The infertile woman: quietly suffering saint or neurotic nut job?

Remember how in Introduction to Gender Studies, they taught you that the west has produced two tropes of femininity: the virgin and the whore?

I was thinking about this as I read Peggy Orenstein’s reflections on her quest for parenthood in her memoir, Waiting for Daisy. She opens by recounting her prayers of repentance on Yom Kippur:

“I’d taken my temperature every morning. I have been obsessive. I’d peed on ovulation predictors five days a month. I’d craned my neck like a yogini to see my nether regions while sluicing my finger around to check for the monthly fluid that would guide sperm to egg. I have been impatient…I’d rushed to my doctor’s after an afternoon quickie so she could examine my husband’s and my commingled juices under a microscope. I’d transported cups of sperm in my bra.”

This was not the first time I’ve heard this lament, though it might be the most humorously expressed. The other day I was hanging out with a friend who said she’d never thought she’d be sucked into the world of hormone shots and egg retrievals. Years back, when her own best friend was going through the same, she had thought the best friend was acting desperately. Now, she said, she was just as bad.

When I first ventured into the fertility blogosphere, I relished the postings of the bloggers who tracked their follicle growth online. I thought they were neurotic basket cases and that made me feel pretty damn good. At least I wasn’t like them.

But there is something deeply misguided about this. It’s like the 6-beers-a-day guy comparing himself to the 8-beers-a-day guy to prove he’s not an alcoholic.

Now that I have my own blog I’ve got no choice but to wonder, what is so wrong with tracking your follicle growth online?

Several famous biblical characters, including Hannah, were infertile and distraught. But Hannah was not neurotic. She did not obsess over her cervical mucous or chart her cycles in the mud. Hannah was good. She silently endured the taunts of her fertile co-wife and prayed.

You probably know the ending: God rewarded her with a baby.

As I see it, these are the lessons:

-If you want a baby but can’t have one, you should be upset, but you shouldn’t burden other people with it.

-You should try really hard to get pregnant, but don’t be neurotic.

-You should rationally consider other options such as living with childlessness or adoption, but continue to hold out hope for “your own” child, because that is what you should really want.

-If you choose living with childlessness, enjoy your life, but not too much, since it’s weird for women not to have babies.

Gloria Anzaldua did a good deal of thinking about these sorts of irresolvable contradictions in her book Borderlands/La Frontera. She challenged the western construction of the virgin/whore dichotomy by tracing the complicated history of mother goddess worship in precolonial American cultures.

Ultimately, she argues for embracing borders as homelands – whether that border is conceptual, such as the ones that lie between the English and Spanish languages or between La Virgen de Guadelupe and La Malinche, or concrete, such as the Mexican/US border. Here an excerpt of a poetic reflection on this:

1,950 mile open wound

dividing a pueblo, a culture

running down the length of my body

staking fence rods in my flesh

splits me    splits me

me raja   me raja

this is my home

this thin edge of



3 Responses to “The infertile woman: quietly suffering saint or neurotic nut job?”

  1. As usual, very interesting post. I would say we’re a little of both — saint and nut job that is, not the other 😉 We do suffer quietly, unable to share with others the pain of TTC. And perhaps because we are so isolated, we find some comfort in our neuroses. Maybe we if got to speak of IF openly, and got some understanding from others, we wouldn’t get so nutty about it all.

  2. I am both the silently suffering type and also the neurotic nutjob. It wasn’t by choice on either one. it just happened over time. For now, I’m just me. I speak out for those of us in the land of IF as much as I can, and then I go home and sob because of it.


  3. Yes, yes to all of this! We’re supposed to want children, but not too soon, but if we’re infertile it’s our fault because we waited too long, and ART is frivolous and wasteful, but living childfree is unnatural, and adoption is of course noble but should be the second choice, and we should try as hard as we can to have “our own” children, up to and including the frivolous, wasteful ART, but we shouldn’t ever let on that this is hard.

    OK, end rant.

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