeling very sad for a co-worker of mine in her 40s who told me in confidence that she had been unsuccessfully going through treatment for infertility. She didn't want it generally known (she said) because she didn't want people at work to perceive her as unserious about her job. I never told anyone about this (although I guess I am now...but no one reading this knows who she is) because I don't think its something anyone with any sensitivity lightly gossips about. It's extremely personal and potentially fraught with heartbreak and tragedy as when someone keeps suffering repeated miscarriages or even desperately wants a child but can't have one.

I don't know whether people, in general, really disapprove of infertility as opposed to those who are child free by choice though perhaps there is a degree of blame and vindictiveness if you are perceived to have waited too long for career reasons. On the other hand anyone who has children at what is perceived as too young isn't spared judgement either.

With respect to your question about a "friend" spreading rumours I'd probably tell them to STFU on the general principle that my business is my own & I don't care to have my sex life speculated about- but I don't think I'd be all that bothered if they were falsely spreading rumours that I was having troubles. If the rumours were true it would be more upsetting .

Anonymous said...

Did you see the John Campbell piece on this last night? I missed it but really wanted to see why they were saying you have to have your babies before 30

Anonymous said...

I think the whole issue of child bearing is so confusing for women these days, and for men too. For a long time women had kids, that was their purpose in life. Then the liberation movement meant that women finally had choices and many women chose to have their families much later than their mothers and grand mothers. This has also seen the rise in infertility as an issue as older parents struggle to conceive. Now, ironically, there seems to be a swing again to encourage younger women to give birth and save themselves the infertility heartache. I really feel like saying HANDS OFF. Don't tell me when it is right and when it is wrong to have a baby, my partner and I will decide when it is acceptable.

I am a young woman who has always classed herself as a feminist and been ambitious in my life goals. I always, when I was younger (like really young...11-19), thought I would want childern in my thirties after I had conquered the world. But I have realised that I want to have children as a part of my life sooner than that (mid twenties). That is what feels right for me and what I hope to do. But in discussing this with friends I have been told it must be because I lack direction or am scared of deciding what ‘I want to be when I grow up'. I think really what it is is being scared of leaving it too late, like all the horror stories hammer on about, and not having the options for treatment I have if I detect a problem with my fertility early.

But I think people's fertility and their choices are entirely their business and what is right for one person is not for another. It is certainly not a topic for gossip and discussion on it as such could be very hurtful.

Oliver said...

It's my observation that stigatising of women over infertilitytends to fade with the march of science and education.

Lyndon said...

"Biologically, I'm not clear about why others would feel this way about the infertile..."

I've seen evolutionary psychology arguments that assume these things arise in a tribal situation - where everyone you know actually is related to you. Not that I have a much truck with evolutionary psychology.

Legal Eagle said...

I think that many women have a very deep-seated desire to have children. It can be visceral, hormonal and uncontrollable. Not only that, it can become all-consuming and extremely painful. Being a mother is seen as an "intrinsic" part of being a woman - and this can lead narrow-minded people to think that a woman who can't (or don't want to) have children are somehow "lesser women".

I have a friend who had to resort to some pretty hardcore fertility treatment in order to have her children (hormone therapy, IVF, egg donors etc). She had suffered cancer as a young woman, and chemotherapy had saved her life, but rendered her infertile. I certainly didn't mind when she talked about her own fears and feelings of guilt to me.

She felt that her partner was limited by her infertility - he could have had children if he had chosen a different partner. She also felt that somehow, she wasn't a "true woman". It became particularly difficult when her friends with whom she had grown up started having children (I was one of them). She said that the pain she felt was almost physical in its intensity.

The story has a happy ending: my friend managed to have two beautiful children. I don't think I can type anything more about it, because I'll cry.

Another friend, who has been trying for two years to conceive a child, does not talk to me much since I have had my little girl. Although on one level this hurts, I can understand why, and I would never criticise her for it or mention it to her. Her position is made more difficult by the fact that she comes from a culture where being a mother is really important to one's status in the community.

There is a lot of insensitivity about infertility. I worked with a lovely man, and often wondered why he and his wife didn't have children. I didn't ask. One day, he explained that they couldn't have children, and they had been very sad about it. He thanked me for never asking him the question for all those years, and waiting until he felt ready to talk about it to me. They had fielded all kinds of questions about it. He said he'd developed a cheeky quip to stop people asking further: "No, we don't have children, but trying to make 'em is fun!"

One should never ask people if they are "trying" for children or the like. It may be that they are trying unsuccessfully, that they have infertility problems, or that they don't want to have children. And that's their personal business.

The notion that a "friend" would gossip about alleged infertility problems is abhorrent. What kind of friend is that? Particularly if the allegations were untrue! There's absolutely no shame in having infertility problems, there's no way someone should invent gossip about a friend! What an appalling thing to do.

Pamela Jeanne said...

The subject you raise in this post is the sole focus on my blog: Check out the comments from woman around the world with ages ranging from 20something to 40something. I also would like to call your attention to the notice for the International Infertility Film Festival that links to a set of "videos" that represent women and couples struggling with infertility. The subject is complex and touches many different aspects of life and's a life changing diagnosis.

Gerrit said...

In the same vein as infertile couples dealing with societal sensitivity, my wife and I had to deal with a slightly different but in many respects, similar situation.

She became pregnant 2 years after I had a vasectomy.

True friends were very supportive but both of us having to deal with the "so who IS the father" innuendos for a long time and the effect certainly took a long lasting toll.

Ghet said...

It took us fourteen months to conceive our first child, and by the end of that time we had started down the path of endless tests and examinations, temperature-taking, all that stuff.

I was a complete emotional mess. I would cry uncontrollably every time I had a period. I became acutely conscious of children, everywhere I looked. I've dealt with divorce, with having a handicapped child, with chronic illness, and this was the most emotionally damaging thing I have ever been through.

I can't imagine ANYONE ever gossipping about someone's infertility. It never happened to me, and it didn't happen to the other women I've seen struggle to conceive. People have either been supportive, or just minded their own business.

What does sometimes bother me is women in their twenties blithely assuming they can spend twenty years on the pill, then just switch their fertility back on and have a child just like that. Fertility is quite simply not something you can control, and to watch someone setting themselves up for the kind of pain I went through is difficult for me.

Craig Ranapia said...

We seem to still feel less human if we can't reproduce, even though we now know that there are many factors at play and there is usually no one who is actually to blame in a willful sense. I wonder if part of it is that we don't feel fully adult until we have produced a child. Maybe becoming a parent is in fact part of ascending to adulthood, a rite of passage. The three ages of women have been stereotyped as Maiden, Mother, Crone. If you are no longer a Maiden and can't be a Mother then do you skip straight to Crone?

I'd broadly agree with you, but that doesn't only affect women. I don't have children, but people don't really give it a second thought because 1) I'm gay (therefore not a 'real man' obsessed with spreading his DNA through the gene pool), and 2) my partner is in his mid-sixties, not an age folks consider your prime parenting years.

But I'm also sterile, and there's still a part of me that sometimes twinges when I see friends with their children. And not so long ago, I was really ashamed to even think the S-word. Talk about my homosexuality? No problem. Be up front about the history of mental illness and alcoholism? Well, you've got to take the rough the smooth.

But admitting I fire blanks - that still makes me feel deeply, irrationally ashamed.

Span said...

I am very humbled, if that isn't too wanky, by the contributions to this thread. Thank you very much for your comments.

It's terrible that people still assume that trying to get pregnant means you aren't serious about your job, but I know it's true for women today. Can't remember the last time I heard comment that a man wasn't serious about his work because he was becoming a father. If anything the assumption is that nothing will change in his commitment to his job - an assumption I know has created problems for new dads who actually don't want to work 60 hour weeks once they have a baby in the house (and I imagine the other parent doesn't want them to work long hours either).

It seems it's just a general judge-a-rama, when it comes to fertility, infertility, when you have your children, how you raise your children, and your lifestyle if you don't have children (for whatever reason). Humph.

As to the gossiping about infertility, I think if that were happening to me and it were true I would be very weepy and ashamed, despite knowing the shame and guilt was irrational. I cannot imagine how I would feel if someone was talking behind my back about my fertility, or lack thereof, and I suffered a miscarriage, that would be too too horrible. But this gossiping does happen, sadly.

I've had two friends miscarry in recent years and both have had nothing but love, support and sympathy from the people I have observed. And that's how it should be.

Span said...

Another thing I wanted to mention briefly is that a friend of mine was telling me that her observation of academia was that career-wise it is much more advantageous for a woman to have children "young" and then come back to her career, rather than wait until she is established.

To me that would seem to be the exception rather than the norm, is that other readers' observation too or am I waaaaay off beam?

Legal Eagle said...

When I found I was pregnant, I was about to turn 30 and a female partner at work said "Gosh, you're having your children young!" My Mum had my sister and I in her mid 20s, so by comparison, I was having my children late.

I would agree that among professional women these days, it is the norm to have children "late". The problem is that you spend a few years at university, another few years establishing your career...and then suddenly you're 35...heading up to 40. My aunt was lucky enough to have her two children when she was 40ish, but many of her friends of a similar age could not have children, despite trying all kinds of fertility treatments for many years.

It was partly because I had watched the experience of these women that I decided to have my child comparatively "early". As far as I'm concerned, I've got the rest of my life to devote to career, but my daughter will only be a baby once, and I don't want to miss too much of that.

Make Tea Not War said...

The thing about children and careers is finding a balance. I can certainly see why someone might want to have children in their 20s to lessen the chance of infertility. I also think it would probably take less of a toll physically- the sleepless nights certainly would not have affected me as much in my 20s as they did when I came to have my one child in my mid 30s- BUT you have to balance that against the risks of how you are going to support yourself and your child if things don't work out with your partner because of relationship breakdown, illness or even death. So my advice to my daughter will be, which my mother gave to me, is don't wait too long but do wait till you know you can support yourself and anyone else that comes along. A life as a solo mother on benefits or a minimum wage job just isn't an easy one and you will enjoy your children more & be able to give them more if you aren't struggling to provide the necessities.

As far as careers go- I think in the early years of small children most likely you do have to de-prioritise your career somewhat. But those years don't last forever and while you may lose ground during them and I don't think will be advantaged by them- its still possible to rev up your career again as your family committments become less demanding. And its actually quite common for people- men and women- to change careers nowadays so you won't necessarily be that unusual if you start something new. It is possible (depending on discipline) to enter academia later in life if you have that inclination. But there's other options: mature people go to law school and then go to work as lawyers. Or to teachers training college and so forth. My mother changed careers at 6o to become a public historian and now she's paid to do research and write books.

And I actually think my colleague who was concerned about not being seen as serious if she signalled she wanted children was greatly exaggerating the risk of that. Some workplaces have that culture (she was ex Treasury incidentally) but mine is pretty ok with people having family committments.

dad4justice said...

Kids do best when they have both a mum and dad to love and nurture them . 4 the kids - in solidarity -d4j

Span said...

So d4j you read my post and then you read all the comments and your sole contribution was to pick up on one point in one comment (that sometimes relationships bust up and for that reason it may be better for women to be financially secure before they have a child, so that they can support them if the other partner isn't around) and then you throw in with your "the best family is the trad nuclear" line?

Now that's impressive one track thinking.

In regard to other comments - I've seen more and more people come to careers like teaching after having time off for children (or after they threw in another career) and I must say it's great to know that there are more options now. I hope that only improves in the future.

Span said...

In a similar vein to my original post - do people think there is a bias against people who adopt? Except for the international celebrity adoption circuit, I haven't perceived one.

It's interesting that being infertile still carries a taint (unfairly) yet if you adopt that would seem to be erased.

Legal Eagle said...

The only "stigma" I would see associated with adoption is an idea that if you adopt a child from a different ethnic background (particularly a child from a third world country), you are removing that child from its culture. I think this objection has no foundation, particularly if the parents handle the matter well. If I adopted a child from a different background, I would ensure she could interact with her birth culture if she wished to do so, and I would educate her about her country or culture of origin. The important thing, however, is the love and support that child would get from her adoptive parents. And that's a great thing.