09 November 2009

Stigma // Taboo

"The In The Know Short Film Competition sought to eliminate the stigma of infertility and encourage couples who have struggled with infertility to share their stories and lend support for other couples hesitant in openly discussing their journey."

I know. Who'd a thunk it? An infertility film festival? But I was there the other night, as the guest of the very lovely Mel, Queen of the Stirrup Queens and The Land of If, who happened to be one of the judges. We had drinks and snacks, we saw the three films that made the finals, and Mel and I talked about the ballet.

But go back and read that opening paragraph. Stigma. A few of the speakers at the event used the word "stigma", and it rattled me, enough so that I had to look it up in the dictionary, because there is nothing better than pulling a redolent dusty dictionary off the shelf for some aimless archeology.

Stigma: 1. a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach, as on one's reputation


Stigma: In sociological theory, a stigma is an attribute, behavior, or reputation which is socially discrediting in a particular way: it causes an individual to be mentally classified by others in an undesirable, rejected stereotype rather than in an accepted, normal one.

Being infertile does not disgrace you, it doesn't detract from your character, it doesn't mark you in any way, it doesn't make you into an outcast. However, it is something that people don't generally talk about, a taboo subject.

Why is that? And what can we do? Talk about it.

After my husband and I got married, we stopped using birth control and started trying to have a baby. And whenever anyone asked, I coyly deflected the question of "when are you going to have kids" with "we have cats". I did this so successfully that when I told people I was pregnant - eight years into the marriage - they said "we thought you didn't want children". If I had talked about it, perhaps someone would have suggested a medical investigation sooner - because I just didn't realize that yeah, your fertility decreases as you get older. In retrospect, I was an idiot.

Besides the happy production of a child, the experience of doctors and needles and dildo cams and surgeries and so many blood draws it's amazing that I'm not anemic made me hyper-aware of other women struggling with infertility - almost as though I developed a sixth sense for it, an intuition. And once you start talking about it, it's there, and there, and oh, there too. It's everywhere. It's one in eight couples.

Reading infertility blogs was my gateway into blogging. After reading for a while, I started writing, and while I'm in no way an "infertility blogger", having come to blogging after my fertility treatment days were over, I still feel a resonance there, and it's how I met Mel in the first place.

Incidentally, there's a fine irony in the phrase "stigma of infertility". One of the definitions of "stigma" has to do with something at the very core of conception - the release of the ripe egg from the ovary.

"A stigma in mammalian reproductive anatomy refers to the area of the ovarian surface where the Graafian follicle will burst through during ovulation and release the ovum."

Infertility isn't a stigma, and it shouldn't be a taboo.


Aurelia said...

This is truly an awesome post. I love the irony at the end. Just love it.

Unknown said...

Yes. Awesome post.

I convinced myself so thoroughly that infertility wouldn't happen to me (even when I was mysteriously never pregnant), that I still have to remind myself that it DID indeed happen to me. I think that once women resolve their childless-ness, they just move on and try to forget. It's easy to forget when the thing you anguished over for so long is in your arms squalling and depriving you of all the sleep you need to think clearly. At least that's how it was for me, until people started asking me when I was going to have another baby...

Bibliomama said...

I agree -- great post. Some of the things that are most difficult to talk about are the things that most need to be talked about. Even though it's hard to know what to say and how to say it the right way, being silent about it just kills friendships, and shrinks spirits.

Furrow said...

I was totally over it until we started trying for #2. Now I'm that shrill, angry, whiny person again.

I feel I've got that special sense about those who've been there, too, but no one ever admits it to me so I'm left only with my mfing gd uberfertile freak friends who do get knocked up on the first try. Or on birth control.

And btw, while being silent isn't good, calling your friends mfing, gd uberfertile freaks doesn't help, either.

heidi said...

Infertility is a nightmare of a roller coaster ride. I hate that there's a stigma attached to it. I love that IVF exists. I hate that it only works 48% of the time. I love that I got to see my twins when they were 5-celled blastocysts. I hate that I am judged as an older mom who did IVF & had twins. I love that I was able to help another mom's dream come true by giving her the shots that brought her baby to life.

Imperatrix said...

Hmmmm. I wonder what 19th-century world the writer of that "stigma" bit that you started your post with comes from? Sure, there was a stigma if you were "barren", back in the day of corsets and silk stockings. But not nowadays -- especially in aflluent neighborhoods where people have the financial option of IVF.

I know of two families in our circle of relatives who had difficulty getting pregnant; one just needed that dye test to get things moving along, the other went for IVF to be able to have their son. I can guess that several of the families we know conceived via IVF -- because there are so many pairs of fraternal twins among them. But I'm only guessing. Just like one doesn't ask parents of two girls (like me) if we prefer the missionary position, or my SIL (mother of two boys), if she enjoys rear entry more often, one doesn't ask parents of fraternal twins if they were conceived with IVF (and it isn't a matter of stigma, I'm just a scientifically curious person).

You are right -- there is lots of taboo about the subject, and it would probably be better for everyone, especially for the financially driven aspects of multiple vs. singleton births (did you see the NYT piece a few weeks ago?) to be able to speak openly about it. But stigma? No.

coldspaghetti said...

I think it says a lot that, within certain populations and certain communities in the U.S., infertility is not considered stigmatizing. Within other countries and particularly within poor countries and patriarchal cultures it most definitely is a stigma, results in disgrace and causes individuals to be outcasts.

mayberry said...

My first introduction to blogs was through infertility blogs too, for whatever reason. Even though I didn't have trouble getting pregnant, I think I learned to be much more sensitive to those that struggled, because they did write about it on their blogs.

nonlineargirl said...

I definitely had the experience of feeling very alone because no one I knew had the same problems getting pregnant that I was having, until I started telling people it was a problem and suddenly I was surrounded by people sharing their stories.

Anonymous said...

I've been puzzling over why it is that there seems to be a positive correlation between how personal an issue is and how judgmental people are about it. There's an important lesson about humanity in there, I just can't figure it out.

S said...


Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

This is not something I've experience personally, but I have seen friends go through heart-wrenching experiences. I'm glad you found support--and so happy you got your daughter.

flutter said...

this is absolutely right, Magpie

abby said...

I have found the stigma is not so much attached to the infertility but to the treatment. as someone who can get pregnant when touched (yes, you are all allowed to scowl at me for it), I do not understand, or pretend to, the feelings around not being able to get pregnant. however, I know many who have had problems, and am glad they were able to find help and have the wonderful humans that are now part of our world.

Quadelle said...

I did a similar thing about deflecting comments. We tried on our own for four years, but when we finally went to IVF we told everyone. Discovering 1 in 6 couples (the stats for Australia) have infertility issues meant I must have known people who had struggled. But no one had educated us, so we decided to try and use our experience to educate others so no one wastes precious time like we did.

I love how you turn infertility stigma on its head. No stigma here.

niobe said...

Love this post.

And without being, I dunno, blasphemous or something, I think there's also some kind of analogy to be drawn to stigmata (which, it turns out, in addition to its more common use, is also the plural of stigma).

Anonymous said...

Well, I think the stigma is the one we can give ourselves. I certainly felt like an outcast, that I was on the outside looking in. I smiled, I coped, but somehow never managed to shake the ghost of the woman I assumed I would be. I'm actually quite happy now, on another path, but on occasion, I still feel her beside me.

GirlGriot said...

You're so right on with this post ... sadly, infertility is still seen as a stigma by many people. I've had far too many people (more women than men, sad to say) treat me patronizingly and/or disdainfully in reference to my childlessness. Which is why only a handful of my friends (and, you know, the people who read my blog) know anything about the long story of my failed attempts to have a child.

(And thanks for stopping by. I'm loving Alejna for helping me discover my pantsified playlist!)

Book Dragon said...

Thank you so much for talking about infertility but it's not just infertility that is taboo. It seems, to me, to be most medical and other "female" problems too.

While no one wants to hear everything we do need to hear enough to know that we are not alone. And you never know, a chance comment may trigger someone else comment that leads to a solution that you didn't know about.

As for me, I tried for 3 years after my two children but in hindsight, I don't think my husband was trying that hard. You see, I had post-partum depression so bad, he was worried about one of us (me/2 kids) surviving. And no one was talking about it, and those who did made the most awful comments that I stopped talking about it.

I feel for any woman who wants children but doesn't/can't have them. It is a joy and a heartache and one of the best things you can do. (yes, just one, because mothers love the single teacher who is so good with their children or the scientist working on a cure for things we can't even pronounce)

I'm hoping this isn't insensitive because I'm not trying to belittle your struggle. I just want all us to talk about all of them, they might be interrelated.

princessjo1988 said...


I would like to thank you for speaking up about the stigma that comes with being infertile.

As I am at the young end of the infertility struggle (21) I often get the "you've got time/you're still young' etc comments, which I find immensely offensive and horrible. My husband (who is 27) and I have been trying for a number of years now without success: it always has been our dream (a rather big dream) to have children. As well I have an auto immune disease which is physically quite draining and it is my preference to have children now so that if it gets worse and doesn't allow my body to fall pregnant/maintain pregnancy (which is quite the possibility) I can say that I fulfilled the dream that I have had ever since I was a little girl.

I often say that if babies grew on wish trees that I (and I am sure many others) would have a million or more by now. I just wish that others could understand that longing and desire.