Lena Dunham recently came out publicly with her personal story of endometriosis and resulting inability to bear children. Her memoir “False Labor” is the cover story for the December issue of Harper’s Magazine. A friend of mine shared a link to the article, but I admit I didn’t read it until I began to see the slews of critical, sometimes compassionate, and often angry reactions from the online infertility community. This post is an effort to explore that.
Lena’s story is not encouraging. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t mind it. My own path to parenthood has been dark. I avoided addiction, and I faced different diagnoses than she did, but I was also never able to approach it with the optimism that so many women in the online infertility community seemingly shared.
In her story I read much of my own. A socialization that taught me I could have anything I wanted if I only tried hard enough. A belligerent belief that having children was my gender-given right – that it should be easy. The questioning of my purpose as woman – as a human – in contemplating a potential life without children. The harsh examination of my own privilege of access to care within (to use Lena’s words) the “fertility-industrial complex.” The despair and exhausted relief at coming to the end of the road.
In fairness, parts of her article are unkind to the #IVFWarriors, the #miscarriagemamas and many of the other hashtag groups who have carved out a place for themselves on social platforms. By her account we are a largely privileged, often delusional group of type-A, go-getters willing to do anything to have a baby. But Lena’s critiques dripped with bitterness. Her words were cynical. Her grief evident. I read her judgements as an attempt to deflect shame away from herself and onto others.
Infertility and miscarriage are deeply isolating. The online community creates a space for us when our in-person friends can’t understand us or tire of trying to. It is not perfect. It is not for every person or every part of the journey. It is flawed as we are flawed. But it is there to engage with or not. It seems to me that Lena found a place online where she thought she fit, only to feel all alone again. The subset of an already isolated group. So, she lashed out. Was it fair? No. Was it human? Yes.
The online infertility community is littered with positive messages. Words of reassurance. Offers of support. Reminders that we are not alone. Motivation to carry on. Some women depend on this encouragement. I spoke to one woman who told me that when she was going through infertility, she devoured other women’s stories because they gave her hope.
But different people need different messages. In contrast, other women’s stories made me either jealous or sad, sometimes both. I couldn’t read them without comparing myself, and I usually felt worse for the comparison. It felt like I was on an impossible path, so their successes made my efforts feel even more futile. When I was down on the mat, I wanted someone to say, “You can get up if you want, but it’s also ok to just lie here.”
When you want to stay down, hearing “You can do it!” only serves to make you feel more like a failure. I was ashamed to stop trying and it took me a long time to be ok with the decision. I don’t think Lena’s fully ok with it. But she didn’t really choose it. The realities of her body forced the decision upon her.
There aren’t as many online voices singing the virtues of “giving up” or “giving in.” Maybe there aren’t as many because the effort of trying does pay off for lots of women. But maybe there aren’t as many because we don’t always want to celebrate the women who wind up childless not by choice. We don’t want to consider that they might be us. More than anything, I think this is what her article tries to normalize.
I can paint my own story with different brushes. I can use it to elicit guilt, or jealousy, or even gratitude. I can step back into memories and let the pain wash over me in waves. I can examine the experience in aggregate and applaud myself for strength and determination. I can release all my desires and expectations and give them up to God.
I can do all this because it is actually all the above. Cynicism, positivity, even faith are only tools we use to manage an absolute lack of control. When we cling too tightly to one approach, it can make us unaccepting of others. If our approach fails, we may become angry or defensive. The way lies somewhere in the middle. For me, there is always a bit of hope laced with my cynicism, a touch of doubt at the edges of my faith, an ocean of sad beneath the positivity.
Lena gave an interview with People Magazine about her memoir. Weirdly, I found it better expressed her point of view than her writing, so I’ll end with an excerpt from that interview which I think is a beautiful and succinct summation of the infertility journey:
“Infertility has a ripple effect — it’s not just about not being able to have a child, it’s about not feeling you understand your place and job in this world. Not understanding what your body was meant to do and not understanding what your role is as a woman, and I think it brings up that sense of feeling like you’ve lost your sense of your own role in the universe. There’s a great gust of depression that comes with that… I had to really untangle all of that to realize that I was still going to become a mother, but I was going to do it on my own terms.”