Talking about the untold

Originally posted at Boldly Barren

I recently acquired a remarkable little anthology called Untold Stories: Life, Love, and Reproduction.

I discovered it on Twitter in connection with The Sea Change Program, a nonprofit organization “committed to a world that upholds the dignity and humanity of all people as they move through their reproductive lives.”

As I clicked around their website for the first time, I found myself silently cheering, beaming, straightening up in my chair and thinking “Finally!,”  “Fab!,”  “YES!!!” and then, ultimately, “Oh, count me in, please!!!”

Sea Change’s Untold Stories Project is one of the key tools they’re deploying in an effort to remove shame and stigma from the vast spectrum of human reproductive experience.

This is a big, perhaps impossible endeavor. It’s also a necessary and good one.

So after devouring this anthology, I eagerly dialed in to a virutal book club event hosted by Rewire this evening (#RewireBookClub). It featured the courageous and generous authors of two of the book’s no-longer-untold stories, and it was lovely to sit and listen to their words. These women are exceptional, and they are also ordinary, and they inspire me to continue speaking about my own exceptional and ordinary reproductive decisions frankly and fearlessly.

In the introduction to Untold Stories, Kate Cockrill observes

Perhaps the area of human experience that is most replete with untold stories is that of reproduction. Sexual taboos, gender norms, expectations around ability, and racial prejudices create a world of unwritten rules and proscriptions related to family creation and these rules carry enormous weight. People who transgress these rules are encouraged to remain under the radar, or to interact only with similar folk, and the absence of their stories creates a distorted culture.

She continues

On the supply side of the untold story problem are experiences of shame and fear. Deciding to have an abortion, not be a parent, or claim your sexuality are not easy things to do in a world that tells us that we are wrong if we fall outside of the norm. Sometimes, when we form our families in ways we think other people won’t understand, we decide to keep secrets, to leave our own stories untold. We think this rational decision will keep us safe from judgment, shame, and misunderstanding. In all of our lives, there are moments where shame creeps in. Even if the people who raised us gave us the emotional tools and resilience to recover from those moments, we still won’t bypass the fear of not being good enough, of not meeting other people’s expectations. Often the parts of our lives where there’s the most opportunity to create meaning for ourselves are also the parts that are imbued with impossible expectations.

These horrible, unwieldy, unfair expectations will be familiar to many young, voluntarily sterilized people like me.

But expectations, after all, are almost always crafted from stories. The stories we are told and the stories that we tell become – if they feel homogenous and normal and typical and right enough – the stories we also anticipate unthinkingly.

This little book encourages receptive readers to better expect – and accept – the unexpected. It accomplishes this brilliantly. Once you’ve encountered diverse stories like these, you can no longer honestly say “Nobody does that” or “I’ve never considered that before” or “I can’t possibly imagine what that’s like.”

My favorite story in the bunch is the last one – appropriately titled “The Stories We Tell” by Katherine Towler. I fought tears as I read her words, these words that might as well have been and could so very nearly be my own, or those of any voluntarily sterilized person like me:

I did not set out to be a rebel. I am essentially a shy, private person, given to introspection. In most situations, I do my best not to get noticed. Somewhere along the way, however, it became clear that I was not like most other people. I did not want to have children. Though I saw nothing rebellious in this fact of my nature, others seemed to find it if not rebellious, then at least subversive, or odd, or sad, or just plain inexplicable.

And later she concludes

There are many ways to tell a given story. This story can be told as one about a choice not made, a path not taken. Framed by a culture where having children is the norm, it is a story about what I did not do. People feel justified asking the question, Why don’t you have children? I don’t ask them, Why do you have children? But I have not experienced this story as one of negation. For me, it is a story of embracing, at each turn in my life, what was best for me and what was best in me.

As a woman, I feel peculiarly compelled to defend my choice not to have children. I shouldn’t feel this way. Perhaps just as no one truly makes a decision to have a child – it is too momentous and life-changing an event to be reduced to something that can be debated, pros and cons weighed, a decision arrived at – no one truly decides not to have a child either. It is an evolution in a life as much as it is a decision, a recognition of who you are.

The story I have told, like the stories of many other women, those who have children and those who do not, is a story about accepting ourselves and the vast possibilities afforded by the accident of time and place of birth. It is a story about finding the stories that fit us best. It is a story about growing into the lives we are given.

Reading this fantastic little book has encouraged me, of course, to ponder my own story – the story of my tokophobia and the story of my chronic pain and the story of my fight for my hysterectomy at the age of 26 – and all the ways I have sought, in recent months, to craft and own this complex, ugly, beautiful, multifaceted narrative.

It is many things, this story I’m telling here. Above all, I had thought, it was mine. But through this blog, I hope, it can also belong in some way to others. I hope it can imbue some expectations. I hope it is a drop in the ocean that is the sorely needed Sea Change.

I so desperately want to bring the Untold Stories Project to the military community, my Army community, but I do not know if I am strong enough. This community can be perhaps uniquely and intractably pronatalist and heteronormative. I’m far from the first person to point this out. But I still have no idea where to begin to improve things, or whether it’s even my job to try.

I think it might be.

I wish it wasn’t.