Thinking about infertility, pregnancy, work, and feminism

This post is a bit rambley because I haven’t been able to put my thoughts together coherently yet but the basic idea is that women get massively screwed by our society’s dysfunctional notion of work-home split.  This isn’t a particularly novel idea but now is the first time I am really realizing how much it has already hurt me and will likely continue to do so.  Infertility, pregnancy, childcare – at every turn, the necessity for thinking of work and life as two separate categories means women are continuously loaded with invisible costs – extra burdens that don’t ‘count.’  And then we wonder why we earn 70 cents on the dollar.

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One of the things that has surprised me a lot about pregnancy is how difficult it has been.  Granted, most people don’t get hyperemesis, but morning sickness ain’t a picnic either and the sheer exhaustion of months 1-3 is beyond anything I anticipated.  I think that we have the attitude in American society that pregnancy is something you should do on your own time, and that part of being a lady in a power suit slugging it out with the guys and singing “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget you’re a man” is that she can pop out a baby without it affecting her productivity in the least.  There’s a weird confluence here of feminism (“I can do anything you can do better”), sexism (“You will be accepted as a person only if you don’t do anything particularly female”), and the capitalist attitude that a person’s worth is measured solely by how much they work.  Pregnancy becomes a kind of invisible cost that women have to pay with little recognition for how difficult it can be.  I haven’t even told work I am pregnant yet, so they have no idea why I am out sick; but then, if I did tell them, I expect the reaction would be, “why on earth are you making such a big thing out of being pregnant?”

Next week we have our 1st trimester screening and if the little one is still alive and doing OK then we will let our bosses know about the incoming baby.  And because of this I have been spending a lot of time thinking about how we are going to manage work when the little one has arrived.  Mr. Nishkanu and I both have fairly high-power, high-prestige jobs which we have spent a lot of effort and many years clawing our ways into.    Our work actually has quite a generous parental leave policy, but after that we will both be expected to return to the regular 50+ hour work week.  But if there is something that is crystal clear to me, it is that I do not want to have the life of the people I know who maintain their fancy careers by both continuing to work 40-50 hours a week and then cramming the kids into the time that is left over, never getting sleep, always being stressed, etc.  It is “bringing home the bacon and frying it up in a pan” all over again, i.e. you can have a family as long as it doesn’t get in the way of your productivity, and never mind the personal cost to you.  So it’s clear (in my opinion) that something is going to have to change, probably one or both of us is going to have to switch to part-time work.  Note: we can afford to live in our small town on one income, here it is more a question of the sadness of giving up a fabulous, hard-to-get job that you have trained half your life for.

Now I should mention that I am a card-carrying feminist of the “free to be, you and me” generation, and if there is one thing I know, it is that it would not be fair for me to be the one who ‘has to’ give up my career just because I am female.  Miraculously, Mr. Nishkanu is on the same page.  That is to say, he is not a card-carrying feminist, he is more action-implementing.  He is really committed to the idea that we split the ‘costs’ of childcare, pregnancy, infertility etc. as equitably as possible.  For example, he always accompanied me for the full two weeks of every out-of-town IVF cycle, even though he was technically only needed for one day for his deposit, so that he could provide me with emotional support (not to mention mental and organizational support when I was doped out of my mind on Follistim and friends).   As great as Mr. Nishkanu was, though, it was really clear that the costs to the two of us were not the same.  All the meds, the miscarriages, the emotional deeps hit me way harder than him.  And when I look at our careers now, I have to say… he made it further than I did in the last 5 years.  And when people compare how far we went, there are not many people who know that I did it with an incredible handicap, losing 6-8 weeks per year on infertility demon hell.

I was not open at work about my bazillion IVFs.  I disappeared semi-regularly for “health treatments” but I did not tell most of my colleagues what the nature of the treatments was.  Yes,  that was partly because I didn’t want to hear the stupid, unhelpful comments about “just relax” and “are you pregnant yet?”.  But honestly, there were particular colleagues I probably should have been more open with, but I was not, because I was quite certain that if they knew what I was going through to have a family they would have (a) had zero tolerance for the absences (b) decided that I was not sufficiently committed to the organization and (c) sabotaged my career.  As much as possible all my struggles with IVF were invisible.  Just don’t let it get in the way of work.  I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan…

So now I am researching options for how we will manage our careers + family.  And it is absolutely astonishing how the discussions revolve 95% around “should the woman stay at home or work?”  There is very, very little information out there about how to actually really make a 50/50 boy/girl split work.  And in talking to Mr. Nishkanu about this I get the strong impression that he is really, really clueless about what it is really like to have a kid.  Not that I know that much about it, but I know enough to know that his suggestion that I return to work fulltime+ directly after the baby is born and he will stay at home and take care of it for a few months – “you can just pump” – is, while sweetly meant, not a realistic solution.  I mean, I could do it if I had to, but why the heck would I just do it so as not to miss too much work?  And how much work am I really going to be able to do if I am up all night breast-feeding?

On top of that, he casually mentioned that he was thinking about taking on a major, totally optional assigment at work  which would have to be executed in the months after the baby was born.  “You’re saying no, right?” I said.  Mr. Nishkanu: “But it would be good for my career!”  I responded drily, “it would have been good for my career if I had worked the last 2 months.”  It really makes me wonder what he thinks that the next few years are going to be like, if we are really splitting the childcare 50/50.  And if I will continue to be the one carrying the invisible costs, despite the good intentions and the many acts to back them up.

I don’t know if I would have had the same attitude about this stuff if we had managed to get pregnant right away.  After 5 years of infertility I really, really, really value the opportunity to have a child and have a real sense of how precious this is.  I think if I hadn’t been through this whole hell, I might be more likely to find having a kid to be essentially another item to check on the todo list.  At the same time, I am in a different place in my career now, I have established myself and it is easier now to say “oh, who the heck cares” since a few years of not-very-intense work are not going to damage me that badly now, as they would have if I had had my kids earlier.  And, honestly, the massive stress and overwork of the last years of combining major overwork with IVFs, miscarriages, and co. have made me say… at some point, it’s gotta be enough.  Whether work likes it or not.

What do you think?  Is infertility an “invisible burden” for you?

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3 Comments »

  1. Ana said

    Well said. I just had to tell my boss at work about my pregnancy (way earlier than I wanted to) because I have had to take time off & cancel a much-anticipated overseas trip. not to mention, i’m only accomplishing about 50% of what I can usually get done. I got the “oh yeah, its tough, huh, the nausea and tiredness?”, but you are right—there are no concessions made in the workplace for pregnancy symptoms or fatigue—a “real woman” or a “serious employee” would tough it through & keep up the productivity. I really liked your line about being accepted as a person as long as you don’t do anything female! That really sums it up—to be thought of as equal, in terms of productivity, creativity, and intelligence, we have to hide or give up many of our uniquely feminine qualities—some of which, I’ve read, actual make for better leaders in the workforce.

    My boss asked me about plans for childcare after the baby—I haven’t made any yet—after so long waiting, it was a shock when it happened, and I’m trying not to think too far ahead—but I’ve been thinking about it all day and your post was very timely. Maybe I need to have a talk about this with the husband! In our household, my income is greater than his, so we will have to seriously think about the financial & other implications of whatever we choose.

  2. Eve said

    Oh man, hyperemesis? I know it well! I was EXTREMELY ill during my whole pregnancy with my son (had hyperemisis, got a kidney stone stuck, pre-term labor starting at 24weeks, bedrest until 36 weeks when little man arrived early)…and it was NOTHING like I expected. In fact, it was HORRIBLE…and I almost killed my hubby when he mentioned (albeit jokingly) after I was in the hospital for the UMPTEENTH time, “Well, you wanted this.”

    No one wants illness in pregnancy.

    Anyway, I’ll be honest that I HIGHLY underestimated the difficulty of career vs. childcare vs. sanity. The solution that we came up with was for me to work part-time (and luckily I have a career where I can do this) and use friends who were SAHM’s as a sitter for my son when he was an infant. Now that my son is a little older, I have a 17 year old watching him all summer and he goes to preschool in the fall. But, childcare is ALWAYS on my mind.

    In the long run…you CAN’T have it all. Sacrifices of some sort must be made. I have sacrifriced some time with my son for my own career and happiness. And we have sacrificed our finances for me to work only part-time. But my time with my son is SOOOOOO well-worth it. And I have no regrets.

  3. Interesting subject. For the longest time, I never felt ready to have children because I felt so ‘unarrived.’ I didn’t want to end up like my mother (talents gone to waste and too many children too early.) And I wasn’t secure in my career until I was well into my thirties. Then I married a jerk with whom having children was out of the question. Then (thank god) I found my DH and the rest is history. We knew early on we wanted children. And while I was still under the delusion that we’d somehow get pregnant with our own eggs, I often had thoughts about how this would affect my work. I imagined balancing childcare with work to be very difficult and possibly, annoying. That worried me a lot, and actually, probably played a role in how long it took us to get to conception with DE.

    Now that I’m pregnant… oh, how the tables have turned. I have lost a LOT of interest in work. To the point where I’m wondering if it will ever come back. I really enjoyed the work I do/did. I just don’t care about it very much right now. All I really want is for this pregnancy to work and to have a baby in December. I could honestly almost give a shit about the rest. I don’t know if this will change once I have a baby, but that’s how I feel right now. I work, but primarily existing clients. I’m not actively pursuing any big projects, and I won’t until I feel like it again. And sometimes I wonder if I ever really will.

    I never expected to feel this way. But there it is. I do not believe you can have it all. That is a huge myth that — much like ‘oh, you can have babies in your 40s’ was much pushed by feminists throughout the 70s, 80s and even the 90s. I am grateful to feminists for some things; in other areas, I think they seriously fucked up and this is one of them. Good childcare requires a great deal of commitment, time and energy. To think you can have both and do both well is great folly. I think it’s possible for women to work part time — and for some women, it’s a must to maintain sanity. But I think for others, motherhood becomes their primary focus. And there’s nothing wrong with that, either.

    I can’t totally relate to your situation because I’m self-employed. But I believe what you say about what would happen with your co-workers. One of the reasons I stay self-employed is because I cannot stand the shit that goes down in offices. I still have client shit I have to deal with, but it’s much easier to control.

    I think self-employment can be a god-send for working mothers, and possibly something you might consider as you figure out what is right for you and your husband. I hope you can find a solution that does not leave you feeling short-changed because that is not good either. It’s good you are thinking about this now, because that gives you both lots of time to consider your options and come up with some plans. I would suggest more than one, in the event that things do work the way you think they will. And, be open to nixing those plans and figuring out what works once you get there. Sound to me like you will. You are clearly a thoughtful and intelligent person and you’ll figure it out.

    Glad you’re feeling better!

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