Infertility is not for wimps. It takes a toll on every part of one’s life. Physically you become drained from being pumped full of synthetic hormones and poked and prodded. Spiritually you start falling prey to every possible route to enlightenment just to answer the question of why. Mentally, you crumble a bit every time something new and devastating hits whether it’s another negative pregnancy test, a new diagnosis or a miscarriage. Infertility is a medical condition and like so many medical conditions, it takes your whole life and turns it upside down and shakes it for lunch money.
Last night, Ms. JM sent me a link to a column at the Huffington Post by Melanie Notkin called “The Invisible Infertility.” Naturally, I was drawn to it right away. It was clear a few paragraphs in that the writer just simply didn’t get infertility at all. Despite the fact that she didn’t get it, she claimed to be suffering from “circumstantial infertility.”
To her, “circumstantial infertility” exists when the timing or situation isn’t right to have a child, yet a woman (or a man, I suppose) desperately wants a child. For Ms. Notkin, her “circumstantial infertility” exists as a result of her being unmarried and single. She doesn’t wish to have a child on her own, but she wants one and wants to be part of a couple trying to have a child. Let me make it clear that neither in this article nor in her previous article (“The Truth About Childless Women“) does she state that she has a medical condition that prevents her from conceiving naturally. In fact, she admits that she does not know.
…a disease of the reproductive system. One third (30%) of infertility can be attributed to male factors, and about one third (30%) can be attributed to female factors. In about 20% of cases infertility is unexplained, and the remaining 10% of infertility is caused by a combination of problems in both partners.
You may have noticed that this is a medical definition. That is because infertility is a medical condition.
When I got done reading, I sat back and wondered how to react. I’m trying to make an effort in life to be more accepting of people’s feelings. I don’t want to diminish one woman’s sadness or emotional turmoil. I’m sure she has her fair share. But it still ate at me until I figured it out: she has every right to her emotions, but she does not have every right to the term “infertility.” And by using that term, she disenfranchises every infertile woman who is or ever has been struggling with the medical condition of infertility. Simply putting the word “circumstantial” in front of it does not make it okay. That’s like getting a buzz cut and associating with people who have cancer and have undergone chemo because you both have short or non existent hair.
In her first article, Notkin says:
While I have not suffered from biological infertility (as far as I know), I imagined my grief was at least as deep as couples trying to conceive as I didn’t have a love who shared the grief. Heck, I often didn’t even have a date to get closer to trying! Every month that passed, I grieved a loss. But I grieved alone. I have no husband (or male partner) to grieve with me. And lamenting my infertility to close friends who are parents or to family was never well-received.
This paragraph misunderstands not only the basic parameters of infertility, but also misunderstands the role of the egg in reproduction. She was lamenting a loss each month? She imagines that her grief “was at least as deep as couple’s trying to conceive as I didn’t have a love who shared the grief,” but I doubt she ever took hormone pills or shots, was prodded day after day with an ultrasound wand or poked by needles. Furthermore, she never had to sit through the dread-inducing two week wait and wonder whether all of her efforts worked this time or not. The fact is that even on the emotional side, her grief (while it can be still very real) is not comparable because she wasn’t getting her hopes up month after month.
In her second column she talks about having her grief disenfranchised:
And not only do we grieve childlessness alone, with no partner to console us or share the grief, but society as a whole won’t let us grieve, as if we’ve brought it on ourselves by being unwilling to settle in love.
Again, she confuses childlessness with infertility. Infertility means that one has made many attempts at conceiving and bearing a child and has been unsuccessful. Childlessness means that you have no child. There are many different reasons for both conditions and while some overlap, in her instance they do not. Furthermore, she keeps harping on this issue of having someone with whom to share her grief. While I appreciate her grief and recognize it, I have trouble equating it with infertility when she has no idea whether or not she can get pregnant and stay pregnant. The fact is that it is her choice that she is childless right now–and while it may be a hard choice, it does not mean that it’s time to start co-opting the experience of someone else.
Sadly, Notkin’s stance is not too uncommon. It’s symptomatic of a culture where we feel the need to equate our own problems with that of another so we feel some sense of community. The problem with that, however, is that it diminishes the struggle of people truly dealing with the issue at hand. I have no doubt that Notkin and other women like her grieve in a very emotional and traumatic way. I respect every ounce of that grief. What I don’t respect is co-opting other people’s grief in order to give name to your own.
This is the kind of emotional finger pointing that will not get you any closer to acceptance either by yourself or by society. It will only diminish your own feelings for the chance to get a name to put on them. Life is hard enough without fighting against yourself. It’s too common in the infertile world, but it’s common in other places as well. It seems there’s an epidemic of co-opting others’ grief in order to name our own. When we see it, we need to put a stop to it. It’s not that we want the other person to stop grieving or feeling a loss. We just want them to stop diminishing our own.
No one has any business telling another what to feel. But we all have a responsibility of not equating the experiences of others with our own unless they truly are alike.
So, as an infertile, I’ll speak up and say how this infuriates me. And when someone does it to you, Ms. Notkin–when someone diminishes your experience by playing a “me too” horn when your experience is in a string quartet–I’d expect nothing less than for you to do it, too.