The number of books I’ve read has stagnated over the last couple of years. I can blame the pandemic and very young kids, but those are no longer an excuse, or I don’t want them to be. This year I’ve kickstarted my reading with a couple of good books, one of which is (M)otherhood by Pragya Agarwal. She kindly sent over a copy for me via her publishers Canongate Books to read in late December, and it spoke to me on so many levels I knew I wanted to pen some thoughts down here.
First of all, this is a brave book, as Elif Shafak has also said on the cover. It is definitely a memoir, but it weaves facts, politics and history through each chapter in a way that you’re never completely sure what you’re reading. I think that’s a plus. My mind was forced to switch gears so many times I found myself paying a lot of attention to what could otherwise be very dry facts – and I say this as a feminist and someone who’s also spent a number of years quoting the state of women on social media. But taking myself out of my shoes, I think anyone interested in why women’s lives are the way it is, will find this a good read, activism notwithstanding.
Another reason I found this book interesting is that it’s written by a South Asian woman. The book is about becoming a mother, the mental anguish of abortion, and the trials of secondary infertility, IVF and surrogacy – which are all important issues that are rarely spoken about in the media by South Asian women. I know this, because as a South Asian woman I went through IVF myself – and for nearly a decade it dictated my life and impacted my mental wellbeing. During that time, I looked for books, articles, blog posts by women like me talking about the trials of infertility, and most often I came up with nothing. I found the odd blog or two and a few articles yes, but nothing that spoke to me the way this book has.
Pragya writes with no judgement, and with full acceptance of her lack of insight into, for example, the lived experience of trans parents. She is upfront about the lack of existing research for her to highlight the parenting experiences of trans people in the book in as much detail as she would have liked, but by the end of the book I found that she had in fact given me a lot of background and history to some of the problems they face with fertility as well.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in strong, human, personal and well-researched writing about all the issues I mentioned above. You won’t regret it.
Here are some of my favourite quotes and passages. I’m bookmarking them here for when I want to come back to them later:
We clutch on desperately to stories of those who tried something that worked. Lucky them. We don’t hear of those who tried acupuncture for months on end and it never did anything for them. We don’t hear of people who had kale juice and a specific diet but never saw the seeds grow. Perhaps we don’t want to hear of these stories because what we want most is hope. Hope that something will work, that there is a way around the biological reality, and that the body and mind can be twisted and turned and coaxed into pliability. Most of all we want to believe that it all really works out in the end.
It wasn’t as much the news or the way it was delivered but the utter disbelief that for someone, I wasn’t worthy of basic human consideration and sensitivity. Honesty is the best policy, but a cushion would have helped, a furry cocoon to engulf me while I was dealt this blow.
In ancient Greek medical vocabulary, as early as the fourth or fifth century BC, where we first start seeing a discussion of infertility, the two main terms were aphoros and atokos, both negative adjectives referring to the absence of a productive bearing; both applied only to women. Rebecca Flemming, fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, in her 2013 paper discusses how even as land and trees can be aphoros – barren or non-fruit bearing – and money can be atokos – if it does not bring forth profit – men are neither. This gendering of reproductive vocabulary has continued: ‘infertile’ and ‘sterile’ can be used for both women and men, but ‘barren’ is never used for men.
Having grown up in a world where women are ‘the Second Sex’, still considered the ‘other’ with a man still being the default, I’ve become accustomed to assigning value to my success. Failure has not been a part of my vocabulary, because I did not have the luxury or the freedom to fail. Every failure, even the tiniest one, is hugely personal. This failure to conceive is something I cannot share with anyone, not even my own mother. I have pretended to be strong for so long, with that unwavering sense of reliability and solidity that others fall back on, that I cannot share my hopelessness and desperation, and my crushing sense of despair with anyone, not even those closest to me. Infertility is a social curse, to be pitied, and abhorred, rarely to be empathised with. In this journey, I am alone. Not even my husband understands my acute sense of failure, and he watches, hopelessly. Even though we were in this together, me and him, I have never felt lonelier. It is the grief that should bind us, but I don’t know if he is grieving. He does not say. I wish he would. (My note: She could have literally been describing me here. My feelings and experiences have never felt so validated.)
Somehow within the proclamations of progress made over the years, the needs of those who use this technology the most have been sidelined. Even as the test is touted as a feminist technology, empowering women, giving them choice, freedom and clarity, it remains ambiguous. There has not been as much research on home pregnancy tests as there has in technological apps for fertility. This is a classic case of ‘technological somnambulism’, a technology that society adopts without due consideration, much like while sleepwalking. Home pregnancy tests have changed so much of how we live and how we experience the pain, grief, loss and jubilation of being pregnant – or not. We, as a society, are still deciding what the criteria for a feminist technology would look like, and we don’t have very clear answers just yet. The way these tests are marketed, packaged, bought and used shows us that they are not feminist. Far from it. (My note: This chapter, on pregnancy and testing, was one of the most interesting for me. I’d experienced so much of it, but hadn’t really thought about all the points that Pragya made. It really is an unfeminist technology, for what it purports to be).
I love being a mother, most of the time. And I am okay with it. But I want to feel and believe that I can design my motherhood the way I want to. My motherhood does not have to prove anything to anyone. Not being a mother or being one does not shape my femininity or my value to society.
You can buy (M)otherhood: On the choices of being a woman from Bookshop here. The paperback was released this month, January 2022.
P.S: Can I also say how much I absolutely love the cover design!