The Silent Anguish Of 'Social Infertility'
By Emily Maddick Posted on 12 Sep 2018
I have a recurring dream that I’ve failed my university degree, having obliviously missed an entire module. It’s graduation day and my friends are tossing mortarboards and quaffing champagne – but I’m looking on, panicked, shouting, ‘Wait! What? No one told me about the 2pm lectures on a Thursday, and the 10,000- word dissertation. How has this happened?’
It’s a fitting metaphor for my status as socially infertile. ‘Social’ or ‘circumstantial’ infertility is a relatively new term, coined to describe women who, through no medical reason, have not had children. This year it was reported that now one fifth of British women will be childless by the time they reach their early forties – the third highest ratio in Europe. Yet, despite this, society still seems woefully ill-equipped to know how to talk about – or to – them.
Ironically, having recently been diagnosed with endometriosis at the age of 37, I may now qualify as medically infertile, as it affects one in three women’s chances of conceiving. When I asked my gynaecologist if he thought it would affect me, he perkily stated, ‘The best way of finding out is to get on and try!’ Noticing the silent tears pricking my eyeballs, he said, ‘This seems to have upset you?’ I quietly replied, ‘I’ve been trying to find someone to try with for some time now.’
This piece is not designed to be a pity party. I know that nothing is guaranteed in life, everyone has their own cross to bear and comparing oneself to others is futile. I also know how lucky I am, as I have lots of children in my life, all of whom I adore.
However, having spoken to many friends and colleagues in their late thirties/early forties, all single and childless not by choice, there seems to be a collective grief we silently shoulder. These feelings are particularly difficult to articulate, occurring as they so often do in a muddled response to friends’ and loved ones’ own reproductive circumstances.
So we remain silent, rictus grins plastered on our faces, terrified of appearing self- pitying, selfish, jealous, insensitive or – the worst – bitter. But the despair, helplessness, panic and fear – fuelled by biology and potent hormones – is real. And, if left untended, it can consume you.
It’s a hackneyed trope tackled by all the greats from Bridget Jones to Bridesmaids: the single girl hearing the news of her best friend’s engagement/pregnancy and dissolving into a hot mess of despair. I’ve been there. Recently, I was present when two of my best friends discovered each other was pregnant. Instead of expressing how thrilled I was – and I was – I bolted from the room, fighting back tears. It was a clumsy situation, but I desperately didn’t want my own feelings to overshadow their happy news. But they did. And I hate that.
These uncomfortable feelings have also ambushed me when supporting loved ones through fertility treatment. One of my friends nearly died losing a baby on round three of IVF, so I know how physically and emotionally scarring it can be. But what has inspired me – and inspired envy in me – is how it made the couples stronger. As my 37-year-old friend Sarah* admits, ‘I’ve seen some of my friends struggling with miscarriages and IVF, and obviously I feel desperately sad for them. But knowing that I’ve never even had the chance to try and conceive is so difficult and painful. Sometimes, as mad as it sounds, I envy their fertility treatment because it seems so far down the road from where I am.’
As my friend Rachel*, 44, says, ‘I’ve sat for years with friends who have struggled with fertility, with failed IVF, with their fears of never becoming parents, and seen how much support and sympathy they receive. And yet here I am, facing a future without children – the very future they dreaded and eventually avoided. But no one asks me how that feels. Instead, most people say, “Well, if you want a child, just go and have one,” which is so shockingly simplistic.’
It’s true. So often we find ourselves being suggested this alternative, as if it’s like booking a holiday. For me, right now, this route would be financially and emotionally irresponsible.
Fertility treatment is expensive (one round of IVF costs approximately £5,000). And forget about applying to the NHS as a single woman. Current NICE guidelines say that couples wishing to have IVF on the NHS need to have been trying for two years. For a single woman, you have to have had 12 cycles of failed artificial insemination before being eligible, but in most areas, you will never be offered any kind of treatment for free.
It hasn’t helped that, as my thirties have whizzed by, so too the booming business of motherhood has exploded. Baby showers, baby moons, baby bloggers – it’s deafening. Actual uniforms have emerged, friends whose club I so desperately want to join, now sporting jumpers and jewellery with ‘mamma’ emblazoned all over them, all talking a language I can’t speak. But again, I am aware that vocalising this can make me seem bitter and jealous.
So what’s the answer? Online dating and egg freezing? I’d argue it’s more compassion, kindness and consideration. It’s fear that drives us all to remain silent about this uniquely modern situation. Fear from those with children feeling desperate for those who don’t – and fear from those who don’t that they may never.
Last week, I met an elegant Parisian lady. She was 68. She asked me about my life, so I immediately launched into how I’m travelling and writing, as I don’t (yet!) have my own family. I enquired if she had children. ‘No,’ she replied with genuine serenity. ‘It just didn’t happen. Bad boyfriends, bad luck – but, like you, I have my freedom.’ If it doesn’t happen for me, I aim to find the peace that this fabulous lady has. But in the meantime, as I continue to hope, I would like for my desires and despair – and those of all my childless peers – to be acknowledged, not sidelined.
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