Work. Life.

Earlier this week I attended a conference.

Here’s the thing: I work on fertility.

My dissertation proposal (and the slouching-towards-completion dissertation itself) arose directly out of a seminar paper I wrote for a course in the first year of my PhD in 2008-09.

That paper was on infertility.

The idea for that paper came to me because of our own experiences. In the fall of 2008 we’d been at the fertility clinic for six months. We’d done two IUI cycles- both BFNs. I was just starting to realize that this whole process might be more difficult than I’d anticipated, given I’d been expecting that all we needed to do was make sure I ovulated and that would be that.

I can say with complete and utter confidence that it would have NEVER occurred to me to look at infertility had I not been infertile myself.

I’m not normally one to take the stance that “my infertility has made me a better mother/ a stronger person/ blah blah blah”. I do not wish my experiences on anyone. Even though I’m forever grateful for the friends I’ve made on this journey, I still think I would have preferred to have skipped the years of misery.


Except that we, of course, wouldn’t have our E., who is who he is because we needed IVF and ICSI.

If we hadn’t been infertile, we’d have a child (or probably two by now), but it wouldn’t be him.

It wouldn’t be HIM.

And, on a lesser note, without my experience of being infertile, I wouldn’t have my PhD topic, or my (it-will-get-finished-if-it-kills-me) dissertation.

My infertility brought me to my PhD.

And those two results basically make it impossible for me to say that I regret my infertility.

So, back to the conference.  It was a mid-sized, interdisciplinary conference on in/fertility, held at the university at which I’m currently a visiting graduate student, during the time I was visiting. It’s hard to explain to non-academics how excited this made me back when I was applying for the scholarship to come over here, and when I heard that my abstract for the conference had been accepted. My research is definitely a bit of a niche area in my period of history. It’s pretty rare to get conferences with themes remotely related to what I do, so all of my previous conference presentations have been at large, generic conferences, like annual meetings. Plus there weren’t very many other graduate students presenting, so I feel like it was quite a big deal that my abstract was accepted. It’ll definitely look great on the cv.

It was also just a fantastic experience. Hearing papers about in/fertility in periods of history far from my own area of specialization was so interesting.  I spent a lot of the time wishing fervently that we had even a fraction of the evidence available to someone who works on, say, early-modern Florence (where they kept accurate birth records including miscarriages and neonatal death).

Yeah. My field? Not so much. I have FIVE cases of divorce on the grounds of infertility, across several hundred years.

I did end up terribly envious of the other scholars: jealous of the extent of their evidence and the questions they are able to attempt to answer.

Thinking about the questions was helpful though, even if I know they’re not ones I’ll be able to answer for my own period.

I came away really inspired to wrestle with the outstanding issues in my own dissertation. I met some very helpful people and some very interesting people and picked up a couple of new pieces of evidence and I think my paper went ok.

What really struck me, over and over again, however, was how familiar the material seemed. Again and again we heard tales of couples cursed with barrenness, of the years they waited for children, of the heartache and pain that they suffered, of the steps they took to try to change their situation. We heard about miscarriages, stillbirths, neonatal and maternal death. And, since this was a conference focused on the intersection of in/fertility and the divine, we heard a lot about miracles: miraculous births to barren couples where the child usually grows up to become a saint or a holy person of some sort, since it seems their narratives need a spectacular start; miraculous healings of infertility by said saints or holy persons. There was a lot about science, as well, and the intersection of medicine with the divine. Nothing about IVF or other technologies, since the conference’s theme didn’t stretch beyond the early modern. But those women (it was usually, but interestingly not always women) who waited five, ten, thirty years for a child clearly were engaged in their version of IVF. They were willing to do whatever it took, to exhaust every possibility, to appeal to any power that might hear them, divine or secular, in order to become mothers. They visited shrines and wells, stole statues of the baby Jesus (to show Mary the depths of their yearning so that she might bless them with a child), tied strings around their waists, ingested every possible substance, prayed, wept, begged, pleaded.

It was nice, in a strange way, to get these images of misery from other periods. We don’t get such a clear picture in my period. We don’t have voices of women, and the men are usually silent. The closest we get is with the eulogy of the woman once identified as Turia (although that identification is now discredited). Her husband commemorated her exemplary life, and their exemplary marriage, on stone, presumably as an epitaph for her tomb. Their marriage was childless, and he presents her as going to extraordinary (although unspecified) lengths to try to rectify this, culminating in her offer to divorce him so he could go and marry another (presumably more fertile) woman.

Turia’s distress, according to the epitaph composed by her husband and designed for very public consumption, entirely revolves around her husband’s childlessness. It is his lack of children that she regrets, and her own body that bears the blame. She offers to divorce him because she is concerned that he might become depressed at his lack of children. The husband never thought to voice what Turia herself thought of the fact that she would never be a mother, but you can see her despair when you read between the lines of what he does say.

That’s as close as we get though, in my period. So it was absolutely fascinating to hear the accounts from other periods, where we do have the voices of women, as well as the voices of men, who write openly about their infertility.

It took me a while to realize that these stories weren’t so familiar to me because they echoed my (oh so few) examples from my own period.

The stories were familiar to me because they echoed my own lived experience of infertility.

It really brought home to me that the desperate yearning for a child that you cannot have is something universal. The stories from the other papers came from myriad places and myriad times. The couples (or individuals) approached their infertility (known or suspected) in myriad ways. They found myriad solutions or they coped with their ever lasting disappointment in myriad ways.

But the emotions – no matter the time or the place or the people or the end result – the emotions expressed were always, always the same.

And on Monday night, as I stepped into E.’s room to give him the kiss I’d promised to bestow, since the conference dinner meant I’d be home long after he’d gone to sleep, as I smoothed his hair and he murmured in his sleep and cuddled his bunny closer, I had but one thought.

I am so grateful to live in this time, this place, so that my story, too, could have a happy ending.


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Filed under Adventures across the pond, PhD

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