Here's Why I Don't Use the Word Infertile and Why You Shouldn't Either

The words we use to describe ourselves have power over us. Choose them wisely.

The words we use to describe ourselves have power over us. Choose them wisely.

When a couple has been trying to conceive for sometime there can be nothing as debilitating and limiting as being described as "infertile". In the remainder of this post I will explain why I choose not to use that term, what I choose to use instead, and why I think it's important.

Our words have power over us. Language philosophers refer to certain language as both descriptive and performative. The descriptive part of language is obvious. When we process an experience, we use words to describe and articulate what we have experienced, what our ideas are, or how we understand something around us. The performative nature of language, however, is sometimes taken for granted. Performative language is statements that not only describe but change the reality that is being described. For example, in a difficult situation, by declaring you are confident (with the right body language) others will consider you to be more confident. When others respond to your confidence with trust and admiration, you will feel a boost in your own confidence, and therefore be more confident in what you are doing. Does that make sense?

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In layman's terms, what we say affects how we feel (and vice versa), which affects how we act, and how we act affects our reality . If we label ourselves or accept the label of infertile, we are on some level going to feel defeated by the term. The word infertile itself is such an absolute, it carries serious negative connotations and weight to it, and sounds permanent. 

In reality, most cases of fertility are based on certain circumstances and there are ways to improve chances of conception. Just because a couple might be struggling to conceive now does not mean that they will never conceive. Once the issues at hand have been discovered and addressed conception is a possibility. So why use a permanent term to describe a temporary situation? In the case of couples trying to conceive, I believe it is doubly important to use caution in word choice because the situation is so emotionally disruptive. We know that stress does not help conception, and the idea that you are unable to conceive when it's your biggest goal, focus, or priority will certainly stress you more than the idea that you are in a temporary situation that will change.

To highlight the fact that in most cases struggling with fertility is a phase in life, and not a life sentence, I like to use that term exactly, "fertility struggles". By keeping the term fertile and acknowledging that this is just a temporary challenge it allows the space for healing and growth. It allows for the opportunity for improvement. There is nothing constant or permanent about a challenge or a struggle. It is something to be confronted, dealt with, learned from, and overcome.

Challenges are meant to be overcome. The only thing constant is change.

Challenges are meant to be overcome. The only thing constant is change.

For example, let's say you just stood someone up for a date as teenager and you feel guilty about it. In reflection, you could look at the situation in at least two ways. You could look at the experience as a one-time mistake or you could decide it's a reflection of your bad character. Look at the difference between saying,  "I'm a bad person" and "I made a bad decision". In the first statement, you are defining yourself by your actions, making this decision an aspect of your identity. How you identify yourself will influence your decisions in the future. The next time you have to choose between right and wrong, you might choose negatively again, because after all, you consider yourself a bad person. When you attach a negative label to your identity your self esteem suffers and you get stuck in a pattern of negative self-worth.  In the second statement, you are not defining yourself by your actions, but acknowledging that it was a temporary experience. When you frame it this way, you can see yourself as capable of choosing to make a better decision. The next time around you can reflect that you would like to make a better decision, without assuming that because you are bad in nature, you can't choose better.

Similarly, when you refer to yourself as infertile, you may be attaching the label to your own sense of identity (or others may very well do it to you). When you look at your situation as struggling with fertility, or dealing with fertility challenges, you can see the temporary nature of the experience; you can see a situation that can be changed, a situation that is not permanent or reflective of your self-worth. This might be a less depressing and overwhelming term.

You are not defined by your ability to conceive at the current time. You define yourself. 

You are not defined by your ability to conceive at the current time. You define yourself. 

This is not to undermine the experiences and word choices of people who suffer with permanent infertility, such as those with genetic issues, compromised reproductive organs and other factors.

Furthermore, I believe everyone should describe themselves on their own terms. My purpose here is not to define your experience but to suggest that you consider which terms you are using. How do the words you use to describe yourself affect your mood, perspective, and self-image as you navigate through your fertility journey? I think it's something to consider. 

Do you use the term 'infertile'? If so, how does it accurately describe your experience? If you don't use 'infertile', what do you use instead? I would love to hear your thoughts and expand my own vocabulary. Thanks for sharing.