Inconceivable

~ MOTHERHOOD IN MODERNITY ~

Until recently, my social media feeds cascaded with snapshots of drunken weekends. Now, they’re filled with milk-drunk babies. It feels as if parenthood suddenly engulfed everyone I know. Although a common life milestone, I only seem willing to observe motherhood as a circumspect bystander. I’ve never wanted children. Which is strange, considering I recently discovered I have a biological daughter. 

I donated my eggs (anonymously), resulting in the successful birth of a baby girl. I may never meet her, and it’s highly unlikely I will ever know her. But she exists — a stranger in my skin. I hold no feelings of ownership towards this child. How could I? It left my body as a single cell.

Knowledge of her existence did, however, pique my curiosity. The narcissist in me wanted to witness my genetic makeup painted onto a fresh canvas; to learn how my DNA had been transmuted, like watching the screen adaptation of a novel you’ve read cover-to-cover a hundred times.

More than curiosity, I felt relief. Relief for recipient, but also relief for myself: I was fertile. I felt validated as a biological woman with a womb. I had the power to create life! I left the clinic with a swagger, radiating Big Ovaries Energy. This reaction bemused me, but also incited frustration. Why was I so ready to let this define me? Hand me a red dress, a white bonnet, a man’s name… and may the Lord open! Why did relief and validation pour out of me when kids aren’t part of my plan? 

In almost every society, fertility is celebrated and revered. It impregnates religion, philosophy and mythology, art and literature, as well as traditions and laws.

The Venus of Willendorf, 30,000 BCE | Stone figurine which some believe is related to fertility due to the exaggerations of the feminine parts of the body
‘Sarah Leading Hagar To Abraham’ by Matthias Stomer, 1637 | Genesis 16:2, “And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the Lord hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai.”

‘Primavera’ by Sandro Botticelli, late fifteenth century |Considered “an elaborate mythological allegory of the burgeoning fertility of the world.”

Unfortunately, many societies — past and present — consider fertility and the worth of a woman as equal; deeming a woman only as good as the fruit she bears.  Sixteenth-century German theologian, Martin Luther, went so far as to preach that childbirth was a woman’s saving grace, “Although women had brought about the Fall, they were sanctified by the bearing of children.” 

Even this century, in some societies, it seems a woman’s worth can literally be quantified. In Australia between 2002-2008, under Peter Costello’s ‘baby bonus’ initiative, for each new birth the mother was awarded between $4000 and $5000 from the government. According to one recent study, in Nigeria, Africa, a wife will only be granted shared ownership of her husband’s estate once she bears his children. Another study found that it was uncommon for women in Kerala, India to choose a life without children because, ‘‘bearing and rearing children are central to women’s power and wellbeing.’’ 

While female fertility has been favoured and rewarded, infertility, on the other hand, has been stigmatised in almost every historical context — a history moulded by the patriarchy. In medieval Japan, childless women of the aristocracy were “considered with disdain” while, in England, women were stripped of their inheritance. In an attempt to provide a male heir, King Henry VIII was free to discard four of his six wives: divorcing two and beheading the other two (even though it’s now speculated that Henry was the one with fertility issues). Nineteenth-century French-colonial doctors blamed promiscuity as a leading cause of high infertility rates among Vietnamese women, rather than their poor living and working conditions. And today, in Iran — where women’s rights are severely curtailed — Article 8 of the Family Protection Act (1974) deems infertility as a reasonable ground for divorce for either partner; an indication of the negative light in which childlessness is observed.

Source: Instagram – @known_unpleasures

Perhaps, (in)fertility felt so central to my identity because it sprung from thousands of years of gendered distillation. By participating in IVF, this well-established issue was simply ushered under the microscope. Historian and author, Tracey Loughran, makes a compelling point about IVF and the blame for childlessness mostly befalling women:

“Because IVF is a technology that intervenes on women’s bodies, it also reinforces the focus on how women’s reproductive systems might ‘fail’.”

Loughran’s comment especially resonates when you consider that infertility issues in men is almost as common as it is in women (9% and 11% respectively).

In my twenties, whenever the topic of not wanting children arose, people somehow ‘knew better’ (about my body and my life) and assured me I’d reconsider. Now, child-free in my thirties — and edging towards the juncture where any subsequent pregnancy I undergo would be medically termed geriatric — that condescension is replaced with pity. Unwarranted assumptions, such as suffering a bad childhood or that I am reproductively challenged, have been raised in these types of conversations.

Henry Ford Hospital by Frida Kahlo | Kahlo was in a street car accident which caused damage to several of her internal organs, including her uterus, rendering her infertile

I can readily predict people’s reactions in another ten years from now. It will be the kind of disappointed reverence you give an endangered species. They’ll observe me like a rare specimen, the last of my kind, through the lens of a person with children. I will wait patiently for the inevitable question: “do you regret not having children?”

The Dodo bird went extinct in the sixteenth century. Their demise is often attributed to their ‘stupidity’. Is this what people think about me for not having children?

I may have regrets. I grapple with this fact as my biological clock starts its strident countdown. But that sinking sensation in the pit of your stomach, like your insides are caught in a maelstrom, could also consume me if I had children. The main difference is the question of regret doesn’t get asked.

I don’t blame people for regarding my child-free resolve as inconceivable. This lack of understanding likely comes from an innate desire to sow our seeds. And failure to do so means carrying it around like a stone. Admittedly, since learning that a baby was born from my egg, a part of me felt lighter. Something primal in me relaxed. I had done my biological ‘duty’ of perpetuating my genes. An element of me, in theory, will live on after I die — an intimation of immortality. 

From what I gather, the maternal ache is almost as visceral as thirst. People with uteruses will put their bodies through taxing procedures to achieve biological motherhood, even though the odds are stacked against them. For Australian women under 30, the success rate of IVF (i.e. a live birth) is only 34.9%. This decreases to just 8.7% for women over 40. 

IVF is incredibly invasive. For ten days, needles pumped me full of hormones — sharp visits leaving behind blurry bruises. Trans-vaginal ultrasound devices traversed the internal curves of my female anatomy on four occasions. Then the final invasion: a giant needle piercing my vaginal wall to extract my artificially swollen eggs.

I was warned by the compulsory IVF-prescribed therapist, that post-donation, I may suffer some regret (a running theme?). I wouldn’t call them ‘regrets’ but donating has raised a couple of concerns. One of the reasons I would like to remain child-free is environmental. Having one less child can save 58.6 tonnes of CO2-equivalent per year. That is more than recycling, switching to solar power, giving up meat, avoiding air travel, and going car-free combined.

Even though I may not bear my own children, I have still helped create a human whose tiny feet are already producing their very own not-so-tiny carbon footprint. (That being said, fossil fuel companies have a lot more to answer for than me for donating my eggs, or anyone wanting a child!)

Also, I realised I contributed to a system not accessible to everyone. The cost of IVF is in the tens of thousands of dollars and, in many countries, it is not subsidised. In Australia, until 2008, there were laws in place preventing same-sex couples from seeking fertility treatment. As a social experiment, I searched “IVF women” on Google Images. Unsurprisingly, I was inundated by photographs of white bellies and white babies, clasped in the white hands of cis-hetero couples.

Screen shot of my Google search

This reflects the demographic, in Western countries, predominantly benefiting from IVF: affluent, white, heterosexual women. Their stories are granted the loudest voice, across all mediums, (incorrectly) asserting infertility as a predominantly white issue. Studies in the US, UK and Australia reveal that, in fact, the opposite is true: indigenous women and women of colour struggle with fertility-related issues up to twice as much as white women. We need to start thinking about how to close that gap. Debunking the myth of fertility being a largely white-narrative is only the first step.

Regardless of their (likely) privilege, I’m still hearwarmed to think I might have made a positive impact on someone’s life. I also hope my experience has helped highlight that, just as there is more than one way to identify as female, there’s more than one way for womankind to enjoy motherhood—and this may, or may not, include giving birth. (Big props to women who do go through pregnancy and childbirth, though, because that does not look easy!)

I don’t miss it. I did for a while, but I realise that I am everybody’s mother. I’ve raised five of my younger brothers and sisters and now their kids call me Aunt Grannie.

Dolly Parton, Interview Magazine

There is a way to become a mother in this day and age which doesn’t include your name on the child’s birth certificate. You can express that maternal side, very clearly, very strongly. It feels very satisfying.

Kim Cattrall in an interview with Jane Garvey on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour

As part of the lengthy application process to donate, I was asked to write a message to my potential biological child for when they turned 18. That felt surreal: I will be in my early fifties by the time they read it! I’ll leave my letter just for them because, besides my mitochondria, it might be the only thing we ever share together. And to have that, for me, is plenty.

*Edit (30 October 2020) — a version of this essay was recently published in Fashion Journal.