I recently submitted an essay to Seam’s anthology, Slant – the topic being women in the modern era. Unfortunately, though I made it through several rounds of filtering, it didn’t quite fit the overall feeling of the anthology and you won’t be able to see these words printed. But!
I do think I’ve put together an essay worth discussing (of course I do, I’m a narcissist) and I’d be really interested to know what other women have to say about it.
Men – the few of you that there are – whilst this essay isn’t ‘for you’ as such, I’d like to know how you feel about infertility and whether you feel the same pressures as the guy I mention below.
I looked in his eyes as I told him, ‘I can’t have children.’ And he recoiled. ‘That’s so
sad,’ he said. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Because… having children – that’s what makes you a woman.
It’s the key biological difference that separates you from a man.’
Then I guess I’m not a woman.
I’ve never had regular periods. When I was fifteen, I went into emergency surgery for
a ruptured appendix. They had to take my insides out and put me back again to fix me. My heart stopped beating at one point – and this is when I stopped being a woman. The severity of the rupture had caused the organ to disintegrate and I had three different blood poisonings. Water collected in the gap the appendix had once filled, and doctors were worried that if they tried to burst the honey-comb bubble within it, they might pierce my ovary. The bubble eventually subsided, and the water drained away. But my periods became even more irregular. It wasn’t until I was eighteen that I went to see my GP, having not had a period for over a year.
After some tests, bloods analysed and an ultrasound, I was told I had Polycystic
Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). It’s a condition that impacts my hormones, creating more male
hormones, which causes me to skip menstrual periods. It can cause women to grow hair on the face and the body, can create baldness, and it contributes to diabetes and heart disease.
PCOS also makes it ‘almost impossible to get pregnant,’ my GP explained.
To an eighteen-year-old, this is not big news. I didn’t want children. I wanted a
university degree, a flat full of potted plants, nights out with friends. I’d recently broken up with a boyfriend and I was flirting with the next potential. I was told there were treatments, birth control pills, but was warned they’d make me gain weight – which was already a symptom of my PCOS, so I declined. Children were not a priority.
Nearly ten years later, I can’t say I feel differently. If anything, my PCOS has become
a shield. My stock response any time someone makes an assumption about me having
children, or giving up my career or settling down, I say, ‘I can’t have children.’ And much
like the guy sitting across from me at the start, they recoil. Worried my infertility might be contagious.
When it comes to listing things that make me a woman, I’ll admit that I struggle. I
play rugby, a man’s sport. I go to the gym, I take the rubbish out, and I’m not afraid of
spiders. Maybe I’m being flippant. Maybe that’s a man thing too. But I’ve lived by myself for a long time. I enjoy my independence. Once you’ve lived by yourself for a few months you learn that ‘gender roles’ are a fallacy. You can’t dictate behaviour due to what’s between your legs. Chores have to be done. Bills have to be paid. You don’t have any excuses. Nowhere to hide. It leaves a permanence to the idea that any equality between genders is perpetuated by another agenda. Whether that agenda is materialism, capitalism, fear or misunderstanding.
His commentary on my situation should have annoyed me. The truth is I felt sorry for
him. Though his words were about me, this guy’s thoughts were elsewhere. How he would feel like less of a man if he were told he was incapable of getting someone pregnant. Unable to fulfill his one biological requirement.
He wouldn’t feel like a real man. So how could I be a real woman?
I see a lot of pity in the eyes of people who learn about my infertility. I see the pain
that would have been caused if they’d received this news, not me. I know there will be
women out there who can’t have children, and this is devastating for them. Maybe they found out whilst trying for their first. Maybe they’d always dreamed about having children.
According to Goodarzi’s The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, ‘27% of women have PCOS undiagnosed.’ I can’t imagine the pain of discovering, after years of
knowing you want children, that you’re unable to. That you’ll need medical or divine
But – to me – my infertility is inconsequential. It’s one facet of my complex
personality. It doesn’t stop me from retaining the privileges of being a woman. I won’t
apologise for it, either.