Several years ago, a girl in my parents’ neighborhood had her birthday party in my parents’ backyard because they have a fire pit and she wanted to make s’mores. I was there to help, and one of my tasks was to start the fire. I thought it would be no problem. Sure, I hadn’t ever done it before, but I had everything I needed to make a fire- how hard could it be? I tried and tried for 30 minutes, and couldn’t get the fire to start. I sat there in the dirt, a bit frustrated, laughing at myself and thinking how pathetic it was that wildfires started all the time with little to no intervention, and here I was, a 20-something year old, not able to get a fire to start while actively trying.
I’ve thought about how to best describe the way infertility feels, and this experience keeps coming back to me.
We started trying in 2012. We had been married for over a year, we were both almost done with school, and it felt like the right time. We timed it perfectly so that if we got pregnant that first month (I laugh at how easy I thought it was going to be back then), we would have the baby right after we graduated. When it didn’t happen in those first few months, I wasn’t too concerned. I made lists of baby names in preparation and was ecstatic anytime a friend or family member announced they were pregnant, knowing that I would join them soon. I was already thinking about how fun it was going to be to have kids so close in age- how they would grow up together and would share all of their firsts.
Several months went by and Matt and I graduated. My friends and family members who had announced their pregnancies around the same time we started trying were having their babies, and still no positive pregnancy test. I explained to my gynecologist what was going on, and she wrote me a prescription. She said that a lot of her patients had a hard time getting pregnant, and that this usually worked.
That’s when I started to feel their heat.
It began gradually. I would feel a twinge of heartache whenever I received another baby shower invitation in the mail, or when someone would ask if I had kids -or worse- if I wanted kids. At the time, I could still pick out gifts in the baby aisle without feeling too defeated, and I could still answer “yes, when the time is right” without my heart screaming “more than anything, but my body is broken!”
But then the babies who were meant to have grown up with my own started to teethe, crawl, and walk. They started to form full sentences - and my body was still empty. Couples who had been together for less time than Matt and I had been trying were starting to announce their pregnancies.
That’s when their flames started to burn me.
I began to have a difficult time going to baby showers. I would just stop by to say hello, give the expectant mother their gift (usually lotion or diapers or even a gift card so I didn’t have to walk through all of the baby clothes) and then quickly make my way to the door, offering up some excuse to explain why I couldn’t stay any longer. Well-meaning comments that were not intended to cause pain hurt nonetheless. My self-worth started to plummet, and it became harder and harder for me to gracefully answer personal questions about my uterus- often asked by people I hardly knew.
My gynecologist recommended we start going to a fertility clinic. We did. We got tested, and Matt’s side looked fine. My results came back, and they initially looked great. The word “excellent” was listed under several different hormone levels. Turns out, “excellent” is the medical term for “too high” (it doesn’t make sense to me either-seems like a very misleading word to use given the circumstances). We found out I have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. I knew exactly what that was – I had googled the hell out of infertility and had dismissed PCOS due to the most common symptoms: being overweight, and having darker/more than average body hair. I’ve had a hard time gaining weight my entire life and I’m virtually hairless- there was no way I had PCOS. But the results from the bloodwork were right there. I was prescribed a different medication, one that was known to work well with my condition, and we kept trying.
A year and a half and 5 IUIs later, and I’m still here- sitting in the dirt, hunched over my tinder, with a pile of burned out matches next to me.
Sometimes I can get through the day without thinking about it too much. Other days, I’ll be driving down the road and a physical pain will hit me suddenly, hard, right in the chest, and I’ll have to concentrate on breathing. Oftentimes, the pain is a dull ache, and it stays with me all day. Occasionally it will trigger a panic attack while I’m at work, and I have to try to get to the bathroom before the worst of it hits, hoping no one will come in while I’m hyperventilating.
Granted, my mood largely depends on what point in the process I’m in– whether I’ve just received a negative result on a pregnancy test, if I’m having to test my pee twice a day, if I’m taking my medication, going to the doctor for ultrasounds and blood tests, paying our medical bills, having timed intercourse (which is just about as romantic as it sounds), or lying on a table while a nurse I just met injects my husband’s sperm into my uterus with a catheter as she and I chit chat about work and the weather (which, incidentally, is also about as romantic as it sounds).
The wait between ovulation and the time my period is due is the most difficult part. It’s a constant struggle of being hopeful but indifferent, of having faith while at the same time telling myself I’ll be okay if it doesn’t work. I try to ignore every twinge and pain I feel- try to not immediately google any potential symptoms just to find out what I already know: yes, it’s an early sign of pregnancy. I’ve discovered over the last three and a half years that just about everything is. I’ve been at my lowest when I’ve gotten sick during those two weeks and avoided taking any medication in case it would harm my baby, only to find out I was protecting a baby that was never there.
Ruining dinner, which I would have been able to laugh off before, is now devastating. “Of course I can’t make dinner,” I tell myself, even though I know it’s irrational – “I can’t even do what every female on Earth should be able to do. Why would I think I could do something as simple as make dinner? I’m broken and worthless and incapable of doing anything right.” I fall to pieces, sob uncontrollably, and feel like there is no possible way I will ever recover from putting bad chicken stock in our pasta sauce.
I admit, it can still be very hard to see pictures of my pregnant friends on Facebook, or to scroll through my Instagram feed to see photos of newborns, or toddlers with captions stating what milestones they’ve made. It’s still difficult to be around children that are the same age as my child would be, if we had gotten pregnant when we first started trying. I have days where I don’t want to be around kids - because I’m either angry or on the verge of tears- and other days where I’m longing for someone to offer to let me hold their baby.
Despite what you might think based on everything I’ve shared so far, I do not want anyone to stop posting pregnancy pictures or photos of their children online, or to stop inviting me to baby showers. While it can sometimes make me incredibly sad for me, it always makes me incredibly happy for them. I don’t think sadness and happiness are mutually exclusive. One of the bizarre things I’ve learned through this experience is that we as humans very often feel both at the same time.
I’ve been very private about our struggle – not many people have known, although I’m sure many have suspected. Infertility isn’t something that’s really talked about in our culture, and that’s one of the reasons I decided to share our experience. It has made me feel incredibly isolated, and I want to add my voice to those who have been brave enough to speak out and have helped me by doing so. In an effort to add to what they have shared, here are a few important lessons I’ve learned from all of this:
I can do more than I thought I could.
My mom has multiple sclerosis and ever since I can remember she has had to give herself a shot once a week. One of my greatest fears has always been having to do the same. When one of the nurses at the fertility clinic brought in my trigger shot and told me I would need to give it to myself that night, I was horrified. She made it seem like such a simple thing- this thing that I had been terrified of my entire life. We were just discussing it like it was another pill to take or another stick to pee on. No training, no instruction, just – “here you go, mix this solution together and stick this needle into your stomach tonight.” I was nervous all day, and I looked up videos on YouTube to research the best way to do it. My husband didn’t think he could do it, and I felt like I would be less nervous if I did it myself anyway (having control seemed best). So – at nearly midnight- he and I (and our cat of course- she’s been so supportive of me in all of this) gathered in the kitchen, and I gave myself the shot – like a champion. I’ve only had to do it twice so far, but I will never be nervous to do it again. Turns out, I don’t mind giving myself shots. A lifelong weight has been lifted off of my shoulders, and that’s pretty great.
Just because your suffering hasn’t gone on as long as someone else’s doesn’t make it hurt any less.
Learning this was huge for me, because I’ve been on both sides. I’ve had people say to me “well, at least you’ve only been going through this for (insert time here) – I have a friend who went through this for 12 years,” and I’ve also caught myself hearing about other people’s experiences and thinking “how can they be complaining about how hard it is – they’ve only been trying for 6 months!” It doesn’t matter how long someone’s been trying, or what procedures they’ve been through. It doesn’t matter if they’ve had several miscarriages, or if they’ve never had so much as a false positive on a pregnancy test. It doesn’t matter if they’ve only been trying naturally or if they’ve had 3 failed IVF attempts. It doesn’t diminish or negate the pain that we each feel in our specific circumstance. Hearing about the experiences of others can sometimes put mine into perspective, but it will never take away how my personal pain feels. Suffering is not something you can measure or compare, and the knowledge of someone else’s suffering will never remove your own.
It’s easy to blame yourself, but you shouldn’t.
In our case, it’s very easy to blame myself because my body is the problem. Having PCOS means that I have a hormonal imbalance that results in poor egg quality and random, sometimes nonexistent, ovulation. Matt’s sperm count is through the roof, so much so that the nurse who did my last IUI couldn’t get over it. It’s difficult hearing that we’re bound to be successful based on his numbers, just to find out we failed 2 weeks later. I definitely still have issues with this, but I’ve started to understand how detrimental blame can be in this process. Luckily, I have a husband who is incredibly supportive, and he has never made me feel like this is my fault. I, however, haven’t been as kind to myself, and it has taken a lot for me to get to a place where I can recognize that it’s not my fault – it’s just something we both need to work through.
Infertility makes you feel like a crazy person, and understandably so.
When your life is being determined and controlled by your malfunctioning ovaries and you’re scheduling everything around peeing on sticks at specific times of the day, it is very easy to feel insane. In fact, it’s easy to act insane.
Just yesterday I was at the grocery store, a bit distracted and upset after getting some disheartening news at an appointment, when I realized that I had been systematically picking up each and every plum in the produce section without even knowing what I was doing. I could have been there for 5 minutes or 20 minutes – I’m not sure. I only know that when I snapped out of it, I had no idea how long I had been standing there, just mindlessly picking up plums and putting them back down.
Sometimes I’ll start crying in the middle of the day for no apparent reason. I know that the reason is the years of pain and frustration hiding just beneath my surface, but that’s not apparent to anyone else. My struggle with infertility is constantly lurking beneath my exterior, waiting for me to feel inadequate at my job or for someone to jokingly tell me I should never have kids because it’s too stressful. It will use any excuse to breach the thin barrier I have in place to hold it at bay- announcing itself in an explosive manner, a manner that does not equally match whatever trivial thing set it off. I made a mistake on a spreadsheet? Panic attack. I feel like our cat loves Matt more than me? Meltdown. A co-worker kindly asks if I have kids? A mumbled response, tears, and then an abrupt rush to the bathroom to cry it out. Crazy. Infertility will make you feel absolutely and completely batshit crazy.
Having kids may be hard and exhausting, but not having kids is also hard and exhausting.
I am so tired. I am tired to my core. I am physically, and emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. It’s true that having kids is hard, and it’s true that I don’t actually know how exhausting it is because I haven’t experienced it. But not having kids when you want to is also very hard and exhausting. I’m a different kind of tired, but I’m tired nonetheless. I can see how having tiny humans with crazy sleep schedules who are teething and have colic and throw tantrums and destroy things and require your constant attention and care could be exhausting. But losing sleep over failed IUIs, being overly obsessed with taking or not taking medication at the right time, trying to find the balance between being honest with people while at the same time keeping your life private, feeling guilty for not being more open about what you’re going through with the ones you love, having embarrassing meltdowns in public, constantly expecting and dodging sensitive questions, being poked and prodded and financially drained for what has so far been an unprofitable investment, making every life decision based on “if it happens this time” when it never does, and feeling like you’ve failed your spouse- that they would have been better off had they married someone else, is also exhausting. I don’t mean to make light of the exhaustion parents feel. I’ve just learned from this experience that there are different ways to be tired, and that everyone can be worn out- including people who don’t have kids by choice.
I have so many incredible family members and friends.
I already knew this, but experiencing infertility has made me realize just how enormously blessed I am. I have been surrounded by wonderful people- from the sister who immediately offered to be my surrogate when she found out, to the friends who have gone through infertility and have sent me supportive texts or have stopped by to see how I’m doing. I am so grateful to the family members who have suspected what has been going on and have respected our privacy, and to my friends at work who have allowed my schedule to be flexible and have put up with my panic attacks and emotional outbursts with or without knowing the reason behind them. I’m especially thankful for my Matt, for still loving this crazy version of myself and for keeping my heart anchored when I’ve felt like I couldn’t possibly hold on anymore.
I think I’m getting better at dealing with the flames that continue to burn around me. I can constantly feel their heat, but their smoke doesn’t seem to suffocate me as often as it used to. There’s a fine line between when they warm me and when they burn my skin, and I’m still learning how to appreciate and enjoy the light they give off while at the same time acknowledging the shadows they inevitably create.
I still don’t know if I’ll ever overcome this or what our family is going to look like. We might eventually have biological children, or we might adopt, or maybe we’ll just collect cats.
I guess what I’d most like to get across from saying (or rather, typing) all of this is that if you find yourself in a similar situation- sitting in the dirt, back aching, hands bleeding from striking so many matches, wondering why you can’t seem to do what others have done so easily or even on accident, just know that you are not alone.