Womanly In More Ways Than One

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FYI: I’m updating this post with a poll since the Newsweek story (mentioned below) has had me wondering what you (infertile and fertile alike) really think. Since anonymous polls net more participation, here’s your chance to weigh in. Don’t be shy!

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Survived my first very busy day back in the office after a holiday break that included:

  • Getting snowed in with the marvelous Mr. PJ in the Sierra Nevada mountains (heaven, for all the obvious reasons — I mean what else do you do when you’re snowed in with your man with nothing but time, a fireplace and wine?)
  • Catching a series of the latest, greatest releases on the big screen including Valkyrie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons and The Reader. All get my thumbs up. For the last two, bring plenty of tissue (warning: I almost dehyrdated from the tears shed) … still much more on the list to see — what a feast there is on the silver screen of late.
  • More edits to Silent Sorority. My final manuscript is now off on its way to a terrific book editor (fingers crossed for something resembling a book deal in the not too distant future).  Thanks to all of you who have emailed to ask about it. Please stay tuned.

Now here’s the thing. I also had some time to surf the Net, research and look into more on the topic of involuntary childlessness and what I found made me appreciate how glad I am to:

  1. Live in Bay area of California — one of the most progressive places on the planet
  2. Have a really interesting career in the endlessly fascinating cradle of innovation (aka Silicon Valley)
  3. Not have to suffer the level of ostracism that my sisters in other parts of the world face when they can’t conceive.

Not sure how I missed this Newsweek article, What it Means to be a Woman, which ran in September, but it’s worth revisiting if only to offer up further evidence that infertility is not something to be marginalized or swept under the rug. This quote made my blood run cold:

In some developing countries, the consequences of infertility—which can
include ostracism, physical abuse and even suicide—are heartbreaking.
“If you are infertile in some cultures, you are less than a dog,” says
Willem Ombelet of the Genk Institute for Fertility Technology in
Belgium. Women are often uneducated, so their only identity comes from
being moms. “It [infertility] is an issue of profound human suffering,
particularly for women,” says Marcia Inhorn, professor of anthropology and international affairs at Yale University. “It’s a human-rights issue.”

And that’s just one of many quotes that will leave you practically speechless. Here’s another:

“In Western countries, it has become much more socially acceptable to be
childless, and more American women are hitting their 40s without kids,
according to the latest census data. By contrast, in many developing
countries, women have no careers—just motherhood—to give them their
identity. “The notion of child-free living is not considered an
acceptable thing for a married couple,” says Inhorn.

One of the biggest challenges in my own struggle to accept my infertility was overcoming the feeling that I was less of a woman. Yes. There it is. Sigh. A child of the women’s movement with a graduate degree and a successful career and I was still tripped up by the whole I am only as valuable as my parts mentality.  Perhaps that’s why you’ll usually find me wearing form-fitting clothes that highlight my natural curves. The equipment may not work as intended but it looks pretty darned good in the latest fashions.
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Is it any wonder I’m grateful not to be trapped in a society or place with nothing to stimulate the other part of what I’ve come to appreciate is just as important to my womanliness, my mind.

You can read more of Inhorn’s thoughts in her book Infertility Around the Globe: New Thinking on Childlessness, Gender and Reproductive Technologies. Not surprising I just ordered myself a copy.

Now if you excuse me I’m going to take my womanly body and mind into 2009 and get ready for what promises to be an interesting year.

22 comments

  • I couldn’t agree more, I am so grateful to live in a place where the fact that I don’t have children doesn’t define me in a societal sense. I’m still working on the internal voice that calls me a failure though.

  • sounds like you (and your fabulously womanly body) had a wonderful break!

    maybe you’ll review the book after you’ve read it?

  • How can it be that in 2009 women are still defining women by motherhood? We are so much more than that. It almost seems like arrogance to me when someone comments on a couple being childless…they have a tone that intimates that they are somehow “lesser” because they don’t have a child. It is crazy madness.

  • Sounds like you had a wonderful break up there in the mountains, PJ!

    And thanks for the heads up about the Inhorn book – it sounds like a really important read. I’m so excited to hear that the your own ms has gone off to the editor, and will hope to hear news of a book deal very soon.

  • Now, if we were just put on this planet to make babies, we’d all die at 45 or so.

    But we don’t. In fact, elder women were the mainstays of advice and guidance in many communities around the world and in many different eras.

    I wish there was something we could do to support women in IF-hostile societies. If only to let them know they’re not alone.

    Great news on the book! I’m knocking wood things will move forward.

  • I wish I could search engine her whole blog, but I could swear that Loribeth at The Road Less Travelled talked about that Newsweek article about what it means to be infertile for women in other countries. I remember thinking how lucky I was to live in this society and not somewhere else.

    You will get a book deal, I’m sure of it! The more attention infertility gets, the less of a taboo subject it will be in our world.

  • I meant to tell you that D. saw your holiday card and was appreciative of that womanly body. : ) He also said that you and Mr. PJ looked “like you know how to have fun.”

    Congrats on the sending ms out for editing!

    I ordered a used copy of Inhorn’s book.

  • myrtle

    Although I have a career, it was male factor IF that delayed my pursuit of motherhood. after lots of expense and heartache for the past 4 years, I was told that my eggs are done/gone. This last ivf failure of course has hit me hundreds fold harder than the earlier ones because there is no turning back. Last night just combing my hair and finding a patch of grey hair brought me to tears. How did I get so old and why didn’t my uterus scream louder to me: “it is time”? I think that especially when women tell me they felt a biological urge to get pregnant. How could I get pregnant with no swimmers!!!!

    Most people might assume that I chose career over children, and that could not be further from the truth.

    I can’t turn back time but my brain doesn’t stop replaying the many times people have asked “Why does a beautiful couple like you not have children? Your children will be so cute!” Well, these beautiful people got a raw deal! And they have to get up in the morning and pretend that everything is okay! Although I don’t fear ostracism, I am so painfully sensitive right now of how I am/will be forever different from other folks. And I don’t think that adoption will ever correct that. On the positive side, I have found a new talent for acting–I survived the holidays and at work I am the picture of business as usual!

    I appreciate your blog so much and wish I had found it “in time” 🙁 for a different outcome. But thankfully you are here now.

  • I saw that article awhile back. Our situation as childless women may not be perfect… but compared to some of these women…?? I have often said how incredibly thankful I am to the Powers That Be that I was born a woman in late 20th century Canada!!

    Glad you had a great holiday, & fingers crossed about your book!! I have pre-ordered Mel’s and would LOVE to add yours to my reading list!!

  • Happy New Year, PJ! Great news on your house and your book, and being snowed in sounds fabulous! I remember reading something about that article when it came out (likely on someone’s blog as I don’t read Newsweek). The book sounds very interesting and I’ll be on the lookout for it myself, and naturally waiting to hear what you think of it. You and your insightful insights!

    As for my womanly parts, well, I’ll just say that there were some moments during the holidays that being sexy and fit were my only consolation. I might as well enjoy it, right?

  • I saw this when I was in the Peace Corps. I didn’t see women being beaten or anything – although I supposed I would have been kept from that. I did understand that a infertile woman (even if it was male infertility) was never really welcomed into the mother circle. This was true even for women who had good jobs.

  • stepping up

    Thanks for the reminder. The western culture does make it easier. At least it keeps people guessing as to your private decisions…
    However, my mid-west corner of the world feels like the 1950s at times. I went back to work on Monday, and within two days, my co-workers have had FOUR separate baby stories. I walk in with an open mind, and before I unlock my office door at 7am, there’s a new grandma with pictures. Even the ONE man at work is keeping an hourly vigil on his upcoming grandchild. How does one stop the world from halting your positive attitude? Please help. Suggestions?

  • Happy New Year! May it bring the Silent Sorority out into the light of day and onto the bookshelves.

  • nia

    Happy new year and thank you for this wonderful blog! Thanks for being so open and I really admire your energy. And yes we are glad to live in countries where (at least officially) CF women are not put under pressure. Still there is this ‘archaic’ aspect of wanting children that is difficult to fight.

  • myrtle

    The “new technologies” constantly being marketed make it difficult to make peace with being reluctantly childless. For example, it drives me crazy that we are constantly bombarded with the ticking biological clock and “new” ways to fight ovarian expiraton. Egg freezing is now being sold as an option for “career women” to postpone having children. And my doctor couldn’t stop talking about the benefits of egg donation or what she called the “hollywood effect” of older women having children. All these “cutting edge” solutions make it appear that all you have to do is try something! I think I am tapped out in the disappointment I am willing to bear and I wish the fertility industry were truly fertility medicine. The latter it is not.

    All you strong women give me hope that I will not only overcome this moment of mental anguish but also come out healthier physically and spiritually. Although yoga is not really helping me turn off the reality of ivf failure that’s keeping me tossing and turning at night, right now, hopefully it is doing something to keep me from falling apart! As for the gray hair that colonized my head during my treatment, I got a fabulous color to cover it up!

    • Pamela Jeanne

      I couldn’t agree more on the fight to find peace amid the bombardment and marketing of quick and easy fertility fixes. They are neither — but that’s not in the interest of the fertility industry or society to acknowledge. The fertility industry is a for-profit industry hence the onerous costs associated with treatment and, sadly, society has proven (so far) to have no appetite for understanding the complexity of infertility and its affects on couples physically, emotionally or financially.

  • Bea

    Much as it’s inappropriate to say it to someone who is still in the trenches, it is a blessing that we women today have real options other than motherhood.

    You strut that stuff now!

    Bea

  • lady macleod

    Love fire and wine picture in my head… I hate it that I can not watch Tom Cruise movies anymore! After his statements (the man does not HAVE A UTERUS) and various actions I just can’t do it. I hate it when I know something horrid about the actors, it screws with my ‘suspense of reality’. Anxious to see the other two, and glad to have your review.

    I would love it if my answer in the survey could be other than the first – but there it is. When I lost my children (6 months, and 7 months) I blamed no one but me – no logic folks just raw emotion.

    As usual my friend you give joy and much to munch on mentally.

  • myrtle

    Okay, I don’t like surveys but I’d have to say that even though I know that motherhood as we know it is a social construction – just see the variability of models in the world and along class lines – my interactions with the world around me tell me that I am not complete whether I reject that as true for me or not. Also, during late thirties, the social pressure to conform is great. Random people and your own relatives always have to tell you “it’s not too late.” So, we won’t be ostracized but as so many people have mentioned, we do experience overt marginality and subtle snubs. Even on a vacation a couple of years ago a random stranger we ran into asked whether we had children and told us to “get on the case.”

    I think I am going to try a new approach. Come back with “my eggs are fried” and the “swimmers don’t work” or we plan to get to it when we are 50 and see how they respond. This is such a public private matter – it sucks to have the world focused on your uterus.

  • Shira

    I find myself identifying with the women in that article, to some extent. No, I am not beaten for being unable to bear a child, but I have been ostracised, due to other health conditions I am unable to work (and the damage done to me by the ICSI treatment and subsequent miscarriage in September – my eighth – has made me unable even to pursue any hobbies), and basically I have no life. Motherhood was the only thing left for me after fibromyalgia, chronic myofascial pain and lipoedema stripped away all my other options, and it was something I’d wanted more than anything else. Now even that option is gone and everything I can find about involuntary childlessness goes on about focusing on your career (what career?), your social life (mine exists entirely online as I am not well enough to go out and meet people, or have them come to me most of the time, and in any case I live in Ireland where everyone has loads of kids), your hobbies (even if I were well enough to do them these days, great, I’m supposed to base my entire self around knitting and painting?), and be thankful that at least your figure is intact from not having given birth and breastfed…well, I am fat. Always have been. My breasts are large and have been saggy since before I ever started trying to conceive eight and a half years ago, when I was only 20. I have lipoedema which means I cannot ever lose weight and have 26-inch calves and 37-inch thighs, and they are getting bigger. I have PCOS so I have no menstrual cycle, which shuts me off from other women even more. I don’t have a purpose any more. All my friends – including every single formerly childless couple – are having baby after baby and no longer want to know me. Thankfully I have a loving and supportive husband and adorable cats, but I don’t feel like a woman, cannot have anything in common with women, I have no worth and no life. There’s no place for someone like me, even among those who have been forced to remain childless. If my body would cooperate I would be active, I would make a life for myself based around my creative talents, I would learn new skills and do my best to become known for them, I would make friends and be active in my community, but it’s simply not possible. Infertile women seem to come in three varieties: those who have finally given birth or adopted, those who are still trying, or those who have decided to make the best of life without parenting and are focusing on other things. What do you do if you’ve nothing else to focus on? How do you make a life when you can’t even leave your house, or some days your bed, when that is a permanent state? I’m sorry – this isn’t particularly coherent. I just don’t know how to pick up and move on. There’s nothing for me to move on to.

    • Pamela Jeanne

      I’m sorry, Shira. You are truly in a difficult place for all the reasons you describe. It’s taken me a long time to move away from the darkness and I wish I had an easy answer to offer. Meanwhile, I hope there’s some small comfort in knowing that  you’re not alone in your response or feelings.