Heir and a Spare In a New Light


I can’t help but wonder if there will ever come a day when the shadow of infertility doesn’t follow me wherever I go. I get that there’s always going to be a pregnant woman or baby unexpectedly showing up in my periphery. And I’ve come to accept that when I catch sight of them I’m going to ache some, but infertility thoughts in long abandoned palaces?

It’s hard to miss the importance of progeny — and the inevitable mulling of what my life would have been like in a different time and place — when surrounded by larger than life portraits depicting the lineage of once powerful rulers. Their very future and ability to exert influence depended on successfully mating and reproducing.  The piercing eyes staring down at me from ornate walls brought back to mind a scene in the HBO series Rome. I cringed when I first heard Cleopatra whisper to Caesar, “a man with no sons has no future.”

Sure, it’s the 21st century but the importance of fertility still matters greatly. In countries with declining birth rates there are generous incentives to encourage baby-making.  These pro-natalistic policies may not always work to encourage large families, but the fact that they’re in place says something about the value of fertility — and sends a strange message to those who can’t conceive. It’s hard not to feel, well, devalued.

See also  You Found Me, How?

On my way out of visiting the last palace on our trip I had a new appreciation for Japan’s Princess Masako and the intense pressure she faced to produce an heir.  It’s hard enough to deal with the heartbreak of infertility in private, quite another to have to face it along with the judgment and disappointment of prying eyes — whether in the 1700s or today. The palaces may be emptying out but we still have a long way to go to shake loose those crusty but powerful views from the past.


16 Responses

  1. niobe

    April 16, 2008 6:10 am

    Though (and I’m not thinking of any good examples at the moment) — Elizabeth I, maybe, I would bet that some women back then were able to exert more influence and power because they weren’t burdened with pregnancy and childrearing.

    Not that this helps you — I ‘m just trying to think of counterexamples.

  2. beagle

    April 16, 2008 1:58 pm

    On a tangent of sorts . . . one thing I think of is this idea of passing on things to the next generation . . . in our case, we don’t have wealth, so for me it is more about passing on things things like names, photos, personal items with meaning, my pottery collection. Where will that all end up?

    That really bothers me at times.

    • More from H

      April 17, 2008 7:26 pm

      This bothers me too. The fact that no one will ever look at a photo of me and say ‘That was my Grandma’ really plays on my mind. Sometimes, I visualise a family tree. Everyone else’s branches grow but mine stops at me. Weird feeling, isn’t it – once I’m gone, there’s nothing of me left…

    • Backeast

      July 22, 2008 2:14 am

      I have the same thoughts and fears. Where will all my stuff go? No one will care when I’m gone. I simply stop here, there is no carrying on. It’s very scary to face your mortality. We cannot lose ourselves in the idea that in some way we will carry on through our children. We need to find another way to matter after we are gone.

  3. loribeth

    April 16, 2008 2:51 pm

    I can’t get your Princess Masako link to work, but I totally agree with you about her — we think WE’re under pressure to procreate?? I’ve followed her story for years, & I actually just bought a biography of her last week.

    I always thought it was so unfair of Henry VIII going from wife to wife in his quest, not just for a child but a SON… & blaming the poor women (chopping off their heads, even), when we now know it’s the father who determines the gender of the child. Argh.

    Glad to see you’re back!

    • Pamela Jeanne

      April 16, 2008 3:23 pm

      Thanks, Lori … and, yes, very, very ironic about old Henry. At least I don’t have to worry about facing the guillotine! (btw: I fixed the broken link.)

      Niobe: I’m a big fan of Elizabeth … and one of the downsides of being queen in her day was that her peers had to give birth in public (e.g. the court standing bed side) to prove they were bona fide mothers. Oy!

      • Sara

        April 16, 2008 6:39 pm

        And about that, with the public deliveries- how horrifying that must have been for Anne Boleyn when she finally did what was expected of her and she bore that son to Henry, only to have him be stillborn. No time to grieve privately- nothing. But it is quite comforting to know that we no longer have to face the guillotine when we cannot bare a child. My husband and I were actually just talking about this last night in bed- lovely bedroom conversation- don’t you think.

  4. Dianne

    April 16, 2008 6:38 pm

    I just watched Marie Antoinette this past weekend. And it was interesting to me how they portrayed this very topic. (Granted in the movie it wasn’t because of infertility but that the Prince/King was just not into s*x.)

    Those family portraits, yes I can see how they would effect you. Especially the ones with Queen Victoria and her many, many, many progeny.

  5. Deathstar

    April 17, 2008 4:26 am

    Ah, the subtleties of biology. It seems that little sad bubble of infertility still moved with you to Europe. Can’t even look at frickin’ art without being reminded…. Never mind, dear heart, please tell us a story of romance in Paris to give us hope.

  6. Ellen K

    April 17, 2008 2:00 pm

    Speaking of Henry VIII, I do NOT recommend reading “The Other Boelyn Girl” if you haven’t already. Its depiction of IF and PG loss is probably accurate for the time, but it’s still very upsetting.

  7. Pepper

    April 17, 2008 4:41 pm

    This post really struck a cord with me because traveling is one of the things I’ve decided I’ll do if this road leads to childfree living. The saying “Where ever you go, there you are” is so true.

  8. H writes

    April 17, 2008 7:20 pm

    How relieved am I to find that I’m not going mad. In a perverse sort of way, it’s so good to discover that other people are struggling to come to terms with a world full of fertile people as an invisible infertile. Everywhere I go, I am haunted by my inability to do what should be the most simple thing in the world – to procreate. All of my friends have children – and continue to have more. I am forever buying gifts for babies that aren’t mine. My husband has 2 children from a previous marriage. That was hard enough to cope with. The thing is, one of those children is about to give birth to her first child this week. Trying to be excited for her and for my husband is like putting my heart through a shredder. Holding it all together is such hard work! I don’t know anyone else who can’t have children. No one seems to understand me when I say that I can’t come to terms with the thought of never being an ancestor.No one will ever look at a picture of me and say ‘That was my Grandma’. My sister thinks I should be able to cope, as I am a teacher and ‘look after loads of kids all day’. Mmmm…people have no idea.
    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and helping me to realise that I’m not alone!

    • Pamela Jeanne

      April 19, 2008 5:59 pm

      I felt the same way the first time I realized I wasn’t alone in my experience! Glad you found me and my blog — and along with it a group of other wonderful women who read, write and exchange ideas about this rather thorny subject.

  9. Dr Grumbles

    April 18, 2008 6:14 pm

    My fertility woes have certainly changed how I view the biographies of females monarchs like Marie Antoinette and Henry VIII’s poor doomed vessels.

    The future of a kingdom may not depend on my ability to reproduce, but there definitely is still that aspect of valuing women for their reproductive abilities or successes.

  10. Bea

    April 20, 2008 4:02 am

    Yes, I’ve felt sorry for her, too.

    I had a… I don’t know what she’s called to me, she was my great-grandfather’s first wife, and she was infertile. They ended up adopting a little girl who died after a few years of some childhood illness, as happened a lot in those days, and this woman went only a few months after, leaving my great-grandad alone.

    He remarried and became a first-time father at 50, hence why I’m here to tell the tale, but my mum still tells the story of his first wife, too, when she tells me our family history.


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