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'I would ask, what’s the point of living?': Women share the anguish of not being able to conceive

Molatelo Mainetje-Bossman, a filmmaker, is tired of being asked when she will have children.
Molatelo Mainetje-Bossman, a filmmaker, is tired of being asked when she will have children.
Image: Kgaugelo Masweneng

Molatelo Mainetje-Bossman hated her life for years, lost weight and became suicidal - all because she could not fall pregnant.

Years ago she went through a complicated pregnancy due to a medical condition and as a result, she cannot naturally carry a child.

“I went to school. I have my own car and I consider myself successful in my own level. But the fact that I haven’t given birth means I don’t carry much weight in society. In everything I do, I am asked about children," she said.

“I still get judged harshly. Sometimes I would ask myself: ‘What’s the point of living after all?’”

She struggled to retain friends as most would fall pregnant, and she worried about being invited to baby showers and traumatising herself all over again.

“Women like me are called names. I can’t just expose myself to any environments. It can happen at home, too. If my baby sisters have children, they get to be called so and so’s mother, and that elevates their status to woman. I remain a girl.

“When I was 14 I refused to go to initiation school. I’m often told that’s why I can’t have children, like it’s a curse,” she said.

She was one of the women speaking at the Fertility Show Africa in Midrand on Friday.

Mainetje-Bossman decried the toxic culture of ostracising and stigmatising women because of fertility challenges, and  imposing patriarchal mindsets on them.

When I was 14-years-old I refused to go to initiation school, and so, I’m often told that’s why I can’t have children like it’s a curse
Molatelo Mainetje-Bossman

“We have this secret practice where, if a man cannot conceive, his family will arrange for his brother to impregnate his wife. As long as they have children and look normal, we keep quiet.

“Sometimes, if she’s the one who has a problem she will either be shamed or the husband will get a second wife because she can’t give him what he wants,” said the When Babies Don’t Come documentary producer.

Sara Marshall, a mother of twins, went through an excruciating four years of struggling to conceive.

She ended up falling pregnant through in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and now has twins.

“I found my journey to be extremely isolating. It was one of solitude and I had no one to openly talk to about it. There was a sense of shame attached to how I felt. When my first IVF failed, I couldn’t come to terms with it. I didn’t realise it can fail because no one had told me it can fail.

“I felt immense grief, grief for a baby that didn’t even exist. What was the point if I can’t be a mother? Even if I have a career, what’s the point? The cloud just gets darker. It is terrifying,” Marshall said.

This happened in the 1990s.

“Sometimes you feel like you’ve let your partner down. I could feel my mom was grieving but she had to stay strong for me. To fail to conceive naturally, and then again when a procedure defeats you,” she said.

She and a friend, Tracey Bambrough, founded an online support and information platform, IVF Babble, for people going through the same anguish.

Bambrough went through a 10-year journey characterised by miscarriages, anguish, heartache, misdiagnosis and failed IVFs.

She remembered the pain and despair the experience brought. At some point, she and her husband were friends with a couple who shared the same problem, but when the friend conceived before her, the friendship crumbled.

“Sitting in clinics and hospitals, you can see everyone struggling. The despair hurts you. It affects every aspect of your life,” Bambrough said.

Gauteng health MEC Dr Bandile Masuku attended the two-day conference and praised how it opened up dialogue on issues around fertility.

Masuku called for access to fertility health benefits.

He said the province needed to build more public fertility centres. Gauteng currently has one, and Pretoria’s Steve Biko Academic Hospital also serves patients from Limpopo, North West and Mpumalanga. 

Masuku said the Fertility Show Africa helped break cultural taboos surrounding infertility that had to be dealt with not only medically and psychologically, but also culturally.

The MEC suggested that traditional healers be included in future fertility shows.  

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