Remember a little while ago, I talked about wanting to go back to school pursue my master's degree? And I said I wanted to focus on an education that somehow contributed to the IF community? Well, this month I took my first steps toward that goal and began an undergrad class that I need as a prereq for my grad work. And for my first assignment, I did just what I had hoped to and focused my research on the IF community! I know this is crazy geeky to admit, but I really had fun writing this paper and genuinely enjoy this class in general. I mentioned sharing it on my blog, which some of you were excited about, so now that it has been turned in and graded (I got an A!) here it is! Keep in mind, I was working within the confines of an assignment, so this is not comprehensive. Honestly, there were so many more aspects I wanted to tackle and I had all the research to do it, but it couldn't be longer than 2 pages, so I had to keep a narrower focus. Despite the fun I had researching and writing this sociological literary review on infertility's effect on identity, it might still read as dull for some of you, so if you just skim or decide to pass on reading it altogether, I won't be offended. I think it is a fascinating subject though and I would love to learn more and eventually see the issues surrounding infertility more incorporated in academia. So without further adieu:
The Effect Of Infertility on Gender and Identity
Most young men and women approach adulthood with the assumption that they will become parents (Peterson et al 2006). While career and life goals constantly shift throughout childhood and adolescence, the social expectation that girls and boys grow up to become moms and dads does not waver and many young children spend their time imagining what it will be like to become a parent (Ulrich and Weatherall 2000). When this vision does not come to fruition naturally and easily, the resulting shift in one's lifelong understanding of identity can be monumental. Research indicates that both men and women facing infertility or involuntary childlessness undergo dramatic shifts in identity, gender roles and self-definition as a result of their experiences.
Numerous studies on the impact of infertility have shown the negative effects the condition can have on identity and sense of self. Nearly every study conducted found a correlation between the experience of infertility and feelings of grief, uncertainty, loss of control and personal failure ( Zucker 1999; Webb and Daniluk 1999). In a study of women facing various reproductive difficulties, Zucker (1999) noted that women experiencing infertility more often reported feelings of failure and uncertainty than the other, non-infertile, groups. These feelings are not exclusive to women, as Webb and Daniluk (1999) observed that the men in their study experienced a deep sense of grief, powerlessness, loss of control and personal inadequacy as a result of infertility. This loss of identity and control in one's life is not limited to the area of fertility. Quite often this sense of failure and powerlessness pervades into every aspect of one's life as a result of the feeling of lost control over one's own body and reproductive choices (Letherby 2002).
More profound than this general sense of loss and personal failure, is the rate at which both men and women feel like failures in their respective gender roles. Women, for instance, feel pressured by an expectation of motherhood and due to this socially constructed ideal of women as mothers often feel that they have failed as women if they become involuntarily childless (Ulrich and Weatherall 2000). Letherby's studies show that it is often considered socially unacceptable for women to be childless or to live as “non-mothers” and therefore these women experience social stigma and the feeling of not being “real” women (1999 and 2002). Similarly, men report feeling pressure from family, friends and society to become fathers and perceive an assault on their masculinity if they are confronted with infertility (Webb and Daniluk 1999). This perceived loss of manhood due to infertility can be so pervasive that some men in the study by Webb and Daniluk (1999) attempted to prove their masculinity through extra-marital affairs or “super-jock” behavior. Even men who did not become hyper-masculine in the study, still reported the desire to conform to traditional male gender roles to be “strong” and not share their pain or emotions with anyone else when first confronted with their infertility. The prevailing theory on behaviors such as this, is that men and women when faced with threats to their identity or sense of self control, seek to compensate these feelings by exerting more control in other areas of their lives or reaffirming gender roles in alternative ways (Zucker 1999; Webb and Daniluk 1999). Studies on the differences in coping mechanisms between men and women facing infertility demonstrate this by showing that both genders initially embrace coping methods traditionally associated with their gender, such as seeking social support for women and distancing or avoidance for men (Peterson et al 2006).
Ultimately however, the effects of infertility on identity as it relates to gender roles proves to be transformative rather than merely negative. As a result of these feelings of failure, both men and women are forced to reconstruct and redefine what it is to be a man or a woman. They inevitably learn to separate their sense of femininity and masculinity from their reproductive abilities and develop of sense of self-worth that is not tied to their fertility (Webb and Daniluk 1999). This redefinition of gender roles in response to infertility is shown to provide great emotional benefit to both husbands and wives, as it allows both partners to be more actively involved in treatment and to better share the experience (Peterson et al 2006). Men especially seem to benefit from the reconstruction of gender roles and research shows the process allows men to feel more comfortable expressing aspects of their personalities traditionally assigned to female roles such as compassion, empathy, communication and connectedness. These men report feeling changed in positive ways that not only strengthen their marriages and families but their sense of self as well, as they feel unburdened from strict gender role expectations and free to live “lives that more fully reflect their complete humanity” (Webb and Daniluk 1999:22). Women also are shown to utilize education and other resources in order to cope with infertility's negative experiences and draw positive effects from them (Zucker 1999). Many women report finding peace with infertility by challenging the conventional definitions of 'mother' as well as the notion that motherhood is a woman's only valuable contribution to society (Ulrich and Weatherall 2000). It can be argued that in redefining their own womanhood, these women resist being reduced to gender stereotypes and demand that society recognize their multi-faceted existence. It is important to note however, that transitions in identity are not one-dimensional nor do they occur in a linear fashion. Many subjects report feeling negative emotions and positive shifts simultaneously (Letherby 2002), suggesting that infertility's effect on the self is layered and complex.
It is also important to be aware of the limitations of current studies conducted on infertility as it relates to identity as well as the limitations on studies of infertility as a whole. Nearly all of the research in this area has been conducted on predominately female subjects who are white, heterosexual, married and middle/upper class (Ulrich and Weatherall 2000; Letherby 2002; Peterson et al 2006). This area of research may greatly benefit from more inclusive studies incorporating the experiences of homosexual couples, diverse races, lower income groups and single persons identifying as infertile (Ulrich and Weatherall 2000; Letherby 2002). It should also be noted that a large majority of research subjects have undergone medical treatment and/or determined a resolution for their infertility. Very little research has been done on the millions of men and women experiencing infertility who never seek conventional treatment, due in large part to the difficulty in locating willing research participants (Letherby 1999).
Despite these limitations, it is clear in reviewing the current literature that the social condition of involuntary childlessness has a profound effect on the gender roles, self-definition and identity of those who experience it. As is clearly shown by these studies, transitions in identity are often multidimensional and pervasive into all areas of life. Perhaps the most intriguing example of this is seen in the progression of identity. As argued by Ulrich and Weatherall (2000) and Letherby (2002), although initial self-perception may involve failure or inadequacy, these men and women ultimately realize that in facing the grief, loss and pain of their infertility, they are not passive victims of their condition but instead active survivors. Continued study on the process of re-constructing gender, identity and most significantly survivor status by those experiencing involuntary childlessness can do much to provide guidance, support and social acceptance to the more than 7 million people in the U.S. faced with infertility.
Letherby, Gayle. 1999. “Other Than Mother and Mothers As Others: the experience of motherhood and non-motherhood in relation to infertility and involuntary childlessness.” Women's Studies International Forum 22(3): 359-372.
Letherby, Gayle. 2002. “Challenging Dominant Discourses: identity and change and the experience of ‘infertility’ and ‘involuntary childlessness.” Journal of Gender Studies 11(3): 277-288.
Peterson, D.B., C.R. Newton, K.H. Rosen, and G.E. Skaggs. 2006. “Gender differences in how men and women who are referred for IVF cope with infertility stress.” Human Reproduction 21(9): 2443-2449.
Ulrich, Miriam and Ann Weatherall. 2000. “Motherhood and Infertility: Viewing Motherhood Through the Lens of Infertility.” Feminism and Psychology 10(3): 323-336.
Webb, Russell E. and Judith C. Daniluk. 1999. “End of the Line: Infertile Men's Experiences of Being Unable to Produce a Child.” Men and Masculinities 2(1): 6-25.
Zucker, Alyssa N. 1999. “The Psychological Impact of Reproductive Difficulties on Women's Lives.” Sex Roles 40(9/10): 767-786.
P.S. If you haven't already, and you feel so inclined, please don't forget to stop by Resolve to read and vote for this year's Hope Award for Best Blog! Thank you! http://resolve.org/vote