How Infertility Discussions Can Be Sexist

There is a memory from my teenage years that has stayed with me and cannot leave. I have no desire for it to leave either. In it, there was some sort of celebration happening in the church and prayers for those who desired children were being said.

I cannot remember if our pastor said “fruit of the womb” but what I do remember was that for the first time ever, a man came out amongst the women.

What struck me in a good way, was the fact that our pastor encouraged men who were on a fertility journey with their wives, to not think having children was something only the woman had to worry about. 

Truly, it is a memory I return to from time to time. It is a memory I revisit each time I need a reminder that even the burden of childcare and parenting must never rest solely on a woman’s shoulders.

In Nigeria and most African countries, children are not just a status symbol, but are also what make a marriage valid and for most people, are what ensure that one has a social safety net in old age. These views are indeed problematic. 

Children can grow up and leave aged parents and having children so as to make your marriage appear real is harmful and will show in how you treat the child when they are being less agreeable as teenagers.

But theory is one thing and the practical is quite another. For the reasons mentioned above and for personal choice, people will desire children.

Now, what happens when the burden of worrying about fertility rests solely on the shoulders of a woman? What happens when no one prays for men to come for the “fruit of the testes” and instead men can wiggle away from even going for hospital visits? 

How many women have had to carry the shame of being seen as “barren” when all the while, it is her husband who is impotent and is societally encouraged to see his presence as a gift to her? As a gift that must be revered at all times? 

How do we even adequately speak on things like family planning and paternity fraud if we do not factor in the sexist nature of infertility discussions? 

If a man decides that he wants to wait three years before having kids, how do we defend a wife who due to insane family pressure does something crazy like poking holes in a condom or lying about being on birth control? 

How can we speak truthfully on paternity fraud when a woman in a polygamous home is married to an impotent and unaware man whose previous wives all slept with separate men to give him the illusion that he was virile? Especially in a polygamous home where a wife’s inheritance rests solely on the children and particularly sons that she can birth? How do we discuss the sexism that occurs when a couple who had a daughter after ten years of trying are told that a son will definitely come too? 

Speaking with Glory, she explained that lack of support can see a woman become a shadow of herself in the search for children.

In her words: “An Aunt of mine was a shadow of herself because she had no child. I still remember one incident as vivid as the morning when she came to visit and she said she was told to stop eating okro soup as it does not aid conception. My Aunty was a very badass cook. I was so young but I remember feeling how everything felt so wrong and why my Aunty was the one in the marriage running from pillar to post, avoiding what to eat etc. She lost a lot in that process and to me the tragedy was her losing who she was in the process. 

One thing that still gladdens me till tomorrow is that my cousin’s wife put herself first and left him. They were facing fertility issues and she was at the forefront of everything. Even when they found out he had issues he would not do what needed to be done. She even reported to my dad and he tried to talk sense to him but no. One day she left him. Do you know the courage it took to let go of a marriage of less than 3 years in today’s society? She did. Last my dad spoke of her, he said she has a baby girl now and is remarried. I love it for her and I wish for her a lifetime of happiness.”

For Kehinde, she says that there needs to be more honest conversation regarding the pressure for people to have biological kids and the stigma of adopted kids.

To quote her: “People who want children should first understand that family is not only by blood. You want kids but you can’t produce one why not try adoption. Also they need to be able to honestly ask themselves if they truly want kids or they just want children they can endure to raise because they came out of their own vagina? 

That’s why adoption is hard most times for Nigerian women. They don’t think they can fully love a child that did not come out of their vagina. Also women need to start standing on business that having kids or not is not what completes a marriage. I won’t address men because they’re too privileged to even worry about not being able to have kids in their marriage cause the most part of it is always on the woman. Nigerian women need to start that 4B movement like Korean women. Men need to start taking women seriously.”

Reiterating the topic of adoption, Somkele*, a poet and journalist explained how she watched an adopted child get mistreated.

She said: “When I was still staying with my parents, one of our neighbors was looking for a child. She became a shadow of herself because of this. Her husband was with her throughout the process, but everyone could tell she really wanted a child. She opted to adopt in the long run and started treating this child like an egg. God, you could see how happy she was. How that child was like the apple of her eyes. I think when the child was five or so, she became pregnant. 

That’s how she changed towards this adopted boy. Started treating him in ways she didn’t used to. 

I was so angry at her. At the world. At the people who do not think that they can love a child wholly simply because they didn’t come out of our loins. I watched the boy become almost a house boy. Was running errands that he didn’t used to do before. His school was changed from a private to public school. Omo.”

Sonia, a Nigerian based mum, says that she doesn’t understand how the burden of looking for children is automatically placed on women with no room for assuming the man may be at fault.

To quote her: “I know how many times I’ve asked:  ‘Has he done the fertility tests/treatments?’ in cases of infertility that passed through my mom for counseling. The worst part is the shock and confusion I see on their faces when I ask. It’s like it’s such an unheard-of, novel idea. In this big 2024! Wives will be drinking suspicious herbs that clearly taste like the sins of politicians, and the husband hasn’t taken a single test.”

The reality is that more unions and relationships must be defined by values that mirror partnership.

More women who are on the journey towards having children must have support from their husbands and extended family as against stigma and bullying.

Even greater than this, men’s role in infertility must be actively represented in popular narratives surrounding the search for children and even more, women’s worth must not be tied to our ability to have children.

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