Confronting the stigma of failed fertility treatments and the negative perceptions of childless women
This week around the world and across the blogosphere women came together to openly address a topic that is social kryptonite in our often one-dimensional, ‘let’s keep it light and fluffy’ culture: grief in the wake of failed fertility medicine.
We were drawn to this uncomfortable subject, as Sarah writes so eloquently, by “the heart starving nature of the absence of ‘me too’ in human conversation — a daily normality for those of us in the early years of grieving childlessness and/or recovery from multiple failed fertility treatments.”
It wasn’t easy even for the veterans — those further away from the treatment rooms — because as, Lisa writes, we “worked hard to heal the wounds” of our own infertility so that we “can step out into a world full of mothers and children and not feel as if I’m about to suffocate.”
Fertility Medicine Failures Silenced
It requires a special super power to grieve, to mend heartbreak and discover new ways to love all the while getting clubbed over the head by cultural norms and pressures that marginalize or silence those who dare, as Jody writes,”be honest about the emotional and social devastation of childlessness.”
This delicate dance is at the core of Julia Leigh’s new memoir, Avalanche: A Love Story. She writes about pursuing IVF:
“I didn’t want to tell people because I thought that unless they were involved in that world themselves they wouldn’t want to listen. Or they would only half listen and so diminish my experience. Or they would ask questions that required explanations too complex for conversation. Or they would offer advice based on hearsay and a general theory of positivity. Or I would make them uncomfortable because of my proximity to the abyss. Hush, keep your voice down, don’t mention it by name.”
Yet across time zones we plunged deep into our emotional reservoirs and revisited our largely unspoken experience because, as Julia describes in an interview with Lesley, we “wanted to offer a ‘shared aloneness’ to anyone who has desperately longed for a child.”
Each of us offered up a piece in what had been a puzzling willingness, as Cristy writes to believe “that those not parenting are unable to love on the deepest of levels.”
Julia also shines a spotlight on the predatory nature of fertility medicine. As I wrote in this New York Times Letter to the Editor, Avalanche takes us into uneasy, sometimes misleading and circular discussions with ‘fertility’ specialists.
“The hope that science can outsmart Mother Nature is what keeps people coming back for increasingly invasive, even experimental treatments. The fertility industry continues to grow without regulation or consumer protections. Side effects to medications (many used off label) are glossed over. Statistics are generalized.”
We know the courage it takes to give voice to an experience that sits outside the comfortable realm of conformity. As Jessica writes, it is “a subject that no one really wants to talk about and that society doesn’t seem to want to understand. Yet, it’s an experience that is happening on every street from England to Australia and it’s a social phenomenon that will shape the world in years to come. So we have to talk about it and understand it. Don’t we?”
Fertility Failure: Real Grief
Yes, we do. As hard as it is to bear witness and sit with someone else’s longing and anguish, the gift of doing so will make it easier down the line for others to be truly heard and seen. In doing so, we also affirm the power of compassion and human resilience.
While the immediate impact of childlessness is personal, we don’t live our lives in a vacuum. Women who are not mothers have long been portrayed as heartless. More recently in the world of politics some candidates have become punching bags — with opponents who are mothers going so far as to question a childless woman’s ability to adequately empathize or be fully capable of caring about future generations.
As Jody noted, “we live in a culture where evil or nasty female characters in films or fairy stories are always childless, and where childless female politicians are viewed with a mixture of pity and suspicion.”
In raising the interrelated issues of failed fertility medicine and the lack of consumer protections, the absence of social convention recognizing our losses and disenfranchised grief, and the cultural bias that exists around childless women we hope to pave a smoother road for those coming after us.
Please share and/or comment along the way to keep the dialogue moving forward.