MIA FREEDMAN: When a baby scan is offensive: Fertility privilege, and the complicated question of who has it.

On the day Kate Middleton gave birth to her first child, I had a fight with the entire Mamamia editorial team.

It was Tuesday, July 23, 2013, and I wasn’t even in the office for this fight, I was travelling for work. Like everyone else, I’d woken up to the news that a new heir to the throne had been born and as I lay in my hotel bed early that morning, watching the wall-to-wall media coverage, I messaged the team: "We need to run a story that talks about how hard today is for every woman who is struggling with infertility and feeling gutted while the rest of the world celebrates."

My request was met with unanimous push-back. No, they said firmly. We can’t do that. We shouldn’t do that. It’s a happy day! A day to celebrate! There will be backlash! If we run a story like that it will be offensive and insulting to Kate - well, not Kate personally as she won’t read it, granted - but it will go against the positive mood.

Exactly, I replied.

I knew with unequivocal certainty that there were tens of thousands of women feeling unbearably isolated because their reaction to this baby news contrasted the joyous public mood so starkly. These were the women who couldn’t help but compare their empty arms and their tainted dreams with the high density celebration of a new mother on the other side of the world. They couldn’t escape from it just like they couldn’t escape from the private pain of their infertility and a very weird grief for an imagined baby that didn’t yet exist.

Watch: A tribute to the babies we've lost and the significance of remembering their names. Post continues after video.

Video via Mamamia.

I wanted Mamamia to honour that pain and to acknowledge those women. To make them feel less abnormal. Less lonely. Less ashamed.

I knew exactly how they were feeling on that day because in smaller ways, at different times, I had been them.

Earlier in my life, I had experienced infertility and pregnancy loss and I’d felt the full force of the emotions they hurtled into my heart. When I lost a baby halfway through my pregnancy and then experienced years of secondary infertility, it was a time before the Internet. It was ghastly in a million different ways but the loneliness was perhaps the worst of it. I knew nobody who had been through anything similar and there was no way to connect with anyone who had. Even the stories of strangers online were not available to me. There was nobody, nobody who understood how my heart had collapsed on itself. Not my husband. Not my mother. Not my best friend. None of them had shared my experience. None of them could understand my paralysing jealousy and rage every time I saw a pregnant woman or heard news of another celebrity birth. And so I withdrew away from everyone who loved me and burrowed deeply into my grief.

More than a decade later, on that day, in that hotel room, I no longer felt those things but I knew other women would. So I insisted to the team that we do it. I explained that acknowledging the pain of one group of people does not detract from the joy of another.

I can’t recall if I wrote the story myself but I do remember that the response to whatever we published was overwhelming gratitude from the women who read it and felt seen.

This week, 10 years later, I learned that Elizabeth Day, host of the How To Fail podcast, was one of the women who felt devastated on that day. In a discussion about her own infertility on another podcast, Best Friend Therapy, Elizabeth spoke about how she’d been pregnant at the same time as Kate was with George but had miscarried, and how tough it was to navigate her grief while the world obsessively followed every step of Kate’s pregnancy and birth.

She went on to mention ‘fertility privilege’, which, in her memoir, Friendaholic, she also references.
"We rightly talk about privilege in this era of social change but hardly anyone acknowledges fertility privilege," she writes. "I wouldn’t post about my glorious babies on social media in much the same way I wouldn’t post about my expansive mansion or my fleet of Bentleys (not that I have any of those) because it’s thoughtless to those who don’t have these things. Forget the language of privilege for a second, isn’t it just lacking in basic empathy? Isn’t it just being a good human?"

Back on the podcast, Day described the ongoing distress she faces every time someone with fertility privilege posts an ultrasound picture on social media.

"We’ve become a society where it’s not only acceptable, it’s expected that people will share their baby scans. I cannot tell you how triggering that is. When I’m following someone from [a] reality show, or someone I know who just posts unthinkingly a picture of their baby scan. You may say, well don’t follow them and I then unfollow or mute but I don’t know that’s going to happen. And then some people, friends of mine, Whatsapped me a picture of their baby scans to announce their pregnancy knowing what I’ve been through and it’s things like that that I can’t wrap my head around because I sort of think gosh you’re so lucky, you’re so privileged getting that baby scan. I’ve had so many baby scans and I’ve never had a baby, ok?"

Her voice cracks with emotion as she says this and my heart lurched as I heard it even while the reference to fertility privilege made me bristle.

Soon after I lost my baby at 18 weeks, I saw a documentary called Losing Layla, made by Vanessa Gorman about the death of her daughter soon after she was born. Watching Vanessa’s raw grief unfold on the screen as she cradled her daughter’s lifeless body, I felt seen.

But I also felt something else. I felt envious.

Unlike Vanessa, I’d never had the chance to hold my daughter. To see her. To trace her tiny features with my finger and commit them into my memory. I was under general anaesthetic as she was taken from my body. I wasn’t even able to bury her.

The crematorium I’d organised to retrieve her remains called me solemnly a week later to say they were so very sorry but her body had been so small, there were no ashes for me to collect.

As I watched Vanessa kiss Layla gently inside her coffin before her cremation, I once again felt a surge of envy. How lucky they are, I thought as I sobbed uncontrollably. What I wouldn’t have given to be able to grasp the ritual of a funeral for my lost little girl.

Many years later, I met Vanessa, and I told her I’d been jealous of her baby’s funeral and we laughed together in the very specific way two people can when they share the black humour of a shared tragedy.

And this is where I stumble over the idea of fertility privilege. Who has it and who gets to decide? In my mind, at that time, a woman who got to hold her dead baby had more privilege than me, a woman who didn’t. It’s hard to think of a lower bar but that’s the point, the very idea of privilege is subjective. No matter how terrible your circumstances, there will always be someone whose situation is worse.

Not to mention the fact that while the nature of fertility privilege is understandably black and white to women like Elizabeth Day, who has been trying for 10 years and still doesn’t have a baby in her arms, for many of us it’s far more nuanced. If you have more than one child, it’s very likely you have experienced pregnancy loss. I guess that makes you more privileged than a woman without children but less privileged than someone who has never miscarried? Rarely will you know the backstory of a woman’s successful pregnancy or birth and I can’t help feeling that the idea of dividing us into the privileged and the non-privileged does not do justice to the bulging historical medical files most mothers have, attesting to the often grim reality of conception and birth.

I have three children so I have fertility privilege and I acknowledge that but it’s a very flattening term because it makes it seem like I haven’t experienced infertility or miscarriage which I have, multiple times.
Privilege around conception, birth and motherhood exists on a spectrum and is impossible to define in any objective way.

When we spoke about fertility privilege on Mamamia Out Loud recently, my co-host Holly Wainwright was surprised at my objections to the term and reminded me that I was the one who insisted we run that story on the day Prince George was born in 2013. Isn’t fertility privilege and acknowledging it, exactly what I was doing a decade ago?

Listen to this episode of Mamamia Out Loud where I have a very honest conversation with my co-hosts about fertility privilege. Post continues below.

It’s annoying when Holly uses my own empathy as a weapon against me and it has made me reflect on why I feel so defensive on this topic. 

I’m still figuring it out. But where I think I’ll land is here: I believe that two things can be true. It is never a bad thing to be aware that there is so much pain, complexity and nuance around the topic of babies and motherhood. And that other women’s stories and experiences will never identically match our own. Our stories, our feelings and our gynaecological histories are unique and rarely static. At the same time, we should never rush to shame or guilt any woman for celebrating any aspect of her life that brings her joy, particularly around motherhood. Our truths and our freedom to speak honestly and openly about all aspects of this part of our lives are hard won. And my heart remains divided equally and non-judgementally between the woman excitedly posting her pregnancy announcement with a scan photo and the women, like Elizabeth Day, who feel real pain when they see them.

Ultimately, being a mother is the greatest privilege of my life. It costs me nothing to acknowledge that and it costs me nothing to have sympathy for the women who are infertile.

I don't have to change my behaviour or mute my joy or stop posting photos. It's the acknowledgement, I think, that the women who desperately want to be mothers and who haven't ever been able to would adore to have that privilege. That luck. That good fortune. I get it. I see you.

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Feature Image: Mamamia.