Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
The other day I got an email from a woman whom I'll call "Jane." She wrote to me with a heartbreaking story: After her second child was born, Jane was delighted by her growing family and looked forward to having more babies. Her husband, however, decided that their family was complete. He was worried about the expense and work involved with raising any more children, and wasn't interesting in taking the time to learn natural family planning methods. Against her wishes he had a vasectomy, and also refused to discuss the possibility of adoption.
Jane is one of many women who has reached out to me in recent years to talk about this kind of situation, and she added something that I've heard from other women as well: That few people were sympathetic to her suffering.
She said that when she tried to talk to friends and family members about the difficult time she was having with the situation, almost nobody wanted to listen. The tone of most of the responses was surprise that she was upset in the first place, and a confusion about what the problem was. "Go take a vacation, and be happy that you're not overburdened with a bunch of little kids!" one relative told her.
In the end, Jane said that she had found some healing by talking with her priest about how to make the best of her circumstances, and she was gaining peace in that department. But she remained surprisingly troubled by the fact that most people didn't seem to think that her story was one worth telling. Eager to know that she wasn't alone, she searched online for blogs or books in which other women in her position shared their experiences, but found few results. Women's websites told the tales of women undergoing all different types of challenges, but none showed much interest in discussing situations like Jane's, in which women were denied children by their husbands. It seemed clear to her that her pain was not deemed valid, and therefore was not considered to be worth discussing.
A fundamental belief in secular society is that the female reproductive system is something to be feared and controlled. Thus, only women whose stories validate that "truth" have their stories heard. Look at any list of recommended books and movies that fall under the category of Women's Issues, or spend some time perusing feminist blogs and magazines. You'll encounter plenty of stories of women having unwanted pregnancies that cause them to suffer terribly. You'll even run across tales that recount the suffering of women who experience infertility, with the female reproductive system ever the shadowy antagonist that needs to be forced into submission. But only rarely will you hear the story of women who saw their fertility as a blessing, and deeply desired to receive the gift of children, but were denied the opportunity because of their spouse's use of contraception. You would think that Women's Studies groups would be all over this issue, since it's a deep source of anguish for so many women. Yet these stories only rarely get highlighted, because they don't fit the cultural narrative in which contraception is the hero and a woman's fertility is the bad guy.
We all have a desire to have our stories heard. Especially when we've been through something difficult, there is some small measure of comfort in knowing that the world is aware that the kind of suffering we've experienced exists, and is empathetic to our plight. And so the sadness that Jane and so many other women in her situation experience is compounded: Not only do they struggle with the pain of being denied the opportunity to mother more souls, but they live in a society that doesn't want to hear their stories.