Now that yet another small flicker of hope for a miracle last-minute natural pregnancy has been extinguished, I’m gonna get this post off my chest, which I’ve been meaning to write for a while. It’s my Top Ten Things that Suck about Delayed Fertility (assuming we do eventually become parents — if not, that’s a whole other list).
These are in order from least bad to worst.
TEN: Disruption of Life
Early mornings. Needles. Hormones. Pills. Supplements. Making sure you take them all at the proper time, in the right order. Ultrasounds, dear god, the endless ultrasounds.
I suppose spending six months in Istanbul wasn’t so bad, but the fact that it involved so much medical intervention and heartbreak didn’t exactly make it feel like a vacation. And now I have to travel to California from Oklahoma multiple times, since that’s the only clinic that offers the treatment we opted for next in an affordable way.
NINE: Invasion of Privacy
I guess you get used to it after a while, but it’s still grating that we have to take something that’s supposed to be natural and beautiful (and private!) and turn it into a sordid technological nightmare with endless spectators. I know intellectually that it’s a miracle, but Good God I wish we could be left alone to get on with it!
Waiting… waiting… waiting… Waiting for the next cycle to start. Waiting for your eggs to grow. Waiting for the fertilization report, the growth and survival report, for your lining to grow, for beta results, for a seven-week ultrasound. Waiting to miscarry. Waiting to try again. Waiting to get your saline ultrasound, waiting for your next surgery, waiting for a donor embryo profile…
And I think I’m up to 40 two-week waits by now. Don’t get me started on those.
So many fears, many of which have already come true: I did need surgery (four times). This did take more than four years. We did lose all of our savings. I did miscarry, twice.
And now: The paralyzing fear that the next round will be a negative; that even if it’s positive, the ultrasound will reveal no heartbeat (I’ve yet to see a heartbeat despite two pregnancies); that this will never work; that we’ll end up deeply in debt and still childless.
SIX: Feeling like a Failure
If you get in a devastating car accident or fall into some other misfortune through no fault of your own, no one thinks less of you as a person, and I’m guessing most people don’t blame themselves, either. But for some reason it’s hard not to feel like a failure when you have trouble reproducing. There’s such expectation around it, such social pressure. Yet at the very same time, it’s thought of as somehow trifling, not a “real” problem. So if you end up spending a lot of money on medical treatments, it’s thought of as “extravagant.” (Thanks, Octomom.)
So it’s very much a double-edged sword: If you don’t have kids, you’re a freak, but if you try too hard to have kids, you’re a profligate weirdo. (And in some liberal circles, you’re practically an ecoterrorist if you want to have kids at all.) I know I shouldn’t care what others think, and I’m learning not to, but it’s kind of “out there.” You can smell it on the wind.
(To be clear, I’m not having kids to satisfy society’s expectations. It’s something I’ve always deeply, personally wanted. Just remarking on our society’s atmosphere in general.)
Meanwhile it’s also hard not to feel like a failure in at least one other way: You try and try and try not to feel ragingly jealous of people who pop out kids like it’s going out of style — sometimes on accident. You try and try to remember that someone else’s gain isn’t your loss. You try to feel happy for them. And most of the time, you succeed.
But there are times when you want to rip the universe’s asshole out through it’s eye. Like when you’re miscarrying and you check Facebook to distract yourself only to find a friend younger than you announcing Number 3.
There doesn’t seem to be much you can do against that.
FIVE: The Endless Unknown
Writ large, about one-third of the time, fertility issues fall mostly on the female side, one-third of the time they fall mostly on the male side, and one-third of the time it’s both or unknown.
We’re in the fuzzy third category, which means there’s no simple fix. The general diagnosis seems to be “bad luck” and the general prescription seems to be “keep trying.”
But that’s not good enough for me. I want to know what’s going on. So I ended up doing enough research in the past four years that I should have at least a Master’s degree in this subject by now. Turns out there are literally hundreds of things that can go wrong, hundreds of interconnected steps and cellular processes, hundreds of points that can stop the whole process in its tracks. Sometimes I’m amazed anyone has ever naturally conceived a child in the history of the world.
And, with the industry booming, there’s no shortage of “miracle cures” and “promising procedures and protocols” that aren’t thoroughly tested but that plenty of people swear by. Of course, most people who keep trying are eventually successful, and it could be a complete coincidence that they were finally successful when they used EmbryoGlue(TM). A part of me wants to throw everything I have at it, and another part feels like I’m being hustled by Ron Popeil.
And with all that, all those countless hours I’ve spent, I still don’t really know what our main issue is or how to fix it. I could spend another five years and $100,000 trying to figure it out. Instead, we’re going for donor embryos, which take 90% of the things that can go wrong and put them on someone else, on healthy young donors. But I still wonder if there’s just one silver bullet that could have saved us all this money and all this time and all this heartache. I probably always will.
I’m kind of a control freak, if it wasn’t clear already. And I’ve never felt such loss of control as I’ve felt through this process.
FOUR: The Stigma
If you get cancer, no one blames you or judges you or gives you unsolicited advice about treatment. Yet when it comes to fertility issues, people want to know what’s wrong with you, what you did to deserve it. Did you eat badly? Keep your cell phone holstered to your ovaries? Are you too uptight? (Just relax!) Did you wait too long?
I think a part of this comes from the old “just world theory” (aka “blaming the victim”). No one likes to think bad things happen to good people for no reason. People like to feel protected from catastrophe, so they distance themselves from people who are going through bad times, whether they are poor, in prison, or a battered member of another race. There’s nothing more terrifying than a story about a vegan non-smoker who got lung cancer. Is no one safe?
No. No one is safe. It can literally happen to anyone.
We started trying when he was 30 and I was 33. Half the people who try IVF are younger than 35. Nearly 15% of couples will take more than a year or two to get pregnant, and a whole lot of those will end up needing an intervention of some kind. Most of it has to do with medical conditions that are no one’s fault. Most of the time, it’s just the luck of the draw. And for those who did meet their perfect partners later in life, who the hell is anyone to judge their desire to be parents?
Yet because there is such a stigma around it, people don’t talk about it, so even though it’s very normal, it’s still not “normalized.” The majority of people do, thankfully, have a pretty easy time with fertility, and they stay in their blissful bubble while we fertility-challeged folk seek each other out because no one else wants to talk about it. Definitely a “red state / blue state” kind of thing.
There’s also a judgment for “taking hormones” and spending tens of thousands of dollars — as if we’re so eager to do it. As if we’d do it at all if we didn’t feel completely backed into a corner.
People tend to say, with just the slightest tinge of polite confusion, as if maybe you’re kind of an idiot, “Didn’t you think about adoption?”
Well, given that you came up with that in 0.2 seconds, do you really think we haven’t thought of it in the past four years?
Yes, adoption is an option, but guess what? It also costs tens of thousands of dollars, and it also comes with endless freighted considerations, not to mention requirements and qualifications, which not everyone can easily meet. It can also take years, and it can also come with unspeakable heartache. It’s a great option for some, but it’s not as simple as going down to the baby store and picking one out. If it were, believe me, we’d have done it already.
It’s a deeply personal decision, one that you very likely cannot understand unless you’ve been faced with it yourself and have been in our particular circumstances. Both extremely unlikely, because anyone who actually has adopted would never throw the idea around so casually.
(But if you have adopted, and you feel like offering insights or advice, I’m all ears!)
Anyway. Because everyone has a judgment or opinion or just avoids the subject after your third or fourth round of bad news (and who can blame them?), you end up avoiding people and avoiding the subject yourself, even though it’s consuming your life, your time, and all your money. You start to feel a bit schizophrenic. And lonely.
To top it all off, there are no narratives/movies/novels of fertility problems. By definition, NOTHING HAPPENS for months or years at a time. It’s boring and depressing. It’s bad storytelling. In the movies and TV shows, people get pregnant so easily, and no one ever miscarries (it drives me NUTS when someone gets a single positive pregnancy test and acts like they’re guaranteed a baby — and of course they are, because the writers control the outcome, not biology), and it’s all fun and funny and cute.
It will never be fun and funny and cute for me. I’ll be a nervous wreck, at least until well into the second trimester, and even then I know far too well how many things can go wrong. The whole thing has turned from a miraculous rite of passage into a grim battle, with (so far) nothing but long stretches of tense waiting punctuated by occasional bursts of deep heartache.
And there’s no social model for that. You’re kind of on your own.
THREE: Pain and Guilt
The pain of all this is bad enough, and it is pretty much indescribable to anyone who hasn’t gone through it. If you either wanted kids and had them easily, or never wanted them in the first place, the experience we’re going through is completely alien to you. It was alien to me before I was in it.
Only now do I know how it feels to have the most important decision of your life taken out of your hands. Only now do I know what it’s like to know precisely what your next step in life is, to feel in your bones exactly what you are supposed to do — something that’s supposed to be simple, the most natural thing in the world, something that will change everything forever — only to have the door slammed in your face over and over and over again, for years.
Only now do I know what it’s like to go from the transcendent joy of a positive pregnancy test to the depths of finding out it was all an illusion that will soon be over. Twice.
Only now do I understand the visceral ache of missing people who don’t exist, but should.
But even worse than the pain is the guilt. Despite what I know in my head, it’s hard not to feel like this is my fault somehow. And to see my husband suffer… It’s the worst thing I’ve ever experienced.
TWO: The Soul-crushing Expense
We could be on our way to buying a lovely house right now. Or we could have taken our children and traveled the world for a year. Or we could have just raised our damn kids and started their college fund, confident to have a nest egg to fall back on.
Instead, we have nothing. We rent our small apartment. We don’t have cable, barely have cheap pay-as-you-go cell phones. We don’t even own our car (though we will in about four years). We’ve trimmed all the fat we can trim. We’re just trying desperately to stay above zero. And we still don’t have a kid and don’t know if (or how) we ever will.
It’s so fucking unfair.
ONE: Time Passing
This is really the hardest one. We’re getting older. Our nieces and nephews (our kids’ cousins) are getting older. Our friend’s kids are getting older. My parents are getting older. (My husband’s parents have already passed away.) Our grandparents are dying one by one before they’ll ever get to spend good time (or time at all) with our kids.
Meanwhile life and people and families pass us by and lap us, sometimes more than once. We can’t even get off the ground.
Sometimes I hyperventilate when I think I’ll be 60 when our kids are in college. And what about our grandkids? Will we even meet them, much less have good time with them? I guess we’ll have to raise our kids as fundamentalist Christians and teach them “abstinence only” so they’ll have kids early… (KIDDING!)
We just can’t plan our life year-to-year because we don’t know when or if we’ll have kids or how much more we’ll have to spend just to get the first one going. God only knows about trying for a sibling — how long it will take or how much it will cost. If we have twins next year, we may be done. Late and broke, but I can live with it. (Not like I have a choice.)
But if we have a single child, I’ll be 39 when we’re trying for our second kid, 40 when I deliver. BEST CASE SCENARIO.
Not what I planned at all.
It’s so fucking unfair.
I really thought I had played it perfectly. I’d lived a lot of life by the time I got married at age 33, and I was still plenty young enough to have two kids and get all my trying-to-conceive over with at the relatively safe age of 35. I was so ready for it in every way. And yet…
It’s like you’re all set and ready to put on a play. You’ve got the props (toys and clothes you saved from your own childhood), you’ve got the audience (friends and family just waiting for your announcement), and even co-stars (ALL of your friends seem to be having babies at the exact same time!!). The music is playing, the house is sold out…
Yet the star of the show remains elusive, hidden behind some cosmic curtain. Even if you get word that he or she is finally on the way, just nine months out, you know he/she can cancel at any point along the way.
It’s an exhausting way to live.
Sorry if this is kind of a downer. I like to unpack things like this so it’s not just a swirling shitstorm in my mind. One by one like this, I can kind of get a handle on the thing.
And I am doing pretty well overall these days. But that doesn’t erase the fact that this is really hard. A uniquely difficult human experience.
How about you? Anything else you’d add to the list?
P.S. Just realized I forgot one: Spending YEARS feeling like your body is not your own. It’s just a means to an end, something you have to coddle with all the right supplements and a healthy diet — no sugar, no alcohol, no dairy, no coffee, blah blah blah — and not too much exercise but not too little, and…
You feel like a hostage to this thing that stubbornly refuses to exist despite your best efforts. And during those endless Two Week Waits (especially the ones that cost thousands of dollars), you feel like you’re made of glass…
That’s exhausting, too.
At least every time you fail, you get to go on a little wine and cookie bender…