Comments reveal stigma about who ‘gets’ to be a mom

"It's important to note that the women are operating under pre-existing stereotypes about the 'right way' to go about motherhood, and these preconceived notions are likely the driving force behind their comments," says Natalie Jansen. "Their own disappointment may be exacerbating it." (Credit: iStockphoto)

In online comments, women seeking fertility treatments tend to challenge and stigmatize pregnant woman for perceived immoral behaviors or lower social status.

This finding comes in the wake of past research showing the social stigma surrounding infertility has negative health implications for women experiencing it.

“Issues of fairness and unfairness and whether someone is deserving or undeserving of motherhood consistently appeared in women’s forum postings,” says Jarron Saint Onge, assistant professor in the University of Kansas sociology department.

“While these feelings aren’t necessarily unique to women experiencing infertility, they highlight how stigmatized groups continue to define social norms regarding the ‘proper’ path to motherhood, particularly along social-status lines.”

Judging the ‘Fertile-Myrtles’

Saint Onge and lead author Natalie Jansen, a doctoral student in sociology, examined 432 initial conversation threads posted by women in various stages of the fertility-seeking treatment process in the online forum “Fertile Thoughts.” The study appears in the journal Social Science & Medicine.

In response to frequently mentioned experiences of insensitivity or hurtful behaviors, many women appeared to use the forum as a coping strategy, the researchers say. In the anonymous online postings, infertile women frequently appeared to denounce fertile friends and family members, in some cases describing pregnant women as “fat cows, ferts, the fertiles, Fertile-Myrtles, or momzillas-to-be.”

The researchers also found several instances of women struggling with fertility issues using remarks to elevate their own positions in comparison, including questioning why “God would give children to such a terrible person” or to a woman “and her cheating hubby.”

Posters to the forum also consistently showed that being pregnant and on welfare was perceived as less acceptable than being pregnant with more financial stability, which is a near requisite for fertility treatments, the researchers say.

[Women coping with infertility want more support, less advice]

“Propagating comments about low-income mothers led to common definitions of acceptable and unacceptable behavior,” the researchers write.

And by equating low socioeconomic status with undeserving motherhood, women struggling with fertility issues in the posts appeared to be rectifying their own feelings of unfairness in the situation, they say.

Other criticisms from posters focused on fertile women using drugs and alcohol or teenagers or couples who became pregnant outside of marriage.

Complex dynamics

Jansen says the study is not meant to pass judgment on women experiencing fertility issues but that it’s important to study how stigmas surface in this area because infertility can be so heartbreaking. Having an anonymous online forum allowed infertile women to maintain positive social relationships through their struggles, especially with women having common experiences, she says. Infertility affects nearly 30 percent of US women between the ages of 25 and 44.

[Why black women tend to cope with infertility alone]

“It’s important to note that the women are operating under pre-existing stereotypes about the ‘right way’ to go about motherhood, and these preconceived notions are likely the driving force behind their comments,” Jansen says.

“Their own disappointment may be exacerbating it. These stigma dynamics are complex, and while we normally think of one person being stigmatized and another person doing the stigmatizing, in reality people can play different roles depending on the situation they’re in.”

The researchers say the study could hopefully provide more awareness and insight on stigma in general and how certain stereotypes, though possibly not always viewed or often talked about on the surface, can still cause harm.

Source: University of Kansas