I Know What’s Best for You: Stories on Reproductive Freedom, edited by Shelly Oria, is a multigenre anthology with a focus on the crisis of reproductive rights in the United States. The book’s international supplement features sixteen additional works of fiction, nonfiction, and art by contributors from around the globe. Preorder the book, and receive the supplement, I Know What’s Best for You All Over the World, free as an ebook.
by Taran Khan
To protect individuals’ privacy, some names have been changed in this essay.
For nearly four years, over a decade ago, I spent hours every week in a windowless room, trying to get pregnant. I was in my twenties, recently married, recently told I needed treatment for infertility.
I was in one of the best-known IVF clinics in Mumbai. From the windows of the doctor’s room one could see sweeping views of the Arabian Sea. The nurses’ chambers overlooked the mansion of the richest man in India. The waiting room, where I sat for hours on end, had no windows. There was nothing to watch but the faces of other women, entering, leaving, waiting. Most of them, like me, were relatively affluent, professional, urban women. Sometimes we smiled at one another, other days we looked away, weary of the many hours we spent in close confines.
What I remember most clearly about this time is the feeling of being borne along on an inexorable tide. The feeling that there was no other option, or at least no other responsible option, but to follow as precisely as I could the complicated instructions and the convoluted prescriptions I was handed. Yet all through these years, the line I repeated most frequently to myself and to others who asked about my presence in the clinic was to say: “I am doing this because I can.”
At the end of each cycle, I would return to the waiting room, in line for another round. “You’re young,” the doctors told me. “You should keep trying.” Or, to put it another way, I would be wrong to stop. I memorized the objects in the waiting room—the marble bust of a woman and an angelic child, framed photos of children with their mothers. They became as familiar to me as the objects in my own home.
I remember a woman who had made the journey to the clinic from a village in Maharashtra. We stood behind a flimsy curtain together, waiting for sonographies. She was in Mumbai secretly, she told me; her in-laws were unhappy because she was childless after years of marriage. She couldn’t tell anyone that she was getting treated for infertility—if anyone found out, her family would never live it down, she said. She needed a child—in fact, she needed a male child, because a male heir would ensure her husband’s share of property. When it was her turn on the table, she struggled to stay still as the doctor tried to perform the sonography, and the nurse spoke to her sharply, in a tone I hadn’t heard before.
I never saw her again in the clinic, and I wondered only in passing what could have become of her. She seemed so far from my life, from my reasons for being in that room. I had no tyrannical in-laws, no pressure from my partner. I was insulated from stigma by my social class, I thought. “Bechari,” I called her, “poor thing.” Literally: a woman who has no other choice.
I thought of her years later, in Kabul. I was in the city frequently, working with media professionals and filmmakers. On one journey, I had to visit an ultrasound clinic as part of my own cycle of treatment. I was the oldest woman in that room, full of pregnant bodies. In that room, too, there were no windows. Some time later, I was approached by my colleague Fatima, married and childless. I had seen her transform from a vibrant, creative woman to a haggard stranger. I knew about the fertility treatment she was taking—a course of injections that left her exhausted, asleep in a chair in the edit room. She approached me because she knew the medical facilities in Delhi were more advanced than those in Kabul. Did I know a place there that could help her have kids? But it had to stay a secret, she added.
In the years I spent moving from cycle to cycle, I learned to speak of my body in the passive voice. To think of my rhythms and the ebb and flow of my hormones as a set of problems to be solved. I learned to watch each round of waiting as something unfolding outside of me. To feel unalarmed by the hothouse atmosphere of the clinic, to be unsurprised when a woman leaned close and asked, as I prepared to leave after a sonography, “How many follicles?”
My absent children marked my passage through the world. In Kabul, a holy man wrote out a talisman for me, unasked. In the Ethiopian city of Lalibela, my tour guide suggested, unasked, that I bathe in a pond as a cure for my condition. Back home in Mumbai, a distant relative, unasked, inscribed a complicated herbal remedy for me. “This potion makes the world go round,” he said. I left the clinic by the sea, moved to a different doctor. On top of the page in my new file , I saw a word: “nulligravida.” Never been pregnant.
Childless, my body was a vessel cracked open, an object of speculation and opinion. Sometimes compassionate, sometimes dismissive. Childless, my body was a failure for carrying just me; a failure to be managed with hormones and pills and prayers and special diets. With surgeries to remove impediments to conception. “Try again,” I was told by another doctor. “You’re still quite young.” From family, from friends, I heard variations on the theme of regretting it later. “Think about your husband.” “Doesn’t your mum want grandkids?” “Do just one more round.” I heard these phrases repeated, as if it was a fairground, and I was on a ride.
In the many conversations I had in all these clinics—conversations ostensibly about my options, that actually dwelt on choices regarding the mix of medication and timelines—one thing that never came up was the idea of just stopping the treatments. No one said, “It’s OK if you don’t want to go on.” I never heard, “Maybe you won’t regret it later. Maybe you’ll be fine.”
Embedded in the state of being childless is the idea of failure. This is a link so evident it hardly bears mentioning. What is less evident, perhaps, is how closely such “failure” is linked to the industry around fertility, driving what can feel like a carousel of consumption. A carousel that whirls with phrases like: “Keep going,” “Maybe it’ll work the next time,” “They give a free round after every two cycles,” “Their success rate is very high,” “ You deserve it,” “Don’t quit until you succeed.”
If you stop, you failed.
My friend Fatima ended up traveling from Kabul to Delhi, raising money to go through fertility treatments there. I remember her visit to a prominent doctor in the city, who spoke to her harshly for taking so long to decide to have a baby. Fatima, a woman who had lived as a refugee, whose life had been marked by war, just thanked her for her time and agreed to do as she was told.
Another friend, whom I will call Jonathan, came to Mumbai from New York to have a child through a surrogate. When the surrogate miscarried, he came back to visit her, and the clinic where his son was to have been born. And to try one more round, which he convinced the clinic to give him for free.
I moved from clinic to clinic, pushed not by the desire not to have children but to reach what I saw as a finish line. To just be done.
I told myself that I was in those rooms out of choice, and there was truth to that. It is also true that in India, women can end up dead for not being able to bear children, or for producing the wrong kind of child. To die childless in this country is considered a curse. Dying during childbirth, on the other hand, is a path to heaven. Recently, a minister in the southern state of Karnataka criticized “modern” Indian women for—wanting to stay single, or being unwilling to give birth even after getting married. Women are told, often in so many words, that they are monsters for not wanting children.
Parse it down, and the idea of choice in a patriarchal society, especially one armed with hormones and baby-making drugs, is a complicated one
I stopped my fertility treatments years ago, which is different from saying that these treatments are over. They linger in my body, in ways that are impossible to link and impossible to separate from that time. They linger in whispered questions and answers in my extended family, in the occasional friend asking, “Did you ever think about IVF?”
I cannot recall the process of thought that led to this change. I have no memory of lengthy arguments or of weighing pros and cons, discussions with others or even myself. What I do remember quite clearly is the precise moment I decided to step off the ride, the moment I stopped heeding what I was told to do next.
I think of Fatima, unable to go to work in a Kabul now controlled by the Taliban, and of her fears for her son in this transformed city. I think of Jonathan and his twin sons, whom I saw in a park in New York one summer. I think of their hard-won passion for being parents. And I think of the frisson of happiness I felt when I walked away from the car that was to take me to yet another hospital, for yet another surgery, for one more round. A decision taken quite literally with my feet.
“Nulligravida,” I write on the forms I fill now. Carrying only myself.
Taran N. Khan is an award-winning journalist and writer based in Mumbai. Her work has appeared in Granta, Guernica, LitHub, Al Jazeera, and the Guardian, among others. Her first book, Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul (2019), received the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award and the Tata Literature Live! First Book Award.
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