After her seventh miscarriage, it became obvious to Sharon van Wyk that she was probably never going to have a biological child. She and her husband had struggled for years with infertility.
It was a gradual process, but they starting switching their focus to the legacy and responsibility of parenting a child -- irrespective of genes. "I just wanted to become a mother, the rest no longer mattered to me."
The now mother of two, proudly via adoption, admits it hasn't been easy. She has dealt with her fair share of people questioning, directly or indirectly, her authenticity as a mother as she hasn't physically given birth to her children. "For example, when friends ask about my children's 'real' mom, it's actually quite insulting and hurtful," she says.
Prejudice around the whole subject of infertility is not uncommon.
A study published in BioMed Central, conducted in Ghana three years ago, indicated shocking levels of stigma surrounding infertile couples, especially women who couldn't have children. Women were blamed for their miscarriages. Men, on the other hand, battled with being branded as Lankpolosoba, literally meaning "a man with rotten testes" or Yokuusoba meaning "a man with dead penis."
"Infertile couples are socially stigmatised and excluded from leadership roles in their communities. Couples without children are denied membership in the ancestral world thereby losing the opportunity to live again. Both males and females are engaged in sex with multiple partners to prove their fertility," said the study.
University of Kwa-Zulu Natal's cultural expert, Gugu Mkhize, says it is not surprising women have more pressure exerted on them to give birth. She admits that the greater burden rests on women, as they are expected to bear and carry children that will continue the family name. "Culturally, women are not considered complete if they cannot or do not have children," Mkhize says.
Van Wyk believes the obsession with leaving a genetic legacy is absurd. "There are women who never give birth or even adopt children, who make amazing mothers or mother figures." She thinks Oprah Winfrey captured it best when she said "biology is the least of what makes someone a mother."
Mkhize says the current challenge is in educating people about infertility, especially traditionalists who believe there is only one way a woman can be a mother. Open dialogues are one way this can be achieved, she suggests. This may also help lessen the stigma around mothering through processes such as adoption, surrogacy and IVF.
"Being a mother is an all-encompassing love for my children. I love them so much I'd lay down my life for them. To me it's about raising them to the best of my ability, so they are well adjusted, emotionally intelligent adults, who contribute positively to our society. That for me is being a mother and it means so much more than a strand of DNA and a birth experience," says van Wyk.