It has been almost 11 years since I had my first baby.
It’s been approximately 12 years since we started the process of in-vitro fertilization.
It’s been about 13 years since I took my first steps over the threshold of the reproductive endocrinologist’s office, scared and angry.
Thirteen years since we did almost a whole year of intrauterine inseminations, hoping against hope each time, trying to avoid doing IVF because I was so terrified of that process.
Fourteen years since I had my first miscarriage.
In my late twenties, when I should have been having fun and experiencing all of the excitement and freedom and possibility of young adulthood, when all of our friends were getting married and popping out babies one after another, we were having medical tests and surgeries and perfectly timed sex, driving as fast as we could from home to the doctor’s office with a sperm sample in a cup tucked next to my body to keep it warm so it could be washed and spun and clinically inserted into my uterus later that day, just like nature intended.
The thing I remember most was the shame. And grief, so much grief. I didn’t tell very many people what we were going through at the time. It was so hard to talk about. I had this body that wasn’t doing what it was made to do, what lots of women’s bodies did by accident, even. I was young and healthy and married. I had a job. I had a house. I did everything in the right order. All those years worrying about birth control and getting pregnant “at the wrong time” seemed pretty silly, in retrospect.
And people said such stupid things. Even though I knew logically that they were just trying to help and they didn’t mean any harm, when I was already wearing all of my nerves on the outside of my body, other people’s well-meaning but misguided comments were just too much to bear. So I just kept my pain to myself, and did my best to muddle through work and the responsibilities I had at the time. I plastered a smile on my face every time I went to a baby shower for a treasured friend, and then went home and cried for days over my own bitter situation as well as my inability to be truly happy for another person that I dearly loved. The pain hung between us as a couple. We could hardly speak to each other about what was happening, lest we step into an emotional minefield and lose our footing. Our marriage suffered as we each retreated to our individual corners to deal with our pain in the best way we knew how. My mental health unraveled. We drifted away from our “couple friends”, who now all had at least a few kids and were more interested in doing family-centric activities on the weekends than hanging out as couples. We avoided any activities where we might be bombarded with pregnant ladies or babies or families, which turned out to be all activities, everywhere. We became more and more isolated.
Finally we came to the end of our options and did IVF, and it worked. And I was so sick. Not in the “morning sickness” way that other women get sick, but in the “complications from IVF way that nobody really tells you can happen” way. But we were pregnant. And we were supposed to be happy. But I was too scared and sick to be happy, so we were just guarded, and every time a little joy would bubble to the surface, we just popped the bubble to keep the joy in check in case the worst happened, because our experience was that the worst usually did happen, at least to us.
As my pregnancy progressed, some of the complications resolved, and new complications arose. There were some scary, horrible moments. There was ovarian hyperstimulation, which led to more procedures and treatments. There was bleeding and bedrest. There was a twin who was lost, leaving us to grieve the loss of one as we hoped for the other. As I passed into my second trimester, things started to look up a little. I came off bed rest and was able to go back to work. I had a cute little belly. We started planning and making a registry and getting the baby’s room ready. We found out we were having a boy. We let the joy bubble up. The pain and fear were not gone, but we could lift up our heads in the midst of it for the first time in a while.
Then we had a boy. All of 5 lbs 11 oz.
And 2 years later, a girl.
And there you have it, right? I got my happy ending. Not everyone’s infertility story ends that way, I am well aware. As my friends told me during my darkest days, it was all “worth it in the end”. Story over. Except that it’s not.
After almost 5 years of trying to conceive, more interventions than I can count, 3 million home-pregnancy tests, 3 actual pregnancies, 2 losses, 2 c-sections, and 2 live births, I now have two kids who can read and write and pour their own cereal and who let me sleep in on the weekends. Hallelujah. And yet, I still have this dark twisty place where shame and grief live.
I thought the shame would go away once we were through with treatments, but it didn’t. It just transferred neatly over to parenting, and there it has stayed, after a full decade of raising these little miracles that I prayed and cried and ached over before they were ever conceived in a Petri dish.
When I am in the midst of the never-ending laundry pile and cleaning and school papers and picking up the crap that everyone drops all over the house, shame whispers “At least you have people who need you. Not everyone is so lucky.”
When I don’t want to cook one more meal and just can’t bear the complaining and whining that happens almost every night at the dinner table, shame says, “Well, you get to sit at the dinner table with your husband, a little boy, and a little girl–this is what you wanted, right?”
When I feel simultaneously overstimulated and yet mind-numbingly bored from all of the school happenings and extracurricular activities and homework and baths and bedtimes and board games and recitals and band concerts, I hear “You should be grateful that you have the privilege of watching your healthy kids grow up. Not everyone gets that opportunity.”
My therapist told me that feelings are just feelings. Except that some of my feelings feel like a grenade in my hand. If I hold on to them, no one gets hurt except me. If I throw that grenade, the people around me get hurt. They might think I don’t want them or love them, which sounds like a terrible message that I would never want my kids to receive from me. So I lock myself in the bathroom for some quiet, I go to yoga and on long runs. And I ponder–can gratitude for my beautiful family really co-exist with these feelings of being totally, utterly exhausted from parenting? Can I really feel like I want to hold on tight to my dear little family in one breath while wanting to run away from my life in the next? How do I hold space for the part of me that is so completely resentful of these people who harass me to make them pancakes on a Saturday morning before I have even had a cup of coffee, even as I remind myself that had it not been for medical technology and a $10K gift from my parents, I would be eating pancakes alone? The truth is that after you go through infertility, there is no space for those feelings. I can sit in a therapist’s office and agree with her that yes, logically there should be space to be disillusioned and disenchanted and exhausted and frustrated by parenting and that of course, one can feel more than one emotion at a time, in equal measure, even if it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. Because feelings don’t always make sense. But. Everything I do now as a parent– the choices I make, how I relate to my kids, the way I think, the way I feel, the way I am–is all colored by the grief and the pain of that journey we went through to get where we are today. It changed me.
And what of the loss that comes with infertility? So much loss, and not just pregnancy loss, which is significant. There is also loss of your privacy and dignity. Loss of that dream that you would surprise your husband with happy news and he would swing you around and you would both jump up and down in the kitchen. Loss of some of your friends, who drift away or move on because they started driving in the mommy lane a decade before you, or because you you’re so bogged down by grief to be a decent friend. Loss of your innocence. Loss over the way you thought it would be.
I know a lot of people who, after they have suffered greatly from one trial or another, would tell you that despite the pain they endured they ultimately were so grateful for what they learned through suffering that they wouldn’t ever change it. I don’t think I am one of those people. My emotional journey didn’t end all nice and neat and wrapped with a pretty bow on the top. I will never be able to package it like an after-school special with a positive message at the end for everyone to take away and feel good about. I would never want to change the two children that I have, with the exact combination of chromosomes that make them the unique little beings that they are. I can appreciate that if we had gotten pregnant earlier, these two kids would not exist. But would I choose to undergo infertility and pregnancy loss to that end? My answer is a resounding NO. I suspect that my inability (or refusal, if I’m being totally honest) to embrace that particular suffering as a “blessing” makes some people pretty uncomfortable. But maybe it also will give voice to others who, like me, don’t feel the need to weave a silver lining through every little piece of life. Maybe we can start talking about things like this, and the shame won’t feel so big once it’s out in the open. Maybe.