“We’re starting a family soon”… “We’re planning to have another baby”… “We’ll have a baby this year” “When I’m pregnant…”
These are all phrases I’ve heard people say and only recently has it struck me how naive these expectations actually are. We live with a dangerous false belief that pregnancy and a baby is a guarantee for anyone who wants it enough. It’s this belief that connects a shame to infertility, miscarriage and stillbirth because it’s built on an assumption that we are in control of our bodies and therefore responsible for our ability to bear children and ensure their safe delivery.
There is a general perception that unprotected sex is a bonified guarantee of getting pregnant. Films and tv shows make it look so easy, the wealthy are now choosing the gender of their babies and magazines are filled to the brim with pregnant women who all make it look like the simplest process in the world.
In our earliest reproductive years we are all warned about the implications of not using birth control and this has instilled in us this false belief that simply removing birth control will result in a baby. Many couples are happy to report how quickly they got pregnant, while those who struggle are understandably less vocal. “It only took us one month to get pregnant!” One celebrity boasted to the newspapers recently. Celebrating one’s reproductive capabilities has become a cultural norm. We see it in glossy magazines with pictures of baby bumps and on social media where it is the cultural norm to publicly celebrate one’s ability to become pregnant.
I used to talk with pride about the fact that it only took us two months to conceive Nieve but now I hold my tongue. Just because I was fortunate enough to fall pregnant easily does not make me better than the next woman. We were lucky, where many couples aren’t and I choose to show more respect for others these days and acknowledge that fertility isn’t an accomplishment.
We live in a goal orientated society where meeting a partner, getting married and having babies are seen as a checklist of items to achieve and ‘tick off’ and we all too readily congratulate ourselves for these ‘accomplishments’. There was even a board game invented in the 1990’s called ‘The game of life’ which perpetuated the idea that to succeed ‘at life’ you must get a career, get married, buy a house and have children.
In our have-it-all culture it’s no wonder so many of us feel inadequate. I’m not just referring to the couples who encounter infertility or baby loss, I’m also referring to people who want a baby but have no partner, people whose partner doesn’t want or isn’t ready for a baby, people whose circumstances mean that they cannot have a child. All these situations can bring heartache and a deep feeling of inadequacy that we didn’t live up to societies expected narrative for life.
Without the metaphorical ticking of the box, where does it leave us? A failure in the eyes of society? I’ve felt this sense of failure myself. During my early thirties I began to feel I was falling short compared to others. My circumstances meant that I had not yet ‘achieved’ the family I desired and that made me feel inadequate, less of a woman.
When I lost my daughter I also experienced this deep sense of shame and failure. My body had failed me in the most despicable way and I felt defective as a woman. It dates back to our most primitive years where a women’s main function was to ‘reporoduce’. Failing to succeed in this area makes us feel inadequate. I won’t deny that getting pregnant again has helped to lessen some of those feelings of inadequacy that I felt after losing my daughter, though I recognise that my self worth should be based on more than just my ability to conceive.
The fact is, the control we have over our bodies is limited and acknowledging that fact would help to remove some of the sense of personal shame surrounding fertility and baby loss.
But we have a long way to go. I’ve heard people plan their families to a meticulous degree. “I’d like to have a baby in the Autumn” “We want a one year age gap between our two children” “I want to be married at 30, first baby at 32 and then two more after that, finishing before I’m 40.”
In our cultural norm of over-sharing, it’s also common for people to question one another on their family planning intentions with no thought to how deep and personal this question is. Many of my loss-mum friends have been openly quizzed on whether they will try for another baby with no regard for how invasive and triggering this question could be. One friend has been actively trying for eight months after loss and such a question adds to her feelings of inadequacy, another had a hysterectomy as a consequence of the labour with her stillborn daughter and so this question is deeply personal and emotionally triggering.
This level of questioning is often innocent and is used as a way of trying to put a positive spin on what is such a tragic situation. But it’s also a way of detracting from the uncomfortableness of sitting with that person’s pain. You lost your baby? Have you thought of having another? For the loss parent it can feel dismissive of their loss. After all, nobody would make the same suggestion to a widow; You lost your husband? Have you considered online dating?
I too used to openly ask people about their family planning intentions but I would think twice these days. We never know the difficulties that other people have endured in their lives. A simple question, asked so casually, could trigger all kinds of emotions and uncover an agonising back story.
The heartbreak I have endured through losing my daughter has granted me compassion for others that I never had before. My nativity has been shattered but maybe it’s about time that I and others woke up to the reality that there are no guarantees in life.
If we lowered our expectations would it reduce the heartbreak when things don’t turn out the way we expect? I’m not sure it would ease the sadness but maybe it would help to absorb the shock and reduce the deep feelings of shame.
I’ve been surprised at how many people seemed to open up to me about fertility issues after I lost my own baby. It was like they felt they could stop pretending that it was all so easy. I was broken, raw and real and people were willing to meet me there; to admit their own ‘imperfections’. If only we could live life this openly; to stop feeling the need to compete with the next person and be more emotionally honest. To give up trying to present ourselves as perfect to the outside world and relate to one another on a deeper level. To stop presenting the ‘picture postcard’ images of a perfect life and admit our hardships.
What I’ve realised is that I can’t change the way the world works but I can try to change the way I operate within it. If I can continue to be more emotionally honest maybe it’ll encourage some other people to do the same. If we can let go of the pretences, let go of the competitiveness, let go of trying to model ourselves on ideals, surely we’d all be much happier for it.