Infertility, Stigma, and Reading

Content note: Infertility portrayed in very problematic ways – possibly not the post to read if you’re in a tough place right now.

It’s old news now, but a month or so ago I read the Slate article that has been making the rounds in the infertility community – for good reason, it’s an excellent article hitting up a wide variety of issues and reasons infertility is particularly tricky when it comes to the workplace.  It also gets into how, despite more openness and acceptance for infertility, there’s still a very long way to go.

Since my own experiences with infertility/miscarriage, I’ve definitely noticed storylines or even short bits in books/films/TV relating to adoption/loss/infertility (ALI) far more than I did before.  While infertility is becoming more realistically depicted at times, I’m still somewhat surprised at how often I run across a particular trope that I strongly dislike: that women struggling with infertility/loss are scary.

Perhaps it’s because this came up in two books I read recently: The Alice Network (Kate Quinn) and Daughters of the Lake (Wendy Webb).

The Alice Network is largely about the female spy network that operated during WWI in France, interspersed with a young woman searching for her lost cousin in the wake of her brother’s suicide post WWII.  All the trigger warnings apply on this book both from the ALI perspective (unplanned pregnancies, abortion, loss) and generally (war, torture, Nazis, rape, etc.).  There’s a short bit, however, for a side character that includes infertility.

[Very minor spoiler ahead]

Spy trainer Captain Cameron went to jail because his wife decided to commit insurance fraud to provide for a child she couldn’t conceive.  Her infertility causes her to go to desperate, not entirely sane, lengths.  She conceives and recovers her mind.

[End spoiler]

Honestly, despite how much I was immersed in the rest of the story, this part almost made me put it down because it infuriated me so much.

Shortly thereafter, I picked up Wendy Webb’s Daughters of the Lake, a gothic suspense novel, on sale at some point and finally got around to reading it.  It’s definitely a ghost story, but in a mildly shivery sort of way that I enjoyed (I then promptly picked up a couple of her other books from the library and those descend into terrifying outright horror stories – this one I found much milder).

The novel had a baby/baby loss subplot, however.  Again, the theme of women deranged by loss and not having a child came up toward the end of the book.

Even setting aside artistic license and drama in novels, this Dear Prudence letter headlined “Help!  Sometimes I Worry That My Infertile Friend Wants to Kidnap My Baby” (I would not click over if you’re in a fragile place because yes, this accurately sums up the substance of the letter).  Prudie calls the letter writer’s comment to the friend unkind and gives the letter writer a thorough tongue lashing, but the letter itself definitely displays a truly alarming attitude toward those struggling with infertility.

I am so tired of women struggling to conceive or dealing with loss being portrayed as dangerous or harmful.  Infertility made me feel a lot of emotions.  Sad.  Angry.  Conflicted.  Anxious.  Frustrated.  Jealous.  Certainly these and many more, but while it’s true that I chose not to attend baby showers, disliked pregnancy announcements for the most part, and had to unfollow streams with lots of new baby/child pictures at times, I never wanted to harm anyone.  I never wanted to take anyone’s baby.  I never lost touch with reality.  I never wished that difficulty or sadness would befall anyone.  I’m not going to say that no one was ever disappointed in my reactions or that a few people insisted that I should be visibly overjoyed for pregnant women, but I tried – hard – to be kind and keep my feelings to myself in public.  Mostly because it wasn’t other people’s fault and I knew they weren’t having babies at me.  I just wished it was my turn and that conceiving had been easier (and – not going to lie – highly resented the amount of money we were shelling out for IVF).

This is why I write about infertility, in the hopes that reality will help to dispel some of the more pernicious bits of stigma surrounding this condition.  But it doesn’t help when a scene giving a picture so much to the contrary are popping up in a novel as widely read as The Alice Network.

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6 thoughts on “Infertility, Stigma, and Reading

  1. I completely agree with all of this. It’s beyond frustrating to be portrayed as insane and dangerous when infertile. Not only do we have to navigate this trauma, but then we have to navigate others seeing us as a threat or object of pity.

    People fear what they don’t understand. They get upset when the platitudes hurt others or that their joy doesn’t make everyone instantly as happy as them. Hence it’s easier to just write the ALI community off as crazy. Even though it is the wrong and cruel thing to do.

  2. Emma Banyer

    I appreciate this. I am a career woman and am already back at work full time now that my IVF twins are two. I wanted children badly, and was very focused on it for a few years. But I was never hysterical, my plans for combating infertility were evidence-based, and I researched infertility and embryology the same way I would research anything. Yes, it’s a strong drive to become a mother, but the only reason it would ‘send someone crazy’ is if there were preexisting mental health issues and most likely a failed support system.

  3. nonsequiturchica

    So frustrating the way infertiles are portrayed in books and on tv! And that Dear Prudence letter…..Prudence, while harsh, was WAY nicer than I would have been had I received that letter.

  4. I can think of a few more examples. “The light between oceans” main character. Not sure how much to say without giving away the plot. Also there was a storyline on Call the Midwife where a young girl who had been made give up her baby kidnaps another woman’s baby. I also hate the depiction of infertile women this way.

  5. I read “The Alice Network” recently & I heartily concur. I enjoyed the book overall, but the Mrs. Cameron subplot… ugh!

    I remember when I first started blogging, I wrote about a case in the news where a baby was snatched from a hospital in Northern Ontario… by a young woman who had just lost a baby herself. I felt simultaneously sorry for her & horrified because I knew it was just going to reinforce all the stereotypes. :p

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