Friday 19 January 2018

My fertility is none of your business

Stop asking when I'm having a baby, said a woman on Facebook last week. Anna Hart can understand why her rant has gone viral

INTENSE SCRUTINY: Actress Jennifer Aniston
INTENSE SCRUTINY: Actress Jennifer Aniston

Anna Hart

Today we don't merely measure out our lives with coffee spoons, but Facebook likes. Earlier this week, a well-worded rant posted by Emily Bingham to her own Facebook page went viral, being shared 40,000 times in a few days.

"Before you ask the young married couple that has been together for seemingly forever when they are finally gonna start a family... before you ask the parents of an only-child toddler when a Little Brother or Little Sister will be in the works ... before you ask a single 30-something if/when s/he plans on having children because, you know, clock's ticking ... just stop. Please stop," pleaded the 30-year-old writer from Michigan.

"You don't know who is struggling with infertility or grieving a miscarriage or dealing with health issues," she continued. "You don't know who is having relationship problems or is under a lot of stress or the timing just isn't right. You don't know who is on the fence about having kids or having more kids."

To many women, and men, of child-rearing age, it will come as no surprise that her words were swiftly propelled around the globe. I'm 34, and my husband and I have been married for nearly five years - a seemingly remarkable circumstance that provokes endless curiosity, outrage and well-meant but unwelcome advice.

I'd estimate that I field questions about my baby-making plans on an almost daily basis. Such as the taxi driver yesterday who asked: "So, have you not started producing yet, then?" before tutting about "modern women" and advising me to "be careful not to miss the boat". I just wanted to get to work on time. I did not want to be quizzed by a stranger about my reproductive schedule. When I got out of the cab, I felt like the driver should be tipping me.

Other remarks include: "Don't leave it too late! Clock is ticking!" from a young mother I sat next to on the bus. "Ah, I see, you're one of those career women," from a stranger at a friend's wedding. "Have you not persuaded your husband to let you have a couple of little ones yet?" from a hotel owner. "So, when are you guys going to open the baby factory?" from a guy my husband and I went scuba-diving with.

So the 40,000-and-counting shares make sense. The only thing that doesn't make sense to me is how on earth that the most personal of subjects - family planning - became public property in the first place.

As a nation, we would baulk at asking our best friend about the salary attached to a new job offer, yet somehow "family planning" currently sits uneasily between "the weather" and "last night's TV" as acceptable conversation fodder, when the subject really belongs alongside questions such as, "Does cancer run in your family?" and, "Did your father love your siblings more than you?"

Of course, much of this questioning is benignly - even politely - meant.

Humans are social beings, and when we ask strangers about their personal lives, we're not necessarily being nosy, we may be searching for common ground - hoping to encourage the intimacy that arises from a shared experience or attitude.

"Whether an attempt to find common ground or just natural nosiness, questions about parenthood and fertility are generally meant in a good way," agrees chartered psychologist Dr Jessamy Hibberd. "But the problem is that while it's widely considered socially acceptable conversation at large, to many individuals it feels precisely the opposite."

If it's connection, intimacy and commonality that prompt questions about baby plans, the irony is this might be the most off-putting conversation you could start. If there's one thing I've noticed about parents, it's that they don't need much coaxing to talk about their children. If a woman wants to talk about her existent or future family, she'll bring it up herself.

Observing this, Emily Bingham provides helpful alternative questions for people grasping around for idle chit-chat: "Ask someone what they're excited about right now. Ask them what the best part of their day was. If a person wants to let you in on something as personal as their plans to have or not have children, they will tell you."

And at times, the questioning definitely strays beyond the benign: as a young woman who hasn't started a family yet, I've detected bafflement bordering on outrage from enquirers, as if I owe society an explanation for my strange and selfish decision; for delaying the natural order of things.

To those who think this is all an overreaction to a little harmless chit-chat, I'm sure those women who have suffered a miscarriage certainly don't. Nor the couples who are struggling to conceive. Or those women receiving IVF treatment.

In my close friendship circle, I know two couples who are still grieving over a miscarriage. I know three women aged between 26 and 34 who have been trying to conceive for years and are undergoing the rollercoaster of IVF. If I find enquiries about my baby-making plans irksome, however well-intentioned, I can only imagine how distressing my friends find them.

Refraining from asking people about their child-rearing plans is not over sensitivity, it's common sense. In fact, it's the only sensible approach.

As Bingham puts it: "You don't know who has decided it's not for them right now, or not for them ever. You don't know how your seemingly innocent question might cause someone grief, pain, stress or frustration."

A friend of mine was asked why she hasn't had any kids yet right in front of me. I knew she'd been trying for years. It was painful, and maddening, to watch someone completely clueless cause so much sorrow. My ex-colleague Gina (32), a designer, experienced three miscarriages in the past year. "It's been horrific, and I have to relive it every time somebody winkingly asks if Seamus and I are trying for a family yet," she says. "It takes a real effort sometimes not to let my distress show. If these people only knew how much pain they're causing me."

Womb-watchers aren't just treading on sensitive medical ground. There are numerous other factors - financial, emotional, psychological - that play a part in family planning. My friend Mandy (31), an academic, experienced severe post-natal depression after the birth of her son Louis in 2013.

"Every time somebody asks me, 'When are you going to give Louis a little brother or sister?' it's like a knife to the gut," she says. "My husband and I are still deciding whether to try for another child or not, but this is something I want to discuss with him and my therapist - not the woman in the local corner shop."

For women in the public eye, the scrutiny can be even more intense. The actresses Jennifer Aniston and Maxine Peake have both hit out at the womb-watching they've been subjected to, as did British politicians Nicola Sturgeon and Liz Kendall when they were forced to field fertility questions during their recent campaigns. Curiously, everyone feels entitled to weigh in on motherhood, while fatherhood, as an experience, largely remains the private property of men - unless they bring it up for discussion.

Most reproduction questions are not meant to constitute a serious grilling; my taxi driver doesn't actually give two hoots whether or not I wind up having children. But the horrible irony is that while the asker doesn't care, the listener probably does. They might care an awful lot.

According to statistics, for couples who have been trying to conceive for more than three years without success, the likelihood of pregnancy in the following year is 25pc or less.

So, to a significant proportion of the population, a question about procreation does not sound like harmless chit-chat. It sounds intrusive and upsetting. Over 40,000 people have just asked if we can strike "procreative plans" from day-to-day conversation.

Perhaps it's time we listened to them. @ The Daily Telegraph

Brian Friel held the mirror up to the Irish psyche and Irish identity, stripping away our posturing pretence at internationalism and cosmopolitanism. He wrote plays in which the characters, even the apparently "privileged" are obsessed with the uneasiness of their sense of self and nationhood. The mirror, you could say, is firmly lodged in the national navel, identifying the world through the invented Donegal village of Ballybeg…which Ireland and even the world outside knew was no invention but had its being in the town of Glenties in Donegal where Friel spent much of his youth. And his worldwide success as he became increasingly acclaimed as one of the English language's greatest playwrights of the twentieth century convinced us of the desirability of our own insecurities. We recognised and were comfortable with the portraits Friel showed us in the mirror..and the world nodded in agreement. This was what Irish genius was about. These were the plays they expected from Ireland, just as Heaney's was the poetry they expected: the uneasy suffocation of a world reduced to a subsistence of emotional longing and unfulfilment.

It was an Ireland the world wanted to believe in: people who strutted their braggadocio, only to crumble if challenged. And the memorably sad men and women, whether they never stepped beyond the borders of Ballybeg, or found themselves exiled and living on misty memories like the faraway missionary nun sister in Aristocrats or the shadowy tragedy of the two surviving Lundy sisters, ending their joyless, hopeless lives as nameless down and outs in London's unforgiving streets in Dancing at Lughnasa, are creatures of myth: their truth is shadowy and self-invented, a shifting surface, part brittle carapace, part delicate veil.

For Friel, truth was always something to be manufactured, an edifice of a moment in time which would provide protection against reality of either past or present. And always it had to do with isolation, the bewilderment of the individual buffeted by the overwhelming forces of a history which for Friel was always in flux.

That in itself was a paradox, because Brian Friel was anchored in two unyielding verities: nationalism and Catholicism. The former was his source of all justice: not to be questioned as the supreme political moral entity. Catholicism, on the other hand, represented ground that was far less secure: his was the Catholicism of his generation and experience, a "cultural" experience to be mocked and disobeyed, yet never fully denied or abandoned. It was born of strident anti-clericalism spawned by the years of authoritarian Church governance, and was more a political than either a religious or a cultural stance.

And of course, Friel was what his generation called a "spoiled priest," having spent several years as a clerical student in Maynooth (as did John Hume, his friend and fellow pupil at St. Columb's School in Derry.)

He was born in Omagh, but his parents were from Glenties, and he returned to Donegal in adulthood, and spent his later years in the beautiful town of Greencastle, from where he surveyed a world that became a dramatic oyster as his plays travelled the world : Translations holds the record as the English-language play of its generation most translated and most performed around the world.

Identity as personal truth rooted in place emerged as early as his 1962 play The Enemy Within, depicting the struggle of St. Columba between sanctity and the political pull back to Ireland when the call comes to lead his tribe into battle, far away from his fellow monks and the peace of Iona.

But it becomes a clarion call in The Loves of Cass Maguire, written in 1967. In that play, Cass Maguire is an elderly, foul-mouthed old Irishwoman returned from New York to spend her final years in an old peoples' home in Ireland. Initially, she refuses to join in the residents' tragic game-playing as they take turns in a special chair to tell stories of their past as it might have been, each ending with "This is my truth." Cass will not compromise reality into an imagined truth until finally she is defeated, and the play ends with her reluctantly taking her place in the chair to tell a happier and more consoling version of her own truth.

It is the first example of Friel inventing fiction to disguise painful reality, with that reality ultimately returning him…and us… to another, often more terrible truth.

Interestingly, Brian Friel's chilling vision had an effect where he might never have expected it. In the published correspondence of John Charles McQuaid "His Grace is Displeased" (published by Merrion 2013, edited by Clara Cullen and Margaret O hOgartaigh) there is a letter from October 1967, in which a woman from Raheny wrote to the archbishop that she and her husband had attended the play at the Abbey (in which Siobhan McKenna played Cass) "with a view to being entertained." "I can't believe," she told McQuaid "that you who have the morals of your people so sincerely at heart are aware of the flood of filth being poured into the Abbey audience night after night. The Loves of Cass Maguire is a masterpiece in obscenity, scurrility and nauseating lewdness." And she adds "The author, a Belfast man, must be an absolute gutter-rat."

Five years later, Friel's vision that truth is most often found among those whom he remained stubbornly certain were the dispossessed and disenfranchised, had crystallised even further. In an article for the Times Literary Supplement in 1972, recently unearthed by Dr. Tony Roche of UCD, Friel wrote "It is time we dropped from the calendar of Irish dramatic saints all those playwrights from Farquhar to Shaw....and that includes Steele, Sheridan, Goldsmith and Wilde….who no more belong to the Irish drama than John Field belongs to Irish music or Francis Bacon to Irish painting." There is an uneasy sense of elegance and wit being damned as anti-national.

And in the same year, in a BBC programme in which he interviewed himself, Friel, already acclaimed internationally, took a side-swipe at both Pinter and Beckett in less than gracious terms.

He had his failures: Wonderful Tennessee closed on Broadway after only a few performances, and Give Me Your Answer Do! which he directed himself at the Abbey (to considerable negative criticism) spring to mind. But they fade in comparison with the huge achievements of plays like Dancing at Lughnasa directed by Patrick Mason for the Abbey, and which was nominated for eight Tony Awards on Broadway in 1982, winning three of them, after the long international silence following the dazzling triumph in New York of Philadelphia Here I Come! in 1964. And of course, there is his unarguable masterpiece Faith Healer as well as the much-loved Translations.

It is only six weeks since Brian Friel was celebrated in a cross-border Festival centred on Glenties. He was far too ill to be present, but we were assured he was following the events. The sense of desolation was as palpable as the determination not to fail him during the various events. The highlight for me was having the extraordinary privilege of carrying out a public interview with Brian's close friend and fellow playwright, the gently unassuming (and intellectual giant) Tom Kilroy on the long association between them. Their friendship preceded even Tom's participation in the Field Day company which Friel founded with Stephen Rea, Seamus Deane and Tom Paulin in 1980, to interrogate Irish identity through playwriting and producing. It too came in for criticism (Kilroy cheerfully defined it as having been accused of being the artistic wing of the Provos, but went on to deny that, fiercely (and amusingly).

We knew that weekend that most of us would never seen Brian again. We were right, and the sad news came on Friday that he had died quietly at home after his long captivity by the darkness of terminal cancer.

But being Brian, he had gone down fighting, choosing to puff on a good cigar rather than undergoing more chemotherapy. And I remember the last time I saw him, weak and a little shrivelled, making his way down the dress circle steps in the Gaiety Theatre to take his seat in the front row. His stick failed him, and he tripped beside me, almost falling. I took his arm and asked if he needed a hand. "We can't have you falling, Brian," I said. "I wouldn't mind," he said, "if it meant I could fall into your lap." It is my last memory, and I shall cherish its impishness.

The Daily Telegraph

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