Reproductive Resiliency




Reproduction, Fertility, Resilience, Dialogue

How to Cite

Reilly, K. M. A., & Goto, A. (2013). Reproductive Resiliency. M/C Journal, 16(5).
Vol. 16 No. 5 (2013): resilient
Published 2013-08-19

Contemporary definitions of resilience stress adaptability to changing ecological and economic conditions (Berkes, Colding and Folke; Castleden, McKee, Murray and Leonard 369). But this approach to resilience is a measure of individual ‘fitness’ to an adaptive whole (Hughes 165; McMahon et al.; Walker and Cooper). Not only is this incongruous with the experience of reproductive loss and infertility, it also works to sideline alternative forms or sources of resilience (Cox).

In this paper, we share our efforts to build on previous theories of resilience by engaging in intimate dialogues and written reflections about our personal experiences with reproductive loss. Throughout the paper our reflections are interspersed with our ‘findings’ about the relationship between reproduction and resilience. For us, an active process of dialogically grounded reflection opened up the possibility of a different type of theoretical engagement, one that ultimately produced different enactments, and offered unexpected redirections, both of our experience with reproductive resilience, and in the resilience literature at large. This deeply personal, dialogical frame allowed us to move beyond the anecdotal and confessional to encompass a praxis that engaged the acutely affective reality of reproductive resiliency.


Three years ago, in the wake of the global financial crisis, I became interested in growing references to resilience in the media. I decided to start a graduate reading group on this theme. This was 'serious academic work.' We looked at questions like: Why has the UNDP rebranded itself 'Empowered Lives, Resilient Nations'?

But my thinking about resilience was interrupted by a personal crisis. In January 2011, I was surprised and delighted to discover I was pregnant after years of clinically diagnosed 'unexplained infertility.' So my husband and I were devastated when, in May, a medical crisis (for me, not the baby) forced us to abort the pregnancy in its fifth month.

Two years of exhausting medical interventions later, I learned that I am unable to bear children of my own—unable to reproduce—a fact which I am still actively struggling to reconcile.


Strange the surprising state of affairs that would shift an employer and research lead into an acquaintance, confidante and friend. I initially learned of her challenges to carry a child to full term through proximity. As her teaching assistant I felt obliged to inform her that I had recently experienced an early miscarriage, and that it could possibly disrupt my work in her course. She was visibly pregnant at the time. Soon after, when I was participating in the resilience reading group, she miscarried as well.

Reproductive Resilience

A year or more passed before we spoke to each other about our losses, but when we did, we realised that we had both been influenced by dominant discourses around reproduction.  Identifying the source of these pressures was an important topic of reflection for us.

We found that dominant conceptions of reproductive resilience are overshadowed by a biological imperative to reproduce. When a woman is unable to conceive, or experiences a reproductive loss, she is told to ‘try again.’ There can be solace in trying, and in the ‘successful’ cases, a ‘happy resolution’ is achieved in subsequent pregnancies. But in other cases, the woman's body must produce several reproductive losses before medical professionals can understand the causes of her inability to reproduce (McMahon et al. 2007; Sexton, Byrd, and von Kluge 236). A series of increasingly invasive medical interventions can then be employed to increase the likelihood of reproduction.

As a biological imperative, this type of reproductive resilience demands “progressive adaptation to a continually reinvented norm” (Walker and Cooper 156) of what it means to be fertile. But this is more than just a medical norm. Increasingly, reproduction also implies “adaptability to extremes of [ecological and economic] turbulence” (ibid.) that establish the conditions in which fertility is both experienced and understood, something that Katherine in particular had faced:


Why is it that we both ended up in this situation? Why is it that we are far from being alone in being 40 and childless? I am partly a product of the 1980s teen pregnancy hysteria in North America which made it an anathema for young women to ‘jeopardise’ their earning potential by having children. This makes me particularly bitter because I now understand that, at that moment in history, my society decided to prioritise my productive contributions to capital over socialised financing of the conditions that would allow me to produce a family.

What I am suggesting is that the discourses which produce the preconceived notions that we attempt to ‘live up to’ are also discourses that we must, in many ways, ‘live with,’ because like it or not, they contributed to producing the situation which is now prompting us to write this paper!

In this sense, reproductive resilience also becomes a measure of normalcy, where normalcy includes the adaptability of human bodies and biological process to the demands of a socio-economic system. Reproductive loss or infertility then becomes a source of personal weakness or abnormality that must be overcome, and a cause of personal degradation, which is often kept silent. In our experience, although individual responses differed greatly, either way the failure to reproduce demanded a response:


After my loss, I became determined to be pregnant again. For me IVF treatments were not so much about wanting to know with certainty my bodily ability to bring a child into the world. I was working under the perhaps rather desperate assumption that they would. I think of my IVF year more as desperation to achieve an end, a fear of failure, a crisis of sustainability, and a disbelief or disassociation from my own physical reality—the fact of my advancing age. The idea of ‘self-enclosed bodily anxiety’ captures this wonderfully for me.


I did nothing, not a single consultation with a fertility expert, no visits to herbal medicine specialists, at most, a half-hearted internet search on adoption agencies. My path insisted upon embracing uncertainty over entrusting others with telling me the limits of my bodily integrity.

When we began to share our stories with each other, we noticed that, despite having been surrounded by loving families and supportive colleagues at our times of crisis, both of us felt a tremendous sense of isolation as we tried to make sense of and respond to our losses. So a second area of reflection concerned the source of these emotions—both the sense of isolation, and the way in which it reinforced the normalisation of dominant discourses of reproductive resilience.

We found that the reproductive industry’s medical interventions and specialised language community codify and reinforce measures of normalcy and sustain a coerced and often isolating process of adaptation to ever-more medicalised norms of fertility (Bonanno 753). This isolation is particularly apparent for women who choose to pursue fertility treatments. The language of medical intelligence is overwhelming and difficult to learn, creating a barrier between insiders and outsiders to fertility interventions (see for example: Kagan et al., S151). Fertility treatments are not only highly technical, but also a very introspective process, making it difficult for fertility partners, let alone friends and family, to fully comprehend what is going on, or to be involved.

Meanwhile, support is difficult to find in a fertility clinic’s waiting room at 7am where groups of women silently await blood work to monitor hormone levels, avoiding eye contact by scanning their phones or reading a magazine. Many women turn instead to online forums, such as, where there is mutual comprehension wrapped in the security of anonymity. Rather than explain themselves each time they post to a forum, participants take up the language of reproductive medicine to detail their reproductive interventions in codified signature files (see Figure 1 below). Here, lengthy fertility campaigns become a merit badge of adaptability and perseverance. In their messages, participants share jingoistic mantras like ‘It only takes one!’, one harvested egg to have a child, as they cheer each other on in the search for a baby (Figure 2 below). These types of forums can empower insofar as they educate and encourage. However, they can also enclose and isolate as they cut patients off from family and friends, while creating external pressure to achieve a biological imperative suspended in changing parameters for what it means to be fertile.


Figure 1: Example of a Signature File from an IVF Discussion Forum

Figure 2: “It only takes one!”

This kind of isolated adaptation to medicalised norms of fertility can come at a very high cost. For example, one friend was so traumatised by the multiple fertility interventions and failures it took for her to bear a child that she was ultimately unable to connect with the baby that she bore. The forward march of fertility treatments under the mounting pressure of advancing age required her to defer mourning for the multiple losses that she was experiencing: the loss of a child, the loss of normalcy, the loss of voice. She alone sustained the physical and psychological weight of reproductive resilience, and the pressures of achieving a ‘good outcome’ within the biological limits of her fertility window. When her daughter was born, she was engulfed by an avalanche of backlogged emotions—years of accumulated grief and stress. She was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and has struggled to develop a meaningful relationship with her child.

But we also found that one need not pursue fertility treatments to experience the isolating and normalising effects of dominant conceptions of fertility. Some experienced infertility without feeling the need to consult medical professionals, or discover through initial consultations that a commercial and medicalised system was not the means through which they wanted to create a future for themselves. Others could find it difficult to contemplate the ‘reproduction’ of a ‘family’ when past experiences with family had been difficult. Yet, despite these decisions, changing norms of fertility continued to reinforce the biological imperative of reproduction in ways that become interwoven with tacitly heteronormative conceptualisations of the nature of family and community (Peters, Jackson, & Rudge 132-134).


Just the other day at the community garden, one of the gardeners, whom I had just met, wanted to know whether I had any children. When I said no, he bluntly asked me, ‘Why not?’ Just like that: ‘Why not?’ How can I even begin to answer this question? I’ve started to look people squarely in the eye and say, ‘I guess I must not be blessed.’ It’s not because I think I’m not blessed—my life is incredibly rewarding. It’s because it’s the best way I can think of to point out how inappropriate that line of questioning is. But I guess it’s also a defence…


I do find that there is something deeply gendered and heterosexist about that line of questioning. As if there is some type of biological expectation for women to reproduce as a means to complete the family. And in absentia, in not raising the biological imperative with same-sex couples—in particular men, a whole host of assumptions are built into forming a good family. It’s like a double disrespect. In the first instance, the biological imperative falls on women, and in the second instance, the lack of expectation leaves many others out of the conversation.

In total, we found that resilience always came with a modifier; otherwise we were left asking ‘resilience of what?’ ‘Resilience for what?’ Economic resilience, for example implied the adaptability of the capitalist system. Similarly, rather than expanding choices for and beyond women, the reproductive industry reinforced the normalcy of a gendered biological imperative that ultimately rested on the shoulders of an isolated individual. “The criteria of selection may well have shifted. Yet in the last instance, and for all its flexibility, the resilience perspective is no less rigorous in its selective function than Darwinian evolution” (Walker and Cooper 156).



To my surprise, she wanted to talk about it one day when we went for lunch, as though words would form the reality of her unexpected shift from pregnant to not-pregnant. The psychological experience of my own miscarriage had been devastating, so invisible, unannounced. Only those who needed to know were privy to the situation. Perhaps I quietly believed that if I spoke very little of it, it could almost have been mistaken for nothing other than conjecture or wishful thinking. Our conversation reproduced the reality of my failure to carry my child into childbirth. Her request for an empathetic listener would mean that a solitary introspection to resignify respect for my own body would give way to responding with due respect for her becoming no longer pregnant.

Dialogue did more than just allow us to make sense of what we were experiencing.  In conversation, reproductive resilience became something other than what we experienced in isolation. As experiences transformed into words, one perspective intermingled with and shaped the other, revealing imaginings that undid the closures and conclusions reached in our own minds, and offered an opportunity to reconsider the expectations of dominant narratives.

Other possibilities surrounded, awaited contemplation, discursive engagement, solicitude in the shadows of experiences that coincided and diverged, resting assured that points of disagreement could be articulated as conjecture, wordless acknowledgement or future interactions. Our very different experiences and choices formed a context for conversation. We asked of one another: Why did this happen? How do you relate to your body? What do you feel is expected of you? What do you plan to do now? Upon dialogical reflection, it became clear that bodies, rather than being intentional enactments of adaptation, were more often than not products and reproductions of experiences and discourses:


What kinds of biological, familial, technological, and economic imperatives are pressed upon our bodies? I wonder too about the ways in which consumerisation of reproduction plays upon our imagination of what it would be like to be a parent, creating a market and psychological demand for this life-changing acquisition of a human life.           

Perhaps these imperatives are operationalised as different mediations on the body, which is seen as a passive recipient of these directives.

The externalisation and internalisation of our thoughts allowed us to see how our knowledge was suspended between our relationship with our body and the, often unexpressed, expectations of others which were based on their unexamined assumptions of what it meant to be a woman, a sexual being, a member of a family, a contributor to the community. Thinking about the body as something performed allowed us to use words to make real, reflect on, reproduce or recast our experiences:


I’m so independent, even in my relationship with my husband that I was a bit shocked at how my miscarriage rippled through my networks of friends, colleagues and family. People I hardly knew told me that they cried when they heard! I forget sometimes that my husband also suffered a huge loss, a blow to his identity and confidence, and a challenge to his sense of place. It is not just me who needs to engage with questions of resilience, but so does he, and we also need to do that together, and these processes will ripple through our networks of friends, family and co-workers in ways that affect the overall resiliency of a community of people.


I talked to my partner about how deep down sometimes I feel that I've already done my work as a caregiver. I did a lot of volunteer and paid work with children when I was younger. I’ve taken care of so many children who ranged dramatically in age, mental and physical health and mobility, children who were dying and then died, and this took up so much of my teens, twenties and early thirties. I told him that while I've had that experience, he hasn't spent so much time with kids so that I wished for him to think about if this was something he wanted to explore (taking on a care giving / parental role), considering the options that are available to us through adoption or fostering.

In dialogue, we figured out how to talk to one another, to locate a sense of fun within urgency, to reach toward mutual understanding, to test borders and to reshape them. Putting experiences and expectations into words allowed us to uncover expansive possibilities—options not considered, courses not taken.

Ultimately, we began to think of reproductive resilience not as the means to achieve a biological imperative, but rather as a relational space of production. As we exchanged ideas, we came to question the assumption that reproductive resilience could be channeled through an individual body, and consequently we began to push back on definitions of fertility which served as measures of ‘fitness’ to a mythical adaptive whole. Through dialogue we resignified our individualised and isolated experiences with reproduction, turning what we experienced as vulnerability into a starting point for the reconceptualisation of resilience. This process—we call it ‘resiliency’ to distinguish it from adaptation—became an act of occupying our own reality in and through the relationships that surround us. Whereas resilience was about individual adaptations to shifting but still dominant norms of fertility, resiliency was about negotiating and constituting a fertile world through dialogues:


I found our discussion of care a vitalising part of our conversations. Somehow, through forging different relations, the body propels resilience toward resisting external reinforcements to individualise reproduction and calls forth a collective response.


Today we discussed reproduction as a process of constructing a caring condition. Caring both in the sense of nurturing, but also in the sense of consideration. This was the most personally enriching part of our discussion – I felt empowered to make decisions about how I wanted to engage in caring and nurturing. This opened my mind to the possibility of adoption, but also to the fact that I express myself as a caring being in many other ways.

Resiliency suggests actively engaging people and forces in ways that do not impose a certain order or state of affairs.  But we struggled to think about how this new vision of reproductive resiliency would articulate with resistance. What does it mean to resist when biological failure renders acceptance of reproductive decline the only possible way forward? Though we can resist the conditions that created our current situations, we cannot resist our own pasts or our own biological reality. Should our inability to reproduce be seen as a victory in the fight against material myths of parental bliss? Or does our inability to reproduce make us the martyrs of the post-modern and neoliberal era?

We want reproductive resiliency to offer a different experience of fertility.  But we also want it to be a foundation to resist the normalisation of biological adaptation to the demands of a turbulent socio-economic system. We can do this by making a distinction between the biological act of reproduction (producing a baby), and the social reproducibility of care (nurturing, engaging, resisting, being, sharing, performing, etc.). Reproductive resiliency is concerned with nurturing the fertile enactments of human caring. It is on the basis of human caring that we can resist a system that creates the need for fertility adaptations, and it is also on this basis that we can open up room for thinking about reproductive resiliency in a respectful and socially engaged way.


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