My computer got me pregnant. Well, my husband helped out a little, but our beloved 18-month-old son is well and truly a product of the information age and the Internet has been an integral part of his short life to date.
Back in 1998, my husband and I were relocated from our home in Australia to the UK. At the time we had been trying to have a baby for about a year. When we had still not conceived a further six months later I sought medical advice and was referred to the infertility clinic at the local hospital. By this time I was growing anxious and overwhelmingly broody, a state of affairs that was only heightened when I found out that the impoverished National Health system in the UK meant I would have to wait at least four months for my initial appointment. Depending on the results of tests taken at that time treatment would then commence a further month or two later, possibly longer.
For someone who yearned to have a baby yesterday this was shocking news. That night, as I sobbed on his shoulder, my husband had a brainwave. He knew I'd looked up textbooks, but why didn't I use the Internet to research possible causes of our infertility, learn about alternative or natural treatments I could start now, even find out if there were other hospitals that could help in our area?
I'd never actually used the Internet before we moved overseas, largely due to lack of access. Now though we had an account and computer at home, provided by my husband's employer and no doubt intended to be used solely for work-related tasks. With a complete lack of conscience, I logged on as soon as I could push his papers out of the way.
Typing "infertility" into a pre-Google search engine resulted in almost two million matches. Astounded by this newfound wealth of information I narrowed the next search to my particular problem area, anovulation. Within seconds I had literally realms of charts, information, and diagrams at my disposal, as well as whole pages devoted to achieving a pregnancy. Now that I've had more experience with the Internet and use it regularly the depth of information available does not surprise me, but back then it was a revelation. My poor husband didn't get to sit down at his computer again for weeks.
At first I used my time online to learn more about the biology of conception, though after a while I became drawn to the real life stories I kept encountering, successful or not. I discovered there were actually "bulletin boards" where women struggling to have a baby posted questions or discoveries, complained about their doctors or partners, gave voice to the oscillation between hope and despair that is the pulse of infertility. After shopping around I settled on an American-based website named Fertile Thoughts. Here there were numerous bulletin boards, depending on what stage of the process you were going through: infertility, adoption, IVF, surrogacy, miscarriage, and most coveted of all, pregnancy after infertility.
I became a regular on the "Just Starting" board, populated by others like myself who had been trying without success for a while, but had not yet moved onto the more frightening and technically assisted-conception procedures such as IVF. Questions and answers were posted at any time, then once a week we would update each other on our progress, occasionally cheering when one of our number graduated to the holy grail of the pregnancy board.
The amount I learnt in the first few weeks on the board was staggering, and far more than I could have picked up from a medical consultation or even a textbook. For one, I learnt the ins and outs of creating and interpreting temperature charts, but also about secondary fertility signs such as ovulatory pain, cervical position and breakthrough bleeding. After familiarising myself with the plethora of abbreviations used I also learnt which type of cm (cervical mucus) to look for when ttc (trying to conceive), how many dpo (days past ovulation) I should wait before an hpt (home pregnancy test) was reliable, even how to keep my dh (dear husband, the term used for any sort of partner) interested in bms (baby making sex, as opposed to the recreational kind).
Living on the other side of the world from my family and friends I soon became very attached to the board and the people who used it - women whose reproductive histories I can still recall, although I never met them and would not recognise their faces in the street. At first I lurked on the larger general infertility board as well but had to stop this after a time when I realised I was becoming depressed by the stories I was reading there: multiple failed IVFs, marriages breaking down under the pressures of infertility, people trying for 10 or more years to have a baby without success. I couldn't bear that this might be my future, and retreated hurriedly to the Just Starting board where the participants had yet to be disappointed so greatly or so regularly.
Six months later and two years after we started trying, I finally fell pregnant. To this day I am convinced that it was due to advice I received from the board. My contacts there even learned the good news hours before my husband did, immediately after that second line finally appeared on the hpt. It was Christmas Eve, and a part of me felt guilty that I had been so lucky while so many others were facing the holiday season with the ongoing ache of infertility, but not one of my cyber-friends expressed anything other than delight at my success. I am ashamed to say that almost immediately I moved across to the pregnancy board, returning only rarely to see how my old friends were. For one thing, I had no desire to offend anyone by continuing to post about my happiness, but perhaps more selfishly all of a sudden I had different questions, was going through a different experience. Happily pregnant, the atmosphere of that original board now felt oppressive, even a bit tedious, and my return forays became more and more irregular. I just wanted to enjoy what was finally happening to me, and forget for the moment about the dark months that had preceded it.
This was not to say that it was all sunshine over on the pregnancy board. Many of the women here had endured infertility for many years, and therefore there were an inflated proportion of high-risk pregnancies: multiple gestations (the result of IVF procedures), habitual miscarriers, those with incompetent cervixes or threatening medical conditions.
Some of the stories broke my heart. There was the IVF couple who had finally conceived on their third attempt, only to lose the baby in a freak accident at 16 weeks when the umbilical cord became twisted. There was a woman whose amniotic sac ruptured after a clumsy amniocentesis, sending her into premature labour at a stage far too early for a successful outcome, or the couple who made the difficult decision when they found they were expecting quads to have a selective reduction and ended up losing all four foetuses instead. Such tales were not an everyday occurrence, but heartache was never too far away. Amongst the triumphant descriptions of labour and delivery would appear the occasional stilted report of a stillbirth, and it was a routine event to see women appearing on the board ecstatically announcing a longed for pregnancy, then disappear just as quickly, the victim of miscarriage number four or five or six.
At times the prevailing American flavour of the board made me laugh, particularly the contradiction of its enthusiastic embrace of anything high-tech in the struggle to conceive, but repugnance at the thought of anything but a drug and technology free "natural" birth. On other occasions the strident, faintly pious tones of some contributors infuriated me beyond measure. A mother-to-be who dared post that she didn't intend to breastfeed was essentially excommunicated, and fights regularly broke out between the women who planned to be SAHMS (stay-at-home-Moms) and those returning to work.
After my son was born I graduated again, this time to the site's parenting board. In the overwhelming days of early parenthood this was a lifesaver, coaching me along the way to successful breastfeeding, reassuring me that yes, a newborn does go through that many nappies and wake up that many times.
As I've grown in confidence and returned to Australia I have less need of the board, though I still continue to visit occasionally to ask questions and to keep up with people whom I genuinely regard as old friends. Even if my time online stops altogether I'll always be grateful for the safety net that the Internet proved to be, and for the role our computer had in bringing us our baby. Perhaps I should have asked it to be one of his godparents.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem