Our Fertility is Everything
Female fertility is the ultimate superpower. It deserves to be centred, not sidelined.
“A good deal of the literature on the subject of women’s power states that men are afraid of women’s power. I always want to exclaim, ‘Mother of God! So many women themselves are afraid of women’s power.’ For the old feminine attributes and forces are vast, and they are formidable… If men are going to ever learn to stand it, then without a doubt women have to learn to stand it.”
Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves
A little while back, I saw a tweet that went:
“The only difference between trans women and most cis women is having babies and periods. That’s it.”
I read that, and I thought: “That’s it.”? What the fuck do you mean, “That’s it.”? That’s everything.
Now I expect to see all kinds of nonsense on Twitter, and generally try to just let it ooze away into the timeline slurry and be forgotten, as it should. But this Tweet really irked me. Because it’s a clear, bold example of something so pervasive and lousy across Twitter, and the whole Western culture of this moment. Something that has been growing for a long time. Something that is entirely wrong, and is genuinely ruining lives. I am completely sick of it. So I have decided to hold it up, and call bullshit on it.
And that lousy thing I’m taking issue with here is this: acting as though women’s fertility is not important. That the role of the female body in creating the entirety of humanity is no big deal. That the labours and sorrows and triumphs and passionate love and mortal danger that our generative powers unleash are incidental. That all of the blood and terror and heartache that come with having a female anatomy is, if anything, kind of lame. That the bond between women, and the children that they choose to bear, is not something we should treasure above all else. That the women who acknowledge these central facts of their lives are being weird, or selfish, or trying to invent differences between the sexes where there are none, for some mad, mad reason.
Are you a female human being? Have you ever had another human being growing inside of you? Have you ever found yourself pregnant against your wishes? Have you ever tried to get pregnant, and not been able to? Have you ever lost a wanted pregnancy? Or indeed, lost a child?
If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above, was your response, “Meh. Baby, no baby; not much difference. La la la…”
I very much doubt it.
No. If you are female, you will know, down through the very depths of your mind and heart and bowels, that there is nothing about a potential child, or a lost child, that is no big deal. It is a very big deal. Always. If you are a female of childbearing age with half a brain in your head and notice even a hint of change in what might be happening in your womb, your entire attention will instantly dial in around it, seeking signs as to what’s going on in there. Because while you hopefully get to make a lot of choices about what happens to your body, there are several decades of your life where a great deal can happen inside you that is outside of your control. And because the difference between being pregnant, and not pregnant, in any set of circumstances, is everything.
And there are only three fundamental ways for a sane person to regard that fertile capability we carry within us:
with fear and awe
Fear is an entirely sensible response. Especially at first. Everyone of us who was ever a little girl has gone through that moment of realising that our body – our tiny, child body, personally – is going to become one of the actual sites where babies get made. We learn that our bodies are going to transform completely. That they will take on a series of new shapes and smells and textures. That they will bleed; sometimes erratically, painfully, and without warning. That people around us will make fun of us for these changes, or perv at and harass and molest us. And that even when the reactions of others are benevolent, they will still see us differently than before. Because we will be different. We will have the capacity to be made pregnant. With or without our consent.
I think people forget, or perhaps just don’t like to acknowledge, how terrifying this can be. It’s like finding out you have a grenade embedded in your guts, and if you’re not careful, some guy will run up and pull the pin, and explode you. And you will be the one who gets in trouble for it.
Thus, for many girls (and I suspect most), becoming a woman isn’t cute, or sexy, or empowering, or something you want to broadcast too loudly. On the contrary. It’s something to be reckoned with, and to defend yourself against. Some of us wear weird and unwieldy clothes, in an attempt to shield our bodies from the unwanted attentions of others. Some of us try to distance ourselves from anything too stereotypically feminine; traditionally by acting like ‘one of the guys’, and more recently by adopting masculine pronouns. Many of us try to starve, drug, or otherwise punish our bodies into a kind of control. When I was a teenager, girls were doing a fair amount of cutting, usually along the limbs. This practice remains, but, these days the attacks on flesh have escalated to include the removal of entire breasts.
Those of us who can at least kind of resign ourselves to the fact that we are female, but are still very worried about getting pregnant, rush to ingest or install into our bodies any kind of birth control we can access. We generally try to ignore the long list of crappy side effects common to the many forms of hormonal birth control, like nausea and blood clots and depression, because what could possibly happen to us that would be worse than getting pregnant?
Some of us carry on with this fear of pregnancy for years. Some of us never lose it, and go to our graves convinced that motherhood is not at all for us. And there are many valid reasons to feel that way. Making a baby, and raising it, is a massive, massive endeavour. Pregnancy causes changes through every inch of the mother’s body, from foot tendons to eyeballs. It moves around large sections of the maternal skeleton, and makes significant reallocations within the brain. And women do still die in pregnancy and birth. Not in the numbers they used to, thank goodness. But they do. (Often from medical complications, of which there are so many. In other cases, they are killed by their partners; the violence in abusive relationships is known to escalate when women become pregnant.) And that’s all before you even think about whether or not you’ll have to leave your school or job, what your family will say, how your friends will react, how you’ll deal with breastfeeding, whether you’ll be able to access decent childcare…
Motherhood demands gigantic physical, emotional, and pragmatic changes in a woman’s life. There are no two ways about it. You would be a fool not to find the undertaking sobering, under any circumstances. And you absolutely have the right to be repelled by the very thought of it, and say, “No way. Not for me.”
For the majority of us, there does come a time when something changes. Even if we swore for years that it would not. Fear of our fertility gives way to interest, and can become an all-consuming desire to get pregnant. Some women get it young. Others are well through our fertile years before we suddenly worry we are going miss a train we hadn’t thought we even wanted to catch.
I was one of the latter. In middle school, everything I learned in sex ed seemed straight-forwardly gross. I was not happy when puberty came for me, and was not very enthusiastic about my new, squishier anatomy. And even as I gradually, sort of, learned to navigate the strange business of being a woman in this world, my total aversion to motherhood remained. I put no value on the qualities and activities associated with motherhood, did not enjoy being around children, and saw absolutely zero upside to having them myself. Which was convenient, since throughout my twenties I was always either single or seeing men who I knew would not make suitable fathers.
I don’t know that I would ever have changed my mind about motherhood if I hadn’t ended up with my husband. He’s a genuinely good person, who’s unusually great with kids, and somehow saw the makings of a sound mother in a depressed cat lady. He suggested we have a kid, and then calmly waited while I agonised over the idea for a year or so before deciding that I would like to make my choice on the matter out of love, rather than fear. I mean, as much as possible. There was still fear, for sure; the prospect of taking on the responsibility of a tiny human’s health and happiness scared the crap out of me. But there was other stuff there, too. And that deserved a chance to be felt as well, for a change. I did want to give motherhood a try. And since I was approaching my mid-30s, I knew I’d better get going.
I was lucky. So lucky. Really, really lucky. For the two decades I vehemently did not want to get pregnant, I never did. Then, upon deciding I did want to get pregnant, I was able to after just a few months of trying. And that pregnancy was viable, and became the healthiest and most wonderful little boy anyone could possibly hope for.
And do you know what I have felt, at every stage of his development, from the first pink lines on the pregnancy test, straight through to having breakfast with him this morning? Astonishment. There is a whole and entirely unique being that exists in this world that came out of my body. A piece of the universe – that makes jokes and sings and draws pictures and throws its arms around me – was assembled into consciousness inside of me. I had sex with my husband, ate a lot, and with little other intentional input from me, my body built the most complicated thing we know of in the universe; a human brain. I was able to reach up into my body and feel that head inside of me, when my son was still struggling to push his way out. Once he emerged, I was able to cradle his head, and feed it, from my own small breasts that suddenly ballooned into action upon his demand. And now he smiles when he sees me coming up the path, and rushes towards me, to offer me gifts of flowers and acorns and pebbles found while we were apart. And the sheer sight of that smile fills me with love of such sudden intensity, it feels like someone is squeezing my heart in their fist.
Simply astonishing. The whole thing.
And my husband, for all his love and skills and intelligence and good health, could never have done what I did. Because he is male. Which is a wonderful thing to be. But not at all the same as being female. Which I am now fully grateful to be. Because I have the body that grew our son. And that means the world to me.
After years of mocking the term ‘the miracle of life’, I finally get it; it is a miracle. It is miraculous that my son exists, and my body is miraculous for making him. A miraculousness we share with all the other mothers, and all the babies that come into being through them. We are a part of an ancient and ongoing unfurling of life and discovery and love. What could possibly be more awesome?
There was a time, not long ago, where women the world over were treated as though they weren’t good for much outside of procreation. And there are still many places in the world where this is the case. That is obviously garbage, and needed/needs to be rebelled against. Of course women are capable of a great deal more than mothering. Of course we should be encouraged and supported to explore the marvellous range of what our minds and bodies are capable of. And of course it is a dreadful thing for women to be forced to have babies that they desperately don’t want.
But in pushing away from such bullshit, we’ve allowed ourselves to fall into another heap of it; treating our reproductive capacity as though it doesn’t really matter; that it isn’t, or shouldn’t be, of central importance to women’s lives, and to society at large. We now have a huge number of women who are not having the children that they really do want. Either having none at all, or fewer than they want. Women are putting off trying to have kids until increasingly ‘advanced’ ages, and ever greater numbers are subjecting themselves to expensive, invasive, and taxing medical procedures just to conceive. And when those treatments don’t work (which they very often don’t), some are paying other women to make babies for them - which is not the same kind of motherhood at all. And, regardless of what means these women use to obtain their babies, huge numbers are not ending up getting to spend much time with their children, or even breastfeed them - are not getting the chance to fully engage in and thrive in and actually enjoy the act of mothering all that much. Mostly because they are either in high-paying jobs that demand long hours, or they are in low-paying jobs that require them to juggle two or three forms of employment to make ends meet. Which is rough on the moms, the kids, and everyone involved. It’s no wonder that so many mothers feel pushed out of the workforce, or willingly bail out of it if they get the chance.
If you look at spaces around the internet where issues of infertility are brought up (Substack, YouTube, Twitter, etc.), you will find long streams of comments from women talking about their experiences; their struggles to have babies, and their struggles to resign themselves to giving up the hope of having them. They are all kinds of heartbroken, and often angry as well, because many feel they were corralled into making life choices when they were younger that devalued the fact that they would most likely want to have kids later. And that considerable collection of grief doesn’t even include the many women whose choices around having children were not just pressured, but outright stolen away from them, through programs of involuntary birth control and forced sterilisation (there have been so many of these campaigns, but the US, China, and Greenland offer a few examples worth noting).
And look, I’m an introvert from Alaska who hates crowds and is actively freaked-out about climate change; I’d be glad enough if the number of people on this planet dropped by a substantial percentage. But the decent way to do that is obviously not by mutilating women, nor is it by feeding whole generations of them a bunch of terrible lies. Like that having children is never rewarding or fun, and will only make us less happy. Or that loving partnerships don’t matter, and we should be satisfied with random fucks off the internet. Or that we should define our lives and social value entirely by our paycheques. Or that the merit of a woman’s body comes from what it looks like, rather than what it can actually do. Or that we have technology that means it’s totally fine if women don’t even try to start a family until they’re forty, or even fifty, like a dude can. Or that there are no potential problems or knock-on effects if rich people elect to pay poor women to gestate ‘their’ babies for them. Or that, if you can’t manage to build the ‘perfect’ life for yourself, and can’t afford a housing market that is rigged against you, and can’t access adequate health care and child care because the state has failed to invest in such services, then you don’t deserve to have children. Or that if, as a teenager, you are uncomfortable with this big fertility bombshell getting dropped on you, you’re probably not a real woman at all, and should be swiftly funnelled into a system of ‘care’ that aims to remove your reproductive capabilities altogether.
No. Everything in our culture that devalues our fertility, treats it as disposable, and either plays-down or straight-up lies to us about the power and significance and value and hazard of it, is garbage. It’s at least as garbage as the old culture only valuing us for our fertility. There is nothing more important than our fertility; there are literally lives at stake - our lives and how we get to live them, and which lives get to populate the future. And anyone who tells you otherwise, or acts like our reproductive concerns are no big deal, or pretends that it is possible for females to live exactly like our male counterparts and vice versa, or that there aren’t even really two sexes to begin with, is either a fool, or trying to sell you something, or both. (Probably both.) Either way, if they don’t respect the astonishing, brutally taxing, life-making work of the female body, then they can’t possibly truly care about our half of the species, or the children we are trying to raise. And do you know what such contempt for women is called? It’s called misogyny. That is literally the definition of it. It doesn’t matter who it’s coming from, or whether they claim to be doing ‘God’s will’ or ‘smashing the patriarchy’ or some other damn thing. If they don’t respect female fertility and the multitude of ongoing struggles that come with it, and don’t encourage women to protect and take pride in their bodies, they are misogynists. And any nonsense they espouse that besmirches our reproductive superpowers should not be entertained, regardless of what postcodes or shoes or social circles they move in.
However, ignoring the nonsense is not enough. I sincerely wish it was. I tried. But if there ever was a time when that was an appropriate response, we have long gone past it. Every one of us who knows better needs to stand up, and call this fundamental truth to people’s attentions:
“Hey! Do you understand what the female body can do? It can build whole new people. Through fantastically elaborate evolutionary processes we still only partially comprehend. It’s amazing! And extremely important. And entirely different from what the male body can do. And deserves real respect.”
And if you worry that it might not be ‘politically correct’ to say as much, then those are politics in fierce need of correcting. They are not serving us, and we needn’t serve them.
p.s. I realise of course that male fertility is also important. But that is another story altogether, for another time and place.
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Thank you - this is brilliant and the kind of thing I’ve avoided saying in case I upset those who cannot conceive or now I’m older those who don’t have children. only recently that I figured out that it’s the same for all women and you have put this into word so beautifully. Whether we do or don’t, want to or can’t , it cannot help but define us. how can we get young women to listen?
One of the cultural consequences of contempt/hatred for women is a necessary contempt/hatred for women’s primary product: human life. Human beings, born, nursed, carefully tended through those delicate preambulant prespeech years, functional human beings delivered to culture with the Human 23.0 software installed. The economy men have created (very well) has no room for it. All they can do for now is sell and buy human lives, and destroy them in their wars and other manufactured crises that further along their territorial interests and develop the technologies that will eventually make life redundant. What always surprises me though, is that despite the larger culture having virtually no respect and placing no cultural value on maternity, people still expect women to do it and they get angry when we don’t! It’s like everyone is hoping women are stupid enough to not recognize that motherhood is not valued by society, and aspire to a role they demean anyway.