Warning: This post contains SPOILERS for Avengers: Age of Ultron. Proceed at your own risk.
So, there’s been some controversy about Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff’s backstory, specifically that her Brainwashed Soviet-Ish Killing Machine training was concluded with a routine sterilization and she feels un-good about this. As for the scene itself, I don’t see how it’s being framed as a gendered issue. Bruce Banner has already told Natasha about his own infertility, and they’re having the discussion in the first place because they’re seeing the family life that their male friend has deliberately created and likely gone through an insane amount of effort to keep.
However, other bloggers have already done a great job analyzing the scene and the overall movie, so I’m not going to spend much time on that. Instead, I’m going to talk about my experience as a medically sterilized woman.
Now, I want to make it clear that this is only MY perspective and MY experience. What I’m writing here isn’t meant to be taken as universal, nor is it meant to cancel out the opinions of women who feel differently about their own experiences. But I’m guessing that, even if another woman’s perspective is antithetical to mine, it’s no less complicated. I can’t even begin to explain how complicated this topic is. Right now as I’m typing, I’m having a hard time figuring out where to start.
Okay, let’s start with the issue of choice. One way in which I could really, REALLY identify with Nat is that I don’t have a one-word “yes” or “no” answer as to whether my sterilization was my choice. Almost a year and a half ago now, I had a total hysterectomy because of advanced endometriosis. I knew exactly what the surgery was and how it would affect my body. I was advised countless times as I signed countless forms that the changes to my body would be permanent. I was of sound mind when I signed every single one of them.
And it was, to my way of thinking then and now, the only sound-minded choice I could’ve made. It wasn’t just a matter of pain, although that in itself was debilitating enough to justify the surgery. Major organs were being affected, and the problems would only spread if I didn’t take action. It was this surgery now or more surgeries later.
As my doctors triple- and quadruple-checked that I understood that the sterilization was completely irreversible, I assured them that I’d already decided a long time ago that I didn’t want biological children. It’s as 100% true now as it was then; yet I’m literally in tears as I’m typing those words. It was a decision based on pure reason. I have all kinds of genetic medical issues (besides this one) that I don’t want to pass on to a child, and it’s doubtful that I could’ve conceived and carried to term without harm to myself and/or the baby to begin with. All of that is why I don’t regret my decision at all, and none of that changes the fact that one of the things I want most out of life is to be a parent.
Why, yes, I do know about adoption and foster parenting. Thank you for asking. I also know about surrogates and egg donors and sperm donors. But, hey, did you know some women can become parents just by having sex? I did, because I can’t get on Facebook without seeing women a decade or more younger than me that just did it.
I know I’m more than my fertility. I know becoming a parent doesn’t magically bring fulfillment to a life that has none, and my life has plenty. I’m a writer, a musician, a gamer, a costumer, a marathoner
on Netflix, an epic consumer of geeky and girly pop culture, a personal assistant to my pets, and a daughter, sister, and aunt whose family is a huge part of my life. I want to keep being all of those things for as long as I can, and there’s nothing on that list that I want to give up in exchange for parenthood.
Am I really a retrogressive cliche if I want to add “a parent” to that list, though? If I look at my friends who are expecting their third baby and experience complicated feelings ranging from frustration to relief about the fact that it’ll never happen for me, at least not the way it happened for them? If telling someone I’m in love with that I can never make a baby with them isn’t something I’m looking forward to? If, even though I’m in no position to become a parent right now, the idea of being just Aunt Amethyst forever isn’t enough for me, and that someday I want to be Mom? If I kind of hate the fact that I’m in no position to become a parent right now?
And then there’s a weird aspect to all of this that is so complicated that I’ve already deleted and restarted this paragraph five times. Aside from the issue of whether or not I can reproduce, there’s just something, well, weird about the idea of cutting out sex organs when you were lucky enough to be born with the ones that match your gender identity. Intellectually, I know ovaries or uteri don’t make the woman. Some women were born without either one, and I don’t believe for a second that they’re less female than women who were born with both.
But sometimes there’s a significant gap between what the conscious mind knows and what the subconscious mind fears. While I was recovering from my hysterectomy, I had a recurring nightmare about growing testicles. I realize how privileged I am in that it was a nightmare I could easily wake up from. But it wasn’t very reassuring when I was Googling stories about younger women who’d had a hysterectomy and only found stories from transgender men. (Side note – guys, keep telling your stories! I’m definitely not saying they’re a problem just because they weren’t relevant to one cis lady.) I remember one delirious, pain-med-fueled moment where I was clutching my spayed dog crying “YOU’RE THE ONLY ONE WHO UNDERSTANDS ME!!!” And she was like, You gonna eat that cereal?
I feel like this is where I’m supposed to put some succinct summary, but the whole point is that there isn’t one. I stand by my choice and would make it again. Sometimes I resent my body for forcing me to make it. Sometimes I hear my friends talking about their periods, and I’m overcome with relief that I’ll never experience another one. Other times I see pictures of their babies on Facebook and go play Tori Amos’ “Spark” on a loop. Then I hear stories about poop and vomit and chapped, bleeding nipples, and I’m like, “Nah, I’m good.” I see women with unplanned babies that were a struggle, but ended up being one of the best parts of their lives, and I feel a little wistful about the knowledge that that kind of surprise isn’t an option for me. Then I see other women who dearly love their surprise baby but whose lives have yet to fully recover from an extra burden that they truly didn’t have the resources to deal with, and I say a million prayers of thanks that it’ll never happen to me.
I don’t think any of this makes me a monster. But don’t tell me it makes me an antifeminist cliche.