You may have read The Handmaid’s Tale before, perhaps for a class or your own pleasure reading. If you did, what was it like reading this book for the second time, specifically thinking about it from an infertility angle? Did your thoughts and feelings about the book’s premise or any of the characters change? Did any things strike you differently the second time around?
I’m dating myself, but I read this novel the first time in 1987 when I was single and closing in on 23 years of age. At that time I naturally identified with Offred and imagined, with horror, being imprisoned solely for my ability to conceive. I was also blissfully unaware of my endometriosis and assumed I could breed with the best of them.
My response the first time around was also colored by the fact that I was among the first generation of “liberated” young women who no longer had to worry about Help Wanted classifieds being segmented “For Men” and “For Women” – yes! I still recall seeing those categories in the newspaper when I was girl. In my early 20s, the world was my oyster and I was going to have it all: a rewarding career and children. No need to choose. Tra la. Infertility was some weird diseased state that came from environmental pollutants or some other nefarious cause.
Reading the book 20 years later I now have greater sympathy and understanding for the infertile Aunts and Wives. I don’t particularly like the way they’re portrayed, but I know better now how their bitterness came to be. What hasn’t changed in 20 years is my allergic reaction to societies or cultures that oppress women, that strip their rights or say in their destiny. I may be infertile but I still have power and I exercise it.
I realize today, too, how brainwashed I was at an early age to believe that women who couldn’t reproduce were sub-human — they lacked value to society. Nice messages, huh? It’s taken me far too long but I’ve saved myself thousands of dollars in therapy by arriving at the realization that much of my anger and sadness – caused by infertility – stems from preordained self-loathing. Coming to terms with my compromised biological condition would have been infinitely easier if society didn’t propagate its own pervasive and subliminal “Unwoman” philosophy. Excuse me but there’s some nuclear waste I need to get busy cleaning up…NOT!
In an interview, Atwood said that “This is a book about what happens when certain casually held attitudes about women are taken to their logical conclusions. For example, I explore a number of conservative opinions still held by many – such as a woman’s place is in the home. And also certain feminist pronouncements – women prefer the company of other women, for example. Take these beliefs to their logical ends and see what happens.” In your time dealing with infertility, what “casually held attitudes” regarding ART have you encountered? How have you responded, either to the opinion-holder or internally? Is it conceivable (pun not intended) that these opinions will change for future ART patients and what do you think may need to happen to make that possible?
There’s a casually held attitude in today’s society that ART works for all — given enough time and money. That’s just not true (witness yours truly and others I know). That fallacy causes many to assume that not only is there something wrong with someone who can’t conceive naturally there must be something DOUBLY wrong for those who can’t conceive with ART.
There’s also a casually held attitude that children are interchangeable, like trading baseball cards. Oh, you can’t conceive? Well, there’s a bunch of kids in foster care or those tragic orphanages overseas. Why not adopt one of those? (as if adopting is free, easy or without mind-numbing paperwork and bureaucracy or personally invasive home study visits that scrutinize every aspect of your life — naturally occurring parents, I’d like to see how you’d stack up in these examinations). Or if it’s kid time you want, you can babysit mine. Uh, no thanks.
For all that Handmaids are supposed to be serving the society’s greater good and should be honored, they are looked down upon by just about everyone. Wives resent that the Handmaids do what they cannot, Marthas resent the time spent caring for them, Econowives resent them for the ease of existence they feel the Handmaids must enjoy. And the reverse is true as well, Handmaids resent the other women for having little freedoms they do not enjoy, whether it’s control over a household, the ability to hold a knife and make radish roses, or to simply not be a possession without a name. Does this mutual resentment exist in the world of infertility? Do “fertiles” resent “infertiles” and vice versa? If so, in what way?
Well, I can’t speak for fertiles, but I do get the sense that there’s a natural tendency to assume that couples without children chose that path freely and deserve any downsides that might come with it. While some couples are childfree by choice, there are many, many others who arrive at the childfree state after years of unsuccessful efforts at conception or adoption – worn down by emotional, financial exhaustion.
I am not going to sugar coat it. I do resent that some people’s fertility knows no bounds and therefore they completely take fertility for granted. I admit that I resent fertiles who make wrong-headed assumptions about my life. (Yes, I drive a nice car now and shop at my leisure but that’s because I don’t have any college funds that need tending. I may more flexibility for trips than my mommy peers tied to school schedules but I also never get to see my kids graduate from kindergarten or high school. I may have more spa appointments than the mommy crowd but I also never get to look forward to becoming a grandmother, so spare me the envy or judgments around material indulgences or how I spend my time. They are delayed gratification after years of have my life controlled by 28-day cycles and seeing money pour out of our bank account and into endless medical tests, surgery and infertility treatment cycles not covered by insurance). See, now there I go sounding bitter again. I’m not that way, really, with those who don’t jump to the wrong conclusion.
There will always be misunderstanding around infertility unless people take the time to understand the myriad and complex issues that arise when conception and delivery don’t succeed. What I hope is that some day there’s greater awareness that infertility is not self-inflicted and that its effects last a lifetime. Motherhood and infertility share one very big thing in common: sacrifices. While the former’s sacrifices are well documented and understood, the latter’s are not…
For more insights, find other blog’s on this tour by visiting the main list at stirrup-queens.blogspot.com/. You can also sign up for the next book on this online book club: The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Fowler (with author participation).