As a 35-year-old woman without children, I am a bright, flashing beacon to those that relish asking others entirely inappropriate questions about their life choices.
“Do you have kids?”
“Do you want kids?”
“Oh? Any reason you don’t?”
All of these questions are asked breezily enough, often accompanied by a furtive glance at my stomach, with the implication being that if I don’t have children it must be because I can’t. As if that’s the only valid reason.
The fact is, while I don’t want kids (for many reasons), I probably would struggle to have them even if I did. Women with endometriosis (and that’s one in 10 across the globe) are 30-50% more likely to have trouble conceiving. I also have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which comes with its own infertility rates of up to 80%. And when I explain this to well-meaning folk, the de facto response is often along the lines of, “Ah, lucky you don’t want kids, then.”
It’s an off-the-cuff remark, designed to move the conversation onto lighter topics, but it’s loaded. There’s some truth to it: better for me – who doesn’t want children – to have these conditions than a woman who is keen to get pregnant. But that’s only if the onus is on motherhood in the first place. Invariably, it is.
If a woman loses her leg you could say it was lucky she didn’t want to be a ballerina – but the woman would rightfully respond, “What the hell does that have to do with anything?” Her life would be impacted in ways far more deserving of consideration than the fact that she could no longer be a ballerina.
And it’s the same for me – and all the other childfree women with endometriosis and PCOS. Our conditions do not somehow matter less simply because one of the consequences isn’t applicable to us.
I sure don’t feel lucky. For the last 10 years I have carried around with me an almost constant, low-level pelvic pain which flares into an unmanageable monster if and when I have a period. When I do – and I can never predict when it’s coming – I’m physically sick. I get sharp shooting pains up and down my legs and I feel like I’m being knifed in the abdomen. I spend half my life on the toilet, genuinely worried my insides are going to fall out of me.
I can’t stand upright. I’m tired all the time. I’m overweight.
My mood ricochets so wildly between general malaise and all-consuming misery that I’m on antidepressants. I’m hairy in the places I don’t want to be and not hairy enough in the places I do. I’m sweaty. My 35-year-old skin is still as oily as it was when I was a teenager. I am not lucky.
To be told that I should consider myself lucky because there are women out there that suffer this condition with the added complication of wanting to conceive is a bit of a kick in the teeth.
My suffering is somehow not as important, or even valid, because it doesn’t stand in the way of motherhood. While choosing to be childfree is an increasingly acceptable choice, it seems motherhood is still largely viewed as the ultimate life-goal for women.
It’s a situation I find hard to be self-righteous about, having witnessed first-hand in more than one instance the abject heartache of friends desperately trying, and failing, to get pregnant. It’s a deep, shattering grief that I’ll never claim to understand. I concede that it is just as well I don’t want children. But that’s for me to decide – not to be told.
Women are pit against one another in all kinds of ways – whatever we do, and the choices we make, will always be wrong in somebody’s eyes. There is always pressure to be the best, or the most worthy. That’s part of being a woman in 2020. But when very real, debilitating health conditions are somehow being aligned with good fortune, it’s clear we still have a lot of work to do on what “being a woman” really means.