The Woman Without a Shadow

by mraynes

mr. mraynes and I are opera geeks.  I spent the first years of my college career training to be an opera singer; mr. mraynes has spent the majority of his doctoral program immersed in opera scores, learning how to conduct them.  Where a lot of couples have a song taken from pop culture, our song was “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde.  Every major moment in our relationship is connected to an aria or opera.  Dating…Cosi Fan Tutte.  Falling in love… “Liebestod” .  Engagement…Turandot.  Marriage… “Morgen” .  Birth of Baby Monster… “Song to the Moon” .  Birth of Baby Valkyrie…Brunhilde’s Immolation.  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist sharing these moments with you.)

And so it should not have surprised me that the first thing mr. mraynes said to me after getting an IUD was, “Ahh, die frau ohne schatten,” meaning “the woman without a shadow.”  Now for those not familiar with the Strauss opera, Die Frau Ohne Schatten is a fairytale of love blessed through the birth of a child.  As lovely as this sounds and despite the absolutely breathtaking music, this opera is a feminist’s nightmare.  You see, a woman without a shadow is a woman who can’t have children…making her not a real woman and therefore, not human.  Throw in a little domestic violence and the belief that women are chattel and you have three hours of anti-woman fun.

At the beginning of the opera we learn that the Emperor of the Southeastern Islands will be turned to stone unless is wife, the daughter of the King of spirits, becomes human and gains a shadow.  Of course, it is hard to feel sorry for the Emperor when we learn that he captured the Empress and believes that she is “for my soul and for my eyes and for my hands and for my heart.  She is the booty of all booty without end.”  Despite being captured and married against her will, the Empress goes in search of a shadow so her husband won’t be petrified.  The Empress and her nurse meet a human woman who resents her life as a domestic slave to her husband and doesn’t want to be a mother because she fears children will further enslave her.  Long story short, the nurse convinces the woman to sell her shadow to the Empress.  When the woman’s husband finds out, he threatens to kill her because without her shadow, without the ability to bear children, she is useless to him.  Luckily for the wife, the Empress refuses the shadow, saying she will not save her husband at the expense of another man’s happiness.  This act of self-sacrifice allows the Empress to gain her own shadow.  The opera ends with the two couples united and fertile, singing the praises of their humanity.

As a feminist, there is so much in this opera that I find objectionable.  I resent the belief that my only value as a woman lies in my ability to bear children.  This belief can be found around the world in almost every culture.  Historically, women have not been allowed to become fully actualized individuals, not allowed to explore the things that would bring them the most happiness.  Instead women are forced into a lifestyle they wouldn’t necessarily choose.  For women who can’t have children, there is the feeling of failure on top of the overwhelming sorrow that comes along with infertility.  Women who are childless, whether by choice or not, are often seen as dangerous and are at increased risk for emotional and physical violence.

Of course, the pendulum can swing too far the other way as well.  In cultures where maternity is glorified, female subordination often goes hand in hand.  The idea of the angel in the home, while romantic, only serves to infantilize women and take away their ability to be agents unto themselves.  A doll’s house existence is no existence.

Second wave feminists worked hard to give women like me the choice to become mothers and also follow our dreams of self-fulfillment.  But socialization dies hard.  When mr. mraynesreferred to my shadowless status, I felt guilty.  I cried while the IUD was being implanted.  Even now, when I think about that small piece of plastic floating around in my uterus I have to fight off the urge to reach inside and yank it out.  I admit that I have felt like less of a woman knowing that my fertility is compromised.  Intellectually I know this is ridiculous and I am ashamed of myself.  I have no right to feel this way.  I have two babies and though I have chosen to see them as the crowning achievement of my life, I don’t want my choice perverted by some outdated notion that my worth lies exclusively in the fruitfulness of my womb.  Getting an IUD was absolutely the right thing to do; it was right for my marriage, for my children, for our current financial and life situation and for my own state of mind.

And yet…I am haunted by my shadow.

I fear that in sharing this, I have been insensitive…like I said before, I have no right to this feeling.  I am also aware that I may be alone in my feelings or that I have been driven crazy by lack of sleep and an increase in hormones.  My only purpose is to honestly examine how cultural expectations effect women’s feelings of worth.  So, do any of you feel your worth tied inextricably to your fertility? 


  1. I abso-freakin’-lutely believe in cultural bombardment on my self worth in relation to reproduction (basic Adorno 101). The bombardment is always so very easy to spot, yet uberdifficult to escape.

    All around us is the expression of biology & gene pool relenting speciation, & only in art (with or without Viking helmuts & an orchestra) is my escape from biology’s unartful, uncreative, & repetitious tyranny—nothing artful about those red flags.

    don’t believe me? turn on the TV for confirmation of said pop culture crap, & see droves of this incarnate @ church (e.g., how people dress, who they marry, cultural socializations of scrapbook & vinyl cut out frenzies etc.). Makes me puke.

    It’s too bad that high pop can disguised as opera. Immunity is always near impossible to attain.

    however, while the opera is a fixed medium of some sort, our perspectives upon it can continually be creative, complex, and not so biological. Throw in papa freud, hannah arendt, or Carol sinavaiana into the discussion, & i can talk hours and hours on end discussing the questions/answers of: “what is art?”. heidegger thinks it’s the only way out of this earthly toilet bowl dimension of Being in time.

    so, yeah, cultural expectations = value (ahem…that’s usually in alpha male dollars & prestige) on the woman based on her prego powers? Inevitably, always there.

    MRAYNES, Never apologize for recogizing, examining, wanting to destroy this ghastly phenomenon. Girlfriend, sounds like you been handlin’ ya bizness fabulously.

  2. PS–i’ve always been a fan of Turandot–those arias!!! have you seen Zhang Yimou’s production in Beijing of it? It’s on DVD. I wish I saw it live when it premiered…Puccini’s score always moves me…

  3. Mraynes,
    I am continually amazed by how our subconcious becomes a mine field of these ideas– particularly when indoctrinated with them since primary. As a childless woman by choice right now, I struggle with guilt and a sense of failure on a regular basis. My rational mind understands my reasons for being reluctant (scared poopless) for starting a family yet my subconcious has a hard time letting go of the lessons hammered in from a life of LDS indoctrination. Thanks for your words and the beautiful music

  4. do i feel my worth is tied to my fertility? absolutely not. i have an IUD too. it makes me feel like i’m in control of my body and gives me a sense of freedom.

  5. I often felt like less of a woman during the years we went through fertility problems. It wasn’t a constant feeling, but it would pop up once in a while to wave hello. As much as my rational mind could discount it, my biological, spiritual, and emotional minds weren’t so easy to convince. Now, two kids later, I am once again infertile. But, there’s a huge difference – this time it is by choice (tubal ligation). Choice vs. no choice, for me, was night and day. I feel very womanly (sex without thinking about birth control is very freeing) and very much at peace with our decision. Had we continued to be infertile, would the pain of the missing shadow have grown worse and more frequent? Would I have gotten used to it? Would my rational mind finally have been able to win? I can’t answer those hypotheticals. For me, for right now, I have my shadow even without my fertility.

  6. Mraynes, love the post. I think I’ve been lucky to escape feelings that my value as a woman depends on my fertility. Good thing since I’m pretty infertile – it takes a lot to get me pregnant. I think I land more on the Rachel side of the equation. I feel empowered and thankful that I have the means available to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Interesting how women raised in the same Mormon culture end up feeling different about self-worth and fertility.

  7. Mraynes, beautiful post. (and I’m glad today was your Monday and not mine!)

    Like you, I have an IUD, and I’m really grateful for mine. Sometimes I look at pregnant women and look down at my empty womb. Most days I rejoice. Perhaps it’s the difference between three children and two. When I had just had my second baby I wanted another one right away. 20 months later I had my third and now I’m busier (and crazier) than I had imagined.
    Of course my experiences color my perceptions and expectations, but that’s where I’m coming from.
    I also wondered something about the story you told. You know think the world of Mr.Mraynes, and I know he didn’t intend to upset you when he mentioned the opera, but I wondered if it was his suggestion that caused you pain, or did you feel shadowless before he mentioned it? It’s one thing to have a glimmer of a feeling and another to have someone (your husband) say it aloud and make it real.
    Anyway, just a thought.
    I wish you luck and peace as you reconcile your thoughts and feelings on this issue.
    You are a beautiful and strong mother, woman, and friend.

  8. I’ve lived long enough to remember a time when our society–not just Mayans or some other ancient culture–valued a woman for her intact hymen. I, for one, would ddefinitely like to be know for more than my virginity. Does anyone else remember being told that if you were raped or otherwise “deflowered” it would be better for you to die than to come home in that sullied way?

  9. Hmmm…to be honest, I’ve never once felt my worth was tied to my fertility. I’m not sure why not…I was raised in Provo, nearly all my friends had children by their mid 20s, and my current ward has more than 60 kids under the age of 5. But I’m 40 and haven’t felt an ounce of concern about not conceiving — I occassionally wonder if I should feel some sort of biological tick, but I’ve felt a desire to have a baby; it just doesn’t feel like “me.” I occassionally wonder if something is wrong with me because I don’t feel any urge to give birth. I did, however, adopt a gorgeous 5-year-old orphan when I turned 30, and I hope to adopt one more soon, so I guess I felt a maternal pull, just not a biological urge to give birth. I guess I’m lucky that I’ve never felt any kind of link between my being a powerful woman and my being fertile. It must incredibly stressful to worry about something you don’t always have control over. My heart goes out to those women who struggle with this issue!

  10. I can see where you are coming from. My husband and I tried for so long to have a child and I started to believe that there was something wrong with me, that I was
    was less than a woman and that without a child I was worthless and useless as a woman.

    Today I have a beautiful 6 year old son and still to some, this isn’t enough to show my womanhood or that I am a woman. Society is still placing it’s opinion of me as I only have 1 child, and not 3 or 4 or 5. Being LDS we are taught to have as many children as we can within means. I would love more kids and still hope that one day I will have one or 2 more, but not because of what society thinks within my LDS world, but because I enjoy being a mother. I am an educated woman and I am good at my job as a Business Manager and that’s what I want people to see. I am also good as a mother, but that doesn’t make me who I am. I worked hard to get to where I am now before I had a child.

    I love him dearly an dam so greatful that I was given the opportunity to become a mother, but I am not a whole woman because I have a child and used my uterus. I am a woman because of everything I am and do.

  11. I think I would have been devastated if I hadn’t been able to conceive, but I also think that I would have been able to work through that and ultimately be happy.
    I have average fertility and four kids. Although I’ve never been “baby hungry” and I want to be a mother, and it is my chosen path in life.
    I haven’t felt less of a woman when choosing not to get pregnant, or when trying to get pregnant and not getting pregnant (for a while).
    I think society should encourage people to have children. It is quite disturbing that the birthrate is declining. We are influenced by TV and our friends and society. Parenthood is tough and noble. It is a tough decision to make.
    50% of live births are accidental pregnancies.

  12. I totally relate to you. One reason I don’t use any hormonal form of birth control is because of this. As much as I know I do NOT want to get pregnant right now, I feel some sort of drive to maintain my fertility. It’s strange and your post identified my mentality beautifully.

    Growing up, I dreamed of being a mother giving birth every 18 months until I hit 6 or 7 kids. Then I got pregnant with my first and now my daugther’s 20 months and not gonna get another sibling for a LONG time. It’s wild that what I know that I want and need in my life right now (no pregnancy) still cannot rule out my insecurities about not being a fertile “angel,” even though my rational mind shivers at the thought of that…

  13. Thanks for all the comments; once again, I’m sorry I haven’t responded to any of them, I just haven’t really been in a place where I could.

    Kiri: First, I love your writing style! And I really appreciate your support. I share your belief that art can help transcend us out of all the yuckiness of socialization and being mortal. I think that operas like Die Frau Ohne Schatten really benefit from the fact that there are no fixed interpretations of art. In fact, I read a feminist critique of the opera that applauded the opera for its unique examination of the female body. So while there are some truly unfortunate aspects of this opera, it also brings to light things that are often overlooked in a male dominated world. As for Turandot, it is easily one of my favorite operas and one that I would consider extremely feminist. I feel a personal connection to it because I was on the same trajectory as Turandot but was also transformed by love (yeah, its corny). And I agree, the Yimou production is fabulous.

    TT: I agree that the subconscious is a wondrous thing. It is difficult to overcome the ideas that we have been indoctrinated with, but even if we can’t, I think it is important to at least examine them and understand where those ideas come from. I hope that you can at least take strength in the knowledge that many of us share your struggle. Good luck.

    Rachel: I am so glad that you don’t feel your worth tied to your fertility. I also got the IUD for a sense of freedom, now that a couple of weeks have passed, I’m appreciating it more.

    Markie: Thank you for your comment. It is experiences like yours that prove to me that our society needs to readjust how we talk about gender roles. No woman should ever have to feel guilty or worthless for something that she can’t control. And I agree, I think choice has a lot to do with how women view their fertility. I’m glad that you were able to have the children you longed for and that you are now at peace with your fertility.

    Caroline: I wonder what makes the difference between women like me who feel so connected to our fertility and women like you and Rachel that feel empowered no matter what? But I certainly am thankful, like you that I have the choice to have children when I want them…and I really don’t feel guilty about that.

    Jessawhy: I wonder if your right and it has something to do with having another child and my joy with that child. I probably should have said that mr. mraynes was joking when he referred to my shadowless status and I thought it was actually pretty funny, perfectly timed. His comment did, however, allow me to vocalize some of the reservations I had about being temporarily infertile. Thank you so much for your love and support, your a wonderful friend.

  14. Bonesflint: You bring up an interesting point; the natural extension of obsession with maternity is an obsession with virginity. I think this is even more dangerous for women; we see stories all of the time where women are attacked or killed because somebody thought there honor was in question. Unfortunately, I think this attitude is still alive and well in our own culture. Despite some of the softening in rhetoric and a focus on repentance and the atonement, many Mormons still believe “better off dead than unclean.” I was shocked recently when my own mother said something like this. When I asked her to really consider what she had just said, she didn’t see why this idea is so horrifying. We still have a long way to go.

    Sarah: Congratulations on your adopted child and maybe a future one! I agree, motherhood has nothing to do with biology…anybody can get pregnant, not everybody can be a mother. I am glad that you are self-aware enough to know what is good for you and your body. I think that is amazing.

    Elle: I love this sentence…”I am a woman because of everything I am and do.” I think that is such a progressive sentiment, I hope that I can raise my daughter to live by that mantra. As I have been thinking about this post, I have wondered if my hangup is not that I love having children, I feel like I’m really good at having children and so it is difficult to let that go for a while. While it may have something to do with how I’ve been socialized, I might just feel bad because I have found so much fulfillment in my fertility. It is definately something to think about. Despite my current feelings about my fertility, I do feel like a powerful woman. I am really good at my job and I am a really good mother. Thank you so much for your comment.

    JKS: I agree with you, parenthood is noble. In fact, that is one of the good things about the opera I was talking about…it encourages parenthood, not only for women but for men as well. I am glad that you have found so much fulfillment in your children. Thanks for your comment.

    Amy: You expressed much more succinctly what I was trying to get at. I find a lot of value in my fertility despite not wanting to access it right now. I tried really hard to use other forms of birth control before getting the iud but in the end, it was extremely stressful for me and it was beginning to affect my marriage. I hope that I made the right decision and that when I’m ready for another child, my body will cooperate.

    Thanks again for all the comments.

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