When it comes to infertility and involuntary childlessness, everyone needs to go back to school.
The second day of our little North Fork of Long Island July getaway started out with a full delicious breakfast, and a bike rental that went off without a hitch. Perfect eighty – degree weather and much pedaling brought us to our first winery stop in the early afternoon.
Sipping on a succulent sparkling rose, my husband and I found ourselves seated in proximity to what for us is a past life of sorts – a group of eight youngsters celebrating an engagement. I enjoyed their effervescence to the hum of my internal groan as they yammered on about how many kids each of them wanted and were going to have.
The disturbing aspect of all this you ask? What was missing. There was no acknowledgement whatsoever that babies might not come right away or at all. No mention that many who want three kids can only have one, or maybe none, never mind what they have to go through to get there. And the utter lack of control we humans have over human reproduction? Nary a whisper of this truth. Or this one: That you can’t always have what you want in the kid department, never mind the process of things not working can violently shove you through a transformation that makes the transition into parenthood look like kindergarten circle time.
Now, I’m all for an innocent dream-a-thon amongst friends. It is, after all, one of the privileges of youth.
Yet the rattling absence of the concepts of “if” and “maybe” in their conversation highlights a glaring yet unseen truth: Our young people are perpetually groomed for parenthood, yet are left entirely in the dark regarding the life altering difficulties that may arise in its no – results – guaranteed pursuit.
“Holy shit, they don’t know” I quietly mused to my husband as I continued observing.
The universal nature of my experiences, as well as those of the entire infertile community, has always been clear to me. ALL of human reproduction is relevant, not just the yippy skippy parts.
When people talk of an upcoming marriage, the potential of challenges and hardships are openly acknowledged. Even marriage vows include the possibilities of sickness and poverty. During sex education we’re enlightened to the realities of unplanned pregnancies, sexual assault and the risks of contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
But baby making? NAH!
So what if one in eight people of child-bearing age seek medical treatment for infertility? Medical treatment whose common side effects include anxiety, depression and PTSD?
So what if one in every four pregnancies ends in a miscarriage and one in every one hundred sixty births is a still?
So what if twenty percent of women in this country over the age of 45 don’t parent, percentage not by choice as of now unknown but estimated at at least half of this mentioned group? So what if there’s not a statistic at all for men in this category?
So what if other diseases such as cancer can rob a person of their ability to reproduce?
And so what if there is little to no support for the mourning, healing and recovery processes of those who suffer?
As of now, society’s response to this has been to keep over – glorifying parenthood, projecting onto our children about when “they have kids one day” yeah like as if that’s a slam dunk, pretend infertility is rare and that involuntary childlessness is not even a thing while allowing the experience of easily procured parenthood to continue to monopolize the conversation and keep up the idiotic claim that parenthood is “the only way you’ll ever know real love”.
Nice job, folks. The epitome of inadequacy, no doubt.
As their flutter of excitement amid their perceived to be no holds barred dreams continued, my feelings of disturbance escalated.
“Someone has failed these kids!” I exclaimed to my husband. “We as a society have failed them.”
(Can you imagine if people recited vows as they embarked on the pursuit of parenthood? As the societal tone deafness to all things traumatic in human reproduction stands today, they would go something like this: In baby and in baby, and in joy and in joy, and in boy and in girl (and in the order you want them of course), chocolate bunnies will rain from the sky as all of your parent dreams which you just need to believe in will easily come true. Rainbows, unicorns and lollipops until death do us part.)
But I know, having lived it myself, the more realistic scenario. There’s a good chance one of these kids, and thus couples, will be the one in eight. If it were a group of twenty people, at least one would end up not being able to reproduce at all. At least one other would end up child free by circumstance, not by choice.
And so the one in eight will either hide their plight or be met with platitudes and dismissals when they share it. Success from attempts to educate and integrate, if they can summon the strength at all amid the gargantuan levels of trauma and loss with which they are dealing, will be tepid and infrequent. It more often than not will boil down to either faking it to stay in connection with their child-bearing peers, or being left alone if they are stricken, as I am, with the disease of full disclosure and the unwillingness to endure a lack of acceptance from those who are supposed to care.
Not acknowledging the possibilities of infertility and involuntary childlessness from a young age not only leaves those living with these circumstances alone and isolated, it destroys any potential support systems. Bystanders often see only taboo, stigma, emotional discomfort and social inconvenience in these situations, instead of seeing traumas and losses that need their support, acceptance and abidance.
I continue to plug reality into the future as I look on at the group. “I wonder which one is going to be the ‘Just relax and take a vacation’ genius? It’s inevitable, every group has one. And no doubt at least one of them will assume the role of delivering grief’s ultimate debaser – the ‘everything happens for a reason’ mail bomb.”
“I want to go over there and tell them…someone has to tell them….” I hissed out my frustration.
“Don’t go” my husband stammered in a rare show of nervousness reserved for those instances when part of me wants to pull the trigger.
“Of course I’m not actually going over!” I exclaimed with unwarranted indignance (I have been known to act on my impulses every now and then).
However my empty arms wanted to gather up all eight of these sweet young adults, my lil’ twenty something punkin pies, and give them their due. The truth talk parents and educators should have given them long ago but didn’t and continue to fail to do so. I thought about it and it would go something like this:
Nine Things You Need To Know About Human Reproduction People Should Have Told You But Probably Didn’t:
1. Your abilities and inabilities to reproduce can impact every aspect of your life, but they are no reflection of your worthiness and value as a human.
2. It’s a good idea to cultivate a general awareness that many things can go wrong in the process of trying to have a family with children. An easy path and an actual result is not guaranteed to anyone.
3. However, there is no need or purpose to live in fear of infertility, miscarriages and other reproductive traumas. They don’t happen to everyone, and we’re not in control of when and to whom they do happen. But it’s important to know they happen more often than society has bothered to tell you.
4. Please know that if any of these things happen to you it is NOT YOUR FAULT, though you’ll notice there are plenty of ignorant folks ready to infer otherwise. In the same way Jack’s beanstalk isn’t real, fertility is NOT a personal quality. Infertility is not a reflection of the strength of your beliefs, your ability to parent, your ability to love, your past actions or your capacity to nurture. It is not a spiritual test (unless you choose to believe so) or commentary on what you are suited for in life. It is not even a reflection, most of the time, of the way you’ve taken care of your body. It is a condition for which there is no common denominator. It is not a reflection of PRECIOUS YOU in any way shape or form.
5. Reproductive medicine is costly, time-consuming and energy draining beyond measure. Despite being marketed as a cure and fix – all, its failure rates are extremely high. I know you’ve been taught to assume fertility treatments always result in a baby, please know that they often don’t. And that reproductive medicine offers no support system, or even acknowledgement of, the life altering emotional fall out and mental health issues patients commonly experience.
6. You know how you’ve been taught that if you work long enough and try hard enough that you can achieve anything? That persistence always pays? Please know these principles do not correlate to the realm of human reproduction. People who do nothing can get everything, there are those who do everything and get nothing. Often times the harder you work the more you lose. I want you to know, whether you ever go through it or not, it is an experience that counters much of what we’ve been taught to believe.
7. To those who do not encounter fertility issues, you will more likely than not have one or more close people in your life who will. Please know it is not their job to conform, rather it will be your job to support, abide with, accept and learn from their struggles. This is more needed than you will ever know.
8. To those who end up acquiring it easily, know that parenthood does not happen to everyone who wants it. A significant percentage of the human race is not able to reproduce even with assisted reproductive technology (my conservative estimate is 5%). The adoption process is financially and emotionally arduous and does not guarantee a result. Being mindful of how and to whom you’re speaking when it comes to all things parent is a noble social standard.
9. People who wanted children but couldn’t have them have suffered a major, significant life altering loss. On the same coin we also go on to live full meaningful lives and do not care less about the state of the world than our parenting counterparts. The ones I’ve met in person happen to be some of the most inventive, tenacious, compassionate and nurturing people I know. Those “selfish, self – absorbed, indulgent” child free stereotypes that you might have come across? You can officially toss them!
20 thoughts on “Future Generations: Nine Things Young People Should Know About Human Reproduction”
This is a perfect list! I wish somebody had told me all of these things. Hell, some days I still need the reminder of #4. I honestly want to share this with my 20something students. They are so young and naive. I don’t want to burst their bubble, but I do want to give them a gentle reality check.
I’m also loving the mental picture of Julio begging you not to go over and talk to them.
I think it’s important young people are made more aware, some way, some how, not just in case it happens to them but, just as importantly, so they are able to empathize and support those around them to whom it happens.
And yes, Julio and I are a yin and yang shit fest!!
Yes, yes, yes!!! I so wish I could have read these 9 points before embarking on my many attempts at reproduction. I especially love #6. Being an over-achiever in most aspects of my life, it took me an enormous amount of time to accept this principle and give up on the notion that if I just worked hard enough or did everything in a perfect enough way that it would happen for me. This list needs to get published somewhere.
Me too, Julie. The lack of control I had over things, proven in a viciously seeping way over time by one fertility treatment here, one new acupuncturist there, one dietary change here, one supplement there, practically did me in. I had to face it when I noticed people on My 600 Pound Life (on TLC) were able to conceive. I’m like “This pregnancy thing JUST MIGHT be random……”
I love this list so much too! I always just assumed I’d be able to have as many kids as I would like. And if I were to have issues that there would always be IVF. I remember getting a total shock when we first met with our doctor at the fertility clinic and learned just how low the IVF success rates actually are.
Growing up there were no conversations about people trying to have children and not being able to. My parents always assumed that people without children hadn’t wanted them. And when I got older, regarding fertility medicine all I heard about were the “success” stories. Sounds like we come from a similar boat!
Yes!!! I so agree with you. This is all so very true. #7 and #9 especially resonated with me… I am trying to listen to my limits , respect my loss and needs but it can be so shattering to hear others assumptions and judgements about my life.
Go you on the self compassion!! And yes, it’s infinitely harder when we’re surrounded by a lack of understanding.
Love the way you can turn a phrase…would like to see your list start a social revolution…the human race, society would be so much better off…p.s. I especially liked your term “social inconvenience”…it sets a lifetime of people’s (non)reactions to me into two pithy words! Thanks again!
Thanks, Caryn. I was thinking the list should be a collaberative effort, but didn’t think to ask people what they would add. Hopefully I’ll remember to do this the next time a list comes out of me.
PS – That I condensed anything into “two pithy words” is a miracle – thank you for letting me know! Usually it takes me about 3000 words…..
So here’s something I don’t understand. I totally agree with you that there is widespread ignorance about infertility and especially its impact, but why? In particular, why the ignorance about how common it is? I don’t believe I ever took childbearing for granted because growing up, there were several close friends / colleagues of my parents who couldn’t have children. One in particular struggled and tried for years (without success) and my mom regularly told me all about it and the enormous impact it had on her. I don’t understand why others didn’t have these experiences. Or perhaps their parents were less open about it than mine and it was brushed under the carpet / given other explanations. Can anyone enlighten me?
Thank you for sharing this, Naomi. I don’t pretend to know the answer – or answers. I do have to say though that your mom sounds like a rare person in her ability to empathize and entertain experiences that maybe weren’t similar to hers. I’m guessing this because it seems as though at least a few people were comfortable sharing their pain with her.
As I mentioned in a previous comment, my parents always seemed to assume that people who didn’t have children didn’t want them. Although they had friends here and there without children, there was zero talk of any emotional impact their childlessness may have had on them.
I like this. The truth is that so many of these points could also apply to many other issues. The messages to try to understand others, to be sensitive and kind, to be informed, all translate to other issues and illnesses.
To Naomi, I’ll say that yes, most parents/people are much less open about their own journeys (or those of friends and family) to have children. When I grew up, it just wasn’t really talked about. I’m struggling to think of couples in my experience who couldn’t have children, and I can’t come up with any. Though one of my school friends was adopted, it made no difference to me, as they were just a family like all the others in the community. I grew up when the emphasis was on the choice whether or not to have children, or when to have them, rather than that it might be hard. The growth of IVF marketing also over-emphasised that the choice would always be there, rather than that it still might prove impossible for some people.
Speaking to the IVF myth that a baby is guaranteed, I was at a party over the weekend and overheard some people discussing someone they know who is going through treatments. They were going on about “how wonderful” it is now that these things are available. And yes, while that may be true for some, it certainly isn’t guaranteed and they were speaking as if it will automatically result in a pregnancy. Fortunately, I wasn’t part of that conversation and I stayed out of it for good reason. As I sat nearby, I probably rolled my eyes a time or two just overhearing bits and pieces of it. Ugh!
When I have to hear those things first hand it blows my circuits. But being outside of the situation you were in, I’m not sure if it’s good people are at least now talking about assisted reproductive technology, or if that it’s being talked about in a way that is so far out of reality actually does more harm than good.
It’s scary though when something with astronomical failure rates is, across the board, thought of as such a silver bullet.
It’s good you pointed this out, Mali, the transferable nature of much of the list. While our plight is undeniably different in many ways, in some key ways the infertility/child free not by choice issue has much in common with other social issues, traumas and losses. Since we’re not societally recognized as of yet, it can be easier to feel more different than we really are.
While seeing couple-friends a few weeks ago (currently childless by choice at 41) they were saying that there is still a 25% part of them that may decide to try. I gently broached the subject of age and said, “Are you turning 42 in November?” The answer was of course yes. She was shocked to find that this was the statistical end of the road for her eggs and cited confusion about starlets like Hally Berry. While I don’t think young people need to prematurely bear the burden of worry about every disease or affliction they may or may not get, I do wish that education about fertility and age was routine. There is a lot of misinformation out there that is perpetuated by Hollywood’s secret egg freezing and egg-donor-in disguise success stories. If those kids at the winery start trying in their late twenties or very early thirties, they are more than likely to be fine even if they need treatment. The myth of forty-something fertility (which exists but rarely) is a travesty that causes a lot of suffering.
Her shock speaks to the lack of information out there on this particular aspect of the issue. When I STOPPED just before 42 I’d sometimes tell people I wasn’t about to spend tens of thousands of dollars on 42 year old eggs. They always had some story to pull forth – Kelly Preston, and good ole Halle Berry of course. Not one person it seemed ever stopped to consider the high likelihood that these people are using egg donors.
Love this post! Actually, I recently gave the advice to a young friend of mine to rather start trying for a family before she turns thirty. Nobody had told me this (all I was told is that as a woman, I could have it all: career and family), and I wish someone had. After finishing her education and working for a few years, she had no desire to pursue a career beyond that point or to travel extensively, but had already found Mr. Right. I wanted her to be better informed than I was, and I hope it will make a difference for her, even if it is too late for me.
You are so right! This should be part of the curriculum at school, right when the kids learn that a planned pregnancy is better than an unplanned one…
@Naomi: My parents never talked about the possibility of remaining childless. Our life revolved around family and understandably, most of our friends had big families, too. However, there was a class mate who was a single child. I remember asking my mother why he didn’t have any siblings. She said that his parents hadn’t been able to have more children. That’s the closest that I ever got to this subject.
It was generous and caring of you to share with her what you know. Hopefully she will not encounter challenges, but it’s better to be aware if not for herself then for the sake of her peers who will go through it.
There are many non age related causes of infertility – a sad truth is that starting sooner can be a hidden necessity, given the time and life draining effort it takes to get diagnosed in the profit driven, mindless running of treatments fertility industry. I had no idea it would – or could – take three precious years and six doctors to diagnose my and my husband’s case.