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book review

Couch House Books

  • Title: The Seed: Infertility Is a Feminist Issue
  • Author: Alexandra Kimball
  • Genre: Social and cultural studies
  • Publisher: Coach House Books
  • Pages: 144

The delivery room was crowded the day Alexandra Kimball’s son Charlie was born. On one side was Mindy, the surrogate who’d just delivered the baby, surrounded by her own husband and mother. On the other side, Kimball and her husband, Jeremy, held Charlie, a “many-mothered child” who counts the couple, as well as Mindy and Anne, an egg-donor, as the reasons he’s here.

As Kimball and her surrogate glanced at each other across the delivery room, Kimball described a “nice symmetry,” with Mindy’s labour “ending as mine had begun.”

It’s an unconventional birth story, one that might leave some observers uncertain, even today. In her new book The Seed: Infertility Is a Feminist Issue, Kimball mines the judgment and fear that persist around those who turn to assisted reproductive technology and surrogacy – with women appearing to be one another’s harshest critics.

The Seed is an invective against what the writer perceives as feminists’ dismissal of infertility as a valid and urgent women’s health issue. Today, the image of the infertile woman remains unflattering: the careerist who put motherhood on the back burner for too long and now pays big money to have babies on demand. The very real grief of women whose fertility treatments fail, this gets waved away as a "malaise of the privileged,” Kimball observes. (The subject is in the ether, with the Canadian anthology Through, Not Around: Stories of Infertility and Pregnancy Loss published in February. “It is not your job to carry this burden quietly so those around you may be comfortable,” write contributors and co-editors Allison McDonald Ace, Ariel Ng Bourbonnais and Caroline Starr.)

In The Seed, Kimball deftly calls out feminists’ hypocrisy on this issue. While they’ve long clamoured for abortion and birth control – technology that allows women not to bear children – feminists have been far more reticent around, if not hostile toward, advances that help women who really want to have kids. (“Womb renting” is the nice term some feminists have for surrogacy, because they feel it exploits the surrogate.) Some feminists view women desperately trying to conceive as being behind the times, but reserve no such judgment for mothers who bear children “naturally.” Never mind that surrogacy has allowed LGBTQ couples to build families, a point conveniently overlooked by the same radical feminists.

Our modern, lingering prejudices are nothing compared with times of yore, when “barren” women were viewed as downright demonic – posing the “ultimate threat to orderly family life.” Kimball offers a brilliant semiotic analysis of infertile women throughout history, mythology and pop culture.

In our earliest storytelling, they are bitter, angry, dishevelled monsters who cause miscarriages and stillbirths, such as Indonesia’s Wewe Gombel, who swoops down from the trees naked, kidnapping the town folks’ children and hiding them behind her droopy breasts. Throughout the Salem witch trials, non-conforming, childless women were often the targets of their communities’ fear and wrath. Fast-forward to nineties’ Hollywood and we’re still queasy around infertile women. The Hand That Rocks the Cradle saw Rebecca De Mornay’s femme fatale character miscarrying and taking her revenge on an unsuspecting nuclear family. With innovations in IVF in the 2000s come more insulting portrayals: Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon goes so baby-biotech crazy she nearly tanks her career. Kimball’s cultural read is strong, laying bare our longstanding anxieties around infertility as both ridiculous and disturbingly far-reaching.

The author’s criticism of first and second wave feminists occasionally veers into heavy academia-speak. The writing is most beautiful when it’s personal, as when Kimball apprehensively prepares a nursery for Charlie’s arrival. “I put the things in the Room," she writes, "the room that every infertile couples has, the one that is supposed to be for a baby, then fills with sad junk, until (if) luck changes.” It’s a grief for something just out of reach: “The tragedy of infertility is one of proximity,” Kimball writes.

But The Seed also presents some frustrating blind spots. The book opens with Kimball, still childless, wilting when a new mom and her toddler stroll past in a park. “As maternity is (still) supposed to provide a woman’s life with meaning, informing and shaping everything else in her life," she writes, “the infertile woman is excluded from the accepted symbolic order of feminine life.” If women still really believe this archaic garbage, we’re in serious trouble.

Kimball criticizes the media for fixating on “IVF clinics and the rich, older white ladies,” while acknowledging that she is an upper-middle-class woman whose son was born with the help of “tons of money.” She alludes to the erasure of working class and non-white women from support groups, academic discussion and the infertility narrative as a whole. And she lauds SisterSong, a collective of women of colour fighting for reproductive justice, as well as powerhouse figures such as Michelle Obama and Chrissy Teigen for widening the story about who struggles to conceive. Still, Kimball doesn’t really drill down to the particular challenges for infertile women who don’t look like Liz Lemon.

In the end, women staring down infertility aren’t always good to one another, either. Scrolling through online message boards devoted to IVF and surrogacy, Kimball feels dismayed by the unfeminist tone of this world. “The purpose of these groups was not communal, it was individual,” Kimball writes. “Each member was there to figure out how she, personally, could have a baby. And once she did, it was rare to hear from her again.”

After Charlie is born, Kimball considers returning to the message boards to start a heftier discussion about pressing infertility issues in Canada: the lack of strong regulation over fertility treatments; the limited access to reproductive health care, which is currently privatized; the need for more robust research into infertility’s root causes. But there’s a new baby to care for, so Kimball needs to step away from the screen.

These urgent realities are not meaningfully explored in The Seed. After agitating for infertile voices to speak up more loudly for themselves, it’s too bad Kimball doesn’t turn up her own megaphone. Beyond criticizing apathetic feminists, she might have guided us further forward.

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