Many young women receive intrusive questions and remarks about when they might get pregnant. Laura Cooke describes how that feels for women who can’t have the families they would like
I’m sitting in a car with a male colleague, heading back from a meeting. I don’t know him that well but we’re having a pleasant conversation about life and love, filling in the blanks about the other’s background. Talk turns to my recent wedding. And then he hits me with this question: “Are you going to have kids?”
I consider giving him a noncommittal ‘not yet’ or ‘maybe’. But instead I decide to tell him the truth – that I am infertile. I had both my fallopian tubes and ovaries removed at the age of 30. As my ovaries were turning gangrenous, I had little choice in the matter.
He is slightly taken aback by my answer but we discuss it further. He says he admires my honesty and the conversation moves on.
At the time, and in the context of the conversation, it didn’t strike me as an odd question. But in retrospect, it’s a hugely personal question, and potentially quite an offensive one, to ask someone whose history is unknown to you.
According to the NHS, one in seven couples may have difficulty conceiving. This is approximately 3.5 million people in the UK.
So bearing that figure in mind, why do people persist in asking women in long-term relationships about their plans to start a family? “Are you pregnant? Why not? When are you going to have children? Aren’t you leaving it a bit late? Time is running out!”
I can appreciate it would be an irritating line of questioning for a woman who is childless through choice. For someone like me who has had it forced upon them, it is downright heartbreaking. Considering as a nation we still struggle to talk about difficult subjects, it’s odd that we are so willing to ask near strangers such intimate questions and even more bizarre that those being asked feel obliged to answer and explain ourselves.
I think part of the reason it is seen as acceptable is that society sees other people’s lives, and women’s bodies, as public property. We share everything on Facebook - wedding photos, food porn, holiday plans and, yes, baby scans. Certain publications are awash with regular ‘is she or isn’t she’ pregnancy speculation (a recent example being the Daily Mail’s hard-hitting article on whether Jennifer Aniston was harbouring a big lunch or a new life). And of course this inevitably spills over into ‘real life’.
Although we have thankfully come a long way since women were shunned for having a child out of wedlock, the traditional view that starting a family is the next logical step after a woman gets married, particularly to a man, is still alive and well in 2016, as demonstrated by my well-meaning colleague. With women often reluctant to talk about fertility problems, through shame, embarrassment, pride or whatever reason, the people who ask them these intrusive questions aren’t called out on it.
As crap as my fertility situation is, in a funny kind of way I feel fortunate that at least I know I am infertile. Without medical help, nothing short of a Biblical miracle will see life spring from my loins. I know why my reproductive system won’t work - because half of it is AWOL.
And I also feel fortunate that I am able to talk to people about it, tell them my story, thus heading off many of the questions people think it is acceptable to ask women of childbearing age. Perhaps this is my way of taking back control of the situation, following my abrupt crash into infertility.
But it’s far from being that cut and dried for many couples experiencing fertility issues. I know couples who are, on the face of it, healthy people, but after years of trying to conceive naturally and years of treatment, they still haven’t succeeded. After years of highly invasive tests, the consultant still hasn’t got a clue why this couple cannot make a baby.
Toni Gardner spent eight years trying to conceive with husband Derek before finally falling pregnant through IVF treatment.
Toni, who runs the Treelight Fertility Support Group in East Sussex, spent those eight years fending off insensitive comments from friends, family and co-workers, who had no idea of her inner turmoil.
She said, “I used to hear ‘tick tock tick tock’, ‘come on, you two have been together long enough now’. And ‘your ovaries aren’t going to stay young forever, don’t you think it’s about time you started having children?’ Then I had family members saying ‘I had children by the time I was 23, you’re 31 now,’ blah blah blah.
“The one thing that really hurt me was I overheard people talking at a party. Two people were talking and one said ‘Have Toni and Derek got any kids?’ and the other person said ‘No not yet I think Toni is focused on her career.’”
Toni, a qualified therapist, didn’t feel able to talk about the difficulties she was facing, hoping instead that people would just get the hint. She said, “A lot of the time when people said to me ‘When are you going to have kids?’ I used to say ‘Believe me, I’m trying,’ and people used to say ‘Come on Toni, it’s been forever’. So I would fix them with a steely gaze and repeat ‘Believe me, I’m trying,’ and keep looking at them and hope they would get the hint. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t.”
So should we just carry on like this, dropping vague hints in the hope that the person asking the question will understand the topic is out of bounds? Or should we be more proactive and start a conversation about infertility and attempt to educate people that badgering women about babies is not OK?
On the back of her experiences, Toni Gardner set up a support group for women experiencing fertility issues because she says she couldn’t bear the thought of anyone suffering by themselves.
She is also currently writing a book based on some of the insensitive comments which she had to endure during those eight years.
This article is my own small way of putting the message out there: stop asking women about their pregnancy plans. That woman in the office who cried this morning when her period started? She doesn’t need your insensitive comments. Your friend? She has just had her third early miscarriage. She doesn’t want to hear your opinion on her ovaries.
And as for the next person who hits me with that ‘tick tock’ nonsense…have I ever shown you my oophorectomy scars…?
[Image is a photographic portrait of a young woman of East Asian origin with particular focus on her ear. She has an expression of someone listening to something which troubles her. This photograph was found on pixabay and is in the Public Domain.]