Suffering in silence: the ‘secret life of infertile women’ laid bare

Dr Paulina Billett, who has done long term research into the impacts of infertility for women who very much want babies. ...
Dr Paulina Billett, who has done long term research into the impacts of infertility for women who very much want babies. She stopped having treatment for her own infertility after 10 years. Photo: Joe Armao

On her 40th birthday, 10 years into a hard-yards struggle to start a family, Paulina Billett decided she had gone through enough.

A miscarriage at 12 weeks' gestation had been "pretty full on...my world shrunk after that", a second miscarriage followed when she was aged 36, and by age 38, Dr Billett felt that she "probably needed to start pulling back".

"When I was 38 I went to an IVF clinic and booked in for treatment and came home and looked at my husband and said, 'I don't think I can do this'. He said, 'If you need time out, let's see how we go'," says Dr Billett, a researcher at La Trobe University.

She had begun communicating in 2012 with a group of women in an infertility support group online, who were also among the one in six Australian couples who will struggle to conceive. She noticed how deep an impact protracted infertility was having among those very much wanting motherhood.

"A lot of different areas of their life are impacted; their relationships with others are affected, particularly people who get pregnant around the time they're trying; the negotiating of pregnant women around them was very difficult – a lot talked about having insensitive conversations with people, where they were told to relax or simplify things," she said.

"One was told, 'If you just adopt you will get pregnant." This is really hurtful."

As well as dealing with their own situation, the women, and Ms Billett, found the way society associates motherhood with "successful" womanhood – specifically that motherhood and femininity were linked – a challenge: "One of the things I'd really like people to understand is that a woman's destiny is not motherhood, but to be a woman.

"When we make [motherhood] part of her success and her only success motherhood, then we are robbing an entire part of the population of her sense of being a woman."

This week, Dr Billett and fellow La Trobe lead researcher Dr Anne-Maree Sawyer from the department of sociology, released their findings following a three-year, qualitative study of 24 women who, like Paulina Billett, have gone through the infertility maze looking for the way out.

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Dr Billett said some of the ways the women spoke about their bodies were heartbreaking; self-loathing and self-blame occurred, even when the male partner was the one with the infertility issue.

"A lot [of the subjects] speak about their body as something that's broken, that's faulty, that refuses to do what they want it to do," Dr Billet said.

"A lot of the time, women question why is it not functioning the way that it should. We see our bodies as a machine that if you just tweak it, it should just function. But the study of infertility is still relatively new, there is lots of stuff we don't know about it, and when problems arise and there is no answer for them...there is this mirror back at me, 'What's wrong with me?' "

On the issue of whether a woman can become resigned to never being a mother if they very much wish to be one, Ms Billett (one of the few women diagnosed with unexplained infertility) says "I don't think you ever really settle the matter".

But being able to tell the stories of women in a similar situation in the book of her co-authored study has vindicated Dr Billett's own emotional and intellectual experience.

"For me, getting this book out was almost like seeing your child; it was quite a strange feeling. The pain, the suffering, the horror of it all was worth it. I've got those women's stories out and been able to tell them. To me, that's worth everything, the whole of the pain I went through. And it is validating the suffering that's happened for the group," she said.

Infertility and Intimacy in an Online Community, by Dr Paulina Billett and Dr Anne-Maree Sawyer, published by Palgrave Macmillan, is out today.

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