Triggering for mentions of miscarriage, stillbirth and fertility difficulties
I’ve tried a few times lately to blog about this fertility rollercoaster but with little success. There’s so much to write about, and knowing where to start or finish is a problem. Disclaimer: everything I’m about to write about is subjective, and this is a sensitive topic, so if you think reading about someone else’s fertility “journey” or whatever is going to upset you in some way, stop reading now.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the feminism of how we think of and talk about women who are experiencing fertility “issues”. Here I include everything from difficulties falling pregnant to finding out you are categorically infertile for some reason through to pregnancy loss, recurrent pregnancy loss, and stillbirth/the death of babies shortly before birth. I also include women who have fraught pregnancies due to complications and disability.
I was finishing up reading J.J Keith’s book “Stop Reading Baby Books” yesterday on the bus while doing that “crying strategically behind sunglasses” thing as I read how she described what it felt like after she’d had three miscarriages before carrying her first babe to term. She talked about how she began to think about doing other things with her life; and about how deeply awful it felt to think that her urge for the motherhood of a living baby might never come to fruition.
I’ve now had two miscarriages, and still no baby has come home with me. It does something to you, that. Everyone responds differently of course, but in my case it has fundamentally changed how I approach life events – that capacity to relax and take good things for granted is completely gone. My counsellor said that something many parents grieve as a result of recurrent pregnancy loss is “the death of the carefree conception and pregnancy.” No truer words were spoken.
Yes, I’ve become the stereotypical hyper-vigilant woman who obsessively checks forums and web.md and knows everything you could possibly know about cervical mucus. I’ve watched youtube videos that demonstrate what egg-white mucus looks like, and I know all about how to thin it (Robitussin, but only in the original variety), how long sperm last in it (3-5 days in fertile mucus; 1-2 hours in dry mucus), what an open and tilted cervix looks like, and I’ve pissed on sticks twice a day for a week to pinpoint exactly when I’m ovulating. The things I could tell you about sperm motility and lubricants! About implantation cramps and spotting! About how HCG works, when you start producing it, how quickly it doubles, what a low or high reading means, and how to calculate your expected implantation date, your luteal phase or the best apps to track symptoms. And let’s not even get started on blood thinners and vitamins and iodine and spinach or the impact of the acid in saliva on sperm.
When I think back to the light hearted young lass who got pregnant all those years ago, in 2009, I mourn the death of that bright and breezy sureness that “things will work out.” I sometimes look at my browser history and it takes a good few minutes of scrolling before I get to any links that aren’t pregnancy or fertility related.
I’m sure some friends and maybe even my partner are quietly critical of this now rather intimate relationship with Dr Google, but I am interested in how images and ideas of the “good suffering woman” are constructed when it comes to fertility troubles.
I think our culture is set up to judge and condemn whatever women do, and fertility is one area in which women are often told they are feeling ‘incorrectly’. Firstly, if you have a miscarriage and you’re not that emotionally effected, this is seen as unforgivably pragmatic – as though you’re a cold individual who is incapable of feeling anything at all towards children or the events of your life. And then, when taken to the other extreme, women who are deeply emotionally impacted are seen as taking it too seriously.
If you fall into the camp of someone planning a pregnancy when you’re having trouble getting or staying pregnant, you may find yourself obsessively reading forums, articles, blog posts, and musing constantly in your own head and aloud with interested (and maybe not so interested) others. Let me tell you now: this is normal. Of course you bloody are. Needing to understand and find some answers among the inscrutable mysteries fertility difficulties throw at you is NORMAL AND OKAY. Doctors give scant support at best; hell, even fertility specialists shuffle you in and out speedily. Needing some control and grabbing for it via information addiction? Yep, taxing. But a part of life. You’re not alone, or strange, and if the plethora of users of online forums discussing recurrent pregnancy loss is anything to go by, you’re far from in a minority.
What I find interesting is that when you express exhaustion or emotional disturbance as a result of the massive head-trip this constitutes, you invariably get a lot of judgement from people about how you’re handling things. You aren’t suffering right. You need to just let it happen and just put it out of your mind and you’re just putting pressure on yourself and you want it too much are some of the tidbits of “advice” people offer.
Women who are embroiled in fertility woes are often painted in the media we consume as the pained obsessives who track every basal body temperature in a spreadsheet (pfft, we have apps now) and stand alone staring at a pregnancy test/ovulation test in despair and emptiness. We are supposed to feel sorry for this figure; to pity her and quietly pass judgement on her for “wanting it too much”. Often these women are painted as shrill, partner-organising/bossing harpies who poke and prod and chart and are somehow deeply insecure. Because you couldn’t just be having mundane, fair enough feelings about difficult circumstances, am I right? It is the same sexist, hetero-normative trope of the nag and the high maintenance, highly strung wife delivered through the lens of reproductive issues. It works effectively to erase the legitimacy of women’s experiences.
What winds up happening I’ve found is that many women flock to online forums because here, at last, they can somewhat lay down their burdens and be with their people – other women who are also struggling. Because of the endless judgement and platitudes, stigma and discomfort of others, they address their isolation by finding a flock online to share information and feel understood – and this is kind of beautiful (while also being kind of problematic and filled with flaws).
While I’ve gotten quite a bit of support from within my immediate friends and family, I’ve still been judged by some I considered close friends. When it happens – when you are told you are suffering wrong – you shut off, go inward, and wind up reading 15 articles on egg quality before crying yourself to sleep wondering if you’ll ever have a baby and then wake feeling guilty for the reading and the tears. You start to buy in to the idea that you are doing this wrong. Cue more worry and anxiety you don’t need.
As I grow more and more aware of how “struggling correctly” with fertility issues is a fundamentally misogynist way of viewing this experience, it is helping me to let go of some of my apologist feelings and encouraging me to keep toxic people away. I’m getting better at just feeling my feelings, obsessing about what I need to, and being ok with my resting smartphone scroll reflex.