Over five years, Alexandra Kimball suffered five miscarriages: two of her own and three experienced by two surrogates carrying her embryos. “My infertility felt less like the absence of something than a malignancy, spreading from one part of my body to the next, from me to these other women who tried to help,” Kimball writes in her new book The Seed: How the Feminist Movement Fails Infertile Women (Coach House Press).
Kimball’s distressing, hard-fought road to parenthood ended last spring, when her son, Charlie, was born with the help of two more women: Anne, an egg donor and Mindy, a gestational carrier.
Other women weren’t quite as supportive. As her infertility consumed her, Kimball encountered isolation, quiet judgment and outright hostility from friends, acquaintances and women online. The topic of pregnancy loss left mothers and mothers-to-be feeling uncomfortable around Kimball. Nor were they able to relate to her drive to have a child seemingly at all costs.
Kimball didn’t get much love from the feminist community, either. Despite their rallying cries around women’s issues such as abortion, workplace harassment and the wage gap, feminists have failed to take up infertility with any gusto, Kimball argues. Many feminists today, she says, continue to dismiss the “meat and pain” and grief of infertility, deriding women who want children this badly as “dupes of the patriarchy.”
The author spoke with The Globe and Mail about the ways women fail each other on this front, and about the possibility of looking beyond sci-fi fertility treatments to humanize those struggling to conceive.
“You really wanted a baby.” You hear this regularly when you tell your story. What does this reaction say to you?
Usually when people say that, it’s in a slightly critical way. The process of infertile women trying to conceive can seem kind of desperate and pathetic. That has more to do with the long historical and cultural narratives around infertility and the stigma than it does with our own motives. I’m really happy that we wound up taking all these steps that seemed extreme to other people. Now we have our son.
A woman in a parenting group tells you that gestation is required to be a mother. Is this part of the same dialogue that sees women judging each other’s parenting choices, whether it’s breastfeeding or co-sleeping?
Absolutely. All of the things you mention, they’re coded as natural. This goes back to a Victorian conception of motherhood as instinctual and automatic. The woman is passive and motherhood is just something that happens to her – all she has to do is follow her body. Infertile women challenge that because we have to try for everything, we have to think about everything, we have to make an effort.
You write about how disconnected infertile women are, how their pregnant friends and other mothers stop hanging out with them. In 2019, do these women not see each other’s merits beyond children?
Feminist ethics haven’t really been extended to infertility, but another thing that’s going on is that woman as always already mother or mother-to-be is a very ingrained part of our culture, even still.
Isn’t this another serious failure of feminism? That we still push motherhood instead of helping women feel less pressured to take one road?
I think so. Motherhood and femininity are so closely linked in a way that masculinity and fatherhood are not. That’s something we need to keep pushing back on.
Did those cultural forces play a role in your own drive to have a child?
Absolutely. There is the holy sequence of marriage and motherhood. When that’s presented as the normal life trajectory of a woman and you can’t do it, it’s devastating. Even still, childless-by-choice women are still exoticized or held up as an exception.
What do your childless-by-choice friends think of you, and what do you think of them?
Generally, my childless-by-choice friends and acquaintances were much more supportive than people who wanted to conceive or people who were moms. I talk about the infertile woman as monster and how the fear of the monster is really the fear of contamination. I think I just wasn’t as threatening to women who didn’t want children and so we didn’t have these really charged, strange interactions.
Among some feminists, surrogacy remains particularly fraught; they argue it “separates motherhood from the bodily work of pregnancy and childbirth.” You counter that infertile women do plenty of bodily work, just in the form of miscarriage and fertility treatments.
Surrogacy is misrepresented as this bloodless, purely financial, unemotional, market exchange. It really speaks to the fact that this conversation is not being run by people with lived experience on the topic, because it’s not like this at all. I had five years of medical interventions to get to the point where we were undergoing a surrogacy. These discussions are not going to be accurate unless we understand the experiences of the people who are seeking this.
In Canada, Liberal MP Anthony Housefather recently put forth a private member’s bill to compensate surrogates and donors. Some feminists protested that payment will commodify and exploit women’s bodies.
Most of the Canadian surrogates that I’ve talked to support decriminalizing payment. The vast majority of gamete donors that I’ve spoken to want to get paid.
It’s a curious moment where prominent feminist voices are not listening to the needs and experiences of the people this actually affects. That’s nothing new for white feminism, really. It’s actually a very similar conundrum as what happens with sex work, in which the push to decriminalize is being done by the women involved, and then feminist voices are pushing back against the stated wishes of people with lived experience who the policies would actually affect.
What about feminists’ legitimate concerns about the lack of strong oversight in surrogacy and gamete donation, the procedures’ poor success rates and the toll it all takes on women’s bodies?
The fact that fertility medicine is a private sphere is problematic not only because of the lack of oversight for the medicine but also because it limits access to people who can’t afford it.
What do you say to those who view the right not to bear children as more urgent a feminist issue than the right to have children? Some see raising kids as more of a privilege.
They’re both important. Once we explore the right not to have children, what you wind up with is that parenthood should really be a calling. It shouldn’t be something you do just because, and it shouldn’t be forced on you. Once you start to think of it as a calling – as something that should really be done by people who want it most – inevitably, you’re going to support people who want to have children but are struggling. The same goes for people in non-reproductive life circumstances: people in same-sex relationships, or single mothers by choice, or single fathers by choice. These people feel very strongly that they should be parents. That’s a really good approach for all of us to parenthood and to family.
How do we humanize infertility, for feminists and for others?
We’re so obsessed with the technology around infertility – surrogacy or sperm and egg donation – that we only see the infertile woman at the moment that she’s seeking this technological cure. We don’t see her before that – we don’t see her grieving. If we were to zoom in on those earlier experiences – the loss, the grief, the longing – we would see the figure of the infertile woman as more human and more relatable.
This is a health issue, a spiritual issue, a relationship issue. It affects the whole woman and everybody else in her sphere. Something that doesn’t get talked about enough is how large the blast crater is of infertility. This affected not only me and my husband, but my parents. I’m an only child. What does it mean for an elderly couple to have an infertile child, in terms of their grandparenthood? It affected my work. It affected my friendships. It affected me financially.
I’d like to see more infertile people writing about infertility, especially poor women and women of colour, because they’ve been so erased in this conversation. The conversation’s been focused on the technology and they can’t access the technology, in large part.
Do you still personally feel like a “feminist problem”?
Much less so. My story’s over. We’re not having any more kids. I have my son – I did it, right? There’s something about the confidence that this gives you that makes it a lot easier to parse those critical voices.
What stories will you tell your son about how he was born?
His parents fought for him. These other women that were a part of his conception are very, very important to us. I hope that he recognizes the unique beauty in his story.
This interview has been edited and condensed. The Seed will be published April 10.
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