Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale may have been written over 30 years ago, but as a woman who has experienced almost a decade of infertility, the story is very relevant to me today.
Having heard others share their thoughts after watching the new Emmy award winning television series based on the novel, I already had a brief idea about the overall story line before I read the book. I was eager to start my summer reading list but was not prepared for the emotional response I felt upon reading the novel. As a woman who has lived with infertility, many of the emotions and fears of the women in the story reflected similar feelings I have experienced in my own life.
As I read on, I found myself wondering if Atwood knew just how closely aligned her story, written in 1985, potentially was to the emotions of people experiencing infertility today. I wondered if her view of infertility had changed since the book’s publication, and if so, how?
The World Health Organization has defined infertility as “disease of the reproductive system defined by the failure to achieve a clinical pregnancy after 12 months or more of regular unprotected sexual intercourse,” indicating that infertility is a legitimate medical condition (World Health Organization, 2017, para 1-4). An issue which currently impacts 1 in 6 Canadians, the Ontario government announced in December 2015 that it would launch a publicly funded program to cover the cost of one round of in-vitro fertilization per eligible woman in the province. In the nearly two years since its launch, the program has helped thousands of families pursue their dreams of parenthood.
From the very beginning of the novel, I was captivated by Atwood’s ability to weave a dystopian story with the heavy truths our world knows with such realism. In the book’s introduction, Atwood shares that the focus on fertility in her story stemmed from China’s decline in male fertility in the 1980s, which left me to wonder why she chose to share the perspective of women in her story?
As I continued to read, I found myself reaching out to others I knew had experienced infertility and saying: “If you’re thinking about reading this, proceed with caution” based on the emotional response I had experienced. While I was completely enthralled in the story, questions regarding my own self-worth as a woman resurfaced, even though I know better at this stage in my fertility journey. I know that my fertility is NOT related to my worth as a woman, and yet, I was completely spooked by Atwood’s description of “unwomen” and the lives of women who were unable to conceive in her tale.
I also found myself thinking a lot about the Handmaids in her story conforming at the Red Centre, and the parallels between their lives and my own when it came to pursuing treatment for infertility. I was reminded of all the ways that I had conformed in the hopes of having a child and becoming a mother. The parallels I found were not indicative of me regretting or wishing that I had a different path, but rather, the realities of the decisions that were necessary if my husband and I wanted to try to grow our family. I was reminded of taking time off work to only focus on fertility, the many appointments, monitoring, tests, and procedures; the intense research into all of the lifestyle factors that can have an impact on fertility; and, ultimately, the lifestyle changes required to foster and manifest a child for us. I too had conformed.
Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale captured many elements of infertility that resonated with me and others, while also touching on how environmental factors can contribute to infertility. While we know that women having children later in life can contribute to infertility, there is a lot to be discovered about how the environmental factors and stress we are exposed to on a daily basis can contribute to this medical condition.
Atwood also depicts traditional surrogacy as described by Dr. Sonya Kashyap (2017) who has shared the complexities of surrogacy within the Handmaid’s Tale and what surrogacy is like in Canada today (http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/dr-sonya-kashyap-md-msc-epi-frcsc-facog/the-handmaids-tale-fertility_b_16937844.html).
Lastly, I am still thinking about the strength of the women in this story and the courage of the main character being willing to share her story despite the risk and, I like to think, in hopes of a better world. I am reminded of all the individuals who have come forward to share their beautifully different stories of love, strength, courage, and hope in hopes to pursue parenthood.
I wonder if other readers that have been touched by or have experienced infertility? If so, we would love to hear your thoughts on The Handmaid’s Tale.