The word ‘barren’ is thought of as deeply negative.
Describe a woman who is yet to have kids as barren and you’d probably get a mouthful of abuse or a slap in return.
But there are some women who are actively trying to reclaim the word to describe their fertility battles.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term comes from the Old French barain or brahain, meaning the opposite of fertile. It’s used in reference to land which cannot produce vegetation.
Bar also means ‘male, man’, suggesting that the term actually translates as ‘male-like, not producing offspring’.
In other words, the word suggests that an inability to produce negates your right to call yourself a woman.
Katy Lindemann is the founder of the Uber Barrens Club – ‘the club no one wants to join’ (her own words).
It’s a community of childless women who share their stories of being unable to conceive – ‘people who can empathise with what it’s really like to be excluded from the parents’ club, peering in from the outside, desperately wanting to join in’.
Katy’s own infertility journey has included multiple unsuccessful IVF cycles (including four egg collections, seven cancelled cycles, two pregnancies, two miscarriages and three surgeries).
‘I had to stop treatment when doctors on both sides of the Atlantic confirmed that my uterus was simply too damaged to sustain a pregnancy, and that I would never be able to carry a child,’ she tells Metro.co.uk.
‘I’m not just infertile. I’m really, really infertile. I’m barren.’
Katy says that there’s still a ‘powerful stigma’ around being unable to have kids because society fetishes motherhood.
‘There are certain phrases that have historically been used to shame women and make them feel responsible for their infertility.’
‘I know that my worth isn’t defined by my ability to reproduce yet I often still feel defective as a woman, because I can’t do what I’m supposed to be able to do,’ she tells us.
Infertility is incredibly common.
One in seven couples has difficulty conceiving, although the NHS estimates that around 84% will eventually conceive naturally if they have enough unprotected sex. In a third of infertile couples, the problem is with the woman (PCOS, thyroid issues, endometriosis, fibroids, pelvic inflammatory disease, etc), and in another third, the man is the issue.
And yet, what terms to we have to describe an infertile man?
Impotent? Impotence firstly means feeling or being powerless, being physically weak, lacking self-restraint.
‘Firing blanks’ is a phrase we use to describe the fact your semen doesn’t contain sperm, but it definitely doesn’t have the same connotations as having say, too few eggs. It sounds far more easily fixed – you can just reload and refire.
Katy says: ‘Barren has been used for centuries to stigmatise childless women as inferior and worthless members of society, often shunned as witches, their barrenness a sign of physical and moral deficiency.
‘But in various pockets of the internet, women on infertility forums can be found jokingly referring to ourselves as barren – instead of passively accepting its negative connotations, we’re re-appropriating it as an empowering identity label.’
It might be a harsh word but then again, Katy explains, the experience of being infertile in a fertile world is harsh.
‘Describing ourselves as barren started as a sarcastic quip, but we found that by using such an in-your-face word, it felt like we were making ourselves heard, and taking ownership of our story,’ she tells us.
‘Yes, we’re infertile, so what?
‘The silver lining I take out of a very dark cloud is the incredible community of barren women that I’ve had the privilege to become a part of – a silent sorority of hundreds of thousands of women sharing their experiences of infertility and pregnancy loss on anonymous infertility forums, secret Facebook groups, and private Instagram feeds.
‘Uber Barrens Club is a club no one wants to join, but it means the world to know you’re not alone.’
Katy’s mission is to reclaim the word barren in order to shake off the cloak of shame – helping women believe that being barren isn’t a personal failing.
‘Instead, the word represents resilience and strength of character and belonging to a sisterhood of some of the bravest, funniest, most kick-ass women you could ever wish to know’.
When it comes to reclaiming a word, you’ve got to come to terms with what you’re trying to take control of.
I put the question of using ‘barren’ to a PCOS support group and opinion was split between women who were still struggling to come to terms with their diagnoses and those who regarded the word a little like the term ‘queer’.
‘One can celebrate and reclaim “queer” but I’m not sure I’d be able to accept “barren” as something I’d celebrate about myself,’ said one woman.
But another newly diagnosed ‘cyst-a’ said that coming across the Uber Barren Club had moved her to tears.
‘I’m newly diagnosed, sort of getting past the sad bit and looking at language/strategies to help me deal with it,’ she said.
‘I just read the UBC homepage and I’m in tears. This is EXACTLY what I’ve been looking for.’
Some of us really do want to see pejoratives being turned into positives for a situation we didn’t choose and have zero control over.
Infertility and language describing it is so often entrenched in blame, misogyny and insult.
There’s a Nordic heavy noise male duo called ‘Barren Womb’ – an odd name for two blokes yelling. Facebook is full of groups called things like ‘Barren to Beautiful’…implying that infertility makes you ugly.
Emma Forsyth and Gabby Griffith run The Big Fat Negative podcast – a pod about all things infertility.
Both of them view much of the language used to describe our inability to (naturally/easily) produce babies as being shrouded in shame and blame.
For Emma, her exploration with the term ‘barren’ began on Twitter, when she saw Giles Coren call someone on Twitter ‘a barren witch’.
‘That it was right at the beginning when I was first trying for a baby…and I remember just feeling really offended,’ says Emma. ‘I really liked him and thought he was a cool guy and thought he wrote really well and then he was using language like that.
‘Firstly it seemed quite misogynistic and secondly, it was a really aggressive, horrible word to use.’
That’s part of why Gabby and Emma want to reclaim the word from being one of insult and blame to one of empowerment.
Gabby told us that it’s time for the infertile community to take control of the words used to describe them.
‘There are certain phrases that have historically been used to shame women and make them feel responsible for their infertility,’ said Gabby.
‘If the infertility community can start to use them in a different, more empowering context, we can stop them being used as weapons against us.’
Emma agrees, telling us that the language around struggling to have a child is all too often full of blame. It’s time for that to change.
‘If we can use it then it takes away some of the negativity around infertility – it’s all so blame-y,’ she explains.
‘All the language surrounding it; miscarriage – you miscarried your baby. So what, you dropped it?
‘Baby loss – what, you lost your baby somewhere? It’s something that happened in your body, it’s not your fault. It’s just something that happened.
‘I had appendicitis as a kid and it turned into peritonitis because the appendix burst and gunked up my fallopian tubes. If we’re looking to blame anyone, it should be my GP. I couldn’t conceive a child. That’s not my fault.
‘Women going through infertility blame themselves which is why they go and do crazy stuff like taking odd herbs, injected themselves with all kinds of horrible treatments.
‘If we can take away some of that blame-y-ness by using the word barren, then great.’
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