When a couple has been trying to conceive without success for a period of time there can be nothing as debilitating and limiting as being described as 'infertile.' I choose not to use the term and here is why I don't think you should either.
The Words That we Use Have Power
Our words have power over us. Linguists refer to certain language as being both descriptive and performative. When we process an experience, we use words to describe and articulate what we have experienced, this is the descriptive aspect of language. The performative nature of language, however, is sometimes taken for granted. Performative language consists of statements that not only describe but also change the reality that is being described. For example, in a difficult situation, by declaring you are confident (with the right body language) others are also likely to consider you to be more confident. When others respond to your confidence with trust and admiration, you are likely to feel a boost in your own confidence, and therefore be more confident in what you are doing.
In laywoman's terms, what we say affects how we feel (and vice versa), which affects how we act, and how we act affects our reality. If we label ourselves as infertile or accept the label of infertile, it is likely that on some level we are going to feel defined by the term. In the case of couples trying to conceive, I believe it is doubly important to use caution in word choice because struggling with fertility can be an emotionally traumatic experience.
The Word 'Infertile' Suggests Permanence
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), infertility is a "disease of the reproductive system defined by the failure to achieve pregnancy after 12 months or more of regular unprotected sexual intercourse." However, in common language, the word ‘infertile’ means that something or someone is unable to reproduce. The term has a negative connotations that implies permanence. Synonyms include: barren, sterile, unfruitful, and unproductive. The way infertility is described in a medical context does not necessarily describe a permanent state. Many couples are labeled as 'infertile' only for a period of time and then go on to conceive with lifestyle changes and/or assisted reproductive technology (ART).
Fertility Issues are Often Temporary
Many cases of infertility are caused by specific circumstances or health issues, meaning that there are ways to potentially improve the chance of conception. Just because a couple is struggling to conceive does not mean that they will never conceive. So why use a term that implies permanence to describe what could be a temporary situation?
I believe that mentally re-framing fertility issues as a temporary
challenge rather than a permanent disease can help couples to feel more in control
of the situation at hand. When you think that a situation is temporary and
changeable, it can be easier to feel resilient and capable of meeting the demands of
the challenges ahead. If you feel that you are at the mercy of a permanent
condition, it becomes more possible to feel abandoned, alone, and less capable of making meaningful
changes in your life.
What I Choose to Use Instead
highlight the fact that in most cases fertility issues are only a phase in
life and not a permanent state, I like choose to use the descriptor 'fertility
struggles.' There is nothing constant or permanent about a
challenge or a struggle. It is something to be confronted, dealt with, learned
from, and overcome.
When you refer to yourself as infertile, you may be attaching the label to your own sense of identity (or others may very well do it to you). You might not fully believe that a lifestyle change or treatment will help you conceive because there is something inherently 'infertile' about you. When you look at your situation as struggling with fertility or dealing with fertility challenges, you can see the temporary nature of the experience; you see a situation that can be changed, a situation that is not permanent or reflective of your self-worth. When your ability to conceive does not define you, you have more flexibility in the way you work on your health issues and the way that you experience your life. This is why I do not use the word ‘infertile’ to describe couples or individuals struggling to conceive. There are resolutions to these challenges, whether it includes resolving/superseding medical issues, adopting, or choosing to live childfree.
My decision to avoid the word 'infertile' does not intend to undermine the experiences and word choices of people who suffer from true infertility, or sterility. I also believe everyone should be able to describe themselves on their own terms. My purpose here is not to define your experience but to suggest that you consider which terms you are using. How do the words you use to describe yourself affect your mood, perspective, and self-image as you navigate through your fertility journey? I think it's something worth considering if you haven't already.