Mothers and Daughters: How do we adapt to engage in fertility conversations?
February is dedicated as the Reproductive Health Month (RHM) South Africa and stakeholders within the fertility industry offered free online webinars throughout the month. The presentations covered an array of topics ranging from medical causes of fertility issues, procedures, alternative forms of assisted reproductive technology (ART) such as surrogacy and egg/sperm donation, testimonial evidence from couples on their journeys, and the role that a healthy lifestyle plays in combating some fertility issues.
In the past two years, South Africa has experienced an increased awareness around infertility, thanks to the significant concerted efforts and milestone initiatives taken by the various non-profit organisations and other stakeholders. Currently, there is an ongoing campaign to get medical aid schemes to include fertility treatment within their benefit plans, resulting in the first positive outcome with Discovery Health. This is commendable, given that one in six couples is affected by infertility.
A critical component missing from the discussions is the mother and daughter conversations, either when a couple is diagnosed with infertility, or during fertility treatments, which, may entail time-consuming and expensive medical interventions.
If we consider the role played by mothers and aunts during puberty and the early formative years of a young woman, the engagements centred on abstinence from sexual behaviours that could lead to contracting HIV and Aids and prevention against pregnancy. Family structures and communities, through various platforms, became the conduit as a source of disseminating information. The advent of community-based health care facilities and engagements amongst peers has made it a lot easier for young women to source information and seek professional help without family consent.
In the African context, one of the traditions and cultural practices carried out is the rite of passage to womanhood. This is largely driven by the participant’s family cultural practices, traditions, values, and belief systems. In the Xhosa community, this is referred to as ‘intonjana’, and Prof. Nobuntu Penxa- Matholeni, competently elaborates on the practices of this indigenous rite of passage in the article; ‘Kwantonjane: The indigenous rites of passage amongst amaXhosa in relation to prejudiced spaces”. Prof Velaphi Mkhize of Umsamo African Institute has written extensively on “umhlonyane” a rite of passage to womanhood practiced in the Zulu culture.
Fast forward to pre-marital counselling, the woman’s family carries the responsibility of advising their daughter on how to conduct herself, exercise patience and resilience within the marriage. The keyword being, “ukubekezela” (to persevere).
However, there is less focus and emphasis afforded during pre-marital counselling on how issues of fertility should be addressed, should they arise. The fertility journey is long and arduous, paved with many uncertainties, risks, pitfalls, heartaches, emotional and mental stress that places a huge financial burden on the couple. Navigating this unknown territory for a woman in marriage can be daunting, especially if avenues of free engagement and support are non-existent. Equally, approaching her mother or aunts is not an automatic choice, as, by default, she is regarded as belonging to her husband’s family. In the context of most African cultures, when a couple faces challenges conceiving, the narrative perpetuated is centred on the woman. Our patriarchal society defaults to a solution that seeks to hide the stigma attached to childlessness. Whilst practices such as adoption within the family and isithembu (polygamy) may have historically been acceptable practices that worked, those are not necessarily the correct solutions to the 21st-century couple.
There is no doubt that daughters prefer to first have the option of approaching their mothers or maternal aunts when dealing with fertility issues, within the confines of a safe and trusted family
structure. The challenge lies in the lack of open dialogue, resulting in mothers adopting the silent approach. Equally, unless a daughter has a very close relationship with her mother or maternal aunts, this issue may be very daunting to venture into.
Several concerning questions require some consideration if we are to change society’s narrative perpetuated on fertility issues. As daughters, what is the role that we would like to see our mothers play in counselling and supporting us when we embark on the fertility journey? How can mothers or maternal aunts create confidential and conducive environments of engagement? What about decisions relating to the use of donor sperm and artificial insemination? These are some of the pertinent issues which Africans decry as being culturally and morally unacceptable. Unconventional and uncomfortable to digest as they may be, these are realities of the 21st century. Trained and experienced professional psychologists and fertility counsellors play a pivotal role in assisting daughters and couples deal with their diagnoses and the emotional roller coaster ride that follows during treatment. Simply put, the fertility journey is synonymous with grief for the loss of hopes and deferred maternal and paternal dreams.
For couples or daughters currently undergoing fertility treatment, how many mothers or mothers-in-law understand what the treatments entail, the emotional and financial burden that accompanies the fertility journey? Whilst it is the prerogative of a daughter or couple to decide whether to disclose such sensitive issues, it is equally imperative for mothers and maternal aunts to be courageous, understanding, and to have empathy, beyond just financial support.
Spiritual counselling and traditional methods may have a place in society, but their effectiveness is subjective, depending on the alignment with the beliefs and values of the affected. When I consult a medical practitioner, my greatest wish is for my mother’s support, care and love, because the sheer mental and emotional strength required to survive the fertility journey is beyond comprehension.
Patience Nontuthuzelo Luxomo
Property Specialist, Founder @infertilitybooks, and passionate about fertility issues