My sister is among those people who have been blessed with love in all its forms.
She had platonic friendships. She was the one who could possibly give you the real meaning of unrequited love, for she never returned the love of so many men that were after her. She was adored and remembered by strangers and casual acquaintances.
She found her soulmate, who was head over heels for her. Her in-laws didn’t even want to take a minor decision without involving her.
No one ever stopped loving her.
But, one day, she stopped loving herself.
When I discovered her medical complications, due to which she could never conceive a child, I felt neither pity nor increased affection for her. It simply didn’t bother me. It was not like people (including her husband) loved her because of the possibility that she could make babies.
A woman is loved for thousands of reasons, and most of the time, her ability to make babies is not even a consideration.
But, my sister had a hard time loving herself. I could never understand why she took it so seriously—until now.
Women have been considered a source of creation for a long time. The concept of fertility and nurturing comes along with the identity of being a woman, and over time society has made sure to make it as rigid as possible. Our arts and literature are an example of how men have been ignored or given free hand in matters of fertility, when they equally participate in and are responsible for procreation.
Being a woman with no interest in having kids, I was always curious about the distress my sister and other women went through over not being able to conceive a baby. Particularly, I could not understand why and how becoming a mother was the only way to be a complete woman. But most of all, I always wondered why we women were the ones who seemed to suffer so much with this whole concept of infertility.
I wanted solutions that could make my sister feel better. I couldn’t help reverse her condition or medically ease her pain. The only possibility was to alter her perceptions and attitude. I wanted her back.
But, she was not the only one.
When we first went to the group therapy session, we encountered women who were experiencing exactly what my sister felt. They were all amazing, beautiful, talented and loved, yet all of them felt incomplete.
I couldn’t help but wonder why this beautiful, soulful and sexy creature should have to go through such distress for not being able to conceive a baby.
Social roles put a lot of pressure on us to bear a child at some point of in our lives. From our childhood on, we are bombarded with those concepts of completion with motherhood, thus a woman is programmed in such a way that an inability to bear a child seems like the most threatening event.
So, what can we do to help?
Are there any ways in which we can re-educate ourselves regarding concepts of infertility and motherhood?
How can we help our sisters who are in distress due to an inability to conceive a baby?
1. Provide Reassurance and Affection.
Infertility invites a deep sense of isolation.
Providing the right kind of reassurance and countering any insecurity regarding marriage is important for us. If we are not reassured regarding the prospect of our future, we may feel more isolated from a spouse.
2. Tell Us it’s a Scientific Error—Our Bodies Have not Betrayed Us.
With society’s strong emphasis on femininity and motherhood, no matter how irrational it is, we may feel incomplete and incompetent as a woman. We feel as if our bodies have betrayed us, and the loss of control puts us into deep despair.
Many of my friends have felt better after attending the workshops and groups that emphasized the science of infertility. It’s important to let us know that our bodies have not betrayed us—or that bodies betray all the time in form of minor or major diseases. Science betrays everyone equally.
3. Don’t Let Us Push our Loved Ones Away.
I experienced coldness and isolation from my sister, and the hardest thing for me was to guess when it was okay to leave her alone and when it was right to ignore her pleas to be left alone.
The despair and loneliness associated with fertility problems cause us to avoid friends and social situations, which adds to this vicious cycle of grief (Burns & Covington, 1999; Sami and Tazeen, 2012; Simbar et al., 2014).
It is also important to eliminate the fear of a spouse remarrying, or facing the humiliating superstitions imposed by society.
4. Communicate your Disappointments to Us (For Spouses/Partners Only).
When having a child is a major goal or value in our relationships, it becomes important to communicate your disappointments or discomfort with us.
When partners or spouses do not choose to express their negative feelings, we can interpret it as “not concerned,” even if the partner adopts this position only to protect the feelings of their spouse.
Regardless of the gender of the spouse experiencing infertility, the marriage or relationship is affected on the whole. The unfulfilled desire to have a baby triggers certain emotional responses in couples, which include aggression, anxiety, feelings of worthlessness and sadness. Additionally, financial pressures, if treatment is involved, lead to further distress.
However, a focus on intimacy, clear communication and the aforementioned solutions can relieve a couple from some of that pressure and help them reinvent their relationship on a deeper level.
It took a long time for my sister to understand that a woman’s identity is not associated with her periods, number of children, spouse or appearance. She had enough love to live a life of happiness; all she had to do was never stop loving herself.
1. Burns LH, Convington SH. (1999). Infertility counseling: a comprehensive handbook for clinicians. Parthenon Publishing: New York.
2. Chen TH, Chang SP, Tsai CF, Juang KD. (2004). Prevalence of depressive and anxiety disorders in an assisted reproductive technique clinic. Human Reprod, 19:23, 13-18.
3. Gannon K, Glover L, Abel P. (2004). Masculinity, stigma and media reports. Social Science & Medicine, 59(6):1169–1175.
4. Greil AL, Blevins KS, McQuillan J. (2010). The experience of infertility: A review of recent literature. Sociol Health Illn. 32:140–162.
5. Mumtaz, Z., Shahid, U., & Levay, A. (2013). Understanding the impact of gendered roles on the experiences of infertility amongst men and women in Punjab. Reproductive Health, 10, 3. doi:10.1186/1742-4755-10-3
6. Nachtigall RD, Becker G, Wozny M. (1992). The Effects of gender-specific diagnosis on men’s and women’s response to infertility. Fertil Steril, 57:113-21
7. Masoumeh Simbar, Abouali Vedadhir, Seyede Batool Hasanpoor-Azghdy. (2014).The emotional-psychological consequences of infertility among infertile women seeking treatment: Results of a qualitative study. Iranian Journal of Reproductive Medicine. 12(2): 131–138
8. Sami N, Tazeen SA. (2012). Perceptions and experiences of women in Karachi, Pakistan regarding secondary infertility: results from a community-based qualitative study. Obstetrics and gynecology international. doi: 10.1155/2012/108756.
9. Wright J, Duchesne C, Sabourin S, Bissonnette F, Benoit J, Girard Y. (1991). Psychological distress and infertility, men and women respond differently. Fertil Steril, 55:100-108.
Author: ZauFishan Qureshi
Editor: Toby Israel
Photo: Jenny Downing/Flickr