Next week is National Infertility Awareness Week, and Resolve, the infertility advocacy organization that began the annual event in 1989, has introduced a new hashtag in its honor. The #StartAsking campaign encourages anyone who has experienced infertility—which, according to CDC numbers provided by Resolve, includes one in eight American couples—to demand better treatment. Suggested actions include asking one’s employer for insurance coverage, calling for better protections from lawmakers, and seeking support from family and friends.
The logic behind this campaign proceeds from the idea that infertility treatment, including especially the exorbitant costs involved, won’t improve until there is more conversation about it in public. It’s a reasonable strategy—change often comes as a result of people speaking out as a group. But what’s interesting about #StartAsking is that it convincingly challenges the widely held belief that the status of a woman’s womb is her business and her business alone.
To be clear, Resolve is not suggesting that we all start interrogating strangers about their fertility. But it’s suggesting that it would be beneficial if experiences of infertility and reproduction in general were a more common part of public discourse. Shedding the taboo surrounding these kinds of discussions would definitely be good for women. It would help us absorb the fact that motherhood—including the desire to become a mom, the process of getting pregnant, and how it feels after the kid is born—exists on a wide spectrum. There are a lot of different ways to be, or not be, a mom. I’ve met few women, both mothers and non-mothers, whose reproductive stories are free of conflict, struggle, and even some regrets. Even those most secure in their decisions acknowledge that making them wasn’t always simple.
Having more open conversations—exploring the complications of making babies (whether through infertility treatment, surrogacy, sperm donation, or adoption) and the vagaries and exigencies of care work—will help us move closer to a reality in which all women get more of what they need. This includes emotional support for women who are struggling with issues that often go unspoken, including infertility, postpartum depression, or making the decision not to have a child. And of course, public dialogue can also help change the laws and related cultural norms that continue to get in our way.
For example, take paid leave, which is an economic issue as much as it’s a social one. The more we talk about the different ways women become mothers and react to their new responsibilities, the better institutional support systems can adapt to help more women. And the more childless women talk about their own family challenges, the more likely we are to have workplace policies acknowledging that partners, siblings, and parents sometimes need taking care of, too.
With my son, who’s now three, I traveled a relatively conflict-free path through pregnancy and childbirth. I got pregnant after a couple of months of trying with my husband and had the baby nine months later. Now, I’m dealing with what doctors call secondary, unexplained infertility, a highly cryptic official diagnosis, and I’ve noticed a big difference in people’s comfort level when talking about baby-making with me. Often when I bring up my infertility I get a series of rapid fire “sorry”s followed by a quick decline in eye contact, messaging to me that this person is too uncomfortable to further pursue this conversation. I try to wrap it up, either by agreeing that it sucks or insisting I am doing fine; neither responses reflecting the complexity of what I am actually going through.
Resolve’s new campaign is encouraging people going through infertility to talk about it more—but that’s only half the solution. True openness about fertility and motherhood won’t exist until we all feel comfortable asking friends and family about their fertility plans and problems, and listening with compassion and without judgment to their responses. A gentle inquiry might help a friend or acquaintance open up about their struggle with adoption, sperm donors, miscarriages, or infertility—or their choice not to have children—all topics we could be doing a whole lot more asking and telling about.