Infertility is a lonely thing to go through — few people talk about it openly. During my own five-year struggle to have a baby with my husband, I became keenly aware of this stigma, and how poorly women with infertility in particular are reflected in books, on screens, and online. When pop culture and news media represented us at all, it was in ways that were at worst scornful and at best inaccurate and formulaic. Every sitcom plot line ended with a surprise pregnancy, every well-meaning news article began and ended with the IVF process, and the majority of books on the topic were in the self-help genre, focused more on helping women conceive than on infertility’s emotional and social impact. They all ended with a baby. Most troublingly, the popular image of infertility is that of an upper-middle-class, white, straight-partnered woman in her mid-to-late thirties, a stereotype that erases the significant experiences of black, indigenous, poor, and LGBTQ women who face barriers to diagnosis and treatment.
This isolation makes the stories that do get it right all the more important for those of us seeking community and meaning. The following are books I found that I thought provided special insight and guidance into the process of trying to conceive, adopt, or live childfree after infertility. Some of them surprised me — the books I found resonated most weren’t necessarily by women, or even about infertility — but, for me at least, they hit on some key aspects of the desire and struggle to build a family that includes children in ways that made me feel not only less alone, but proud of my story — with all of its complexity, trauma, and triumph.
Harpers and Atlantic essayist Belle Boggs takes her own struggle to conceive a child as a starting point for a wide-ranging, fascinating deep dive into the history, politics, and sociology of fertility, exploring everything from how animals “brood” for offspring to the forced sterilization policies of mid-century America. This intelligent, thoughtful, and poetic book goes far beyond the usual clichés of the infertility memoir (usually of the self-help variety) and proves that this is a topic worthy of “serious” literary attention.
When I put out a call on Twitter for everyone’s favorite book about trying to conceive, the consensus was overwhelming: Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is a masterpiece. Combining memoir with literary and queer theory as well as poetic prose, Nelson’s book explores the challenges of starting a family as a queer woman with her genderqueer partner, in an era when the definitions of family, queerness, and parenthood are politicized and rapidly changing. The description of her eventual pregnancy and childbirth, which communicate the power and love of these experiences without remotely romanticizing them, are must-reads for anyone planning on birthing a child.
When Michelle Obama published her memoir in 2018, the most sensational and surprising part was its intimate, detailed account of her struggle with miscarriage and infertility (Malia and Sasha Obama were eventually born via IVF). That is how erased, stigmatized, and misrepresented black women’s infertility is in the mainstream narrative. Becoming is not only a necessary and long-overdue corrective to the mainstream focus on infertility as an issue of white, middle-class women (in fact, black women have higher rates of infertility than white women) but a wonderful example of how every woman’s infertility struggle is best understood within the context of her life overall.
The Baby Matrix isn't a book about infertility — but it is one of the most helpful things I read while I was in my darkest moments. Carroll explores the myths and pressures behind pronatalism — the pervasive idea that everyone should have children — to make the argument that we’d all be better off if having kids were considered not an inevitability or a duty, but a vocation best suited for those who consider it a true calling. She debunks multiple misconceptions driving pronatalist attitudes, like the “biological clock” and the assumption that having children is the greatest source of human meaning and fulfillment. Reading The Baby Matrix as an infertile woman helped me distinguish what parts of my grief were from actually wanting to be a parent, and what parts were driven by social expectations and stigma around childlessness. And being able to define *why* I wanted children was ultimately empowering during a time I felt most helpless.
As my husband and I set out to have a baby through gestational surrogacy, I was disappointed to find that narratives about surrogacy families were all but absent from the literature on infertility. The ones that did exist made surrogacy seem like a tragedy, a “last resort.” But there were great stories coming out of the gay male community, where surrogacy and egg donation are increasingly popular — and rightfully celebrated — ways to build one’s family. I read all of them voraciously, and this was my favorite of the bunch: Mahoney is hilarious, and his unpretentious, conversational writing style was a breath of fresh air in the normally ponderous genre of family-building memoir. Despite the differences in surrogacy for straight, infertile people and gay men, it’s still the most accurate account of the challenges and joys of the surrogacy process I’ve read. The author’s blog has a similar vibe — honest but fun — and anyone who needs to get creative to have a kid will appreciate it.
Pamela Mahoney Tsigdinos’s story of female infertility is one we don’t tend to hear about: Like up to 40% of fertility clinic patients, she never conceived a child. This raw and beautifully written memoir grapples with the double isolation such women feel of being not only infertile, but infertile and childless after prolonged treatment. Tsigdinos is rightfully angry about the abuses and false promises of the unregulated, for-profit infertility industry as well as the public stigma that prevents women in particular from voicing their grief over failed fertility treatments and unwanted childlessness. Silent Sorority raises much-needed questions about how the popular narrative of infertility has become one of successful medical treatment, instead of being centered on the person’s own desire, grief, and eventual healing (which may or may not involve having or adopting a child). The author’s eventual triumph into a happy life as a writer and advocate is all the more powerful for the darkness that preceded it.
I read this book (on a Twitter recommendation I wish I’d gotten much sooner) by Toronto-based writer S. Bear Bergman months after my son was born — it’s a beauty. Bergman, who is trans, unwinds a personal narrative of having kids with his partner while expanding on the greater meaning of family (both biological and chosen, permanent and temporary) for himself as well as other people who defy the prescribed norms of sex, gender and sexuality. An acclaimed theater artist, Bergman writes in such a way as to invoke an oral storytelling tradition that makes it immediate, intimate, and powerful — the literary equivalent of family itself. I have his kids books on order for my son.
The title is a good preview of the tone of this book, which is lighter than the others on this list but no less powerful or important. Actor Gabrielle Union is funny and honest in her engaging memoir, which discusses her ongoing battle with recurrent pregnancy loss in addition to the ups and downs of being a black actor in white-centric Hollywood. Like many of us, Union had so many miscarriages (eight or nine) she lost count; these experiences are recounted here with much-needed detail and gravity. Congrats to Union for crafting such a readable book about pregnancy loss, for spotlighting the oft-erased experiences of black women with infertility, and for her eventual resolution: She is a new mother to a baby girl born via surrogacy.
What Makes a Baby — a children’s book about conception written by Canadian author and queer sex educator Cory Silverberg, and illustrated by Fiona Smyth — is literally my favorite book in the world. With striking Keith Haring–esque illustrations that invoke every possible race, gender, age, and ability of person, What Makes a Baby explains conception in a way that makes ample room for all types of family origin stories — IVF pregnancies, surrogacy, adoption, natural conception — and all types of parents as well: lesbian and gay parents, single folks, trans and nonbinary parents, and everyone in between. This book was rightfully praised by LGBTQ reviewers for the deft way it marries inclusivity with scientific accuracy about conception and birth. As an infertile mother via surrogacy, I appreciate how it upends the usual way families like mine are represented even in children’s books — as exceptions to the straight-married-sex-then-baby norm. For once, here is a story in which a conception like my son’s is just one of many possible, equally beautiful ways to come into being. It’s a revolution in picture book form. Every family with kids should have this.
Alexandra Kimball is a magazine writer and editor in Toronto, and has received seven National Magazine Award nominations. Her journalism and essays appear regularly in major publications across Canada, including Chatelaine, the Walrus, Flare, and Reader’s Digest. She is currently an associate editor at Toronto Life magazine.
Her book, The Seed: Infertility Is a Feminist Issue, is out now.