I don’t fail. It’s a standard I set for myself when I was very young. And, for the most part, it’s a standard I have maintained into adulthood. (It may not be completely healthy, but you know how those Type A’s are.) But here I am, facing what has felt like the most fundamental failure of my average, human life: infertility.
What is more basic to the human experience than procreation? What could hold more shame, frustration, anger, heartache, and emptiness than coming to the realization that you cannot fulfill that purpose and desire, which, by the way, happen to only grow inversely stronger as the prospect of attaining such grows ever weaker? How can I explain what it is like on the inside of infertility?
Where do I begin? I suppose with real life. To We, the Infertile, the mundane, underwhelming day-by-day is a constant reminder that we are being left behind. Can you imagine the pain of walking into IKEA, that unofficial Mecca of pregnant women? Or the gradual internal erosion of driving by the daycare five blocks from your office, watching mothers drop off their livewire toddlers or pick up their fragile infants—every day? Or the injustice slapping you in the face every time you hear of a child being abused by an ungrateful parent? Or the bittersweet guilt you feel reading Facebook announcement after Facebook announcement from friends, family, and some-time acquaintances spreading joyful news—news you deeply envy—through a single sonogram image or a “My Baby Boy’s Progress” post? (Let’s not even talk about baby showers.)
Being infertile is watching these things swirl around you, feeling helpless, feeling invisible, feeling ignored. All you want is for someone to take you by the hand and lead you to a remedy, while you follow, blinded by the tears you cry for that child you would love and care for beyond all measure if only something—fate, God, science—would give you that chance. All you want is a way to make those around you understand why you seem so sad, why you can’t focus at times. All you want is the courage to accept what you cannot change and still find a silver lining. All you want is an emotion that finally trumps that which is ever-present: disappointment. We mortals sure are needy things, are we not?
But let’s forget about the wants for a while, and turn to what is here and now.
I am infertile. Phew. There, I said it. In my own mind and heart, I have explored every nook and cranny such a notion holds. And when I have been able to come up for air, I have still remained baffled by the inner-struggle it takes to admit this. Despite attacking my condition from as many angles western medicine, eastern medicine, naturopathic medicine, self-prescribed Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul medicine, and the “Great Savings Account Drain” can muster, I am still wounded by this admission. I have been poked and prodded to the point that I’ve forgotten what modesty is; I’ve ingested numerous drugs, herbs and vitamins on the off chance something might help; my hormones have screamed the truth at me (and sometimes at those around me—apologies); I have poured my soul out, word by word, for all the citizens of Internet-land. Still there is a pervading stigma.
But why? Millions of couples face fertility challenges. Why can’t we talk openly—beyond our own sub-community of message boards—about it? Perhaps this is a fruitless question. Perhaps infertility is simply a private struggle; a topic too personal yet not controversial enough to hold the attention of a society that too often forgets the fragile miracle of life truly is a miracle. Perhaps we have only our very human selves to blame for this spiral of silence.
I see this left-behindness as two pronged. It is partially instigated by a society whose definition of “reproductive rights” is exclusive to terminating a pregnancy. But it is also self-inflicted by me, and my fellow childless parents, who take the weight of the responsibility—the crushing pressure—for creating life, and the failure thereof, onto our own shoulders, quite irrationally yet undoubtedly inevitable.
I recently posed a thought to a close friend who was lending an empathetic ear. Why is the fight for reproductive rights so one-sided? It is, after all, a two sided coin, but why does it always land the same side up? What is the first thing you think of when I say “reproductive rights?” I bet all the money I’ve appropriated for fertility treatment that you do not picture a woman, weary from the soul-sucking frustration of baby-less month after baby-less month, heartsick at the unattainable baby boom going on around her, sitting meekly in the office of a fertility clinic as she inches ever closer to complete desperation.
As a society, we talk openly—we fight furiously—about abortion. You don’t even need to be paying attention to hear about the issue on the campaign trail this year. But who is championing, or even discussing, insurance parity for infertile couples? As a society, we gawk and swoon over every baby bump, actual or tabloid-embellished; and we make celebrities out of the “octomoms” who abuse fertility treatment or the woman who gives birth to 19 kids (and counting). But what pop-culture phenomenon is featuring celebrity infertility? Where do we fit in?
But society is an easy scapegoat. The deeper, and more troubling, question is what are we telling ourselves? There is something wrong with me. I am not normal. I am a failure as a woman. I am falling behind along the great timeline of life and no one even knows it. Outside of fertility, simple words are thrown about so easily. On the inside, words carry so much emotion and weight. Fertility. Infertility. Pregnant. Miscarriage. On the inside, a word can become your reality—or all-consuming existence. And the funny thing is, life continues all around you even when you want nothing more than to command Time to stand still while you wrap your head around your new place in the world. But you have to adapt—isn’t that what we humans do best? You must learn to somehow slip back into that ever-moving world from whence you were so rudely dislodged and merge your new reality with that of the oblivious life around you. Can you do it seamlessly? I have not. Can anyone? I would say no, and I cry tears of empathy for the woman who feels she must do so or else face one more layer of failure.
At what point do we just let go and say, “This is not my fault. There may be something wrong with me, but there’s nothin’ wrong with that?” When do we allow the rest of the world to recognize the tragedy we face as childless mothers and fathers? How can we reignite that fire and drive for what we want that have been diminished with every negative answer we’ve received? What does it take to continue facing the specter of infertility while accepting we are not in control? How do we find the joy in others’ new-baby news when that reality seems so far beyond our own reach?
That point came for me about a month ago after suffering through a rollercoaster two years of infertility, stringently enhanced by a foundation-shaking miscarriage that nearly broke my spirit as severely as it broke my heart. I woke up one morning and simply told myself: “Enough.” In my darkest moments along this stifling path, I doubted I could ever find the fresh air again. But then I started sharing my story—releasing the toxic thoughts from my head before they could penetrate my motivation—and my lungs breathed deeply with the camaraderie I discovered, the outpouring of love, support, and open hearts.
But what a struggle to finally get here. Yes, I am still infertile, and I am still waiting to discover the surest path to my child. But outside of that goal, it is becoming clear to me that remaining in the back seat only pushes me deeper into the frustration and disappointment darkening my path.
And for all I’ve been through and for all I have yet to face, I know there are countless others who are (who will be, who have been) still without a voice. Speechless. But know at the very least, my friends, not alone.