Inconceivable

~ MOTHERHOOD IN MODERNITY ~

My social media feeds used to be filled with snapshots of drunken weekends. Now it is filled with milk-drunk babies. Over the past few years, it feels like parenthood has befallen everyone I know. Even though childbirth is literally how we all ‘got here’, the whole concept still feels so foreign to me. I have never wanted children. Which is strange, considering I recently discovered I have a biological daughter. 

A while ago I donated my eggs, anonymously, which resulted 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 absolutely no feelings of ownership towards this child. How could I? It left my body as a tiny cluster of cells. Knowledge of her existence did, however, pique my curiosity. The narcissist in me wanted to behold how my genetic makeup had been painted onto a fresh canvas. To know how my DNA had been transmuted—like watching the screen adaptation of a novel you’ve read cover-to-cover a hundred times.

Even more than curiosity, though, I felt relief. Relief that the recipient didn’t go through this ordeal for nothing. But also relief for myself: I was fertile. I felt validated as a biological woman with a womb. I held the power to create life! I left the clinic with a swagger, radiating Big Ovaries Energy. This reaction bemused me, but it 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 I don’t even want kids? 

In almost every society, fertility has always been something to celebrate and revere. It impregnates religion, philosophy and mythology, art and literature, as well as traditions and even 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, infertile women of aristocracy were “considered with disdain” while, across the ocean, English women were stripped of their inheritance. In an attempt to provide a male heir to the British throne, King Henry VIII was allowed to discard four, out of his six, wives: divorcing two and beheading the other two (even though it is now speculated that Henry was the one with fertility issues). Nineteenth-century French-colonial doctors blamed promiscuity, rather than the poor living and working conditions, among the main causes for high rates of infertility amongst Vietnamese women. And today, in Iran, where women’s rights are severely restricted, Article 8 of the Family Protection Act (1974) deems infertility as a reasonable ground for divorce for either partner; a clear indication of the negative light in which infertility is observed.

Source: Instagram – @known_unpleasures

So, maybe the reason (in)fertility felt so central to my identity had sprung from hundreds, even 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 an interesting 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’.”

Especially when you consider that infertility 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 would somehow know better (about my body and my life) and ‘assure’ me I would change my mind. Now, still 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; often by people who barely know me!

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 a sentiment not too dissimilar to when one learns of an animal added to the endangered species list. 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?

The possibility I will feel some level of regret is high. In truth, I am hyper-aware of this fact and it is something I grapple with often as my biological clock starts its strident countdown. But that sinking sensation in the pit of your stomach, like your insides are slowly gurgling down a drain hole, might also have consumed me if I’d had children. The main difference is the question of regret doesn’t get asked.

I don’t really blame people for regarding my child-free resolve as inconceivable. I think this lack of understanding comes from an innate desire to sow our seeds. And failure to do so means carrying it around like a stone. I hate to admit it, but since learning that a baby was born from my egg, a part of me felt lighter. Something primal inside 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 can gather, the maternal ache is almost as visceral as thirst. People with uteruses will put their bodies through all kinds of taxing procedures to achieve biological motherhood, even though the odds are stacked against them. In Australia, for 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 an extremely invasive process. Invasive in the most literal sense of the word: an array of foreign objects penetrating various regions of your human terrain. Everyday, for almost a fortnight, needles pumped me full of hormones, prompting my ovaries and my emotions to swell. Sharp visits leaving behind blurry bruises. Trans-vaginal ultrasound devices traversed the internal curves of my womanhood on four separate occasions. Then the final invasion: a giant needle piercing my vagina wall to extract my eggs.

I was warned, by the compulsory IVF-prescribed therapist, that after donating I may suffer from feelings of regret (a running theme, it seems?). 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!)

My other issue is that 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. Until 2008, in Australia, there were laws in place that disallowed 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 of people, in Western countries, predominantly benefiting from IVF: affluent, white, heterosexual women. And it’s the stories of these women that have the loudest voice, further isolating ethnic and other minorities, and making infertility seem like a predominantly white issue. Studies in both the US and UK show that, in fact, the opposite is true: women of colour struggle with fertility-related issues up to twice as much as white women. Aboriginal Australians actually have a higher birth rate than white Australians, but this is only in women before age 30. After this age bracket, Aboriginal birth rates are lower.

Regardless of their (likely) privilege, it still warms my heart to think I have made a positive impact on the lives of complete strangers. I also hope my experience has helped highlight that, just as there is more than one way to identify as female, there is also 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 to read when they turned 18. That felt surreal: I will be in my early fifties by the time they receive 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.