Barren. Infertile. Sounds like a wasteland, doesn’t it? Like a desert. Well that’s how it feels when you’re there. When you yearn for a baby that doesn’t exist, it’s not like being a six-year-old who wishes for a pony each year when she blows out her birthday candles, then forgets about it until next year, or next falling star. It’s like being the kid who is never picked on a team, who is left standing alone in the school yard every lunch time. It feels empty and vast and inhospitable. And lonely. Very very lonely. At least that’s how it felt for me.
Logically, I knew I was in that wasteland with my partner, someone I love dearly, the man who shares in everything in my life. But in this, our sharing wasn’t equal. I began to feel cheated, persecuted by remorse, plagued by black thoughts – he doesn’t feel that aching need to be a mother. His stomach doesn’t go cold nor his throat constrict with sorrow as hope dies again each month. He didn’t even notice that there were six pregnant women in the supermarket this morning. I did.
Statistics may say that as many as one in four Australian couples will face infertility, but your eyes and common-sense say that one in four couples is not childless. When you are, it hurts.
A successful student, a successful career person, I had never failed to achieve anything I really set my heart and mind on doing or having. Except this. Except the one thing I wanted most in the world. And I was not in control of the situation. No matter how hard I worked, I couldn’t make a difference. My efforts went without reward. It seemed so unfair. I felt alone, even though I knew I was not. Infertility knows no logic.
For over a decade, I persevered through barrages of drugs, exploratory and minor surgery. My partner and I endured perhaps a dozen attempts at various methods of In Vitro Fertilisation. The details and numbers are vague now, hazy, veiled by that quirk of nature that allows the memory of pain to become clouded. I was even pregnant a couple of times but never stayed that way for more than a couple of months. And I began to feel like a failure. Infertility affected my sense of self, stripped my confidence bare. Banished me to the wasteland. A wasteland in my head. A desert in my soul.
No clear reason for my inability to conceive was ever given. Pathological infertility they call it. I thought it made me sound like the problem was all in my head, like a pathological idiot. Like a fool. So I did a foolish thing. I began to build a wall around myself in that desert.
In the meantime, our friends were having families. Some were even complaining that a third child hadn’t really been part of their plan. Childlessness was certainly not part of our plan.
I recall a dinner party where one of our guests – who had two beautiful children, a boy and then a girl – quite sincerely commented that she, at last, knew how I felt. They had been trying for a third pregnancy without result for three successive months. She was, she told me, very disappointed. I just smiled and swallowed the sorrow and anger I truly wanted to express.
There’s a sort of social stigma attached to really discussing infertility. It’s almost taboo. Like death, it’s one of those topics that make people nervous, uncomfortable. It gets tied up with religious concepts or ignorant prejudices, fear and guilt. So I found myself protecting the sensibilities of others at my expense.
Ironically, though, as with pregnancy and child rearing, everyone seems to have a quick word of unwanted advice. Try to relax. Get more exercise. Stop thinking about it. Change your diet. Take a holiday. Lose weight. Gain weight. Some even offered the explanation that my childlessness was like Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest, as if any fruit of my womb would be an aberration. Others said that it was God’s will.
Some don’t realise it, in fact many will vigorously deny it, but a sort of exclusionist superiority often goes with the myth of motherhood and the sorority house of bearing children. Childless women are frequently seen as selfish, or vain, or money hungry, or greedy for power, when in reality they are struggling to present a façade of success and happiness. Public identities so easily become caught up in the images we project. Personal truths run much deeper.
Many assumed that I had put my career, overseas travel and accruement of possessions, ahead of having a family. They, of course, had selflessly sacrificed their business status, their financial independence, even their figures for their offspring. Their smug superiority cast me even further into the desert. Made me want to build the fortress wall around me still higher.
Some women bemoaned their latest domestic drama – a sleepless night, a broken necklace, toast in the VCR – telling me that I was lucky not to have children. It took a long time before I had the confidence to look one in the eye and suggest, “Want to swap?” She looked startled. “Imagine, if you can, life without loving your children… Makes your chest ache, doesn’t it?”
It should be remembered, especially by other women, that there is a vast chasm of difference between being childless by choice and suffering from infertility. Infertile women mourn the children they don’t have. Monthly.
The condition of infertility should not be a lonely one. Person to person, there are things we can do to help the flowers bloom again in someone’s desert. Cultivate conversation and nourish need.
And to those out there in that barren place, take stock. Take heart. Look around. You are not alone. Be brave enough to share your pain. Be strong enough to ask for help. Don’t build a wall around yourself. Rejoice in your talents and have pride in your achievements. Let your tears nourish your soul. Value the love that already surrounds you. And never, never lose hope. Cultivate even a small plot and the desert is not so vast.
Here, further down the track, now that I have learned to follow my own advice, I no longer dwell in the desolation. I am mother to two Korean-born children. There’s a garden where the wasteland used to be.
But that’s another story.
“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