“WHY DON’T YOU want children?”
I get this question a lot, but I don’t ever know how to answer it. I understand why some people might wonder. I’m 37 years old. I’m in a years-long romantic partnership. Our combined income provides us a comfortable living in Los Angeles and allows us to travel and indulge in the activities we love like going to the movies, eating out at nice restaurants, and buying gifts for each other “just because.” For many people, having a child seems like the logical next step for a woman like me. A woman who has everything in the world except the one thing the world tells her she should want: a baby.
But I never connected to the idea of motherhood. Maybe it’s because I watched my feminist mom labor to “have it all” as a mother of four who worked outside the home. Or perhaps it’s because that “Miracle of Life” video from eighth-grade health class scarred me for life with its graphic depiction of the birthing experience. Or maybe I just enjoy my life as it is now: child-free and all mine.
“Why don’t you want children?” This time, my male gynecologist wanted to know.
Moments before, I had told my doctor I wanted a tubal ligation, a safe, surgical procedure that permanently closes a person’s fallopian tubes. I was 31 years old. “I just … don’t,” I said. And after I answered a laundry list of questions including whether I am a survivor of sexual violence (I’m not), suicidal (no), or a genetic carrier of some terrible disease (negative), my doctor rolled his eyes and said, “We’ll put in an IUD. Let’s get you to 35. At least. Then we can talk permanent options.”
I wonder how this conversation between me and my doctor might have unfolded had a copy of Graphic Reproduction: A Comics Anthology been handy. Looking back, I realize just how much I wanted to say in that moment, but didn’t. Not because I wasn’t 100 percent committed to my decision to remain child-free. But because words alone could not possibly communicate the complexities of my decision to not have children with any nuance. And my doctor’s flat-out dismissal of what I wanted felt … well, personal.
In Graphic Reproduction, the carefully curated comics collection edited by Jenell Johnson, words and graphics come together to create a more well-rounded picture of the human reproductive experience. Featuring the comic brainchildren of seminal graphic artists like Carol Tyler, Alison Bechdel, and Joyce Farmer, Graphic Reproduction takes on tough (and often taboo) topics related to human reproduction, challenging dominant cultural narratives about conception, pregnancy, and childbirth through illustration. But it’s in the comics’ thorough examination of the messy complexities, confounding contradictions, and unexpected confluences inherent to the human reproductive process — as well as the inclusion of same sex and nonbinary perspectives — that Graphic Reproduction really delivers.
“Reproduction is a complicated process of meiosis, if you will — a merging of personal and political, body and ideology, individual and institution, science and technology, joy and pain, nature and culture, sex and gender, humor and horror, seeing and saying,” writes Johnson in the book’s introduction. “In this deeply tangled site, Graphic Reproduction seeks to intervene […] to provide a discursive and visual forum where the affective, biological, social, and political complexities of reproduction can exist together in generative uncertainty.”
And when it comes to reproduction, the merging of the personal and the political begins well before the biological processes activate. The mere decision to — or not to — reproduce, particularly for people with female reproductive organs, induces frenzied sociocultural discourse, with certain communities, political and religious institutions, billion-dollar industries, and even employment providers compelled to weigh in, often without consideration of the personal, practical, or political reasons that might factor into an individual’s reproductive choices. What’s worse, given the wealth, power, and cultural influence of such institutions, those who can potentially become pregnant are often pushed out of the conversation completely, to the detriment of political and public health policy crafted — in theory, anyway — to protect those very people. And for those who choose to reproduce, the policing of potentially pregnant bodies do not end at conception. For many, it’s only the beginning.
But because of the complicated nature of reproduction and the body politics of the body politic, communicating the diverse experiences of people — and women, in particular — who make life-changing choices regarding reproduction can be challenging. No doubt effective communication makes more empathetic exchanges possible — especially between health-care provider and patient. And no book illustrates this point more clearly (and creatively) than Graphic Reproduction.
Born of a movement within the medical community to incorporate graphic novels, comics, and visual storytelling into medical education and patient care practices in order to improve overall care, Graphic Reproduction illuminates the often invisible psychological, emotional, and social toll the human reproductive process takes on people and their relationships. By visually conceptualizing the complicated and conflicting emotional components of a myriad of reproductive experiences, and allowing them all to exist together in the same space — whether it be a complete strip or an individual panel — the comics included in Graphic Reproduction fill in a critical part of the story of reproduction that is regularly left out: the personal.
Take feminist cartoonists Joyce Farmer and Lyn Chevli’s 1973 radical comic Abortion Eve. Published the same year the Supreme Court ruled in favor of women’s right to choose abortion, Abortion Eve chronicles five fictional women (Evelyn, Eva, Evie, Eve, and Evita) and their experience accessing legal abortions post–Roe v. Wade. The women range in age, race, marital status, educational background, and degrees of financial independence. Over the course of the comic, each woman reveals her unique and personal reason for ending her pregnancy. The comic ends with the women recovering in the same clinic post-procedure, supportive of one another and secure in their choices. By delving deep into the personal stories and individual abortion experiences of a diverse group of women, Abortion Eve takes society’s go-to abortion narrative (abortion is dangerous, a sin, and women regret having them) and turns it on its head, capturing a compelling, multifaceted snapshot of what abortion can (and often) looks like.
And then there’s A. K. Summers’s 2014 comic, Pregnant Butch: Nine Month Long Spent In Drag. Inspired by her own personal experience, Summers’s comic avatar Teek struggles to embody two conflicting identities at once: pregnant person and masculine presenting lesbian. Pregnant Butch not only exposes the limiting ways many of us think about gender, but challenges our ideas about what pregnancy looks like as well. Or rather, what pregnancy should look like. After all, culturally speaking, pregnancy represents a period in a woman’s life when she embodies her most feminine self. So for masculine-of-center Teek, the experience of being pregnant unexpectedly turns from one of joy and wonder to one of wrenching emotional pain and conflict, just by virtue of Teek’s binary-busting existence. And Teek’s emotional expressions when confronted by culture’s hyper-hetero-normative notions of conception, pregnancy, and childbirth, sensitively drawn, capture the unique trauma of the gender nonbinary pregnant experience, inspiring the reader to reconsider the value (if any) and impact of society’s forced gender conformity.
Another eye-opening comic included in the collection, Overwhelmed, Anxious, and Angry: Navigating Postpartum Depression, breaks down the “most common complication associated with childbirth”: postpartum depression. Based on the stories of real women, and written by Jessica Zucker, a clinical psychologist, Overwhelmed, Anxious, and Angry invites the reader to take part in fictionalized therapy sessions with women struggling to make sense of the complicated feelings brought on by their baby’s arrival. Both educational and emotionally resonant, Zucker’s frank take on motherhood and mental health sheds light on an experience shrouded in shame and too often suffered in silence. What’s more, Zucker’s comic illustrates the real-life consequences of society’s unrealistic expectations and the despair the shoulds of motherhood can bring about. But Overwhelmed, Anxious, and Angry provides hope, too. Perhaps in a nod to the graphic medicine movement itself, Zucker’s comic conceives of a space where health-care providers not only prescribe reasonable solutions to moms on the edge, but they freely dispense compassion, too, in equal measure.
From miscarriage to midwifery, childbirth to afterbirth, infertility to perinatal loss, Graphic Reproduction provides a timely resource for understanding the unique and unexpected intersections of reproduction and sociocultural issues. The diversity of narratives featured in the collection planted a seed in me to challenge the narratives that inform my personal reproductive choices. And even though Graphic Reproduction has not made my decision to be child-free by choice any less complicated, I feel empowered by its complexity, and more comfortable talking about it. Because as Graphic Reproduction spells out in black and white: the human reproductive experience gives life to the gray. It’s personal and political, hilarious and heartbreaking, joyful and painful, and everything in between. Forget the shoulds. It’s complicated, and that’s okay. This is what reproduction looks like.
In the meantime, if my doctor again asks, “Why don’t you want children?” now I know what to say: “Why don’t you read Graphic Reproduction?”