Do you have any children?

The spouse of one of my co-workers asked me this last night.  It’s a bit of a loaded question, isn’t it?  I don’t fault her for it, it’s not like she dwelled on it when I said “no”.  But it is one of those things that makes me wonder how people in my position who had wanted kids must feel when it is asked.  It must be terrible.

My aunt, who is about 85, shared with me her own experiences with infertility way back in the 50s.  Backing up a bit, I should say that this is my father’s sister.  He has three.  None of them could have kids.  Between thyroid disease and/or endometriosis, they were trying to conceive in an era where I think the many different reasons for female fertility challenges were not at all well understood and where remedies were hard to come by.  I know that the first “test tube baby” was conceived within my lifetime.  It’s one of the first science news stories I remember being very aware of.  My paternal grandfather’s mother also struggled with “female problems”.   What started our discussion on this was that I participated in a genetic study on endometriosis.  They asked for an extensive family medical history and so I asked my aunt.  She was the eldest of the sibling set and was very aware of who had what. Once we had broken the silence on talking about it, she was able to share these anecdotes with me about her early adult life with this disease.  E.g., when she was first married, she told me, it didn’t take long before family and friends started calling her mother to ask why she hadn’t had kids or become pregnant yet.  Let that sink in.  You are a young but grown woman who is bright and who had wanted to continue her education beyond high school to become a teacher.  Your uptight Italian father said no, since he feels it is important for women to have babies and not to have jobs.  You wait, and finally you are married to your sweetheart, who has survived an extended stay in a Nazi prisoner camp and a bout of tuberculosis.   You are delighted that you and your beloved are together and married and you are excited about starting your family.  Months pass.  You start wondering what’s wrong, since you still are not showing signs of pregnancy.  You don’t really talk to anyone about it because people don’t do that back  then.  And then extended family and friends start calling YOUR MOM to ask about some very personal details of your life, your marriage, your intentions, your body.  Like there is something wrong with you, like you’re intentionally and stubbornly keeping yourself from conceiving.

Like my aunts, and their grandmother, I struggled with endometriosis from my adolescence.  I recall one particularly clueless doctor telling me that I probably would never be able to have kids.  My attitude then, and now, was “well good thing I don’t want any!”  And I didn’t, I truly never had.  As a young child, I had played with dolls but not baby dolls.  My dolls were projections of my conception of an adult me.  They had jobs and kitchens and cars.  They did not have families.  I remember playing dolls with the daughters of a family friend once, these girls had Barbie and Ken, and the play-time devolved into a screaming match between Barbie and Ken about who worked more and why they didn’t have time to take care of things around the home.  I recall Justine, the daughter closer to my age, bobbing Barbie up and down excitedly (the universal gesture for “the doll is talking”) and vocalizing Barbie’s increasing intolerance of Ken’s slothfulness.  “I work 100 hours a day, 8 days a week….” Barbie shrieked at one point to Ken, who was busy packing a bag and preparing a get away in the pink plastic sports car parked outside the Dream House.

I have had three surgeries for Endometriosis (02, 07, and 11), four if you count the scar tissue removal one this Spring.  I finally had had enough and said it’s time to get rid of the uterus.  This decision came after I’d been told that at my 07 surgery, there was evidence that the implants had worked their ways into the walls of my uterus.  Not the lining, the muscle tissue.  It was described as “enlarged and boggy”.  I referred to it as “old boggy” for years after.  In 11, I said goodbye to Old Boggy and had them take it out.  It has helped.  I remember researching the surgery in the months leading up to it, and finding a lot of chatter about the emotional impact of hysterectomy.  It irritated me for a while, mostly because I was like “god damn it, I want to know what HAPPENS.  Where do they put your ovaries?  What do they do with the ligaments and all that crap that used to hold your uterus in place?  I don’t give a crap about the loss of woman-hood.  Who the hell cares?  Old Boggy is not the seat of my gender identity!”  But thinking about my aunts, and thinking about friends I’ve known who really wanted a kid and struggled with conceiving or carrying a child made me realize that this probably is a big deal for a lot of women and the results of my internet searches were just reflecting that.

So I wonder, for those women, what it must be like to be at a party where two of the three married couples have young children who are doing all of the cute and/or annoying things that children do that draws adult attention, to be asked “do you have any children?”  It must suck.

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