Well, it's been quite a week around here in my practice. I don't know if it is the stress of the holidays, the subzero temperatures, or perhaps the near lack of sunlight, but I've been hearing a lot this week about shame.
Shame is a common emotion that occurs when someone is undergoing infertility treatment. Each time I hear a person talk about feeling ashamed of their infertility, this argument presents itself--they feel ashamed that there bodies aren't functioning "normally", and thus they can't easily reproduce and fulfill their alleged biological imperative. In this way of thinking, for women, the ability to become pregnant and produce healthy babies is their most defining feature.
Thus, I hear client after client tell me how ashamed they are of their bodies because of their infertility. The real shame in all of this, from my perspective, is that I’m hearing this from wonderful, heroic people who are doing an amazing job with their infertility treatment. They are doing everything right—working hard to maximize every possible variable they can control.
Here's the other thing I've noticed--the shame doesn't stop at infertility. Even in the fertile world, women struggle with feelings of shame about their reproductive abilities. I recently met a woman who had five children, but felt horrible about herself in comparison to her sister, who had nine children. My acquaintance, although she got pregnant easily, had difficult, high-risk pregnancies and deliveries. She felt ashamed of her body—why couldn’t she do things as well as her sister, who had easy pregnancies and deliveries? Another woman I know feels terribly ashamed of her body because she used an epidural in the delivery of her child, rather than delivering naturally, like her mother did. A friend confided that she felt ashamed that she couldn’t successfully breastfeed her baby, who had severe food allergies.
In all of the above situations, everyone was doing their absolute best, and nobody could do anything else that would change the medical outcome of their situation for the better. So why did feelings of shame have to come into the picture?
I think our society has a lot to do with women’s feelings of shame about their bodies when it comes to reproduction. I've realized that the emphasis on reproduction, although it does have biological elements, is largely a societal construction--and probably, at this point, an archaic one. In an agrarian, monarchy-based society, producing heirs, and children/laborers, is important for the survival of the society.
But things are different now. Given the change in women’s roles in the workplace, not to mention our global overpopulation problems, defining women by their reproductive capacities, on a practical level, isn't such a smart idea anymore. And yet, so many women are still buying into the idea that their reproductive capacities are central to feeling “normal”, or to their self-worth.
The thing about feeling shame about things over which you have no control is that ultimately, it’s a big waste of energy and effort. The shame doesn’t magically improve the situation or provide you with more control. It just makes you feel lousy and therefore less able to function at your highest level. Shame about infertility doesn’t help you, and it doesn’t really help society either.
However, I do have a solution. The great thing about societal constructions is that they are just that—arbitrary constructions—and not actual reality. Therefore, they can, and do change over time. As individuals struggling with infertility, we can simply decide not to buy into the societal values about our bodies when it comes to reproduction. Instead, we can work on not blaming ourselves for things over which we have no control.
So please, please, do me a favor. If you find yourself starting to feel shame, take a moment and think about why. Did you just purposefully run over your grandmother’s pet weasel? Have you recently financially defrauded starving orphans? If so, go right ahead—be ashamed of yourself with my compliments. However, if you are feeling ashamed about your body, your infertility, or anything else over which you have no control—could you please try to stop? Because trust me, you don’t deserve it! And if you hear a friend start down the shame path, could you remind her to stop too? Not only will you be feeling better about yourself, but you’ll also be improving society. And in that, there is no shame at all!