Infertility: A Woman's Problem?
Starting a family is a rite of passage for many but in Australia, one in six couples have fertility challenges. Mona and mum-of-one, Oumi, shares her experience watching Big Miracles and looking back at her experience starting a family in regional Australia.
Big Miracles, the latest 'heart-warming' series to have hit Channel 9, follows 10 couples on a mission to have a baby through IVF. In my case, a cancer diagnosis meant that IVF was the only route to go.
Watching Big Miracles reminded me of some of the feelings I had during the IVF process, some positive, some negative but it also highlighted how sometimes the value of a woman can be so ingrained into the way we see infertility and motherhood. There were times during the process that I felt overwhelming anger, frustration or guilt and found myself wondering… “Where the hell are these feelings coming from?” and “Why does it seem like my husband isn’t feeling the same things?”
For those who are unfamiliar, artificial reproductive treatment (ART) helps couples who cannot have children naturally to start a family. The process involves fertility specialists who test and assess the couple and provide artificial solutions to the challenges faced. These can range from hormone treatments and medication to surgical interventions - one of these is in-vitro fertilization (IVF).
For regional and rural people, access to ART can be extremely limited. This is true in the case of one couple from the show who must regularly travel 8 hours each way from Walgett, NSW to Sydney to receive treatment. In addition to the costs of travel and accommodation, ART can cost over $10,000 (before subsidies) and so for rural and regional people, starting a family can have a drastic impact on finances, as well as taking an emotional, mental and physical toll.
While I obviously support the desire to start a family, I can’t help but be aware of the way infertility is seen as a female problem. Research suggests the most determining factor for IVF success is a woman’s age and we’ve all heard the cliché of that ‘ticking biological clock’. So, I wasn’t surprised to see the women in Big Miracles exploring feelings of guilt that they hadn’t been able to conceive. In the show, Dr Mangot says that “women can feel guilt about the success of the cycles” thinking that they were designed to have babies and have somehow failed to achieve when a cycle doesn’t result in a baby.
In society, a lot of our worth as women is still very much connected to motherhood and by extension, the idea of a ‘traditional family’. It’s funny because that’s what I have in so many ways, but in other ways it couldn’t be further from the truth.
I knew that I wanted to have kids since I was still a kid myself. I come from a big family, lots of siblings and where every man and woman over a certain age is an aunty or uncle. I didn’t see a world in which I didn’t have children in my life. My husband, although not from a family like mine, also wanted to have kids. Both of us were happy in the knowledge that we wanted the same thing at some point. Then he got diagnosed with cancer and suddenly our somewhat carefree life was tipped upside down.
About 6 months into his treatment, I remember one of his surgeons asking us “Why haven’t you had children yet?” I was gob smacked. The truthful answer was that we were in our mid-20s, living our lives and had plenty of time. Women are on average having children around 31 years old and even in the previous generation this was at 28 – we were both younger than this at that point. Over the course of two years, we went through chemotherapy, surgeries, procedures, the process of freezing sperm, egg collection cycles and finally two rounds of IVF.
One thing I noticed throughout our IVF journey was the way that people spoke to us when discussing IVF, from medical professionals to friends and family. It felt very much like my problem. Without knowing our history everyone assumed that ‘I as the woman’ had fertility issues and honestly, I found this infuriating.
Even though we were just unlucky with how things played out, I found myself feeling the constant need to clarify that it wasn’t me, it wasn’t my fault. Then feeling guilty because it wasn’t my husband’s fault either.
Throughout the first few episodes of Big Miracles, the focus tends to be on the women, from who does the talking on camera to statistics around parenthood and success rates of IVF. There’s all this ‘burning desire’ and ‘longing’ from the women, but what about the men? It comes across like they are passengers on this monumental journey, bumbling along and providing the seed. In Episode 1, Amelia and Andrew are discussing becoming parents and Amelia says, “I’ll have no problems being a mother, I’ve spent years practicing with you”. In this couple, it is Andrew’s low sperm motility that has led them down the IVF route. That’s not Andrew’s fault, but Amelia still seems to have this overwhelming desire to be the perfect wife and mother – before a baby is even there. It is only when the couple are finally pregnant that we see Andrew share that ‘longing’ as he fights back the tears realising that he is going to be a dad.
Throughout the show, having a baby is described as a miracle, as getting that missing piece, of becoming whole. Have we built up this picture of a perfect family so much that there is only one way to having a meaningful life and that not achieving this makes you a failure or somehow defective? I don’t regret anything about our process to becoming parents, but I sometimes look back and wonder how much societal expectations and pressures shaped my desires and decisions.
We’ll see how the series plays out as we are introduced to more couples, including a same-sex couple. I’m also really keen to see how they will navigate the ever-present genetics conversations that value nature over nurture, that seek families that share the same blood.
Big Miracles is on at 9pm Mondays on Channel 9 and is available on catch up online at 9now.com.au