Researching reproductive loss, involuntary childlessness, and grief in India

Creating spaces of intimacy and trust through shared vulnerabilities

Pallabi Roy

04 Apr 2019

In my doctoral research on reproductive loss in three infertility clinics in Kolkata (West Bengal, India), I was repeatedly questioned about my age, marital status, and desire to procreate by many of my Hindu, married, and middle-class female interlocutors. Once they knew my age, they explicitly and implicitly reminded me that I should enter a conjugal partnership and have a child ‘before it’s too late’. In this essay, I elaborate on how my own positionality and my approach with these interlocutors changed and took on new meaning because of what I learned about my own (in)fertility soon after commencing my fieldwork. 

My assumption before starting fieldwork was that being female myself would facilitate my speaking to female interlocutors and that they would have no reservations in sharing their reproductive experiences with me. However, I realised after the first few interviews that the women were reluctant to speak with me due to my lack of shared life experiences, particularly marriage and pregnancy. As one of the female interlocutors said, ‘Only someone who has had this experience can understand what I’m going through. You will understand what I mean when you become a mother’. Similar statements were made by other women. I hadn’t considered that my unmarried and ‘childless’ status would evoke hesitation or that it would become a constant aspect of negotiating relationships with my interlocutors.

A few weeks into my fieldwork, my unmarried status and childlessness took on new meaning for my research methodology as well. I was medically diagnosed as being ‘infertile’ during my gynaecological check-up. After a transvaginal ultrasound scan, the doctor informed me that I had polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and endometriosis.[note 1]Based on interviews with infertility doctors and brochures from the infertility clinics where I did my fieldwork, PCOS is the medicalized condition of ovaries having more than the usual number of ten to twelve follicles. Endometriosis, commonly known as ‘chocolate cysts’, is when some of the uterine tissue – instead of sloughing off during every menstrual cycle – remains outside the uterine wall and starts forming a dark brown-coloured cyst. Infertility specialists consider both PCOS and endometriosis to be two of the most common causes of female infertility. Most of the infertile women I encountered at the infertility clinics had one or both of these medical conditions.
He told me that my chances of becoming pregnant were less than 10 per cent. He further added that I should start thinking about family planning soon since I was stepping into my thirties. With no plans of becoming a parent anytime soon, I didn’t know how to grapple with this new information that I had an ‘infertile body’.

While pondering my medical diagnosis, I started speculating whether this had any ramifications for my research. I wondered if the distance between myself as the researcher and my interlocutors could be narrowed if I shared my diagnosis with them. Perhaps sharing this information with them would help them overcome their hesitation during our interviews and eventually help me in producing better research. After much deliberation about the ethics of sharing my personal story with interlocutors for research purposes, I decided to proceed with it. I was pleasantly surprised that my female interlocutors were strongly empathetic and started connecting with me immediately. One woman said, for example, ‘It is okay you know, I also have the same problems. The doctor says I have a package of hormonal issues! But thanks to technology, women like us can fulfil our dreams of becoming mothers’. All of a sudden, I was included in the group of ‘women like us’ and my interlocutors began sharing their most intimate secrets with me. For instance, women told me about their thoughts of committing suicide after years of being childless. Others told me how, after it was discovered that their husbands were infertile, their family members suggested their father in-law or brother in-law as potential sperm donors. A significant number of women told me about the increasing marital discord and the drastically reduced interest their husbands had in any sexual relationship ever since the infertility treatments had begun.

Coffey (1999) writes that ethnographic research entails the sharing of life experiences and that this process can be emotionally and intellectually challenging. However, this sharing is ‘predicated on the commitment made by others to the pursuit of our research’ (Coffey 1999, 161). The commitment of the women in sharing their experiences with me, and vice versa, became visible as they began inviting me to meals, birthday parties, and other social events in their homes once they started seeing me as a friend. They no longer perceived me as only a researcher. Most of the women started thinking of me as their confidante with whom they could share anything without feeling judged. My assurance that their stories would be confidential and anonymised helped them in furthering their trust in our relationship.

For most women, speaking to me was a cathartic exercise, as they told me how they had nobody else in their social circle that they could speak to about such personal matters. Crossing the boundary allowed me to conduct my research as a two-way street where not only my interlocutors shared their personal lives with me but I too revealed my life to them as an exercise of trust. And these relationships continue, even though it has been several months since I have completed my fieldwork, as I often exchange messages with some of the women.

My fieldwork experience shows how preconceived assumptions about one’s own positionality need to be re-evaluated during fieldwork and how one’s own experiences interact in complex ways with the relationships one develops with interlocutors. While my gender initially eased my access to female interlocutors, I realised that what helped much more in creating a relationship of closeness and spaces of intimacy and trust was having a shared experience of vulnerabilities, letting down my own guard, and being transparent. As Pillow (2003) suggests, researchers should engage with how their reflexivity actively contributes to their research, methodologically, intellectually, and personally.

About the author

Pallabi Roy is Deutscher Akademischer Austauchdienst (DAAD) Doctoral Fellow, Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies, University of Tübingen, Germany. 

References

Coffey, Amanda. 1999. The Ethnographic Self: Fieldwork and the Representation of Identity. London: Sage Publications. 
Pillow, Wanda. 2003. ‘Confession, Catharsis, or Cure? Rethinking the Uses of Reflexivity as Methodological Power in Qualitative Research’. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 16: 175–96. https://doi.org/10.1080/0951839032000060635.