It’s impossible to avoid babies and children. Even if I were to become a recluse, ditch the smartphone, leave my laptop in a cupboard and shun TV, radio and newspapers, I can’t shield myself from them. Their cries and chirpy conversations would waft through my open windows as pram-pushing parents stroll by. Their joyful laughter while playing with their parents in the park would penetrate through my headphones. My young nephews would visit and break the silence with their boisterousness.
It’s impossible to escape them, especially when you’re Indian. Our culture puts parenthood on a pedestal as the ultimate symbol of success, so if you’re living a child-free existence, either by choice or otherwise, you’re often perceived as a failure. You could have an Oxbridge degree, a six-figure salary, be an active volunteer, be multilingual, have travelled extensively, run ultramarathons or own multiple homes; none of this matters if you’re married and don’t have children. Well, you get more leeway if you’re a doctor, lawyer, dentist, pharmacist or accountant, but only a little.
And women generally bear the brunt. In our patriarchal society, we’re raised to be “good girls”, which translates as being compliant, high academic achievers, avoiding distractions of the male variety until marriage, marrying “well” then bearing beautiful babies. But when life doesn’t pan out as planned, get ready to go into self-defence mode, especially if babies aren’t forthcoming. You’ll feel attacked when well-meaning aunties ask you why you don’t have kids yet, when they tell you to hurry up before your insides shrivel up, compare you to cousins who did the deed at the right time, and could advise you, and moan about modern women prioritising their own needs. Even if male factor infertility has been diagnosed, it’s assumed that the female is at fault.
In the UK, one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage while one in six couples struggle to conceive. However, when you’re dealing with baby loss and sub-fertility, you feel utterly alone. And abnormal and ashamed. When your body repeatedly refuses to do what nature intended and you chalk up one failed IVF cycle after another, an overwhelming sense of failure and guilt sit heavily on each shoulder. I know this because I’ve been an involuntary member of both groups for four years. Until we miscarried, I wasn’t even entirely sure whether I wanted children: I was worried about losing my independence and identity. But my elated reaction to that surprise natural pregnancy proved that the pressure to procreate had dampened my true desires.
I published my first post about our infertility experience on Mother’s Day 2019. Since I’ve been speaking openly about our difficulties, both online and offline, I’ve noticed a sea change in how the older generations broach the B word. The more I elaborate on our emotions and discuss the exhausting IVF process in detail, the more sensitive their comments and questions. That said, no-one has ever asked my husband about his feelings, reinforcing the stereotype that men must be strong and supportive.
As well as voicing the feelings of fellow South Asians who are suffering in silence, I’m determined to use my experience to educate our elders. When fertility-related stigmas are so deeply rooted in our cultures, opinions won’t change overnight, and some may never change at all.
But this increased sensitivity and empathy isn’t ever-present, so my self-defence mechanism has evolved into one of self-preservation. Rare is the day that I don’t hear or see pregnancy or birth announcements over the phone, in person, on social media, by DM or in a WhatsApp group, often followed by photos of scans, bumps, new-borns and proud parents, all swiftly deleted from my mobile. I struggle to express my happiness for them when all we have is frustration, sadness, jealousy and disappointment. A friend once lamented how nice it’d be to have a pleasurable evening with your partner, fall pregnant and have a baby, all for free. Having administered countless injections, inserted pessaries and ingested pills for years, with only bruises, bills and a broken heart to show for it, that thought frequently crosses my mind. I smile weakly as people who are familiar with our predicament moan about having their kids at home during lockdown while we undergo invasive and expensive treatment to get close to that longed-for life.
Infertility can be a lonely experience, but it doesn’t have to be. If you can’t or don’t want to talk to anyone in your entourage, there are plenty of support networks and resources available, including the wonderful TTC community (Trying To Conceive) on Instagram, the HFEA and Fertility Network UK. While fertility data and marketing material is very white-centric, the growing number of Instagram profiles and articles by Indians experiencing infertility demonstrates that more of us are now speaking out to eradicate the shame.
Seetal Savla, aka SavlaFaire, is a former French translator-turned-digital marketeer. She currently spends her weekdays planning and executing exciting social media and PR strategies for a wide range of clients, from household food brands to global real estate companies. When she’s not in the office, she can be found exploring the London dining scene, interviewing accomplished British and international chefs for her ‘Spotlight on Chefs’ series or sharing her emotional experience of infertility, all of which is enthusiastically documented on her food and lifestyle blog SavlaFaire and social media channels. She has recently written for HuffPost, NetMums and the Fertility Help Hub, as well as featuring on BBC radio and several food and fertility podcasts (Cheftimony and To Baby or
Not To Baby (Part 1 and Part 2).