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Women have began to talk about things they were expected to be silent about; let’s do our part by listening to them.
Trigger warning: This deals with themes of infertility and may be triggering to survivors.
“Why then did I want children?” the author, Rohini Rajagopal asks, in What’s a Lemon Squeezer Doing in My Vagina?
“It is the biggest contradiction of my infertility experience that I had no single, personal, unassailable answer to the question. I was a racehorse with blinkers on, eyeing only the finish line, blind to what rewards and trials awaited me after that.”
Before the internet, the only exposure I had to concerns with pregnancy, miscarriages and fertility was from The Bold and The Beautiful. I was Team Taylor over Team Brooke, and pregnancy was, at the time, a storytelling tool to either introduce more drama or future characters. I knew more about motherhood and the difficulty of becoming a mother, or a parent, from television than from real life.
We don’t talk about it.
My first real life brush with someone’s pain at not being a parent was through an online friend who wrote to me once about how he and his wife were childless, how much it hurt him, how he was afraid he would never be a father. I hope the response I sent back gave him comfort, and in any case they then proceeded to have three children of their own, so in the long run it’s a happy story.
The internet has changed a lot of this. I’ve read more, talked more, seen more. I’ve grown more, and am able to empathise more with this need and this yearning that I don’t share myself.
But really, we don’t talk about it. Not enough? Or not with enough delicacy and openness, as opposed to brutal shame and hiding.
I read this book expecting to be drawn into a complete stranger’s world, to be honest. I don’t have this need, and I don’t have a partner, and my personal roadmap doesn’t bake in time for babies. But by Page 13 when Rajagopal muses on scenarios for finding out she is pregnant, drawn directly from movies, TV and books (“… it’s not brain tumour or blood cancer… I am just PREGNANT!”) I realised that I too am steeped and over-brewed in the Baby-Maker tea pot cis women are made to stew in.
So much of her journey is familiar. The dehumanising journey with doctors and medical tests. The complete and overbearing, frightening authority your doctor wields over you, a coercive control that you submit to for invasive tests, pain and hopeful gain. How our bodies are weird. Our bodies are weird! If nothing is wrong, why was Rajagopal infertile?
Answer: because there’s nothing wrong with being infertile, except that we have made it so.
As women (as dalits, adivasis, trans persons, queer and asexual and kinky persons), we are judged. All the time. The soul-destroying apartheid of merit and the course we study relegates to us rations of social respect, and too bad if we needed another serving. The journey to motherhood, Rajagopal implies, is more of the same, only worse because you can do everything right – everything – and still ‘fail’, still be blamed for failure.
The story of trying to get pregnant when plain ol’ sex (which Rajagopal depersonalised at one point to plain ol’ “intercourse”) doesn’t work is one of multiple invasions. The Lemon Squeezer of the title is pushed up your vagina because – hey you want to be a mother. You need to be a warrior first, a woman who can take the pain, and invasion, survive it, and come back for more. Best yet to be a woman who doesn’t care or feel it at all, but if you can’t, ignore it.
Rajagopal’s story takes us through multiple attempts. Multiple miscarriages. You know, going in, that this narrative ends in motherhood, but Rajagopal didn’t get to skip to the end of the book and we don’t either.
Her husband floats through this journey, unable to help in any concrete way, processing his emotions differently, learning to be present, to be emotional, with her. I went through half the book wondering if he was going to be around by the end – but there’s a forgiveness for him, and his needs and incompatibilities, along with an appreciation for the support, and the immovable steadfastness he brought to the table when that was all there was he could offer.
How do you support someone when there is nothing you can do to help? How do you see though the cloud of pain you are both walking through together, to see together? To see each other? There is a grace in this story for his pain, much more than Rajagopal gives to hers. (She also puts him at the bottom of a list of useful people to have around after they do finally have a baby. It’s hilarious but also sad?)
Around Rajagopal, life went on as she tried, multiple times, to get pregnant. Other women became pregnant, carried to term, came back with baby pictures, relatives who supported child care, baby pictures of beautiful babies. We don’t know their stories but from the outside it is a borderline cruelty – how easily you can be pregnant, again and again, how often we see a new baby, while here Rajagopal is trying the first time, the second time, obsessively taking care of herself and her organs for implantation, gestation and birth.
One of the differences that gets touted in the India versus the West culture wars is that families stay together here. Not just men and women who can’t get divorced but the other side, the community side, where your family is there to support you, love you, help you with the daily routine, to share responsibility. But as with doctors who don’t show care or respect or patience, families aren’t necessarily supportive or demonstrative of care – families can become part of a conspiracy of pressure and silence, and the silence is only broken to add more pressure, to invade an enforced privacy and poison comfort.
We see this over and over not just in toxic families who later lose all contact with their sons and daughters but in our families where we do love each other, where we do care and are hurt for each other’s pain. Rajagopal’s quest to become pregnant is owned, without care or consideration, by her whole family – this book is her chance to appropriate her story back to herself. “Because this is my story and I am going to tell it.*
The tunnel vision of hope and obduracy Rohini Rajagopal exercises through multiple procedures and resulted in this space where she could tell her story, share her journey, and acknowledge the many people who have not been as fortunate, who took different parts. In many ways, Rajagopal exercises a delicacy for the reader that she wasn’t spared for herself. There is Science, explanation, and enough distance and humour that at no point will the sensitive reader need to worry about gore and horror – we are drawn in to an emotional pain and horror with a lot of tenderness, wit and delicacy.
Infertility affects 1 in 6 women in India, but they either face the stigma of being childless, or are silenced in their pain. No more. Women are starting to talk about things; we need to make sure we are listening.
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Image source: CanvaPro and book cover Amazon
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Rohini Malur is a writer based on Bengaluru. She is a founding member of All
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