Childfreedom, subfertility, and womanhood

Polycystic Ovary

Left: What my ovaries look like.

I am a woman with two wonky ovaries and no desire to make babies.

No part of that sentence renders the first four words untrue.

I have childfree friends and friends who have polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). To my knowledge, I’m the only person I know of whom both can be said. But there’s one thing my childfree lady friends and my cyster friends sometimes say: “I feel broken.” Because society binds womanhood to maternity so strongly as to conflate the two. To be a woman is to be a mother, we’re told. You are the contents of your uterus. To fail to replicate your DNA is to fail as a woman.

Happily, I am free of that notion. I don’t feel broken at all, and I’ve never felt broken for not wanting children. I know plenty of older women who have led fulfilling lives without taking care of children, so I’ve always seen that as a valid option.

You get questions, though.

“So you want to adopt?” I used to skirt the babies question by mentioning my subfertility (NOTE: while PCOS is one of the leading causes of infertility in women, it is not a reproductive death sentence. Many women with PCOS can get pregnant through medical interventions). This strategy backfired for a big reason: my ovaries aren’t the reason I don’t want kids. I don’t want kids because I’ve never been interested in having them.

But wanting kids is assumed to be the default, so people ask me if I’m ever going to adopt. Nope. I think adoption is a beautiful choice for those who have the resources and the emotional fortitude to navigate the system, but it’s not my choice. I don’t want to be responsible for a helpless human being. That crosses off both adoption and reproduction.

But there’s something interesting about being both childfree and subfertile, and to move between both communities. There’s a conclusion I’ve come to from being involved in these spaces:

The assumption that all women will have children hurts people.

It hurts the subfertile and the infertile because many of them want nothing more than to have children, but are being held back by their own bodies. It often makes them feel physically broken, inadequate, undesirable. I encounter these confessions on a frequent basis, being part of the PCOS community, and it’s heartbreaking.

It hurts the childfree because it invalidates our choices, making many women feel like they are socially “broken” or somehow flawed, inadequate. Many people, when they find out a person is childfree, will respond by saying, “But you would make a great parent,” and the implication behind that is that the childfree choice is one derived by inadequacy at parenthood. Maybe that’s the case — one of the many reasons I don’t want to parent is that my high anxiety would likely inflict damage not only upon my potential progeny, but upon myself — but childfreedom is a choice based on preferences, not an obligation based on inadequacy.

Here’s my Advanced Etiquette takeaway: don’t inquire about someone’s family plans unless they bring it up. It can be a painful topic for the subfertile, the infertile, and the childfree.

Of course, men are hurt by the expectation that they must reproduce, as well, but I’m writing from the lived experience of a woman with less-than-functional womanparts. I welcome any childfree or subfertile person — of any gender — to share their experiences in the comments!


Advanced etiquette: Don’t comment on someone’s weight loss (unless they ask you to)

A wheel of brie, beset with sunflower seeds, framed by gorgeous pink spirals of prosciutto and mozzarella

Did weight gain stop me from eating ALL THE BIRTHDAY PROSCIUTTO? No. Not even briefly.

It’s very tempting, even socially expected, to reward somebody’s recent weight loss with a compliment, or at least an audible observation. But here’s something new to try: don’t.

My radical notion? Complimenting someone’s weight loss, at least unsolicited, is as invasive as asking if they’re pregnant — and I’ve written about the pregnant thing before.

A lot of people have been commenting on my weight loss recently. This is ironic for three reasons:

  • I regularly blog about fat acceptance
  • I haven’t lost weight in over half a year
  • I’m actually gaining weight

You heard that right, cats and kittens: I have gained weight this past month. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 lbs. Without changing how I eat! This is something that happens. It could be hormones, it could be a change in my metabolism, it could be PCOS. Who knows.

Still, someone who hasn’t seen me in months would still see a thinner me than what they’re used to, so it’s understandable that they don’t know I’ve recently packed on a few. However, if I were really cruel, the exchange could go thus:

Well-intentioned person: Hey Natty! You’re looking quite svelte! You must have lost a ton of weight!

Me: THANKS FOR REMINDING ME, I ACTUALLY JUST GAINED WEIGHT. *hysterical sobs ensue* You know, I better get used to these compliments on my figure WHILE THEY LAST. I hope you still love me. Please don’t stop loving me just because I’m getting fat again. *blows nose* FUCK, I KNEW this would happen. 95% of people who lose weight gain it back. I’m fucked.

Well-intentioned person: …

Me: Thank god I only buy waterproof mascara.

So I actually have enough restraint not to pull such hysterics, however amusing they might be, but seriously. Complimenting someone’s weight loss can go wrong in all sorts of ways. Here are just three:

  • It’s a conditional compliment on what is likely a temporary state. Bodies change. When you fawn over somebody’s new thinness, you are saying, “This is a new, superior state.” Then, if and when they gain the weight back, they have lost that feather you put in their cap. It can make somebody, especially somebody with body issues, very anxious. That said, if somebody makes it clear that they want positive feedback for their weight loss, you can frame it thus: “I have always thought you were beautiful, and it looks like you’re achieving your goals, too. Kudos.” No value judgments, no unsolicited feedback.
  • Not everyone who loses weight wants to. Don’t put yourself in the awkward situation of saying, “Oh man, you look so great! Look how thin you are! What’s your secret?” only to hear one of the following responses: “Chemotherapy.” “Crohn’s disease.” “Anorexia nervosa.”
  • It’s kind of weird to comment on other people’s bodies to begin with. Body auditing, even when it is positive, is still rude at worst and kind of weird at best. I have friends I’m close enough to for them to say, for example, “Holy crap, Nat, your booty should win a blue ribbon at the county fair.” But statistically, you’re probably not one of them.

Bodies are highly personal, highly complex things. They’re not just things we own, they’re things we are. So try withholding comment, and just let people be people.

And eat all the prosciutto. Always eat all the prosciutto.