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Why Lena Dunham’s Words Hurt Other Women Struggling With Fertility

Lena Dunham’s most well-known skill is pushing people’s buttons. Sometimes that’s an amusing, useful talent for a writer-director, but sometimes, as with her recent essay in Harper’s, she crosses the line into hurtful territory. “False Labor,” is an extremely personal, intimate story of her desire to have a baby after having a hysterectomy. Unfortunately, she tells this important story at the expense of other women experiencing fertility issues. And those women are not happy about it.

“At age 31, after almost two decades of chronic pain caused by endometriosis and its little-studied ravages, I had my uterus, my cervix, and one of my ovaries removed,” Dunham wrote in the essay published earlier this week. “Before then, motherhood had seemed likely but not urgent, as inevitable as growing out of jean shorts, but in the days after my surgery I became keenly obsessed with it.”

Her words are nearly poetic, if self-absorbed in typical Dunham style. We yearn with her as she describes her stint in rehab, a breakup, and the unexpected revelation from a doctor that her one remaining ovary could still have viable eggs. We mourn with her on the day the doctor calls to tell her that the eggs were not, in fact, viable after all.

“Infertility causes a lot of anger and resentment, so my heart goes out to her if that’s what’s going on,” Victoria Nino, creator of the blog Expecting Anything, told SheKnows. “I also have endometriosis and had to face the fact that nature didn’t allow for me to conceive a child with my genetics. I, too, have been angry at the world at different seasons of my infertility. So, in my heart, I’m trying to cut her some slack.

The problem is what happens in-between those paragraphs, where she describes the online community of women struggling with fertility.

“They call themselves IVF Warriors,” Dunham wrote. “On Etsy, they purchase in abundance items that claim this title, T-shirts and socks and organic cotton onesies that say ‘My mom is a warrior!’ ‘Infertility met its match.’ In their photos — shared early in the morning, after perfunctory ultrasounds, and late at night, after trigger shots or missed periods, always with the hashtag #IVFwarriors, which returns hundreds of thousands of Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest results — they appear triumphant, running marathons with their estrogen cranked up to ten times the average of an ovulating woman, flushed and flashing pearly teeth; or bereft, bloated with yet another needle in the curled fat of their bellies.”

While discussing how the women support and lean on each other, she also seems to be mocking them as a quaint little subculture who have their own “customs.”

This is one of the first problems other women going through fertility treatments point out with the essay. Krysten Hodgdon, creator of the blog The Fertility Tribe, called Dunham “patronizing.”

“She boils what we know to be an extremely inclusive and supportive group of women — a lifeline for so many during one of the most difficult times in their lives — down to a few disdainful generalizations,” Hodgdon wrote on her site. “And, honestly, it feels a bit like a betrayal.”

Fellow IVF Warriors are also disappointed with the way Dunham mentions the fact that they are mostly white and wealthy, and even the fact that they are determined to make every sacrifice possible to have a child. She seems to blame them for the fact that our health-care system is broken and won’t give these services to those less privileged. Whether due to cancer, endometriosis, or just not being in a heterosexual relationship, many other people other than wealthy white women need medical assistance to become biological parents, but IVF Warriors are not the ones preventing this from happening.

“Overall, everyone has a right to share their story, and while I do think many feelings resonate in Ms. Dunham’s piece and I thank her for writing it, I wish she was a little gentler to those still in the #ttctrenches,” writer Jennifer Palumbo tweeted in response to the essay (TTC stands for “trying to conceive.”) “I also wish she could have (or maybe she still will) highlight how the overwhelming majority of people who need access to #fertilitytreatment don’t have it, that only 18 states have mandated #infertility coverage, and some with cancer don’t even have coverage to preserve their fertility.”

In Hodgdon’s assessment, “While it is important to acknowledge that IVF is a privilege unaffordable to many, it is also important to note that while Dunham seems completely comfortable with making accusations of privilege and toxic positivity within the infertility community, it doesn’t seem like she actually tried to understand it at all, let alone use her platform to help amplify its mission.”

Nino also felt like Dunham was unfairly stereotyping women like her.

“She described us as privileged, yoga-pant-wearing white women with much older male partners,” she told us. “It felt like we were being portrayed as a bunch of mean girls who chose to be in this awful club. I run a support group for women with infertility, and many of the women I meet haven’t told one person in their lives, what they are going through. The online #IVFwarrior community is crucial to their survival and mental health. This ‘tribe’ of women give them a reason to get out of bed in the morning and to keep breathing. I’m very protective over this community, and think she must be feeling pretty low to pick on the wounded.”

Others expressed their displeasure responding to Dunham’s own tweet.

“Honestly, I don’t think [you’re] brave at all,” Jessica wrote. “You could have used your platform as way to support other women who have ended [their] journey. Instead you insulted 1 in 8 women still struggling with this journey. Do better.”

Also offensive to some was they way Dunham dismissed most of the others receiving treatments as younger women married to much older men.

“The way she just generalized and made judgment about women with older husbands ‘on their third families’ was so off-putting for me,” Joelle Gutman told SheKnows. “My husband is 10 years older and has a 15-year-old son, so does that mean I’m not deserving of a child? … Lena has a right to her opinion, but she doesn’t have a right to group a whole bunch of women into this huge derogatory generalization. What is so mind-blowing to me is that the women she is throwing under the bus are the same women that were her support for so long. So you light a match and walk away because you didn’t get what you want?”

Finally, when Dunham’s egg harvesting proves unsuccessful, she said the IVF Warriors turned on her.

“If there’s one person less welcome among the IVF Warriors than a new mother, it is a woman who has given up on becoming one,” she said. “For though these communities were created to support women trapped in the fertility-industrial complex, they hold fast to its founding commandment: never quit, because nothing is impossible. In a culture where some mothers are told that their children’s lives are worth nothing at all, other women — women who look like me and most of the IVF Warriors — are told that no expense is too great to bring another child into the world.”

Hodgdon said this is not true at all. As people who have felt disappointment over and over again, she said they recognize that stopping treatments takes strength too. To many, the presumption that they wouldn’t understand this is a harsh insult.

“I’m sorry for your pain and struggle, but why take it out on the only people that truly understand your pain and suffering? We didn’t deserve that,” Tina Jenica tweeted.

Still, Hodgdon said she understands Dunham’s anger, even if it’s misdirected.

“[W]hat she fails to acknowledge in her comments about the infertility community, is that this group of ‘IVF Warriors’ would have been there for her in her darkest moments,” Hodgdon said. “In fact, we would still welcome her with open arms if she needed the support; although she would have a lot of explaining to do first. Because healing is not linear; and while some of us might give up on our journey with family-building, we never give up on each other.”

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