Academic journal article Sociological Focus

"Oh, No, I'm Not Infertile": Culture, Support Groups, and the Infertile Identity

Academic journal article Sociological Focus

"Oh, No, I'm Not Infertile": Culture, Support Groups, and the Infertile Identity

Article excerpt

Using in-depth interviews with forty subfecund women, I explore how subfecundity affects a woman's sense of self. I examine the role that culture plays in the content of our identities, particularly in disrupted lives. I examine the role that culture, in particular the culture within a support group, plays in the content of infertile identities. I examine how some women come to see themselves as infertile while others do not, and how the women come to think about infertility in relation to the self. I employ theories of cultural sociology and identity to provide a framework for explaining the ways in which subfecund women draw on the cultures of support groups in reconstructing their selves in the face of subfecundity.

Difficulty conceiving a child often has a profound impact on the women who experience it. In the dominant North American culture the motherhood mandate is quite powerful. A woman's choice to have children takes place within a framework that already includes reproduction and motherhood as a woman's biological destiny (Imeson and McMurray 1996; Kozolanka 1989). When women are confronted with difficulty in conceiving or carrying a pregnancy to a live birth, the "normal" and "expected" progression of their lives is disrupted (Daly 1988).

In this article I address how women come to understand and explain the disruption to the self that difficulty conceiving and carrying a pregnancy to a live birth causes. Specifically, I examine the role that culture, in particular the culture within a support group, plays in the content of infertile identities. I examine how some women come to see themselves as infertile, while others do not and how the women come to think about infertility in relation to the self. I employ theories of cultural sociology and identity to provide a framework to explain the ways in which subfecund women draw on the cultures of subfecundity support groups in reconstructing their selves in the face of subfecundity. The women in this study have varying connections to infertility cultures, which have their own ideologies concerning infertility. I explore how a woman's connections to these cultures influence both whether subfecund women develop a sense of self as infertile and the processes involved in that transition.

CULTURE AND INFERTILE IDENTITIES

For the purposes of this paper, I distinguish between subfecundity and infertility. "Subfecundity" refers to the physical state of having difficulty conceiving and/or carrying a pregnancy to a live birth. "Infertility" refers to the identity associated with that physical state.1 All of the women who participated in this study were subfecund, but not all of the women saw themselves as infertile.2 Previous researchers have made similar distinctions as research has indicated that the subfecund often resist the label of infertile, because it suggests a level of finality they are uncomfortable with (Andrews, Abbey, and Halman 1991) or because it connotes something negative, that their bodies are somehow bad (Becker 2000).

Subfecund women face many inexorably linked ideologies in Western culture, including pronatalism, womanhood, and motherhood. Women often face a great deal of pressure to become mothers. It is generally assumed that women will become mothers; in fact, womanhood is often equated with motherhood (Gillespie 2003; Hays 1996; Ireland 1993). Although women have greater opportunities than ever before to seek life goals outside of motherhood, most women still see motherhood as an important part of their lives (Sandelowski 1993). Motherhood is seen in society as women's purpose in life, as mandatory for adult women (Jordan and Revenson 1999; Kirkley 2000; Parry 2005; Russo 1976). Conversely, women who do not become mothers are often viewed as deviant (Miall 1986; Parry 2005; Russo 1976).

While more and more women are choosing to remain childfree, this study is not about those women. The voluntarily childless woman, or even the woman who finds herself infertile but chooses not to pursue motherhood will presumably have very different experiences from those presented here. …

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