Breaking the Silence
In honor of National Infertility Awareness Week, I wanted to post about my struggle with infertility. Be warned: this is a long post, and riddled with my thoughts and feelings on an incredibly emotional subject for me.
I try not to get too “political” when it comes to Facebook and I try to stay off of my soapbox. I have lectured students in my classroom on appropriate social media behaviors and sharing too much of oneself in the social media venue. So, I have deeply considered what I want to share with everyone regarding a topic that has become incredibly important and personal to me.
I’ve always been a people pleaser. Someone who tries to do the right thing. I’ve tried to live my life in a good and productive way, going to college, getting married, finding a great career and making a home for the two of us. When it came time to think about starting a family, I imagined things would work out because of my work ethic, my determination, my willingness to be a mother and my husband’s deep desire to be a father.
I was wrong.
Infertility is something that affects millions of people every year. As many as 1 in 8 couples deal with infertility, usually silently. There are a myriad of reasons why couples may be handed
an infertility diagnosis, and each couple is different. (Just so you know, none of these diagnoses are premised upon “trying too hard” or “not relaxing enough.” Seriously.) As much as I knew this information intellectually, I never imagined I would be a member of this group. All of the women in my family were and are able to have children. I never thought I would be different.
I have wrestled with the idea of sharing some of my story with you because, well, this just isn’t something people talk about. But, that’s the problem. Infertility makes you feel alone. The taboo perpetuates the silence and loneliness of this difficult situation. The process of starting a family is so personal that many feel uncomfortable talking about it. Sure, it’s fine to congratulate a mom and dad-to-be once she has the adorable baby bump or ultrasound photos. But those of us in the infertility camp fear, sometimes rightly so, that we might never get to that place. For those of us dealing with infertility, rest assured the process of starting our family is very clinical. I see doctors and nurses who have extensive files on all of my once private information. I have had more than one “personal” phone call in an awkward place, like the loading dock behind my office, when I was seeking privacy. Infertility is a real medical condition, but no one parades around with colored ribbons or creates charity bake sales.
To add insult to injury, most insurance companies call fertility procedures “elective” and relegate them to the status of breast augmentation and tummy tucks in many states. Actually, I could probably get insurance approval for a rhinoplasty, but not for IVF. So, those of us suffering from infertility also potentially get to empty our life savings for a small chance of becoming a parent. People love to say that “raising kids is expensive” like this justifies the fact that I may well invest the same amount in this endeavor to get pregnant as I could a luxury car. I am completely prepared for the expense of raising a child. The getting pregnant was the part that was supposed to be free.
There are also the “moral” and “ethical” concerns many folks have when you say the world “fertility.” Pictures of the “Octamom” are conjured and tossed around, whether joking or serious, and quite often, hurtful things are said when people lack real knowledge about infertility treatments. All too often, those outside of infertility don’t realize we aren’t looking for the spectacle they see flashed in the media. We’re simply looking for a child to complete our family. We get poked and prodded, put costly drugs into our bodies, endure uncomfortable and invasive procedures, deal with unpleasant and unpredictable side effects and give up privacy and modesty, just to get what other people have without drugs. If you’re not going to judge a diabetic for taking insulin or a cancer patient for taking chemo or having surgery, then don’t judge me for taking Breville or Clomid or having a specialized procedure.
Another fear in sharing my story with everyone is the judgement that often accompanies the disclosure of infertility. Many people try to be helpful and they don’t even realize they are judgmental, and very often, hurtful. They say things like “relax” and “just forget about it and it will happen.” They may suggest herbs or supplements, or other helpful “babymaking” tips. Trust me, when you’ve dealt with this as long as I have, then you have a whole team and doctors and nurses involved in your life. They measure everything you can imagine and then some. They have given me all of the scientifically proven methodology for becoming pregnant, along with procedures and medications to increase my odds. I have calendars, charts, tables and graphs, offered by a medical professional. There are a lot of things people say when they mean well, but when you’re all hopped up on hormones and fertility meds, they don’t sound empathetic. (These two posts, Infertility Etiquette and 16 Things Never to Say to A Woman Who Is Childless Not By Choice do a great job of explaining what you should and should not say to an infertile, like me. But be warned, the second post is a bit sharp tongued and snarky!) My doctor has verified for me that “relaxing” or not “trying so hard” will not be roads to success for me. These will never make my body do the things it needs to do. If I ever want to be pregnant, I need monitoring and intervention. So, stop judging me, and other women like me, for doing what we have to do just to have an outside shot at being a mom.
So, I guess my point comes down to the fact that sharing infertility is a hard choice. But, for me, in this moment, I feel like it’s a necessary one. Don’t worry, my uterus is not getting a Twitter account. I’m not going to give you a big dose of TMI. I just want you, my family and friends, to understand that Jeremy and I are going through something big and life altering. I also feel like the silence around infertility is contagious. I don’t know anyone else who is going through what I am going through. They say that infertiles either turn into moms who often get “pregnesia,” and move on and talk about their babies, or to women who live without children and try to leave the infertility struggle behind them. For me, no matter the outcome, I know my perspective has been forever altered by this daily struggle. There is no turning back at this point. For better or for worse, my life, and my husband’s life, will forever be different because of infertility. Maybe we will be lucky enough to be among those who eventually get pregnant. If I do, I know I will truly appreciate my pregnancy and our child. But then again, maybe we won’t be so lucky. There are no guarantees in fertility medicine.
I think the feelings of being alone in infertility are dangerous. Feeling isolated has made me bitter at times and I know it would be great to know there was someone else out there dealing with what I am or was. So, if anyone else is struggling or has been struggling privately with infertility, I am here for you. If you want to talk, you only need to contact me. If you don’t, then just know I am offering up my sincerest thoughts and prayers for all the other couples going through this. I’m not going to be ashamed of my diagnosis and no one else going through this should be ashamed, either.
I’m also going to say something that might anger some of you. But, I feel like it is my job, as an infertile, to tell you that asking “when are you going to have kids” or “don’t you like kids” or giving me the knowing look and saying “it’s your turn” is my kryptonite. You see, I have a facade that I have constructed that I show the world. I very purposefully don’t engage in conversations about babies, children, etc outside of my closest circle of friends and family. Yes, I want to be a mother. Yes, I like children. And just so your smug self knows, I’ve been trying to have a kid longer than you’ve been a mother. It’s never been my turn and I can’t understand why. But, I do know that your unthinking (because I am giving you the benefit of the doubt and not calling you outright insensitive) comment will likely cause me to go home and bawl my eyes out tonight. I’ll look at the meds in the cabinet and wonder why it’s never my turn. I’ll look in the mirror and see the physical scars I carry from procedures I’ve had, which are so much smaller than the emotional scars no one sees. I’ll cry and lose it. Jeremy will be there to put the pieces together, and we’ll probably even grieve together during my cry. But, I’ll never tell you because you will think I am “overly sensitive” and you will tell me it will “happen in God’s time” or “it will happen when you least expect it” (just so you know, those aren’t good things to say to an infertile either). Or, you might go the extra mile and tell me how “lucky” I am not to have children. I can tell you being childless doesn’t feel lucky. I would trade all of the “easy trips to the store” and “fun date nights out” for messy, loud and raucous adventures in child-rearing.
You might wonder how you know I’m an infertile so you can avoid asking me those questions. It would be so nice if I had a big “I” stamped on my forehead for your convenience. However, that’s not how it works. So, unless you want to engage in a deep and personal conversation with someone, avoid asking about “when” they will have kids. If they want them, they are probably working on it. If they don’t want them, your “when” question is unlikely to bully them into having them. Personally, I usually mutter something non-committally about someday, which gets harder and harder for people to buy the older I get.
So, my post makes it seem like talking to me about infertility will be a Catch-22. In some ways, that is absolutely true. But, for me, knowing that someone is willing to listen, truly listen, and not judge makes me feel better. Empathy makes me feel validated. I don’t need you to solve my problem (unless you have speciality training in Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility, then we should talk). I have a whole team of doctors and nurses who are offering me the best solutions possible. What I need from you, friends and family, is friendship, love and support. Just like anyone else battling any other condition or obstacle, we infertiles need to know our loved ones are on our side. We need you to understand when going to one more baby shower is tough for us. We need you to know it’s not that we don’t care about your joy and want to celebrate with you. We want you to realize we feel gut wrenching grief that sometimes we don’t know how to overcome.
As for me, I know I’ll be OK. I’ve got my mother’s blood running through my veins, so I am a survivor. I have a great group of people around me, helping me through this thing. My husband has been, and continues to be terrific, my sister is a constant shoulder to cry on, even though she admittedly knows nothing about infertility. I have a local doctor who should win the OBGYN of the year award (I honestly think I have spoken to this man at least once a week since October) and I am meeting my new Reproductive Endocrinologist from UNC-Chapel Hill on Friday. I won’t say everything will work out, or everything happens when it should happen, because those things don’t always feel true. If I am unable to have children, the platitudes of “everything happens for a reason” will always hurt. That’s as if you are telling me that God knows I’ll be a bad mom and won’t let me have children. Because we know, without a doubt, people that are bad parents never have children, right? What I can say for certain is that, while infertility has changed me, and will always be a part of me, it will not define me. But infertility has altered my life in such a fundamental way that it is part of who I am. So, I share my struggle in hopes that you will not only understand me a little better, but also possibly be aware of the impact you might have on others who are uncomfortable sharing their struggles, but who are nursing deep scars you may never see.