What Would Kate Middleton’s Life Be Like If She Couldn’t Conceive An Heir?

In the late 1990s Crown Princess Masako of Japan faced enormous pressure to produce an heir, such pressure that some believe it changed her life for the worse and contributed to mental illness.

If you had told me 15 years ago that stories on the value of the royal womb would be playing out in the news in 2013, I’m not sure I would have believed it.

I remember reading about Princess Masako (we’re the same age) long before my battle with infertility did a number on my psyche. I recall thinking how sad it was that an accomplished woman was so demeaned and devalued because she had trouble conceiving, and in the end, couldn’t produce a son.

Once it became apparent that I couldn’t conceive I took solace in knowing that my life as a family of two could bring its own happiness. I shudder even today to imagine if I had had to face the kind of public scrutiny and judgment that Princess Masako did.

And what of the newest royal to capture headlines? The Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, is at the center of a dust up — this one concerning some unkind comments taken out of context from a recent speech. Booker-Prize-winning author Hilary Mantel described how Kate has gone from a mannequin entirely defined by what she wore to:

These days she is a mother-to-be, and draped in another set of threadbare attributions. Once she gets over being sick, the press will find that she is radiant. They will find that this young woman’s life until now was nothing, her only point and purpose being to give birth.”

While Mantel raised ire for her perceived criticism of Kate, elements of her speech raised some interesting questions: How would the public and the press have reacted to Kate (once they lost interest in her wardrobe choices) if she and Will were simply unable to have children?

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Would the media, the general public that today lavishes attention on them accept the couple as a family of two? Would they embrace and celebrate them as eagerly? Or would they hound Kate as mercilessly as they did Princess Masako, make her believe her value lay solely in her ability to conceive and produce an heir?

Mantel sized up the situation more bluntly:

We have arrived at the crux of the matter: a royal lady is a royal vagina.

Yes, as much as we might want to think society has evolved beyond medieval days, or even from last century, to quote Yoggie Berra, “it’s déjà vu all over again.”

One day perhaps we can be comfortable with this observation from Gloria Steinem: “Everybody with a womb doesn’t have to have a child any more than everybody with vocal cords has to be an opera singer.”

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15 thoughts on “What Would Kate Middleton’s Life Be Like If She Couldn’t Conceive An Heir?

  1. I can’t imagine the pressures the ladies (of that kind of position) must’ve felt. I mean, as an outsider, I feel some of the pressure already because the media keeps on writing about them and sometimes I just want them to shush and let them be, but how would it feel to be them? YIKES!!!

    LOVE that Gloria Steinem quote. :-D

  2. a square peg in the circle of live

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soraya_Esfandiary-Bakhtiari#Infertility_and_divorce
    “On 10 March (1958), a council of advisors met with the Shah to discuss the situation of the troubled marriage and the lack of an heir. Four days later, it was announced that the imperial couple would divorce. It was, the 25-year-old queen said, “a sacrifice of my own happiness.” She later told reporters that her husband had no choice but to divorce her. ”
    Pamela, the son of the return of deja vu all over again, part #billions and billions :(

    1. Thanks for sharing this link. I was unfamiliar with this particular story.

    2. I didn’t know Soraya’s story… thank you for sharing the link.

  3. Mel

    On one hand, the pressure on royals to reproduce is horrifying (and the #1 reason I would never in a trillion years want to be a princess). But if we look at it as a job? Then I’m not as horrified. If the purpose of a doctor is to treat illness, then I would expect a doctor to treat illness. And if the purpose of a monarch is to ensure the stability of the government and produce an heir that will succeed the current monarch, then we can look back at history and see that big problems arise when there is a fight for power. While I don’t think the United Kingdom will fall apart if Kate and William never reproduced, I could see a country holding its collective breath waiting for another royal to be born because that child signifies continuation. Stability. Government. Which also translates into security for the nation. Heady things.

    She is never going to personally “rule,” though she has an important role in creating that stability.

    It’s a really interesting question.

    1. Alexicographer

      Here via LFCA.

      Taking Mel’s point for discussion … why should produce = give birth to? Tradition, obviously, but even if we accept the (now rather antiquated) notion that governments can exist via a system involving a hereditary monarch (and Britain’s does, of course, but just as one element of the governmental system), so that to produce an heir a monarch must parent a child, why not an adopted child?

      That of course opens up whole cans of worms about what path(s) any individual monarch (or couple of monarchs) might or might not want to consider pursuing to become a parent, deeply personal decisions (as I know we are all aware).

  4. OK, I haven’t read the original article, but I didn’t think that those criticisms were actually leveled at Kate. She might find them very harsh, but I’m pretty darn sure they were leveled at the press and the especially-fawning members of the public. And then those same people chose to…attack the writer for attacking Kate? There’s a special irony hidden in here that I’ve not succeeded to articulate. Of course, I think the popular media are awful almost without exception, so for me this is filed under: “See also every day this lifetime.”

    Kate has wisely manicured her public image, pregnancy included, to fit the superficial (and sometimes traditionalist, but frankly I think public analyses of her embrace contemporary superficiliaties as well as those of a more old-fashioned bent – it’s the shallowness that unites it all) interests of her viewing public, including the largely lobotomized press. Nobody wants to hear about her hopes and dreams (at least, not if they encompass anything more than “a pretty white dress”), her struggles and triumphs. She is a mannequin in every sense. Of course, in one way or another, that’s true of all sorts of public figures. So there would be no reason to criticize her (or the phenomenon that surrounds her) particularly.

  5. Thanks for the link with the update on Masako — my heart just breaks for her. Boy, we think WE feel pressure to reproduce…!!

    From what I’ve read, Hilary Mantel’s speech was meant as a critique of society’s obsession with royal baby bumps throughout history, and not specifically or necessarily of Kate herself. But that’s how it was interpreted in the press (go figure, right??). (Mantel herself is childless, suffered from endometriosis.) Heather Mallick of the Toronto Star wrote an interesting piece about this here:
    http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/2013/02/20/british_novelist_hilary_mantels_elegant_writing_on_princess_kate_is_viciously_attacked_mallick.html

    While she’s not as far up the line of succession as Will & Kate, Sophie, Countess of Wessex (wife of Prince Edward) is rumoured to have conceived both her children via IVF. Her daughter, Lady Louise, was born prematurely… and she had an ectopic pregnancy that was well publicized at the time. I found myself hoping that she might become a spokesperson for infertility &/or pregnancy loss issues as a result. Alas…

    1. Fascinating back story on Hilary Mantel …and I see that the full text of her speech became available today:
      http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n04/hilary-mantel/royal-bodies

      This closing line makes it clear she was, indeed, asking for the press and public to give the royals some space:
      “History makes fools of us, makes puppets of us, often enough. But it doesn’t have to repeat itself. In the current case, much lies within our control. I’m not asking for censorship. I’m not asking for pious humbug and smarmy reverence. I’m asking us to back off and not be brutes. Get your pink frilly frocks out, zhuzh up your platinum locks. We are all Barbara Cartland now. The pen is in our hands. A happy ending is ours to write.”

      1. One thing I thought of as I re-read this… Masako gets all the pressure because she hasn’t been able to produce a SON… I mean, no matter who has the fertility issues in a couple (her, him or both), it’s the men who determine whether a baby is a boy or girl, right? So why don’t the guys get any flack?? Same reason I get indignant whenever I think of all those divorced & beheaded wives of Henry VIII :p — although to be fair to him, nobody knew in those days how gender is determinded.

        To his credit, Masako’s husband, the Crown Prince, has always seemed very protective of her. (And from what I’ve seen, the little girl is adorable.)

  6. Joshua Cintron

    Hello, coming from a male’s perspective I think the public would accept the Duchess and support her. The times are different. People are forgiving and she’d probably send fertility specialists into the lab to find a cure immediately.~ Josh

  7. -“Everybody with a womb doesn’t have to have a child any more than everybody with vocal cords has to be an opera singer.”-
    As a singer, I find that this quote hits very close to home (in a good way). A great opportunity to view IF in a whole new way!

  8. I thought the whole speech was really fascinating, especially the part about meeting Queen Elizabeth at a party and the awkwardness that ensued. The legacy of the bloodlines in royal families is rather strange, I’ve always thought, given the in-breeding that led to so many diseases :/ I would not want to be Princess Kate for anything. It does seem like she and Prince William have a pretty normal and loving relationship, though…

  9. Sorry I’m so late to comment on this. I was following the Hilary Mantel furore a little, and was already enormously irritated that the criticism and reportage (even on relatively decent news outlets) so missed the mark of what Hilary Mantel said.

    And yes – I have always followed poor Princess Masako. A friend who met her on the diplomatic circuit said she was a brilliant, bright, friendly and fun young woman. What a tragedy. Of course, Lady Diana also fell into tragedy in some of the same ways, and she delivered the heir and the spare, so we obviously can’t put all the blame on the pressure to conceive.

    Like Loribeth, I too have been disappointed that Sophie, Prince Edward’s wife, hasn’t been involved in any infertility/ectopic pregnancy awareness raising. She had her ectopic pregnancy just days before my first. I can understand that she wouldn’t do it in the immediate years afterwards, when she was trying to conceive her two children. But why not now?

    As for Kate, well, she would have been hounded mercilessly by the press if she couldn’t conceive. Plus ça change …

  10. i have felt bad for Kate for a long time. I am always a browser of the tabloids at the grocery, and she has been on those things for a way too long. Her and William met in circumstances that were pretty normal of those in their 20s – at college, etc. In fact, I imagine some early days in their relationship were just like any other kids in college. But, this pressure she’s under and the constant attention has to be nuts.

    Due to her issues with hyperemesis gravidarum during her pregnancy and all the swirlings of “did she use fertility treatments? Is she carrying twins???” All this pressure to produce heirs, the obsession over if she was pregnant – which basically started immediately after that got married, is insane. That poor woman. I know she chose to marry the future King of England. But still. It just seems so ridiculous.

    I feel for her all the time and all the flak she takes.

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