Guilt, shame and body hate: What pressure does to young women with difficulty getting pregnant

While men are not immune to it, the burden of getting pregnant falls disproportionately on young women.
Guilt, shame and body hate: What pressure does to young women with difficulty getting pregnant
Guilt, shame and body hate: What pressure does to young women with difficulty getting pregnant
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Chennai-based Ananya* often recalls the pressure her friend Seema* was under to have children soon after she got married. Seema got married when she was in her early twenties, in the final year of college. And her in-laws insisted that she and her husband have a child as soon as possible.

“For the one year that Seema and her husband were together, they went to multiple doctors because they weren’t able to get pregnant. The doctors found nothing wrong with either one of them. It was an unexplained infertility,” Ananya narrates.

They even went to more than a few priests and pujaris, Ananya tells TNM, on the insistence of the husband’s parents. “Once, a priest prescribed to them what timings they should have sex,” Ananya says indignantly.

What truly wrecked Seema’s marriage was a pujari saying that Seema was infertile. “From then on, there was no convincing Seema’s mother-in-law otherwise. She refused to listen to Seema’s parents, or look at the multiple medical reports which said she was completely normal. And then one day, her in-laws just chucked her out of the house at midnight, and bolted the door,” Ananya says.

About 10 months later, Seema and her husband were formally separated. “And what’s funny is, they both remarried and now have children,” says Ananya, who Seema is still close friends with.

Seema’s story is by no means an isolated case. For many women who are infertile or have difficulty conceiving, such toxic blame and pressure to produce a child is an everyday affair. And while men are not entirely free of this, the burden falls disproportionately on women.

For Divya*, a 32-year-old HR professional, the pressure to have a second child has become so great that she dreads anyone else announcing news of pregnancy or childbirth in the family. “Every time someone’s pregnancy or delivery are talked about, the needle automatically points towards me, and how I am not giving my in-laws a second grandchild. How is it my fault if someone else is pregnant and I am not?” Divya asks.

Divya and her husband have a 7-year-old son. When he was three, Divya had a miscarriage which resulted in a surgery that removed one of her ovaries. The couple has been trying to have a second child for almost a year and a half now, but haven’t been successful.

“Each month when I get my period, my in-laws tell me to go to a gynecologist. I have begun to hate the words, ‘This month too?’ I have been through multiple checks and infertility tests. And we did get pregnant the second time before my miscarriage, so we know we’re not infertile,” Divya says.  “

“But we’re both 32 and it does get difficult as you get older. My gynecologist also told me that we’re worried for nothing, and can keep trying,” she explains.

Knowing this, however, does nothing to calm the doubts and fears Divya has about her body, thanks to the persistent questions about why she isn’t getting pregnant.

“It hurts a lot. It’s not something I can put into words. My in-laws don’t torture me or anything but it makes me feel bad that they want a second grandchild so badly, but I cannot give one to them. I wondered if something is wrong with me,” she confesses.

While Divya’s husband is supportive, the questions always come when he is not around, Divya says. “He is never asked the same questions as me. And while I can never get myself to think that something may be wrong with him. I feel very angry at my body sometimes,” she adds.

The stress in Divya’s voice is palpable as she says that the pressure has only been increasing as she and her husband are getting older. In Seema’s case too, Ananya suspects that she was too stressed out to have been unable to conceive.

Their doubts about the role stress is playing are not misplaced, says Dr Chitra Ramamurthy, a Bengaluru-based gynecologist. Asserting that it varies from case to case, she says that stress can be a major factor if a woman is having trouble conceiving. “The woman’s fallopian tubes have to relax, she has to have the interest in having sex, ideally,” she says.

She tells TNM that a number of women come to her saying that they cannot get pregnant and they are under a lot of pressure.

“I have seen that the pressure is definitely more on women. Not to say that men aren’t stressed or that it does not affect them – many men are unable to deposit their sperm samples because of it! But in many cases, it is assumed that the problem is with the woman. It is imperative however, to investigate both partners for infertility,” she insists.

Unlike Seema and Divya, in Jyoti’s* case, her parents or in-laws weren’t pressurising her to have children. However, everyone from their neighbours to acquaintances had something to say about the fact that she hadn’t become pregnant.

“I got married at 29, which by itself was ‘late’ by Indian standards. We started trying to get pregnant after a few months but it wasn’t happening. Our parents were concerned, but not too worried. It was the others who just got really nosy, really fast,” Jyoti says.

The 36-year-old was in the US for some time before returning to India in 2015. “There people wouldn’t butt in so much, but the self-doubt and guilt were too much. I didn’t have a job at the time so this was all I thought about, despite my husband telling me that there was nothing wrong with me,” she says.

Once they came back to India, though, the pressure to give everyone the ‘good news’ grew very quickly. “Once our landlady told us that since we were going to Mysuru, we should go to a temple and do a pooja because it would apparently help me get pregnant,” narrates Jyoti.

People at social gatherings, she adds, would constantly give her ‘tips’ on how to get pregnant, and advise her to start a family and not be too career-oriented.

But, thanks to the fact that her immediate family didn’t pressure her, Jyoti chose to smile and walk away from all the constant enquiries. “It is not my job to explain to people who are 50 or 60, or even others, that what they are doing is not helpful, no matter what they think. I did go through a lot of guilt and self-blame but justifying yourself is futile. Self-help is the best,” she says.

Now, after a failed IVF and failed embryo transfer, Jyoti is 19 weeks pregnant through IVF. But she and her husband haven’t shared the news with many people. “I don’t want more people nosing into our business. I’m scared that something will go wrong and then everyone will have something to say again. They will know when they know,” Jyoti asserts. 

(*Names changed on request)

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