During the second week of May the Bush Theatre in London hosted Fertility Fest – an arts festival dedicated to fertility, infertility, modern families and the science of making babies. Organised by Jessica Hepburn and Gabby Vaultier, the event brought together artists, fertility experts, regulators, infertility patients and campaign groups over multiple days to talk about a huge range of issues relating to the modern ‘condition’ of human reproduction. I arrived at the Bush Theatre on Wednesday 9 May and attended again for a full day on Sunday 13 May. With my festival wristband and a schedule of events, I was ready to explore!
Wednesday: There’s ‘more to life’ than having children
Wednesday’s evening event, hosted in partnership with the Fertility Network, revolved around the statement ‘there’s more to life than having children’ and opened with talks by Jessica Hepburn, who introduced her new book, and Jody Day from the support network Gateway Women. These talks were followed by short PechaKucha style presentations (20 slides shown for 20 seconds each) by a range of guests who talked about their ‘plan B’ or personal pathways to accepting unwanted childlessness, from swimming the English Channel, to adopting a dog, establishing a childless-not-by-choice magazine or practicing yoga.
Louise Ann Wilson talked about her project Warnscale, which is a walk through the fells of Buttermere in Cumbria designed specifically for women who are biologically childless-by-circumstance. She emotively described the therapeutic value of immersing oneself in the natural environment and how the embodied practices of walking and mapping the landscape can encourage new opportunities to reflect on life as well as life events that remain elusive, such as the birth of a wished-for child. Wilson commented on the lack of social rituals for women who feel grief for the absence of the life event of becoming a mother and she is currently developing Warnscale to include a walk that explores men’s experiences of infertility. Drawing also on observational research in fertility clinics, Wilson was able to trace parallels between and juxtapose the highly managed process of IVF in the laboratory and cycles of change in nature. Similarly to how reproductive processes and bodies are ‘mapped’ in minute detail through the process of fertility treatment, there is potential for re-imagining this process in/onto/through the natural landscape as a way to make sense of complex personal experiences.
Sunday: Men’s rooms, egg freezing and the awkwardness of language
I started Sunday with a session that focused on men’s experiences of infertility. The title of the session, ‘You, me and the pornstar’, turned into a key point of discussion for the panel with several comments made on how its emphasis on ‘the pornstar’ offered a limited portrayal of men’s experiences of IVF as being defined solely by the task of semen production. This discussion tied in well with Aaron Deemer’s presentation of his art photography project ‘Please make yourself uncomfortable’ through which he documented ‘sample rooms’ or ‘men’s rooms’ in fertility clinics across the UK.
I have never seen a sample room, or ever really thought about them in any detail, but seeing Deemer’s photos and hearing him talk about them emphasised the complexity of these rooms as both designed-for-a-purpose and simultaneously highly emotionally charged, full of hope for success and fear of disappointment, and embroiled with awkwardness. The rooms were all very different – one of them had a chair that looked rather like one you would find at the dentist’s, another was almost bare apart from a black and white poster of the Eiffel Tower, and a third had imposing metal bars across the window. Deemer’s discussion of his photographs drew humorously on the strangeness of these settings but it was also clear that he had found a unique entry point for opening up conversations about much broader questions of masculinity, negotiating a biomedical phenomenon in a culture that assigns value to ‘natural’ procreation and how to articulate the ‘male role’ in fertility treatment.
The session also included a reading of the play ‘The Quiet House’ with an introduction to the play’s background story by its playwright Gareth Farr. The play offers an intimate insight into a couple’s experience of fertility treatment and the effect this has on their relationship and life, with a particular voice given to the male experience of infertility. We only got to hear a snippet of the play, but it touched pertinently on the difficulty for men who feel side-lined in a treatment process that is almost entirely focused on the female body and the hurt of deciding when is the ‘right’ time to stop treatment. Throughout this session a central conversation point was the struggle to re-imagine a life-event that so many assume will happen in the most private and intimate sphere of life, and the associated difficulties of negotiating an unfamiliar, medicalised and highly controlled method of reproduction that takes place in a clinic, a sample room and a laboratory.
Another highlight of the day was the ‘Fertility Fight Club’, where four speakers had ten minutes to talk – honestly and provocatively – about ‘what makes you angry’.
Josh Appiganesi talked about how fathers often seem to be defined by their absence – men tend not to write books or start festivals about making babies and he made a point about how male philosophers have also been tellingly quiet about the experience of becoming a father. He commented on the need for men to talk more about ‘what becoming a father is really like’. Perhaps unusually, a couple of years ago Appiganesi chose to do his talking on camera, which resulted in a documentary film – The New Man – about the ‘ordeal of becoming parents in our era of IVF, late reproduction, and the crisis of masculinity’.
Emily Jackson talked about social egg freezing and the legal time limits around egg storage in the UK. Currently, she explained, eggs can be stored for up to 10 years (with up to 55 years for women who have become infertile due to a medical condition). This means that women who freeze their eggs for ‘social reasons’ (such as not yet being with a suitable partner) have a relatively short period of time to use their eggs. For instance, women who freeze their eggs during their 20s (at recommended peak fertility) are likely to have to use or dispose of their eggs before they are needed. Jackson emphasised how the legal framework, which was designed before social egg freezing was widely practiced, decidedly works against best clinical practice.
Diane Chandler, author of the novel Moondance, was deliberatively provocative in her round of the fight club where she spoke to the question ‘Secondary Infertility: What’s the Problem?’. Chandler argued that primary infertility (wanting but struggling to conceive a first child) and secondary infertility (wanting but struggling to conceive a second/third/fourth child) are not comparable and that trying to start a family is different to ‘trying to complete one’. It is not always appropriate, she argued, that people experiencing primary and secondary infertility share the same supportive spaces (such as online forums) and she presented examples of hurtful comments and competitive language used to make claims about whose grief is worst. In an honest provocation, Chandler made the case for not comparing experiences and emphasised secondary infertility as a different kind of infertility struggle.
Stella Duffy argued ‘Yes I Wanted Children. No I Don’t Want Your Children’ and talked frankly about her own infertility experience of trying to have a child followed by a cancer diagnosis. Duffy stressed the lack of words to describe parents of children who died and extended this inadequacy of words to the language of infertility. ‘There is not a word for us’, she exclaimed, people who wanted to be but did not become a parent are defined by words that emphasise their lack – childless, infertile, non-parent – and the more positive alternative child-free centres on the child as opposed to the person. The English language reflects, Duffy argued, the cultural persistence of pronatal privilege that tells us that it is better and right to have children. There is an urgent need for better words that encompass people who are not the parent they wanted to be but does not define them in terms of this. Echoing many of the other talks, the message was that dialogue follows from having the right, inclusive words – perhaps a task to be revisited at next year’s Fertility Fest…