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There’s No Shame in Infertility: A Conversation

by in Culture on 4th August, 2022

Generally, the trajectory for many women seems to be set before they are born: finish schooling, get married, have kids, become grandmothers. Each of these stages is expected, almost taken for granted, and though expected they may be, guaranteed they are not! In my own life journey, arriving at these stations has been riddled with obstacles. I am not a grandmother, nor have I arrived at the motherhood station. Until I faced the challenge of infertility, the existence of women like me was a well-known secret.

Prior to marriage and trying to conceive, I had little contact with these women, but once I joined the ‘club’, women from my family and friends shared, with me, theirs and others’ experiences of unsuccessfully trying to conceive.

At the moment, the emotional wounds of my experience are too raw to be able to share in a resourceful way. However, a chance encounter with the author of Taking Control: A Muslim Woman’s Guide To Surviving Infertility, Farah Dualeh, prompted the idea that sharing her experience would be worthwhile, for me and others. Farah is a Muslim woman on the path of trying to conceive for thirteen years, yet, her smile and words exuded cheerfulness and confidence. Taking Control addresses her journey and includes stories of others, both women and men, covering topics specific to infertility: types, treatment options and Islamic rulings. The chapters which stood out to me most were the ones focused on the impact of infertility on women and society’s perception of their identity and self-worth, as well as how that perception can be changed. The blurred line between motherhood and womanhood is one of the main burdens which lay heavily on women trying to conceive.

This merging of identities has seeped into the psyche of our Muslim communities so much so that a Muslim woman could question her place in the world if she has not made it to ‘mother’ status. 

Albeit a heavy topic, Farah writes in an easy-to-read and optimistic voice. She poses questions and reflection points for readers to journal about, allowing the reader to use the information presented for insights and direction suited to their unique circumstance. 

After reading the book, I met up with Farah to continue the conversation and reflect on the experiences of Muslim women dealing with infertility: 

Infertility: A Private Or Public Affair?

Infertility is a sensitive topic, which some people think should be kept private. This made me wonder if labelling infertility as a private matter was a reflection of their guilt and shame with regards the struggle with having children. Farah, on the other hand, likened infertility to any other health condition; therefore, she saw it as an opportunity to write a book to educate and support those struggling to conceive.

In her words, “for me, infertility has zero shame attached to it”. 

We were both amused at the notion of infertility needing to be hidden because marriage and having children are parts of public life. What should be erased are the negative labels and intrusions surrounding infertility, as they prevent couples from seeking the help and support they need to “deal with [infertility] in a healthy way.” 

Womanhood and Motherhood

In Taking Action Farah talks extensively about how women conflate their self-worth and womanhood with motherhood. She devoted a chapter on how to have ‘An Awesome Marriage’ while on the difficult journey of trying to conceive.

A woman’s cognisance that her other identities (mother and wife) are separate to each other and to her womanhood is essential to the mindset shift called for in this book. 

Farah highlighted that in many cultures and communities, women are set up to meet the expectations of having children soon after getting married. When those expectations are not met, the emotional, psychological as well as the physical burdens become troubling. It’s essential that the matter is approached with compassion as opposed to attacking or judging women for having such feelings, as it’s what they’ve been raised to believe is the norm. However, as women practise self-reflection and learn from life experiences, they become better equipped with the ability to envision a different trajectory to what’s expected, and hopefully learn to accept themselves as whole and complete regardless of their life situation, achievements or inability to conceive. 

Parenthood should be seen as a privilege and responsibility, not an entitlement.

As we reflect and do the inner work, we may become faced with the consideration: ‘am I ready to become a mother?’ It’s essential to sit with the question, and determine what being a mother would look like for us. Perhaps the delay is an opportunity to appreciate and prepare for the responsibility of bringing human beings into this world.  

Manhood and Fatherhood 

The majority of tests and treatments for infertility involve the woman. It can easily be said that other than giving a sperm sample, the man has it easy, but that’s far from the truth.

After publishing the book, Farah received feedback that “the book seemed to have diminished the husband’s experience” and “we need the male perspective on the experience of infertility”. In relation to that feedback, Farah shared some insights from her conversations with others:   

A loving husband will be there for his wife during the tests, procedures and, if they occur, miscarriage(s). The reality is that this is a “difficult space” for the husband too. “He has to hold his wife up while he still has his own stuff going on and he has no support”. In addition, a man’s identity and manhood are also linked to his fertility and ability to have children, at times in a sinister or toxic way. While women are in a better position to support each other, it is a disempowering and lonely space for many men. All these could be factors contributing to men not opening up and their experiences of infertility hardly spoken of.  

Allah’s Got Your Back! 

The challenge of infertility is difficult and some Muslims become hyper focused on the possibility of being afflicted by black magic (sihr) or the evil eye that they resort to actions prohibited in Islam. Nowadays, the personal development space has also gotten people, even Muslims, ‘manifesting’ their desires and ‘creating’ their own life. Either extreme is not helpful and is destructive to one’s soul and relationship with Allah. While the pain and heartache that the experience of infertility brings can be overwhelming, it is vital to remember that this life is a place of testing. It is through rising to overcome our challenges that we hope to grow, gain wisdom and draw nearer to our purpose.  

If the fear and doubt are due to lack in Islamic knowledge, let’s learn: What is faith? What does Allah’s decree (qadar) mean? How can we best make dua? What was the response of the best of people, the prophets (peace be upon them all) to calamities? 

If the fear and doubt are due to lack of information or support, read Farah’s book and others on the topic and join support groups. Whatever else or in addition to the reasons might be, keep your trust in Allah and be constant in calling upon Him in your dua. Farah said it nicely, “Our deen is a simple way of life but we made it complicated”.

Supporting a Couple Experiencing Infertility  

For family, friends and the community wanting to support a couple experiencing infertility and trying to conceive, the advice was straightforward, “let the couple lead the way”. You might think you know what’s best but you won’t know what they’ll need today, tomorrow, before or after a procedure, at the early or late stages, etc. Don’t impose your own expectations, ideals and desires. Don’t get upset or offended if your offer of support or advice isn’t accepted. You are meant to be there for them in a way which they would find helpful, not in a way you think is helpful. 

Have open conversations: would they be okay attending events like baby showers or an aqiqa? Respect their decision and let go of judgement. 

A request to the couple: it would help your family and friends immensely if you could decide what it is that you need. Be in a place to lead others in how you want to receive support. 

“The Happy Ending”

Most people like to share their stories after they get to their ‘happy ending’. However, Farah wrote her book while she is still trying to conceive. She explained her reasoning in the book, but I wanted to dig deeper into the idea of the ‘happy ending’ and what that would mean to a couple trying to conceive.  A general assumption could be that a happy ending in this case would be the birth of a healthy child, but Farah disagreed. Her happy ending could look a certain way and it  might not be the same for another woman with a similar struggle, yet the difference doesn’t validate either of their ‘happy endings’. How much would a reader benefit from the experience of Farah’s journey if she dictated the destination? 

There is power in sharing this experience without the certainty of the outcome. We don’t know and cannot control outcomes, they are in the hands of Allah. Farah shared how the majority of infertility stories she came across were not about loving life in the moment, rather they focused on the affirmation that the woman got her ‘miracle baby’ at the end of the struggle, and that didn’t sit well with Farah. Islam means to submit, which includes submission to the will and decree of Allah, and accepting with certainty that He knows and wants what’s best for us.  Therefore, it’s important to “find the joy in that submission regardless of what’s going on”. Coming from that understating, Farah included a chapter on alternative options to having a biological child. 

Final Words From Farah

“Have the strength to think differently about trying to conceive. It is easy to be a victim, to blame, become jealous or embarrassed. There is so much more bravery and beauty in saying, ‘How do I want to experience this?”

Her words resonated with me, particularly because the ease she mentions is not in a perceived lightness of victimhood, blame, jealousy or shame but sadly in their familiarity. While it is easy to fall into them because they are familiar feelings to so many of us,  “you can have a beautiful vibrant life despite and whilst  trying to conceive”. 

I Don’t Know If I’m Going To Become A Mama But… 

Reading this book and spending time reflecting on infertility and its impact on women helped me appreciate the value of being in a non-judgemental and non-directive space. It was reassuring to not be told how I should feel, what the next step should be, and what I may regret doing or not doing in the future. 

Asking ourselves pertinent and powerful questions does wonders, and cultivating this habit helps shift our mindset. When we engage with our circumstances, we find the courage to take a different but insha’allah better route. Some of the questions could be: ‘what’s my intention from having children?’, ‘Is it time to take a break from infertility treatments?’, ‘What’s stopping me from expressing my concerns about a treatment or procedure?’ and ‘What can I gain/lose if I open up and ask for support?’ 

As I ask myself these questions, I find that I begin to magnify my intuition, as I hope you will too. In the decision-making process, I request that you navigate the relevant information and tap into your intuition with hands raised to your Lord to find peace and firmness in His guidance. Trust in Allah and His plan for you. He created you a worthy person and continuously provides for you in a multitude of ways, even if children are not one of them, yet.  

Hanan Basher

Hanan Basher

Hanan Basher is an educator, coach, speaker and passionate community builder. You can find her on Instagram: @hananwonder