What Are You, Barren?

What Are You, Barren?
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Sausalito comes from the Spanish and means "small willow grove." It's a touristy little town on San Francisco Bay, but still beautiful. My favorite ceramics shop, Heath, is tucked behind the boatyards. There's a factory store where I buy bud vases and big plates that are slightly imperfect -- a bubble here, a scrape there. I prefer them to uniform armies of unflawed china. I had just chosen a glazed red vase for a friend when I came out of the store to find that a woman had parked so close to my car that I couldn't get in.

She had sandwiched herself between the two cars, and was getting more and more frazzled as she tried to get her little son out of his car seat. I waited by my taillights, sunglasses on, bag in hand, giving her space and wondering whether I'd chosen the right color vase. Then, without warning, the woman reached her breaking point. She looked up at me, the only person within ear- or eyeshot. Her back still bent, hand clutching her son inside the car, face pinched, she spat this out:

"What are you, barren?"

I'm not making this up. I'm quoting verbatim. It felt like I'd been slapped by someone with nails for hands. I'd never even heard a person use that word. It was, and still is, the cruelest thing anybody has said to me. Whatever frustration this bruiser had with her son and herself, she ruthlessly took out on me. What kind of person, I wondered, would think to sew together those words and hurl them at another woman? And she gets to have children.

Mothers might defend the bully, saying you can't know how hard things are with a child unless you have one. But you also can't know how hard things are without one. I cried all the way back over the bridge to San Francisco, and even now, when I think of those words, I am stung. This month in the UK, a lottery is launching for IVF treatment. In Germany last week, the parliament approved genetic testing of embryos. In the US, the egg donation industry is booming. Our society is advancing with its science -- but enough?

Many religions cast infertility as a form of predestination, an affliction the woman must overcome. In the Koran, infertility clouds the stories of Ibrahim and Sara, Zakariya and Ishba, and Asya. The women were troubled and the men stood by them. In the Bible, there are Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rachel, Isaac and Rebecca, Zachariah and Elizabeth, and King David and Michal. All of these couples were wretched because of the wife's infertility. Eventually, they miraculously gave birth -- except Michal. I know how she felt. Fertility treatments can feel even worse when they seem to work for everyone but you.

Noah gets a more positive spin. Evidently, God kept him infertile on purpose until he was 500 years old, perhaps so he wouldn't lose his own children in the flood. (Noah was a kind of biblical Julio Iglesias Sr., who had a son at 89.) Look further through religious texts, literature, or even history, and you find little about male infertility. They just won't let the girls off the hook. Henry VIII, six times married, got rid of a wife if she failed to produce a male heir. Of course, we now know that it is the male chromosome that determines gender in offspring. The French blamed that "Austrian whore" Marie Antoinette for not immediately providing an heir to the king of France. In fact, her husband, Louis XVI, suffered from infertility. He had either a hydrocele, which is an accumulation of fluid around the scrotum sac, or phimosis, which causes the foreskin of the penis to become painfully tight.

If a couple in Renaissance England failed to have children, it was the woman who was told to drink a cocktail of mare's milk, sheep urine, and rabbit blood. The hunting and killing of witches from Roman times to the Middle Ages to colonial America targeted childless women, not childless men. Not until the late nineteenth century did doctors even consider that male factors played a role in fertility. Sperm's crucial role in fertilization remained unproven until 1879. That year, at the University of Geneva, a Swiss physician named Hermann Fol was the first to observe the penetration of a spermatozoon into an egg, becoming a pioneer of cytology (cell studies), and a friend to the ladies.

As the woman in the parking lot reminded me, attitudes about infertility haven't entirely evolved since the Dark Ages. And infertile women still feel the stigma. A few days after a failed embryo transfer, I said yes to a dinner party because I knew I needed to get out. I dreaded it, as one of the women who would be there had just had her fourth child. (She now had her "Woodside four," a phrase coined for those in the horsey suburb near where I live who won't stop at three.) At a freshly painted bistro, I sat next to her and smiled as others joked about her being a "baby machine." Over dessert, she asked what I'd been up to and I said I'd just come back from IVF at the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine. In a whisper, she told me that was how, and where, after a number of tries, she'd had her son.

I understand why women, and men, might want to keep their baby business to themselves. But keeping quiet tends to keep us all in the dark. Had I been a slightly younger woman at that dinner table with the mom of four, I would have come away thinking I had plenty of time to let nature take its course, when it's just not so. Yes, some women are private and would rather not discuss intimate issues over tarte tatin. Others are competitive and corral information for themselves. But still others -- and I think it's the majority -- feel muzzled, unable to talk frankly about this thing that is essential. Whatever the cause, true communication about fertility has been squelched.

I admitted to a dear old friend that lately, unforgivably, in my darkest-hearted moments, I can't bear people with children. She said, "Well, that's a valid feeling." So detached, so psychotherapeutic. There's a reason women flock online for solace. The trouble is, every woman's experience is subtly different and, often, IVF success is in the devilish details. Beyond empathy, online message boards and autobiographical books tend to offer few useful facts. And even anonymously, not everyone is honest. Online forums are a good start, but if the conversation is contained among those already in hell, myths will continue to be told outside it.

It might help if we all understood the sociology of fertility, as well as the technology. In a brainy essay titled "The Uses of a 'Disease': Infertility as Rhetorical Vehicle," authors Margarete Sandelowski and Sheryl de Lacey write that "whereas barrenness used to connote a divine curse of biblical proportions and sterility an absolutely irreversible physical condition," infertility today "connotes a medically and socially liminal state." You're neither here nor there. As a result, infertile men and women are often viewed as medically, psychologically, or societally disadvantaged: "socially suspect... disabled by virtue of their childlessness."

Reproductive impairments, the authors continue, can make those who have trouble conceiving "suspect as potential parents; their infertility may be seen as nature's way of signaling that they should not have children." You can start to believe it yourself. You listen to parents' sometimes self-congratulatory chats about their children, and you forget -- as they have -- how much of it is luck. You hope you deserve a child as well, but isn't your infertility a sign that you don't? I asked the doctor on duty during my last procedure whether he believes that this process is just: Do good men and women get babies? Oh, no, he said. Some horrible people have children with IVF.

Excerpted from
"The Baby Chase: An Adventure in Infertility" published by Byliner.com.

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