Starting from when I was a teenager, and up until I couldn’t actually do it, I thought it was really easy to get pregnant. My sex ed classes were well taught and thorough, but their goal was to educate us on the importance of protection – and boy, did they ever. The way they went on about making sure that you could fit a condom on the end of a banana with your eyes closed, you’d think that sperm had the potency of hydrochloric acid and the determination of Voldemort on an angry day to knock you up good and proper.
Popular culture and, gradually, real life reinforced this impression of swimmers getting along with your lady-parts, well, swimmingly. Almost everyone I know got knocked up on the first month of trying – and Rachel on Friends got pregnant despite using a condom – so I figured it would be pretty simple. Take the keeper out of the net, give the star forward a clear shot, and let the goal celebrations commence.
Well, that was nineteen months ago. Since then, my husband and I have been diagnosed with dual-factor infertility – a bunch of small to medium problems with both of us together that make it very unlikely for us to conceive naturally.
Infertility is an important topic for feminists, and not just because it forces women to ask fun questions like, ‘If I can’t have a baby, how does that change my image of myself as a woman?’ and, ‘Who knew that sex could feel like such a chore?’ (Yes, if I’m honest, ‘I’m ovulating, so despite the fact that we’re both exhausted and University Challenge is on, we are having sex now if it kills us’ is probably not the sexiest line I’ve ever uttered to someone I wanted to do the horizontal tango with.)
It affects women’s relationships with their bodies. It affects debates about reproductive rights and the nature of family life. It affects social ideas of motherhood – a friend told me recently that her local butcher finishes any story about his grandchildren by suffixing it with, ‘but they were IVF.’ Said sub-standard-in-their-grandfather’s-eyes children are FOURTEEN FREAKING YEARS OLD. The nature of their conception is still apparently a sticking point, even though they’re probably already ogling their schoolfriends and getting stuck in to sex education themselves.
Sadly, my experience with infertility has also shown that dismissiveness towards women’s health issues is still alive and well in the doctor’s office. Since our referral to a fertility clinic, where people actually know my uterus from my elbow and give a shit about what happens in it, we’ve been treated with knowledge and respect. But let me give you the low-down on what can happen inside the NHS when your oven just won’t warm up the bun.
Infertile women, already in pain, go to our GPs. We talk about our vaginas and our periods; we open up about the most painful, intimate details of our bodies, sex lives, and emotions. We expose ourselves, from the emotional (details about our relationships, our babylust, our feelings of inadequacy) to the extremely physical (legs akimbo on an examination table, stirrups, trans-vaginal ultrasounds, the lot.) And all too often, we get a condescending response, socially and medically. The GPs we encountered would act sceptical about self-reports on my own body, and brushed off what I knew from months of obsessive reading about fertility issues. The delays in my treatment – and the diagnosis that I once had to actually correct – meant that it took months longer to get to the specialist clinic we needed. At one point, I was referred for the same blood tests on five separate occasions which only needed to be completed twice (and the second time would just be for confirmation.) Meanwhile, the scans that I was being sent for featured waiting rooms that were shared with heavily pregnant women having their check-up scans, all glowy and gravid and demonstrably not me. And that’s without even mentioning the humiliation of being told, when hubby and I were crying in our GP’s office, that I was ‘getting too emotional about this.’ Was hubby? Take a guess. Needless to say, it was never explained exactly what the appropriate level of emotion is for finding out that you may never have children.
A lot of what I experienced boiled down to the pain of being patronised: the message was, again and again, that I didn’t know my own body, and that I was shrill and hysterical for wanting to find out, and be in charge of, what was happening to it. And it’s not all that rare, considering that a recent survey by the National Infertility Awareness Campaign found that 50% of women have said their GP was either not knowledgeable about or unsympathetic towards their infertility. 50% is a big deal.
Infertility UK is responding to this survey by sending information leaflets to every GP’s practice in the UK. It’s a good start. But it’s only a start. And when half of all infertile women leave their GP’s office having received substandard care, there’s a problem here that goes deeper than a cold metal speculum – not just with my uterus, but with the entire medical attitude towards women’s health.