Am I broken?
“Procreation is not the only meaning of life, for then life in itself would become meaningless, and something which in itself is meaningless cannot be rendered meaningful merely by its perpetuation.” — Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning
Girls are raised with the assumptions that they too will be mothers someday. Whereas baby boys play with trains, planes and cow boys, girls are generally still provided with baby dolls, barbies, a kitchen to feed the family etc. They then proceed to become young women surrounded with baby showers, gossip magazines about celebrities’ baby bumps, clichés demeaning careerist women who haven’t had children, and more generally the expectations of parents, peers, advertising, and religion. To quote from Babycentre.com: “For some women, motherhood is an important part of their self-image. For others, it’s their highest ambition. Even women who don’t necessarily want to become mothers are affected by society’s expectations”.
Let’s take a random day in my life. Summer 2016, I’m in transit in Paris.
- I start the day by catching up on American politics by listening to Michelle Obama’s discourse at the Democratic Convention on Youtube:
“I also told you about our daughters, how they are the heart of our hearts, the center of our world. […] This election and every election is about who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives. […] You see, Hillary understands that the President is about one thing and one thing only, it’s about leaving something better for our kids.”
[This was a beautiful speech, sure, but read it with the mindset of someone who doubts they will ever have kids. It basically feels as if you had no business to even be able to vote in an election, because you are dead wood for future generations.]
2. I go out and this movie preview hits me when riding the metro:
3. After the tube ride, I meet my mum for some flat-hunting. She recommends eliminating the flat I like from possible options, by telling me there will be too many stairs for “when I have kids”. No pressure.
4. I then head to the train station as I need to catch a train to Geneva for work, and glance at the baby changing room, an out-of-boundaries place for me.
Of course, we don’t live at the time when “barren women” were considered pariahs. But society norms’ can still make me feel as a half-human because I don’t have kids. I am an infertility advocate, and yet I can’t help but feel a bit of shame when my mother says she told her close friends about our troubles having children. I guess my unconscious still sees procreating as something a “normal woman” should be able to do, a condition that each healthy being should meet. In the Torah, God orders Noah : “Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate […] to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth”. Well, I can’t help thinking that if he had picked me as one of those animals, my species would have quickly disappeared.
This feeling of brokenness can extend -absurdly- to my marriage, even though Richard and I are extremely in love. When I go to my cousin’s wedding and most of the speeches allude to their future kids, I can’t help but think about whether people will consider Richard and I have a lesser marriage because we don’t have children. I mention this to a close family member in her 60s, who tells me that for her weddings have been somewhat tough since her divorce, because they make her life feel like a failure, even if her marriage — which lasted over 25 years — was an overwhelmingly positive experience at the time. I feel a rush of empathy for her.
Another person I recently felt a weird sense of connection with, due to a shared feeling of inadequacy, is … Beethoven. I recently read his letter to his brothers called the“Heiligenstadt Testament”, in which he admits to his shame of being deaf despite being a musician: “Oh, how harshly was I flung back by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing. Yet it was impossible for me to say to people, “Speak louder, shout, for I am deaf”. Oh, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than others”
The truth about this “brokenness” feeling is that it is absurd. Women who cannot conceive are not broken. As per the Frankl quote at the top of this post, if the meaning of life was to procreate, than it would have no meaning, because zero*zero still equals zero. I find it heartening to think of people around me who have no kids and still have meaningful lives. And in fact, so many of the world’s internationally acclaimed women have no kids. To name a few:
- Cameron Diaz
- Oprah Winfrey
- Renee Zellweger
- Jennifer Aniston
- Sandra Bullock
- Helen Mirren
- Janet Jackson
- Dolly Parton
- Condoleezza Rice
- Angela Merkel
- Theresa May
Whatever you may think of their policies, music or acting skills, it’s still a pretty impressive list. This was true in history as well, with Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Coco Chanel, Maria Callas, Beethoven, Luis Armstrong or Samuel Beckett all having no kids.
Also reassuring to me, is my short list of famous people who have openly admitted to having had infertility issues:
- Mark Zuckerberg
- Sarah Jessica Parker
- Nicole Kidman
- Mariah Carey
- Gwyneth Paltrow
- Kim Kardashian
- Lily Allen
I wouldn’t consider them broken, and so I shouldn’t consider myself broken either. Or, more exactly, we all are. To borrow the words of the modern poet:
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in” — Leonard Cohen, Anthem