I want to talk about body shame and infertility. One of the most common sentiments that I’ve come across among women dealing with infertility is the idea that their body is somehow broken. Like their body has failed them. After all, we are women with all these reproductive parts, and we spend a lot of time dealing with periods, pains, and “lady stuff” – you would think we’d be able to get the pay out from all this bodily hassle.
Now, to be clear, infertility is not always related to a woman’s body. In fact, about one third of the time infertility is related to issues with the woman’s body, another third of the time it is due to male factors, and the last third is a combo of male and female issues or unexplained (www.asrm.org). I can’t speak from the male’s perspective, but when it comes to women, we tend to carry a lot of shame that our bodies aren’t doing what they are “supposed to be doing”.
Here’s my confession: I never felt this shame. The truth is, I don’t think there’s any place for body shame in infertility. As a psychologist, I’ve spent many an hour sitting with people who blame themselves and carry crushing shame for all sorts of things that are in no way their fault. I’ve seen this with victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence, as well as among those struggling with PTSD, addiction, eating disorders, and the list goes on. Sometimes it’s even common everyday occurrences for which people carry an unreasonable weight. I see this, and I know it’s not their fault. I also see that self-blame and shame makes their difficult situation that much worse. It’s easy for me to see as an objective viewer, and I try to help them see it too so they can get out from under it.
And I see this so much with women who are carrying the burden of infertility – blaming their bodies and being ashamed to even talk about it.
But here’s the thing – this isn’t your fault. Fault implies that you did something wrong. And you didn’t. Infertility is a medical condition. It’s not a character deficit. Medical conditions happen – we are all dealt different things in life. We got infertility. Lucky us. But it’s nothing that happened because we did something wrong. So there’s really no place for shame in this.
I think the fact that infertility is largely a silent disease contributes, at least in part, to the experience of shame. Few people are talking about infertility. I’ve never seen a “run for infertility” in my community. I’ve never seen people walking around in public with infertility awareness ribbons pinned to their chest. Do these things exist for infertility? I know there are some public events, marches, and awareness events. But these are few and far between. The only reason I even know about them is because I’ve spent a lot of time deep in the trenches of infertility. But I don’t have to be a cancer survivor to know what a pink ribbon means or know about many of the events going on related to breast cancer awareness and support. Infertility doesn’t have much of a media presence. We aren’t anywhere near the same scale that you see for other medical conditions, conditions that have shed their outdated skins of shame.
As long as people are either not talking about infertility, or at best whispering about it, then women (and men) will continue to internalize this disease and morph it into personal shame.
I understand that it’s not easy to be vocal about infertility. There is so much misunderstanding and people can be too quick to share their (often ignorant and sometimes downright hurtful) opinions. We are carrying such a heavy load when we trudge through infertility. Sometimes sharing our stories is simply too much to add on to an already maxed out, stressful situation. At some point though, the scales must tip in the direction of disclosure and healthy discussions so that we can confront ignorance and raise awareness.
For my part, I’m going to keep talking about infertility – like it’s normal. Because, unfortunately, it is. When infertility affects 1 in 8 (and the numbers are rising), it’s something people should be talking about. Some may think it’s odd, but I bring infertility and IVF into many conversations about my daughter and my current pregnancy. When people I don’t really know say, “Congratulations!” – I say, “Thanks! We’re really grateful. We had to go through so many rounds of IVF to get pregnant!” That response probably takes a lot of people by surprise. And to my surprise, I’ve never gotten a negative comment back (I’ve been waiting for one and I’m ready…just try me). What has happened more times than I can count, is this has led to conversations with strangers and acquaintances about their own struggles to conceive, the struggles of their loved ones, or questions about what my experiences have been. I’m happy to engage in all of these conversations.
Regardless of whether you are in a position to openly discuss infertility with others or if you are simply trying to make it through each day without crying, know that you have nothing to be ashamed of. All bodies work differently and none of them are perfect. That fertile myrtle you know might end up with cancer or a heart attack at the age of 60. Hey, I’m not wishing illness on fertile people, I’m just saying you never know what your genes have lined up for you. Infertility is part of our story. It’s in the cards we were dealt. There’s no shame in that.
Instead of blaming our bodies for what they aren’t doing, what if we take a moment and appreciate them for all they are doing? Think about it. When we go through infertility treatments, we are asking our bodies to do so much. We are asking our bodies to take in and tolerate massive about of hormones and medications, we are poking and prodding ourselves with needles and ultrasound wands, doing tests after tests, repeated blood draws. We are bruising our bodies and pushing them to their limits. All the while asking them to keep performing all their other duties necessary to sustain our lives. Instead of criticizing our bodies, what if we said, “thank you”? Thank you for trying, thank you for continuing to carry me, thank you for tolerating all I’m putting you through.
Be kind to yourself. Be kind to your body. There’s no place in infertility for shame.