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Infertility and George Washington: Integrating experiences of infertility into a life narrative

April 1st, 2011 by Lisa Rouff
It's spring break week and my family has been traveling through Washington DC and Virginia, visiting family and sightseeing, predominantly at historical sites. This simultaneous emphasis on my own personal history while learning more about American history has reminded me of the importance of creating a narrative about one's life. By telling your own story, you often integrate separate parts of your life, creating a more coherent sense of self.

Integrating your experiences with infertility into your life narrative is an essential part of understanding how it has affected you. For example, as we drove through the area of the country my mother's ancestors lived, I found myself thinking about how in retrospect, past generations of my female relatives have also struggled with infertility, although it may not have been diagnosed or treated. I also found myself wondering how surprised (most likely pleasantly) my relatives might be to learn that a beautiful, self-possessed girl born in India was now a member of their family.

In addition to my own story, I also discovered another narrative of infertility in a place I didn't expect to find it. During our visit to Mount Vernon, George Washington's home, I heard repeated references to his raising of his wife's children and grandchildren (Martha was a widow when she met George and had two living children prior to their marriage). However, I didn't hear any mention of any children he and Martha had together. My "infertility antennae" went up, and so when we got to the hotel, I started Googling. Sure enough, it seems that George Washington himself most likely suffered from infertility. There was article published in Fertility and Sterility in 2004, which can be found here, which reports that George Washington was most likely infertile due to a prolonged infection with enteric tuberculosis. Like most men of his time, he blamed his infertility on his wife. However, it seems that Martha's prior history of four successful pregnancies suggests that George Washington's own fertility was most likely compromised. Further, the article describes evidence that George Washington had wished to have children and was saddened upon the realization that this probably would never happen for him. By all reports, he loved children and enjoyed the time he spent raising Martha's children and her grandchildren.

The article's author, John Amory, also speculated on how George Washington's infertility may have affected his professional career and the development of the United States. Did his disappointment about not having any children of his own fuel his ambition and resolve? Was George Washington more motivated to nurture talented young men, thus strengthening the new country and its emerging government, to fulfill some of his own parenting needs? Although we may never know for sure, it stands to reason that George Washington's infertility must have shaped his emotional and professional life in many ways. Freud's concept of sublimation, in which unfulfilled desires are channeled to more socially appropriate goals (or in this case perhaps goals that are possible to achieve) may be relevant here.

Interestingly, the author noted that in historical and medical discussions of George Washington's life, his lack of children and probable infertility is very rarely mentioned. He theorizes that some historians may feel that discussing his infertility might "lessen" his image. However, to me, it only makes George Washington an even more impressive person. He was able to accomplish incredible things and change the course of history, all while struggling with his own feelings about not being able to have his own children--a struggle that most readers of this blog know is a profound one. In addition to being a hero and a great leader, he also has provided us with a model of resilience and coping. Despite his bad luck with infertility, he led a successful, rewarding, and incredible life. In the end, I think that is the best outcome for which we can hope--regardless of our circumstances.
 
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