Photo: Alex

Women We Read This Week

Amy Klein’s “Fertility Fog” on Aeon

Early on in this piece, Klein recounts a conversation with her doctor. “I’d been in the woman’s office for about 10 minutes and it felt like she was being…well, kind of a bitch,” Klein writes. Conversations with doctors aren’t easy at the best of times: how to translate what we feel in our bodies into language that can be interpreted by someone who isn’t in the same body? How to turn a twinge, a fear, a hope, into knowledge, diagnosis, action? Conversations with doctors about fertility, however, are particularly fraught – and often avoided altogether, as Klein points out, until it’s too late. She is 41 when she conceives:

But before I could make it to a doctor…I miscarried. Then I got pregnant again, then miscarried again. Over the next three and a half years, I moved from natural conception to assisted reproduction and IVF, and subsequently learned everything I never wanted to know about pregnancy, miscarriage, age and fertility. Alas, it was too late for me.

The issue at hand here is “how little we women know about our own fertility,” and through her own experience, as well as the perspectives of others, including fertility specialists, Klein effectively demonstrates the potential implications of this lack of knowledge: disappointment, physical and emotional pain, confusion, regret, impulsive or uneducated decisions. She calls this widespread unawareness of how fertility actually works “fertility fog,” a phenomenon which “infects cultures and nations worldwide.” “It’s easy to blame our cultural fertility fog on the media and faulty scare-mongering statistics,” Klein writes. “But the problems go way deeper – and start much earlier.”

I suppose it’s possible to construe this, like any other story about aging and fertility, as a cautionary tale, but the point here, I think, is not to scare or bully women into reproducing before they’re ready, but rather to move towards a more holistic understanding of women’s bodies – to create a better cultural narrative about sex, reproduction, and fertility that takes into account how enormously complex it all is.

“I think as a society no one tells women what fertility is,” says reproductive endocrinologist Janelle Luk, interviewed in the essay. And this is a huge problem for women of all ages. Fertility fog, Klein writes, is “human nature” – it’s an historic problem, a cultural problem, a political problem, a personal problem. Part of the solution is to start building up a body of work, a body of writing, that expands upon the narrative of female fertility, gives us knowledge, curiosity, courage. Here’s a start.

Miranda

Anne Helen Petersen’s “Big Mother is Watching You” on Buzzfeed

On my list of 2015 resolutions was the perennial “eat better,” a seemingly impossible feat for a busy grad student. I toyed with re-installing the MyFitnessPal app on my phone for help, but eventually nixed the idea, promising myself I’d just buy more vegetables. So, it was interesting to arrive at Anne Helen Petersen‘s “Big Mother is Watching You” the next day. Petersen starts with the allure of her own sleep tracker and quickly branches into a sweeping look at the burgeoning tracking market: devices and apps that collect data for us to (theoretically) simplify our lives, become more efficient, improve our health. As we go with Petersen from a Quantified Self meet-up (a gathering of dedicated “self-trackers” who pore over their myriad data that addresses problems with everything from bowel movements to dating strategy) to the headquarters of many of these devices and monitoring systems, I couldn’t help but marvel at how true the phrase, “There’s an app for that” has become. A device to accrue information about practically everything–from parenting to posture correction–seems to exist.

So what does that mean? Petersen gets at the good ways such data can liberate its users, like systems that enable family members to check on an elderly loved one who lives alone, or the urinalysis strip that can diagnose a UTI with a cell phone camera, but she hints at the ways such data might limit us, too. Part of me wondered, if Petersen is right and these devices are meant to “exploit our collective weariness with the decisions that structure a typical day,” could we lose decision-making skills? If we continue to move toward tracking mechanisms and monitors like the “Smart Nursery” Petersen cites, might we forget how to parent? Would it matter?

Petersen covers a lot of different ground in this piece, and sometimes doesn’t dig as deeply as I hoped regarding privacy or the potential exploitation of this personal data, but it certainly left me with a lot to think about. Namely, this: the revolution will definitely not be televised. The revolution will be tracked and analyzed and disseminated, probably by us, voluntarily, instead.

Sara

Sujata Gupta’s “The Silencing of the Deaf” on Matter

My mother is a member of the first hearing generation born into a family of hereditary deafness; when she became pregnant, she knew that there was a very real chance her child would be deaf. Cochlear implants were just then being developed—they would be approved by the FDA in 1984, the year after I was born—but they were already controversial in the Deaf community. Though I was born hearing, my mother is haunted to this day by having to face that decision: choosing for her child between the culture in which she was raised and the culture in which most Americans live. In the decades since cochlear implants were approved, this decision has only become more complicated. Gupta summarizes, “…for many Deaf people, every implanted child is a person stolen from their culture. Some call the process cultural genocide.”

In “The Silencing of the Deaf,” Gupta tackles this issue with unusual grace and insight. She follows a hearing family, the Reids, as they choose whether or not to implant their daughter Ellie, who is deaf. They are unique among hearing parents because they spend considerable time researching Deaf culture and learning Sign Language. Considering the decision in light of Deaf culture, the father asks “How do you explain [to your daughter] that she was fine the way she was born when the first thing we did was change her?”

Moving past the traditional black-and-white debates (and referencing the touchstones of Deaf history as she does so), Gupta extends her examination of Deaf culture far beyond this family’s journey. She represents people in the Deaf and hearing worlds whose views range from the typical to the silenced (not just Deaf people within hearing culture, but Deaf people silenced within their own culture, too—for being supportive of the implants). Implanted adults make jokes about the efficiency of the devices:

I ask the man next to me how good his comprehension is. He has me repeat the question three times. With a wry laugh, he finally replies: “It’s about a hundred percent.”

While some people see the implants as akin to a prosthetic limb, others see their effect as akin to making a black person white. One person refutes the idea of deafness being defined in terms of lack: “I am a woman but I am not absent of a penis.” In other words, it’s a complex issue, one with no comparable controversies, which means that it’s an issue that’s often simplified for easy consumption—but Gupta doesn’t even come close to simplifying it. The controversy remains, in her hands, one with dozens of voices (spoken and signed) and at least as many complications.

Katie

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