Gen 16: 1 reads “Now Sarah, Abraham’s wife, bore him no children.” The simplicity of this statement fails to communicate the complicated and devastating situation Sarah faced. The woman who became the matriarch of the Judeo-Christian tradition was barren, unable to fulfill the one duty that gave her worth within her community. While women were already devalued by society, the social status of a woman struggling with infertility was even further diminished.
Sarah is a woman I have come to identify with. I share her plight of infertility and feel a hopelessness that can only be fully understood by women in a similar situation. Like Sarah I have been desperate to become a mother and although it is the 21st century, as a woman I have felt pressure to do so. Feelings of inadequacy and lack of worth have been overwhelming at times as family members and friend have felt it necessary to not only acknowledge my struggle but also offer commentary on what exactly they think is wrong with me.
It is difficult to describe the roller coaster of emotions I have experienced in the last ten years that I have hoped to become a mother. I have felt sad, angry, hurt, disgusted, fearful, relieved, cheated, optimistic, disappointed, remorseful, irritated, exasperated, hopeful, punished, envious, despair, confused, indifferent, tormented, guilty, nervous, surprised, stressed, appreciative, resentful, bitter and the list continues. While societal pressure has certainly added salt to my wound, the most difficult part of dealing with infertility has been my unwavering knowledge that I a meant to be a mother; there is a child that I am meant to nurture and love. I intuitively sense it, I feel it in the depths of my soul, I am a mother, it is who I am. So why have I been unable to conceive? Why are so many other women privileged with the ability to choose whether or not to become a parent and why have I not been blessed with that same choice?
I have continually struggled with these questions as well as with the highs and lows of the infertility roller coaster. Recently my husband and I have decided to become parents by way of adoption (which warrants numerous blog posts in itself). While we have felt a multitude of emotions (which of course excitement is one) over our decision; people in our lives have felt it necessary to share their own thoughts on what we have been experiencing. I have been amazed, stunned, and disturbed, by some of the things said to me as a result of my inability to conceive. Thus, I thought it both appropriate and necessary to share here some things that you should avoid verbalizing if you know someone struggling with fertility issues. So for what it is worth, here is my personal top ten list of things you should NOT say to women dealing with infertility (all things that have been stated to me):
10. “Wow, you are so lucky your husband has not divorced you. Most men would not tolerate a woman who could not give him a child.”
9. “Why would you waste so much money on adoption when you could just spend a little more on in-vitro and have a baby of your own?”
8. “Why not just let me carry a baby for you?”
7. “If you are going to adopt you better make sure you don’t get a kid that is a lemon.” (Yes, a lemon as in if you bought a car with a lot of problems you would describe it as a lemon.)
6. “Oh, your adopting…well I hope you stay within your own race.”
5. “Are you sure you are having sex on the right days? Are you using the right positions? Maybe you should do some research on the internet.”
4. “It is hard enough to love your own kids, are you sure you will love one if you adopt it?”
3. If a woman struggling with infertility mentions she may try artificial insemination don’t say “Are you really sure you want your child to be conceived that way? I mean, don’t you want it to be conceived out of love?”
2. “You just need to relax.” (What exactly does this mean? I am not sure myself but it is the one quote I have heard more times than I can count. Apparently, if I just relax and stop worrying about it, a pregnancy will magically occur).
1. “Have you tried standing on your head?”
I hope the list gives rise to thought offering both humor and anger. I am not sure where my continued struggle with infertility will lead me, but for now I am a mother. Although I may not yet have a child, I mother other areas of my life, with my partner, my family, my friends, my research, and this blog.
If you or someone you know is struggling with infertility, here are some resources that may be helpful:
Resolve: The National Infertility Association: www.resolve.org
Women’s Health: http://www.womenshealth.gov/faq/infertility.cfm
Mayo Clinic: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/infertility/DS00310
National Adoption Center: http://www.adopt.org/assembled/home.html
Adopt us Kids: http://www.adoptuskids.org/
24 thoughts on ““Now Sarah, Abraham’s wife, bore him no children”: On Experiencing Infertility By Gina Messina-Dysert”
Gina, this is such a great post! As an adoptive mom and someone who’s been effected by infertility, I’ve heard so many of those. I have been told I’m wrong to pursue open adoption. “What will you do when the real mother comes back and kidnaps the baby?” Also, even though our issues are caused by male factor infertility (which accounts for 40% of cases), I have been asked “What’s wrong with you?” more times than I can count. Infertility is generally assumed to be “the wife’s problem.” Some people who know our story have stated they were surprised that I didn’t divorce my husband (because, of course, the only reason I married him is so he could give me children “of my own”!). It’s amazing what people will say! Thanks so much for a wonderful post on the subject!
Lisa, thank you so much for sharing here. I can identify with so much of what you are saying. It seems that no one has ever considered that male infertility could possibly be a factor here – as you state, it is generally considered “the woman’s problem.” And it is shocking to me that anyone would think you would abandon someone you love for any reason. Finally, why don’t people see the value in open adoptions and what does “the real mother” mean? It honestly makes me angry.
You’ve been such a major support and I want to thank you for that. Sending much love your way. :)
Gina, in the time I have known you I have witnessed your pain and heard the ignorant, unsolicited advice given to you, but in this latest post, you take a giant step in your willingness to expose and name that pain, which can be very risky. Once it is named, identified, and put out for all to see, it changes the dynamics. It no longer resides in the hidden pockets of your life, can no longer be minimized or swept away. It’s out there for all to see, including yourself. That is quite a risk.
Motherhood in the West has suffered from an identity crises and needs greater examination and status. Your bold self-identity as such, coupled with your longing to embody motherhood should remind us all of its importance and the lengths women will go to fulfill that desire. It is never a simple task to open ourselves up to others, let alone the unidentified blogging community. Thank you for your honesty and resolve to name a role that has taken a back-seat in feminism. Thank you for finding motherhood in a multitude of settings, and thank you for bringing the pain of infertility to light.
Thanks so much for your comments Cynthie. You are an amazing friend and a wonderful support. Words cannot express how much I appreciate you!
I appreciate you sharing your experience and insight into infertility in the First World, however as a Hebrew Bible scholar I must respond to certain assumptions you bring up concerning infertility in the biblical text.
“With no understanding of biology, infertility was viewed as a curse by Jewish culture and as the fault of the woman.”
It is no simple task (or even possible, as some may argue) to understand the way in which peoples so far removed from our own historical/geographical/cultural context thought. True, the Bronze Age did not have any systematic arena of biological discourse as we do today, but we may presume they had knowledge of where babies come from because of the biblical text’s obsessive preoccupation with patrilineal descent.
Furthermore, I am hard-pressed to find a passage, either in the various books of the Hebrew Bible or the Rabbinic interpreters, that actually blames women for their own infertility (not that such a passage doesn’t exist. If you find it, please let me know). Consider the case of Hannah in 1 Sam. 1:6, where it is YHWH who closes her womb. Combined with Gen. 49:25, a blessing of breasts and womb, we may understand fertility in the Hebrew Bible to be either ordained or denied by God
True, the Ancient Near Eastern woman was tasked with providing her husband with progeny, however the story of Hagar as well as several Akkadian legal documents indicate that female slaves were often used to ensure offspring for their mistresses.
Women in ancient Israel may have even used magical means to become pregnant. Susan Ackerman has suggested that the small female statues found in 8th-6th century BCE Judean home contexts are not only artistic representations of the goddess Asherah, but that they are also intended to grant the worshipper fertility. This may only be an interpretation, but it nuances our understanding of the religious life of women in the Ancient Near East as well as their own sense of personal/familiar agency.
Thanks so much for your comments. I can see how my one sentence may have been confusing and so I edited it. That being said, I think you missed the message of the post which is that Sarah is certainly a resource for women today who are struggling with infertility and that society continues to oppress and shame women who do not conform to the roles it has dictated for them. Finally, as a woman struggling with infertility, I opened up to share my experience because I know I am not alone in it and hearing the experiences of others dealing with similar situations can truly offer a life line.
Infertility runs deep in my family and is still wreaking havoc on so many levels. I am very thankful for modern day treatments (if there were none, I would not have children). But, for the reasons you state above, I am extremely hesitant to even talk about the treatments I have done, because for many, it makes me less of a mother, less of a woman…the belief that my kids are “lesser” and will have problems due to how they were conceived…that I could be “in for it” because I’m messing with “God’s plan” for me. I simply can’t deal with those self-righteous opinions.
A close family member, on the other hand, is still struggling to become a mother, and this process has changed her indefinitely. I have no answers for her. It’s hell.
Alisha, thanks so much for sharing this. I wonder who we are to determine what God’s plan is – how bold to think such a thing is possible. The judgement endured can be so painful and I am terribly sorry this has been your experience. I share in your anguish, but also in your happiness for achieving motherhood on your terms. Sending love and light your way.
I so appreciate what you have written.
My daughter has tried three times to have a baby, and each time it has ended sadly at 20 weeks. The devastation to her can’t be overstated, though she has impressed me with her courage and optimism, but like in your situation things have not been improved by thoughtless comments which elicit feelings of anger and frustration, from me as well as her! The whole process is a journey that we have to take when things don’t go as expected, and I have found that the only appropriate response is reflection of how hard it is. Reassurances that it was ‘meant to be’, or that ‘you are young, you’ll have one eventually’ and the like,, only trivialise the journey. The adage “Don’t give advice till you’ve travelled a mile in her shoes” is very apt here.
I am so grateful for your comments this Alexa. I wanted to share this post I recently read by Monica Coleman about her own experience with miscarriage and infertility: http://monicaacoleman.com/2011/08/i’m-back-and-writing-about-loss/
Although I have never been pregnant, I could certainly relate to her feelings of loss. I think sharing with those who have had similar experiences is so important. Thank you for sharing with me.
People do try to “fix things” in our culture. I don’t think they are willing to accept that there are many times in life when “you just can’t get what you want.” I can’t tell you how many times I have been told that the reason I do not have a partner (which by the way was devasting for me at one time) is not because I am too much, too tall, too smart, and too pretty for most men to handle, but rather because I just didn’t do the right thing. Sometimes we really can’t “create our own reality” through hard work, good therapy, the right workshop, being open, not caring so much, going out more, or all the other many things I have been advised to do and then, I am assured, if I just do whatever is being suggested, “you will find someone.” It would have been nice to have heard once or twice, “you know what, that really is a bummer.”
It seems we live in a “fix it” culture and people have forgotten what it means to offer support rather than advice. What I find particularly interesting is generally that advice comes from those who have not shared in our experience – otherwise their comments would likely infuse the sensitivity deserved. Thank you for sharing your experience with me.
Ben, I agree with you that certainly with the domestication of animals some 10,000 years ago, people would have understood the relationship between copulation and offspring. In other words, I also do not agree that people worshipped the Goddess because they did not understand the male role in conception.
One thing that is often forgotten is that biology does not make a mother; it is the person that makes the mother. I hope for the day when you can be a mother to your own child. In the meantime, continue to be a mother to those you love, teach, and nurture.
Thank you for your beautiful comments Michele! :)
Gina – that is really some list! I am pained for you that you have had these things said to you and I am excited to be a part of your life as you mother your child!
Thank you for being honest and open in this post. I know we have talked about this list in the past but I wanted to comment on your number 10. (“Wow, you are so lucky your husband has not divorced you. Most men would not tolerate a woman who could not give him a child.”)
The fact that someone has said this to you angers me but does not surprise me. In a culture where women’s bodies and women in general are viewed as a “vessel,” women have to be more and more careful to pick a partner who journeys with them in life as partners and takes part in their struggles and losses rather than judges and/or leaves them. Knowing you, as I have come to do, you have a great partner who provides you with the support and love you need.
However, for those that do not have this option, it is important that as educators and activists we empower and educate women and men with the resources they need to overcome the fear that victimization of women as reproductive agents and nothing more.
It is not the duty of women to “give” men a child nor is it up to a man to “take” a child that a woman gives birth to. I am a fervent proponent of a woman’s right to choose before, during and after the birth of the child. The social, sexual and gendered norm that it is still a woman’s place to “give” men children or that men have a say over women’s bodies is something that I fear will continue as women’s assess to birth control, adoptions, etc. continue to dwindle.
Thank you for your strength, your honesty and the courage to be an activist to educate men and women from all walks of life on this issue. It is with posts like these that we can change and shape a world where women and men work together and with each other throughout life.
Thank you so much for sharing this. Tears of horror and anger came to my eyes as I read the list of things that have been said to you and others who struggle with infertility.
So…I am under my covers procrastinating all the things that I need to do and I stumbled across this post. Thank you. <3 I might print out this list.