(In)fertility and the Media: ​Representations of Infertility

Curator's Note

(In)fertility and the Media:
Representations of Infertility

Womanhood as motherhood
Motherhood has long been referred to as a ‘natural’ part of a woman’s life. Indeed, we are reminded that having children is an essential stage of life for most people (Kraaij et al 2009). This pronatal stance is picked up in the entertainment landscape as media texts have a habit of offering pregnancy, new motherhood or the promise of a maternal outcome at series or filmic closure (Hosey 2019). While fictional characters diagnosed with infertility ‘are portrayed as incomplete’ until they fulfil a maternal role (Le Vay 2019), so too, contemporary society sends the message that ‘regardless of a woman’s goals or accomplishments’ she must become a mother ‘in order to be truly fulfilled’ (Le Vay 2019). Society has long judged ‘women on their ability or desire to procreate’ (Striff 2005), and whether a women becomes a mother or otherwise, motherhood is said to be ‘central to the ways in which they are defined by others and to their perceptions of themselves’ (Phoenix and Woollett 1991). In short, we live in a pronatal culture whereby women who are unable to get pregnant or stay pregnant are devalued, stigmatized and presented as failing to adhere to ‘acceptable boundaries of "proper" womanhood’ (Edge 2015). As I have noted elsewhere, women who choose not to mother may struggle against reductive definitions of womanhood as motherhood as they circulate in contemporary society, while women affected by infertility are left to navigate the ‘shame and stigma’ that is said to follow a diagnosis (Feasey 2019). A sole but nonetheless powerful voice makes it clear that an infertility diagnoses is experienced ‘as a loss of … womanhood’ (Bronstein and Knoll 2015).

Ill-informed about infertility
Contemporary statistics make it clear that around one in seven couples may have difficulty conceiving in the UK (NHS 2018a) and one in eight in the US (Resolve 2018a), with between 50 and 80 million couples worldwide affected by fertility problems (WHO 2018a, United Nations 2015). And yet, women, couples and families appear ill-informed about their fertility in general, and the reality of age-related infertility in particular. A recent survey conducted by the British Fertility Society among 16 to 24-year olds ‘found that young people today have a largely inaccurate understanding of how the fertility life cycle works. This is likely to be one of the key reasons why infertility and sub-fertility are now considered to be a major public health issue by the World Health Organisation’ (British Fertility Society 2018a, 2018b). In her work on women’s health, Danielle Mazza argues that women are ill-informed about the impact of age on fertility because ‘88% of women overestimated by 5-10 years the age at which fertility begins to decline’ (Mazza 2011, Madsen 2003). More surprisingly perhaps is the fact that ‘18 percent of women aged over 35 seeking assisted reproductive’ support were also unaware of the impact of age on fertility (Mazza 2011, Hammarberg and Clarke 2005, Nargund cited in Adams 2015). Moreover, the findings from a recent survey based on women who had spoken to their medical provider about fertility discovered that ‘fewer than 50 percent of participants could correctly answer seven out of ten basic questions’ relating to their fertility. The findings suggested that women were ‘wrong most often about … how much fertility declines at various ages’ (Shapiro 2012). While there remains a stark difference between medical fact and common misconception as it relates to infertility, for women to be able ‘to plan the timing of births together with other important life decisions such as education’ they need to be aware of the fact that the risk of infertility increases with age (Lampi 2008). And for the majority of women surveyed, ‘the media is the most common information channel’ on the topic in question (Lampi 2008). Women are ill-informed about their infertility, in part because private fertility clinics give many women hope that they could become mothers at any age while hiding the low chances for success and in part because the media offers only a partial representation of women affected by an infertility diagnosis[1].

Infertility as family building
There is a myriad of writing on the physical, logistical and financial experiences of living with and through infertility, be it first-person pathographies, self-help literature or the growing blogosphere[2] (Indichova 2001, Vargo and Regan 2006, Scully 2014a, Scully 2014b, Selby 2015).

I use the phrase ‘living through’ infertility due to the fact that these confessionals rarely produce stories about living with infertility, without children. Rather, these first-person accounts are routinely about overcoming infertility. With this in mind, I would suggest that the term infertility author be reframed and reinterpreted as writing on and about family building or family extension. When Julie Selby penned Infertility Insanity (2016), her book length guide through infertility, she offers something akin to a health warning:

if you are going through infertility and do not want to hear yet another story with a happy ending, you should stop here. I totally get it. I was one of the lucky ones (Selby 2015).

Although authors are candid about the devastation that infertility has on their domestic and working lives, the fact that that these confessional writings end with a happy, healthy newborn encourages readers to think of the physical, logistical and emotional pain and heartache as worthwhile maternal sacrifices.

Likewise, infertility bloggers should routinely be reconsidered as family building bloggers because rather than document the various ways in which they come to terms with their diagnosis, they more routinely form a shared consensus in giving voice to the public performance of fertility treatments, a public performance of pain and endurance, that ends with a much-anticipated final maternal post[3].  After all, we are living through a time when emerging treatments and technologies appear to suggest that ‘everyone can have a child’ and ‘that it is just a matter of commitment and will’ (Korolczuk 2014).

Long running family building blogs that do not offer a predictable pro-natal happy ending are few and far between, and those that choose to create a fulfilling life without children are even rarer again (Feasey 2019). Although family building on the back of an infertility diagnosis is difficult, there is a wealth of online and print materials available to support those women who have experienced the pain and heartache that accompanies that journey to motherhood. The more significant concern here is for those women who are either uninterested in third party or assisted reproductive support, or those looking to end treatment before successfully creating the desired family unit.

As I have noted in my work on infertility and the media, the support on offer in family building blogs is restricted to a very specific audience, namely, those who seek out medical help, and do not stop treatment until a successful birth outcome has been reached. Women affected by an infertility diagnosis who do not take this route might look to these online diaries for comfort and camaraderie; only to find themselves judged, isolated and found wanting – twice over (Feasey 2019).




Adams, Stephen. 2015. NHS Chief Warns Women Not to Wait until 30 to Have Baby as Country Faces a Fertility Timebomb. The Mail on Sunday. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3104023/NHS-chief-warns-women-not-wait-30-baby-country-faces-fertility-timebomb.html. Accessed 12/04/2019.

British Fertility Society. 2018a. Modern Families Education Project. British Fertility Society. Available at: https://britishfertilitysociety.org.uk/fei/#link5. Accessed 12/04/2019.

British Fertility Society. 2018b. Fertility Fest - The Modern Families Project. British Fertility Society. https://www.fertilityfest.com/the-modern-families-projectAccessed 12/04/2019.

Bronstein, Jenny and Knoll, Maria. 2015. Blogging Motivations of Women Suffering from Infertility. Information Research, 20:2. http://www.informationr.net/ir/20-2/paper669.html#.WpAK1mZFnVo. Accessed 12/04/2019.

Edge, Brooke. 2015. Barren or Bountiful?Analysis of Cultural Values in Popular Media Representations of Infertility’ PhD Dissertation, University of Colorado.Available at: https://scholar.colorado.edu/jour_gradetds/25/. Accessed 12/04/2019.

Feasey, Rebecca (2019) Infertility and Non-Traditional Family Building: From Assisted Reproduction to Adoption in the Media. London: Palgrave macmillan.

Feasey, Rebecca (2014) ‘From Heartache to Happiness: The Codes, Conventions and Cliches of the 40-something Celebrity Infertility Story’ Mamsie: Mapping Maternal Subjectivities, Identities and Ethics. Available: http://mamsie.org/2014/11/10/from-heartache-to-happiness-the-codes-conventions-and-cliches-of-the-40-something-celebrity-infertility-story/

Hammarberg, Karin and Clarke, VE. 2005. "Reasons for Delaying Childbearing - A Survey of Women aged over 35 Years Seeking Assisted Reproductive Technology." Australian Family Physician 34(3): 187-188.

Hepworth, Rosemary. 2015. "Infertility Blogging, Body, and the Avatar." In Feminist Erasures: Challenging Backlash Culture, edited by Kumarini Silva and Kaitlynn Mendes, 198-218. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Indichova Julia. 2001. Inconceivable: A Woman’s Triumph Over Despair and Statistics. New York: Broadway Books.

Korolczuk, Elzbieta. 2014. "Terms of Engagement: Re-Defining Identity and Infertility On-line." Culture Unbound 6: 431-449.

Lampi, Elina. 2008. "What Do Friends and the Media Tell Us? How Different Information Channels Affect Women’s Risk Perceptions of Age-related Infertility." Working Papers in Economics: School of Business, Economic and Law, University of Gothenburg: 246: 1-24.

Le Vay, Lulu. 2019. Surrogacy and the Reproduction of Normative Family on TV. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Madsen, Pamela. 2003. Just the Facts, Ma’am: Coming Clean about Fertility." Fertility and Sterility 80(4): 27-29.

Mazza, Danielle. 2011. Women's Health in General Practice - 2nd Edition. Chatswood: Churchill Livingstone.

Mulkay, Michael. 2010. The Embryo Research Debate: Science and the Politics of Reproduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

NHS. 2018a. Overview: Infertility. NHS. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/infertility/. Accessed 12/04/2019.

Phoenix, Ann and Woollett, Anne. 1991. "Motherhood: Social Construction, Politics and Psychology." In Motherhood, Meanings, Practices and Ideologies, edited by Ann Phoenix and Anne Woollett, 13-27. London: Sage.

Purdie, Jennifer. 2017. The Public Pain of Announcing Your Miscarriage on Facebook. Broadly. https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/3k8b8k/the-public-pain-of-announcing-your-miscarriage-on-facebook. Accessed 12/04/2019.

Resolve. 2018. Fast Facts: Who Has Infertility. Resolve: The National Infertility Association. https://resolve.org/infertility-101/what-is-infertility/fast-facts/. Accessed 12/04/2019.

Scully, Anne-Marie. 2014a. Motherhoodwinked: An Infertility Memoir. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

Scully, Anne-Marie. 2014b. Five Million Born: An IVF Companion Guide. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Selby, Julie. 2015. Infertility Insanity: When Sheer Hope (and Google) are the Only Options Left. Canada: Influence Publishing.

Shapiro, Connie. 2012. Eventual Mons-To-Be: Heads Up! Hopefully Yours, Connie. http://connieshapiro13.blogspot.com. Accessed 12/04/2019.

Sterling, Evelina. 2013. From No Hope to Fertile Dreams: Procreative Technologies, Popular Media, and the Culture of Infertility.PhD Dissertation, Georgia State University. https://scholarworks.gsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1069&context=sociology_diss. Accessed 12/04/2019.

Striff, Erin. 2005. Infertile Me: The Public Performance of Fertility Treatments in Internet Weblogs. Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, 15(2): 189-205.

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. 2015. World Fertility Patterns 2015 - Data Booklet. ST/ESA/ SER.A/370. http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/publications/pdf/fertility/world-fertility-patterns-2015.pdf.Accessed 12/04/2019.

Vargo, Julie and Regan, Maureen. 2006. A Few Good Eggs: Two Chicks Dish on Overcoming the Insanity of Infertility. New York: Harper Collins.

WHO. 2018a. Gender and Genetics. World Health Organisation. http://www.who.int/genomics/gender/en/index6.html. Accessed 12/04/2019.

Wohlmann, Anita. 2014. Illness Narrative and Self-Help Culture - Self-Help Writing on Age-Related Infertility. European Journal of Life Writing, 3: 19-41. http://ejlw.eu/article/view/90/246. Accessed 12/04/2019


[1] Irrespective of the diagnosis ‘women are usually the ones who initiate treatment, receive treatment, and cope with the difficulties associated with infertility regardless of the diagnosis (Sterling 2013, Greil cited in Wohlmann 2014).

[2] At the time of writing, an Amazon search for ‘infertility’ produces over 5,000 books, but while less than 1,000 of these volumes are filed under ‘Gynaecology and Obstetrics’, over 3,000 of them are filed under the ‘Health, Family & Lifestyle’ banner. In short, a wealth of ‘repro-lit’ has emerged in recent decades on the topic of infertility in general, and age-related infertility in particular.

[3] In her recent audience study on surrogacy and television, Le Vay speaks of her frustration at the paucity of ‘alternative choices outside of motherhood’ that are depicted in popular and long-running genre texts such as soap opera and situation comedy. She goes on to say that popular television forms a consensus in its representation of infertile women as both failures and not wholly feminine (Le Vay 2019).


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