27 July, 2011

Defining Infertility

This article, in which a writer discussed what she termed her “circumstantial infertility,” has prompted heartfelt debates, online and in message groups, about the term infertility and who gets to use it.

Labels are interesting.  I generally don’t like labels, but as I’ve joined the infertility blogging community, I have found myself using the label infertility.  It applies to me.  I have been unable to carry a child to term.  And I am unable to conceive.  I am infertile. I think it took a while for me to be able to accept that label, even when I was already living it.

Related to this have been discussions about a couples’ infertility.  I remember reading a woman’s  blithe comment “oh, I’m fine, it’s my partner who is infertile.”  I cringed.  I remember a friend saying “so you’re the one with the problem” – it cut me to the core.  I cringed because I had been one of those women who had wondered if it would be better for her husband to leave her, and find someone who could have his babies and make him happy.  Do I consider us as a couple infertile?  Yes.  Do I consider my husband infertile?  No.  But in sickness and in health, right? 

I don’t really care how anyone labels themselves.  More people being more public about infertility and childlessness is probably a good thing.  Society is so child-centric these days that an awareness of people who – for whatever reason – can't have children (or choose not to) can only be positive for us, surely?  And so I applaud the author for writing about what life is like for her, living a life without children, a life she hadn’t planned.

But for me, the bottom line is that infertility is a medical condition, and in a woman it is defined as the inability to conceive or carry a child to term.  I personally don’t think you can use this term if you have never tried to have children, when in fact biologically, you may be perfectly able to conceive or bear children.  It’s a bit like saying you are allergic to lobster, when the reality is that you don’t eat it because you can’t afford to.  You could have lobster if the circumstances were right.  I guess that’s what is meant by circumstantial or situational infertility, but it still feels a little wrong for me.  I simply don’t understand why you’d want to describe yourself as infertile.  But perhaps that’s because I struggled for many years to actually be able to say the word out loud.

When I was coming to terms with my infertility, I read a book in which the authors declared that because they were no longer trying to conceive, they were no longer infertile.  I struggled with that interpretation, because I felt broken, a failure, and I felt judged because of that (although let’s face it, I was the one doing the judging).  Now, many years later, I can relate to it a little more.  At 48 I don’t want to get pregnant, and I am not actively trying to get pregnant.  So I don’t feel (as) infertile because I don’t feel as if I’m looking for another outcome.  That’s in the past.  Right now, my body works, it is doing everything I need it to do (within reason), and I feel relatively normal.

Please don’t get me wrong.  I am not saying that being in the situation of not being able to even try to have children is any less painful than for those of us who have tried and been unsuccessful.  In fact, I have to say I cherish the memories of my all-too-brief pregnancies.  I feel lucky to have had that, to have experienced that.  By not labelling them as infertile, I am by no means dismissing the pain felt by those women who were not able to try.

I think really that the issue should be focussed on where we are now.  Emotionally, whether we are medically infertile or not, those women who never had the chance to try to have children, who always imagined they would be a mother someday, share so many of the same emotions as those of us who tried but came up with empty arms.  We are child-less (or child-free depending on the day and our mood and what we want to do at the time).  We feel isolated and judged by society.  We feel as if we are treated differently.  And we share the feeling (at times) that something is missing.  We wonder sometimes what might have been.  Whilst the paths we took might be different, we meet now and walk the same line.  We have much more in common now than whether our ovaries or uterus or fallopian tubes work or not. 

I’ll leave the last word to the author of the article, who said it all in this paragraph:

... my life is not barren.  And to the women who are on the other side of hope, know that you are more powerful than your womb.  You are maternal whether or not maternity ever comes.  You are a woman and your love and how you choose to offer and receive it, is a gift.


  1. Such a good point about some people claiming the term "infertile" too easily when others have a hard time claiming it. I've lived with it so long that it's hard to think back to those days when I was afraid to use the label.

  2. What a beautiful post. I wonder, too, why the author wants to co-opt the term infertility? Is she trying to capture the idea that she CAN'T have children, in the same way that someone who is medically incapable can't have children? Is she trying to validate her experience? I don't really know. I agree with you, that infertility is a medical term and I don't think that maintaining that definition belittles anyone els'e suffering.

    Thank you for writing this.

  3. I have to say I agree with "infertile" being a medical term. However, I myself could be defined as situationally-infertile since my husband had a vasectomy in previous marriage, although the RE said we were infertile, and the Merriam-Webster dictionary says our marriage is in fact sterile. Soooo confusing for me, us, the patient. Imagine how confusing it must be to those outside the ranks of IF!

  4. You put this beautifully, Mali. I don't discount the writer's pain over not having children, for whatever reason, but there is something about her use of the term "situationally infertile" that sticks in my craw.

  5. I agree, infertile is a medical diagnosis, not a self-impossed label. I can't imagine wanting children and not having the opportunity to even try with one you love. they can however try on their own. The fact is, they likely would have gotten pregnant which is even more painful to think about. Us infertiltes that don't have kids (yet) don't because physically we are unable to, but at least in the meantime we have our life to share with our spouses.
    well written :)

  6. The author is definitely using the term to help validate her experience. She has chosen not to have children outside of a loving relationship, which I think is a very valid perspective, and I think she believes that using the term might garner some sympathy. To her knowledge she is not medically unable to conceive. To my knowledge, I am capable of conceiving, but my love cannot give me a child. Am I infertile? I suppose so, since the definition is any couple who has tried to ttc for x amount of time unsuccessfully, regardless of whether it is a male factor, or female factor issue or both which is the cause. But, like you, it is a term I despise. The first time I heard it in reference to me was when my doctor told a secretary who was setting me up for some further tests that my diagnosis was infertility. I cringed and wanted to run out of the office. I'm glad that the author is adding another public voice for those of us who are childless not by choice. I guess I just really dislike the term and the "pity" I have seen it attract.

  7. Labels are so hard... there are too many layers to infertility, and our experiences and circumstances are very different. I like that last paragraph. I hope that, if the time comes, I will find myself a new role other than mother that will fulfill me just as much.

  8. This is a really good post. I struggled with the 'infertile' label for a while, but am now happy with it.

    Oddly, the last time I had a proper chat with my consultant she said I was 'very fertile'. Which I thought was a bit of a weird thing to say given my case history.

  9. I struggled with this, too. As I have been pregnant three times, albeit with medical intervention, can I label myself "infertile"? I know that A (my former partner) struggled hugely with the diagnosis / label too, as he saw it as my problem, rather than ours.

  10. i find it strange people would willingly call themselves infertile. personally, i see the reserved for women who actually cannot conceive. My sister is 33 and single. But, if she never meets someone to have a child with, I do not think she will say she suffered from infertility.

    I have struggled with labeling myself infertile... so I wouldn't say I take offense to people picking it up so easily, but I do think it is a term that has a very weighty meaning.