Today is the day. I studied myself in the mirror, stomach in knots as I prepared to head out the door. Badass imitation-leather jacket: Check. Favorite, most flattering pair of jeans: Check. Knee-high don’t-mess-with-me boots: Check. I didn’t own any lipstick, but in that moment I wanted it desperately – wanted one final touch to tell the universe: Today I am invincible.
Invincibility is important for doctor’s offices, I’ve found.
This doctor was a stranger, an old man who read my name off a chart and discussed my lab work with professional detachment. No, he told me, as if discussing the weather. You will never be able to have children biologically. Your ovaries are shut down. Your body cannot support a pregnancy.
Invincible, I matched him calm for calm. I thanked him for his time, and I made it all the way out to the elevators before I started to cry.
Motherhood is glorified in our society. On the surface, this seems like a great thing – of course motherhood should be respected and celebrated! But in the words of my favorite Cracked.com author, there are two ways to dehumanize someone: by dismissing them, and by idolizing them. The gestational capabilities of women have been used to define them and justify excluding them from society for centuries. (A particularly hilarious/infuriating example of this mindset is the Cult of Domesticity, which ruled in the Victorian Era and continues to haunt us to this day).
Elevating motherhood to the position of sainthood also, ironically, provides justification for not supporting it. If motherhood is its own reward, why should years put into raising a family be regarded as a financial contribution during a divorce settlement? If truly being a “good” mother means you never hesitate to make sacrifices for your children, never feel tired or angry or overwhelmed, why should society provide resources to help you in times of struggle?
This Olympics commercial made me tear up, sure, but you know what’s an even better way to say “thank you” to mothers everywhere? How about free, high-quality prenatal and postnatal care? Or mandatory paid maternity leave, an area where the United States fails miserably?
Additionally, the cult of motherhood serves as another arena where women can “fail.” Be a mother, and love every single second of it, or you are a bad person/woman! But only if you’re married! And middle-class! And you’d better not prioritize your career anymore, or you’re an unfeeling monster! Also, your children and neighbors will hate you unless you buy this product!
As someone who has been avidly interested in feminism since the age of fifteen, I figured I had this whole cult of motherhood thing pretty well dissected. I could have written you a twenty page paper, MLA or APA format, on why it is bullshit and damaging from a political, legal, and psychological perspective. But I never really understood it until I received my diagnosis last fall.
See, here’s the thing. Dealing with infertility is going to be different for everyone who experiences it. It’s deeply personal, tied up in so many facets of the self. For some of my friends, this news would have come as a minor disappointment, or even a relief. For me, it was heartbreaking.
I am mourning the loss of so many things: The opportunity to connect with my mother in this specific, intimate way, trading stories and getting advice from her. That first, secret moment I imagined having with my children, when I would feel them and know they existed before anyone else. Children who could have had my brother’s eyes, my mother’s smile, my partner’s grandfather’s ears.
I am okay with mourning these things. I have support from family and friends, and grief will heal over time. After all, I know in my bones that all you need to make a family is love.
Do you know what I’m not okay with, though? I am so very much NOT okay with the thoughts that come out to haunt me in the middle of the night.
I’m a failure as a woman. I’m not even really a woman any more. I’m nothing.
I’m broken, damaged, incomplete. No-one is ever going to want me now. Even if someone loves me in spite of this, they will always secretly resent me for not being able to give them children.
My body is barren, a place where nothing grows. My womb is like a crater on Mars. My womb is the blast site after a bomb has gone off.
These thoughts are claws in my gut, lashes on my back. They twist me in on myself with guilt and self-hatred and despair, and they are not okay. They are BULLSHIT. I would never think these things about someone else who couldn’t have children. Nobody in their right minds would ever think these things about anyone. But this is the dark side to the worship of motherhood. This is the inverse of all of the empowering, celebratory messages about pregnancy and childbirth that I have absorbed my whole life. This is what you get.
I know there are so many more facets to this issue. I’m cis-gendered, white, and bisexual, so my relationship with societal pressures re: fertility and biological motherhood is actually relatively straightforward. I can’t speak to the experiences of trans women, who have been told they’re not “real” women because they lack the organs for childbearing. I can’t speak to the experiences of men who might long to be mothers, instead of fathers (because those roles are conceptualized so differently in our society). I can’t speak to any experience but my own.
Nonetheless, I wanted to share my story, because it highlights for me how insidious and vicious and destructive sexism is, even when it seems to be benign or celebratory. Because I hope that by focusing attention on these thoughts of mine, maybe I can burn them away, like ants under a magnifying glass in the sun. Because maybe somebody out there feels like this too, and maybe they can read my words and know that they are not alone, and that we are not broken.