SEPTEMBER 5, 2019
WHEN I STARTED writing the weekly Fertility Diary column for The New York Times Motherlode blog about my IVF journey, I was shocked by the vitriolic comments. Sure, I was an older woman who, at 41, might have waited too long to get pregnant, but what was it to other people? What harm was I doing to anything other than my bank account?
“Your [sic] old and dried up,” one commenter wrote. This was in 2013, before Trump’s polarized America; it was before commenters became the story, when they could still be dismissed as a few nutjobs.
“Amy’s journey seems to be all about herself and her needs. So perhaps it was to be expected that the question was all about the mom and not about the child,” Rose from Seattle wrote, after I actually posed a question to my readers, “What do you love about being a mom?”
I was naïvely hoping that by addressing my readers, I could change the conversation, and get them on my side. No dice. They were as mean as ever — although I actually didn’t know this at the time, because I’d stopped reading the comments after the first few months. How could I? I was hopped up on hormones, devastated by my failing pregnancies, and worried about being forever childless. But my editor insisted I be involved with my readers. My solution was to have my husband go through the comments. “You’re selfish, you’re old, you should adopt,” was his running synopsis.
After a healer told me I wasn’t a mom because I felt “betrayed” by a woman, most likely my mother, I asked readers about their own experiences. “Maybe the betrayal is from a female reader,” wrote “Always” from Ohio. I’m guessing “Always” was a man.
Some women wrote to me privately, because they were afraid to engage with the mean girls. “I am not putting my comment on your blog because I hate half of the people who are leaving their comments. Gosh … American people have a very strange view on life, children, mothers, compassion and honesty. They’re just horrible!”
It was from the emails that I gleaned how awful the comments truly were. (I’m talking to you, “jzzy55.”) What I could not figure out was, Why?
Why would someone — nay, another woman! — one Carolyn Castiglia, write an article on Babble (since deleted, but archived elsewhere) called, “Should We Be Sympathetic to a 42 Year Old Trying to Have a Baby?”
I found a clue at the end of her article. After she berates me for not starting earlier or adopting, she writes, “I married young because I knew I wanted to get married and I wanted to have a family. In marrying so young, I made a choice that didn’t work out and I’m now divorced, but I have a beautiful daughter.”
She did not want me to succeed with IVF because I’d fallen in love and married later in life. And if I had a baby now at 42, why, that would mean that all her life choices were wrong.
This transparency — unlike the reader of the vaunted Gray Lady, who played at helping others — provided me a motive for why women are mean to infertile women.
They fear us, yes. It also seems like some of them don’t want us to succeed.
From Alexandra Kimball’s The Seed: Infertility Is a Feminist Issue, I’ve learned that the hostility against infertile women has a long history. Before infertility (which is now a potentially solvable state), it was the barren woman who was a pariah, an object of scorn to other mothers. “From her first recorded mentions, the infertile female was a monster, distinct from woman-proper,” Kimball writes, recalling Atrahasis of Babylon, the Jewish Lilith (whom my daughter is named after), and the Egyptian Alabasandria, all of whom kidnapped children, caused miscarriages, stillbirths, and even male infertility. Many of the high-profile witchcraft trials, she points out, centered on barren women. Viewed as “not natural” from biblical times through modern ones, women without children have often served as “demons” — as in the film The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, in which the vengeful babysitter is actually a childless woman (who suffered a miscarriage) trying to steal another woman’s child.
The barren witch has now, however, morphed into the infertile one who might be able to have children with the help of technology.
News of these innovations, all of which removed reproduction from its ‘natural’ origin in the heterosexual marriage bed, reached the public (as it still does, frankly) in the language of apocalypse and dystopia: headlines boasted of the “Wild West” of fertility science, the “science-fiction’ future of reproduction, while op-ed after op-ed mused about the “social consequences” of babies born via fertility medicine. In other words, concern had shifted from the career woman’s barrenness to the fact that she might actually be able to resolve it.
The murderous, childless career woman has turned into the desperate (and sometimes comical) fertility-crazed one, like Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon in 30 Rock, or more ominously, the infertile older wives in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Now I admit that it would have been difficult for me to watch the dystopian series while I was going through IVF — I would have had to identify with the barren Mrs. Waterford, who has to have a baby via a surrogate handmaid (after forced rape by her husband). And even though the show is no picnic to watch now in this anti-immigrant, anti-feminist era, I can’t quite come down so hard on Margaret Atwood as Kimball does when she accuses her of “betray[ing] infertile women, defining them as not only unworthy of families, but as patriarchal collaborators.”
Of course, it’s a work of fiction — dystopian fiction at that, which often relies on technology and its abuses. But Kimball’s point is that feminism (and feminists like Tina Fey and Margaret Atwood) “has long been either dismissive of — or outright hostile to — the plight of infertile women.”
The Seed illustrates how infertility got excluded from feminism, which fought for contraception, sex education, and abortion, whose slogan, “Every baby a wanted baby,” did not include those who wanted a baby and couldn’t have one.
Although I do identify as a feminist, I’m not well versed in its theory, nor am I an academic, so I got lost in sentences like this: “A feminist sex worker once told me that society fears the prostitute because she makes visible the lie that is capitalism; in a similar way, I think, the infertile woman makes visible the lie of gender essentialism.”
I had to Google “Gender essentialism” (Wikipedia: “a concept used to examine the attribution of fixed, intrinsic, innate qualities to women and men”) to understand that Kimball is saying a woman should not be defined by her womb. And, in fact, she notes how much more welcomed she felt by other feminists when she had an abortion than when she endured years of infertility.
Granted, these days, there is much for feminists to crusade for, most importantly Roe v. Wade and access to abortion. Yet infertile women are under threat, too, because when an anti-abortion (“personhood”) bill describes life beginning at conception, it includes embryos: “[I]f embryos had the legal status of persons, these routine practices would, as with abortion, constitute murder.” If abortion is criminalized, then IVF might well be next, Kimball argues.
Feminists don’t fight for the infertile, and women — moms and childfree alike — exhort us “to just adopt,” embrace the childfree life, or wait for Godot — leaving women like Kimball and me out in the cold. “If there is a single story of infertile women, its theme is isolation,” she posits.
Infertile women report their greatest stress around the social aspects of infertility, including a feeling of disruption in the normal life trajectory, stigmatization […] As maternity is (still) supposed to provide a woman’s life with meaning, informing and shaping everything else in her life, the infertile woman is excluded from the accepted symbolic order of feminine life.
Kimball is at her best when she describes the loneliness and isolation of infertile women: how the lady at her husband’s business dinner never returns to her seat after Kimball mentions trying to have children but miscarrying instead. (Not out of the blue, of course, but in response to the Nosy Nellie’s question, “Do you plan on having [kids]?”). Or in the weirdness of online infertility groups, where each woman is only her infertility diagnosis.
My favorite line encapsulates almost all of social life with infertility, which “presented,” writes Kimball, “an agonizing conundrum: my infertility was the only thing in my life, and no one apart from other infertile women ever wanted to talk about it.” All this said, by the end of this slim work, Kimball finds that IVF has become largely acceptable (except in some religions). In pop culture, films and shows are now being made by artists who struggled with infertility.
What is still shunned, however, is third-party reproduction: using sperm donors, egg donors, and surrogates, the latter two excoriated by feminists who call it wombs-for-rent and who decry the exploitation of the fertile egg donors. This schism even exists within the fertility community, where each woman one-ups the other in trying to show who is doing the most “natural” procedure, or who has the hardest journey.
Lindsay Fischer, co-founder of the online community Infertile AF, whose infertility was due to her husband’s male-factor infertility, says she’s noticed “the comparison-itis and pain Olympics of infertility.” She says, “I noticed a lot of women being less willing to support me and my stress/anxiety while cycling because ‘I wasn’t the issue.’ It was hard to find a community of women to support me — or to feel like I belonged.” This was especially due to her “easy” journey of having twins after her first embryo transfer.
The one-upmanship shows up in splinter infertility groups: women who use gestational surrogates emphasize the importance of genetics because they’re using their own eggs; women who use donor eggs or donor embryos emphasize how important carrying a pregnancy is. Kimball had neither option — she used a gestational surrogate and a donor egg, fertilized by her husband’s sperm to have their son.
Still, the irony is not lost on Kimball that she succeeds because of another generous woman. In the moment after the surrogate gives birth,
Mindy turned her head and we caught each other’s eye. Oh, I thought. This is what she wanted me to have. This is what she was talking about. The fact of this: that there was so great a feeling I had not known — and that another woman had been willing to give it to me — overwhelmed me.
“Infertility Is a Feminist Issue” is the subtitle of The Seed, and therein lies the problem. In the words of Bill Clinton (a man initially embraced and now reviled by feminists): “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”
Infertility should be a feminist issue. It should be included in the fights for reproductive rights. Its pain should be recognized by both the childed and childless. It should most certainly be an issue embraced by all women.
But maybe Kimball makes the same mistake I did when I was so astoundingly shocked by the vitriol directed at me for trying to have a baby via IVF. I assumed that women would all be on the same side.
If there’s anything this past election has shown us — aside from the fact that life is stranger than fiction — it is that women are not united. We do not want the same things. Our gender is not enough to put us on the same team, no matter how many “You Go Girl” memes we post on social media.
Although I’m not one who likes to find meaning in her pain (I’d have gladly skipped over my three years of infertility, my four miscarriages, my 10 doctors, the three countries I trekked to in order to give birth to my daughter), I’d say that infertility certainly prepared me for motherhood in the sense of preparing me for the friction between women: stay-at-home versus working, nanny versus daycare, breastfeeding versus bottle feeding. Of course most of this friction could be solved by our uniting to demand better family leave and work protections rather than tearing each other apart online.
Because of my public excoriation by women, I was less surprised than others are by these Mommy Wars (and by the election results). Yes, some women were lovely to me. But many were not. So to people like Jzzy55 and Castiglia — women I once wanted to strangle — I now thank them for revealing the underbelly of sisterhood. Or perhaps, in academic terms, the lie that is feminism.
In the end, I suppose I simply wanted what Kimball wants.
After she finally becomes a mother, she goes back to her old IVF and surrogacy boards, wondering how these communities might have been transformed by a feminist ethos. “If earlier feminists had seen us as sisters, rather than patriarchal dupes or oppressors of other women,” then surely, she argues, we could have better imagined a movement where women would call for more research into the causes of infertility, the effectiveness and risks of treatments, expanded access to care not just for rich people or white people or straight people, and for better protections for surrogates and egg donors.
She thinks of posting something on one of those boards about how we infertile feminists could unite “to challenge the idea that motherhood is unthinking, automatic, and instinctual, and be living examples of how maternity is instead a thing that is both worked at and worked for, sometimes by multiple people, and sometimes not by women at all.”
But then her baby starts to cry, and like most infertile women before her who succeed, she moves on to the busy job of mothering.