The injections weren’t working. My body wasn’t working.
A week earlier, an ultrasound had revealed several follicles measuring in the get-me-pregnant zone, which had meant it was Go Time. Unfortunately, there seemed to be an inverse correlation between the dosing and my libido. Still, my partner and I had expediently done the deed.
But, as the doctor now explained, a cold wand probing my insides as she studied the greyscale moonscape onscreen, we’d either have to try again or consider other options, namely IUI or IVF. I was thirty-six — “advanced maternal age”—an old hag, according to the medical establishment, while most of my friends hadn’t even begun trying to conceive.
We were only four months into our fertility journey, but with the constant bloating and exhaustion, I wondered whether it was time to pull the plug. Churning through the cycles of hope, disappointment and adjusting meds, then hope and disappointment… I felt more like a petri dish than a fleshly woman with desires. The cumulative disappointment of not getting pregnant conspired with the mounting doubts I had about both my ability to conceive and my yo-yoing ambivalence about becoming a mother.
I was failing as a woman, failing this most basic, precursory test of motherhood. And wasn’t motherhood the ultimate expression of womanhood?
My partner supported my decision to take a break from Project Baby, perhaps indefinitely. We breathed a collective sigh of relief, as I began releasing long-held fantasies of mothering: swaddling my baby, teaching her to ride a bike, watching her play with her older cousins, comforting her through her first broken heart… I quit the fertility meds (and of course, didn’t go near the flip-side birth control I’d been on for more than a decade), and let nature run its course.
I got my first natural period in fourteen years, a hint that my womanhood wasn’t entirely dysfunctional, although the failure to make a baby, let alone get pregnant, still smacked of inadequacy.
Two years later, we’d largely made peace with our childfree life when my period was late and breasts swollen to the point of aching. It couldn’t really be true, I told myself, as I bought a pregnancy test and a bar of chocolate at the CVS. I peed on the stick, and immediately both lines appeared bright blue.
I had to double-check the instructions to make sure I was reading it right. My heart pounded.
When I presented the stick to my partner, he broke into a smile and pulled me close. “Babe! Congratulations?” he asked.
“It’s so crazy,” I said, wiping away tears. “Can you believe it?”
“I know!” he said, his green eyes welling up. “But I knew something was up. Your tits, geez!”
My phone buzzed in my pocket. I blurted out the news to my best friend and she shrieked her congratulations. As we chatted, I confessed to feeling confused, “It took me years to let go of wanting this so badly, but now, it’s like I finally have this affirmation of my womanhood.”
She immediately corrected me. “Frie, you were just as much of a woman before, baby or not. Period or not. Don’t make it about gender.”
Leave it to your bestie to see through the patriarchal BS.
I knew fertility challenges had distorted how I saw myself as a woman, but I struggled to reconcile my understanding of womanhood divorced from being a mother. I could not shake the desire to experience the full range of womanhood. And here was my chance! I knew fertility challenges had distorted how I saw myself as a woman, but I struggled to reconcile my understanding of womanhood divorced from being a mother.
As a thinner woman with no cleavage (trust me, I’ve tried every trick in the book to make these little peaches smash into each other), I looked forward to the fleshiness that pregnancy would endow me with. Women gush about how divinely feminine they feel carrying their babies to term—thick hair, radiant skin, voluptuous and attuned bodies. I’d witnessed that enchanting glow with friends and family, and I looked forward to harnessing the bountiful potential of women’s reproductive might.
My body, however, had other plans. Within a week, I lost the pregnancy and my hope. In my grieving thirst to learn more about my experience, the stats jolted me to attention: Upwards of one in four pregnancies end in loss, while one in eight women struggle with infertility. But if it’s so common, how come nobody’s talking about it? I needed to talk with women who’d been through it. Needed to know I wasn’t alone. Needed their stories to carry me. I talked and talked, and eventually those conversations became a book.
For many of those women dealing with infertility, being pregnant was anything but sexy or romantic; in fact, it sometimes posed grave risks to both mother and child. One woman overcame a near-death experience and a nurse’s loaded judgment when she underwent an abortion procedure for the medically advised termination of her pregnancy with a severely deformed fetus.
Another had become so severely depressed after suffering multiple miscarriages during years-long fertility treatments that she was eventually (and wrongfully) fired from her job.
Each of these women had resembled that fertility-goddess ideal, but struggled through complicated, even life-threatening pregnancies, which they lost despite their best intentions and access to quality care.
Why, then, was I clinging to the notion of idolized beauty and power of the pregnant body? The nagging sensation wore on me as I unpacked what I came to see as a glorification of pregnancy.
Thanks to the women I spoke with, my sense of womanhood began to disentangle itself from motherhood and its initial hallmark of pregnancy.
My grief would entail further unraveling and a reckoning with my identity as a woman independent of motherhood, fertility, menses, or other narrow definitions of feminine, worthy or lovable. I had to rewrite the narrative that I had failed.
For millennia, involuntarily childless women have felt like failures, ashamed and dishonored. Infertility has long been regarded as a socially, mentally, and physically damaging condition for women, but not for men. Fatherhood fell more into the social realm than the biological, rendering childlessness legitimate grounds for divorce and the social stigmatization of women. Which left motherhood as a sociobiological imperative for women. Could a woman truly have worth without bearing a child?
Historian Rebecca Flemming remarks on the ancient cultural experience of infertility: “Whatever the understanding about conception is, however much male failure can be implicated, the drama of infertility is always played out in the woman’s body. That is to say, some things don’t change.”
While nowadays infertility is equally attributed to men and women, for most of human history, questioning a man’s virility was inconceivable. Women bore the brunt of infertility and continue to serve as the primary site of investigation and intervention. Until recently, few treatments targeted men, leaving women to suffer dubious “remedies.” While nowadays infertility is equally attributed to men and women, for most of human history, questioning a man’s virility was inconceivable. Women bore the brunt of infertility and continue to serve as the primary site of investigation and intervention.
Hippocrates, “Father of Medicine,” recommended applying a blend of cumin, resin, potassium nitrate, and honey to an infertile woman’s cervix. Instead of an IUI, a doctor circa 400 BCE might have prescribed fumigation of the womb. Meanwhile, infertility in China lacked its Western stigma. A man simply acquired concubines, and any child not conceived by his legal wife was deemed the legitimate heir—an old twist on what today would amount to egg donation with a surrogate.
In ancient Greek and biblical times, “barrenness” was believed to be a divine curse, with Greeks allowing for physiological factors. Should prevailing medical remedies of the day prove unsuccessful, a couple might make sense of childlessness by implicating the god(s) in their fate as well as its potential reversal. They summoned oracles, worshiped and bargained with deities. In the Aztec empire, they sacrificed virgins to appease the higher powers.
Fortunately, our medical and cultural understanding of infertility has evolved to a more holistic, feminist approach to women’s reproductive health. Yet, women and their partners still suffer the emotional fallout, despite a growing body of research and practice that seeks to destigmatize and centers patient agency and wellbeing.
Jackie, a nurse in her late thirties whom I talked with, aptly captured this self-loathing and shame: “I viewed the losses as failures and the misconceptions as failures, so I felt like a double failure. Not only was I not conceiving, but then even when I did conceive, it wasn’t viable.” I’m enough, kids or not.
Clearly, I was not alone. Nor was I or am I deficient as a woman, romantic partner, daughter, etc. I’m enough, kids or not. You’re enough. And we need each other to help us believe it by normalizing the conversation around infertility and loss, sharing stories and insights, and redefining outdated notions of womanhood and self-worth. So, please, no sacrificing virgins when you summon your sisters and gods in hopes of a viable pregnancy.
Frieda Hoffman is a certified coach, transformative mediator, and entrepreneur with a passion for supporting women and courageous leadership. She freelances as an executive and mentor coach, facilitates conflict and collaboration competency development, and co-designs leadership programs with mission-driven organizations who put people first. In June 2022, Frieda published Carry Me: Stories of Pregnancy Loss.
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