Pins and Needles is an illustrated essay, exploring the limits of what assisted reproductive technology can offer ‘socially infertile’ women without changes in a wider social, economic context. The project is a response to the batsqueak of some Gen X and Gen Y women, who are finding that socially, as well as biologically, the path to having a child is much bumpier than it was in their mothers’ generation. It asks, how can these women, and the men in their lives, have an easier time navigating this?
On reading this essay
A soft launch of this essay in May 2014 drew a couple of key responses worth sharing with anyone seeing this for the first time. Though the presentation style is light-hearted and good lookin’, the content weighs heavy for some. It’s an uncomfortable read in sections that touch on some sensitive and deeply personal issues and shed light on some unpleasant facts. To paraphrase one early reader,
“It brought up some uncomfortable things for me, but I guess that’s the point – we need to talk about this stuff”
Her take on this is well-taken: The intention behind this project is not to press down on her or others’ sensitivities, but rather to capture a range of feelings around these complexities, recognize often private questions, show that related experiences are commonly felt and to open up a space for delicate discussion that might nudge towards progress past individual discomfort and collective inertia.
If you identify closely with the subject matter here, take a deep breath and give this time, it’s your reading of it. In short, the goal here is not to make you cry, but if you do find yourself reaching for a Kleenex, or infuriated, know that the work comes from a place of empathy and compassion: your tears or frustration are understandable and not yours alone.
Girls aloud, boys allowed
The second kind of feedback is that raising this might attract negging voices who are looking for evidence that “The Feminist Project” has failed: That all that glass ceiling-smashing since the 70’s left this generation all cut up. It’s entirely possible that detractors will hurl manure this way no matter what, and so be it. Haters gonna hate… In response though, this essay attempts to demonstrate instead that all sorts of other changing circumstances have as much to do with creating the conditions behind the current concerns described here than any collective striving for women’s lib or the agency of any individual woman ‘screwing up’ their shot at motherhood – this should be read in the context of global economic turbulence, a shift towards social conservatism in western politics over the past decade, the secondary effects on intimacy of living more of our lives online, for example.
In that light, this project attempts to point out where and how these new, formidable conditions variously affect many of us, and that meandering pathways to reproduction is just one place in which the impact of these things surfaces. But, if we were to focus only on the gender politics of what’s implied here, the essay certainly is calling for new thinking, and new action – specifically, attention to the needs of both men and women, and if that’s how we want to frame the next wave of feminism, that’s no dirty F word, let’s go there.
This essay is the product of a mix of research gathered over 2-3 years – desk research and primary research, in-person conversations and interviews with people in a wide variety of circumstances – parents, child-free, child-less men and women, straight, gay, single, coupled, people who’d lost children, those who never wanted them, those who yearn for them, single mums and dads (by choice and circumstance), adopters, those who tried to adopt but didn’t succeed, medical professionals, academics, self-proclaimed feminists, self-proclaimed players, wives in polyamorous marriages, midwives, fertility counsellors, gynecologists, product designers, journalists, career women, stay at home moms, graduate students in their 20s. It’s absolutely drawn from my friends’ and my own anecdotes and experiences. It’s been an interesting three years.
So sure, this project is about fertility, IVF, women’s reproductive options, but it’s also about the changing middle class in the US and UK, the social impact of online dating (for better and worse, til someone better shows up, do we part…), the accomplishment of civil rights for non-hetero couples and families and what that suggests to women who don’t generally organize and advocate for change the way gay men have for a generation, the shortcomings of second wave feminism, the resurgence of sexism, the intimidating cost of urban childcare, late life advanced education’s impact on earnings, advances in egg freezing technology, the glass ceiling, the glass cliff, single parenting (voluntary and otherwise), masculinity redefined in the face of the economic instability of the 2000s, the effort it takes for those with and without kids to keep relating to each other, patient-doctor interactions, healthcare costs, pornography’s impact on intimacy, the AIDS crisis, the voicelessness of involuntarily childless women, women’s educational attainment, you name it. It’s a response to a flurry of articles and research the author has collected since 2011. Most are referenced in the essay itself and can be found on Google. The original articles are listed on the Resources page here.
The focus, based on the circumstances of the author, is on 20-40 somethings in New York and London but also drew from people in other places besides. That said, if you’re reading this from another geographical, social or political environment, say, a non-metropolitan area, or another life-stage, you may well find some of this doesn’t align with your experiences. It seemed worth encapsulating the conditions in this second decade of the 21st century that affect many women – and by definition – men too, in at least these major metropolitan areas. Turns out that the brilliant insight from a friend, “You wanna get pregnant? Just fuck a lot”, doesn’t quite cover it.
The research, writing and drawing began as a personal endeavor, but once it was underway, drafts were shared with other women, cartoonists, medics, students. Graduate students at the School of Visual Arts Design for Social Innovation MFA program then made incredible work based on related research – their projects finally motivated my publishing this. As a class and group of adult women (and two resilient men!), we came to share the belief that the options need not be so illegible, and those trying to make sense for themselves need not be so illiterate in these issues.
Finally, my typical work focuses on writing about and designing possible futures shaped by emerging technologies, business and municipal decision-makers. Over there, in “innovation”, the topics are, frankly, less inflammatory than here. Note though, that this nice jargon of creative invention that also works beyond economic productivity, to describe producing people. And yet, most comments to articles about ‘women’s business’ are a mixed bag: some first person testimonials, confessionals, and supportive comments, and then, almost without fail, a swirling mire of invective from insensitive critics (both men and women, natch) who seem to take the opportunity to be absolute pigs wherever an article is posted about the complexities of our biological reality. No, really, it’s a joy. Or rather, just shows how upset people get about these things because they’re important to us.
Joining the conversation
For that reason, I’m asking those who comment to be really considerate here – not to deter critique or dialogue, but rather to open and protect it: You can also write to firstname.lastname@example.org to share your insights and suggestions and highlights will be posted here. You are welcome to join a public conversation (where the misogynistic or mean will meet their match) on Twitter @talkpins too.
Trepidation aside, early readers have been amazingly supportive and it is with their enthusiasm that I share this to a wider audience, in the hope that it will be useful and inspiring to other people, and inspire other conversations about tricky stuff off-screen. And maybe also raise the profile of difficult issues discussed here in the public realm too, so that little by little, some systemic improvements to make women’s experiences easier – the kind “Lean In” persistently shied away from and failed to acknowledge, let alone tackle properly – might actually happen.
Thanks for reading and supporting Pins and Needles.