I never dreamed that getting pregnant–that most basic of human functions–would be difficult. In fact, I spent most of my twenties making sure I didn’t get pregnant. It ended up happening anyway…twice. Which is why when my husband and I finally reached the same point on the X/Y axis of family planning, it never occurred to us there would be an issue. We would drink champagne and frolic and play, the married folk way, and soon enough I’d be penguin waddling and eventually baby swaddling. I was 31.
We frolicked and played until play flew out the window and the frolicking left the building. Months went by, and every month, the back ache and cramps that preceded the arrival of my period were fiercer than ever. Not being pregnant wasn’t enough. The insult was magnified by the near constant pain I was in for 10 days out of the month. More months went by. We introduced acrobatic contortions of feet and hips propped up, princess and the pea style. Sex, once a source of pleasure and intimacy, was now ranked alongside dusting and food shopping. Something that needed to get done.
Each month you wait. And each month you are one month closer to another birthday, another year older. Instead of birthday candles all you can envision is fewer viable eggs. All your wishes go into one maternity basket. And yet still, they fail to hatch. Now I was past 32.
Here’s what happens when you are trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant: You stop having sex unless it’s within the right window. You have sex because your temperature’s spiked, not because you’re feeling frisky. At first you try to make it more palatable, but after a while, there’s no point. You close your eyes and think of England. You do it for your country. Or you wife. Or whoever is the driving force behind having a family.
Here’s what happens when you are trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant: you are forced to endure endless questions about your sex life, its frequency and duration and quality. You stop drinking, and eating soft cheeses or you try elimination diets. You try acupuncture or massage or yoga. You endure endless variations of “Stop thinking about it so much and it will happen.” And no matter how many times you try to phrase it, you will never be able to convey the sheer lunacy of such a statement. How do you stop thinking about the one thing that occupies every thing you do–from shoving a thermometer in your mouth every morning to laying still for 20 minutes with your hips propped on a pillow to obsessively touching your boobs to see if they feel different?
Here’s what happens when you are trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant: you feel as if your body is going out of its way to betray you, that it takes pleasure in failing you in the most basic of ways. All the while it seems everyone else is getting pregnant without a second thought, on the first try, while on birth control.
We finally made an appointment with a fertility clinic. There were countless blood draws and sperm counts, more blood draws. Swabs and still more blood work. Tests and medical histories and questions. Dye injected into my fallopian tubes which felt as if a fire-ball had been catapulted into the cavity of my body. More months.
Then more salt in the wound: a diagnosis of Unexplained Infertility.
Not only could we not get pregnant. There was no reason why we shouldn’t be able to. I was a few months shy of 33.
Here is what infertility is like: getting up at 5 am each morning to travel for blood draws, being invaded and probed with instruments, the slick chill of slimy, blue gel. It’s carrying wipes to wick away the stickiness that stays on your inner thighs for the rest of the day. It’s your husband making jokes about donating porn because they stuff they have is so outdated it’s hard to produce enough to reproduce.
Here is what infertility is like: walking around with constant bruises on the inside of your elbows from blood draws, trying to convince yourself menstrual cramps are really implantation cramps. It’s obsessively checking for blood every time you use the toilet. It’s the heart-break of seeing it there month after month.
Here is what infertility is like: being uncomfortable, physically, emotionally and in conversation. It’s smiling when well-meaning people ask when you’re going to start a family or when others tell you their pregnancy news. It’s trying not to let the whole thing rule your life. It’s wondering if your marriage will ever be the same, constantly calculating how far you’re willing to go, how much you are willing to spend, how many shots are too many. It’s hot flashes and side effects and cancelled cycles. It’s trying hard not to negate everything else in your life and see it only as another month wasted.
Here is what infertility is like: wondering if you do get pregnant if you should eventually tell your child how they came to be. If they will feel lessened, or perhaps they will feel ‘mored’ that you struggled so mightily. But those thoughts are future thought. Success thoughts. They are the little things that keep you going.
We were lucky.
Here is what fertility treatment success stories are like: knowing exactly which day your child was conceived because you know exactly where you were: laying on a cold, paper lined bed with your legs in the air while they slid a catheter inside you, far up, past the twisty turny bits, past the barriers that are working too well. Lying still while they shoot you full of the best and brightest of your partner’s sperm, the stuff that survived the spin cycle they use to separate the Phelps’ from the guppies.
Here is what fertility treatment success stories are like: remembering all the dates.
January 8, 2004: the day my 2nd medicated IUI took place.
January 24, 2004: a positive pregnancy test
January 25-February 4, 2004: More blood draws to make sure my hormones were rising at the right rates
February 5, 2004: watching an ultrasound screen as the technician pointed out the tiniest of flickering–our baby’s heartbeat
October 5, 2004: giving birth to our son
I had just turned 34.
All of this came flooding back the other day when I came across a photo of a newborn surrounded by syringes, homage to the fertility treatments which led to her birth.
We were lucky. Not only did our treatments work, they were some of the least intensive as far as fertility treatments go. Yet it’s something I almost never think about now. Deeply entrenched in parenting, the day to day-ness of my life quickly took over. Those years of heartache became a rung on the ladder, a footnote, a means to an end.
Over the years people have become more open about their fertility struggles. But there is still a stigma, a scent of unnatural on the breeze. There is an assumption of selfishness, of waiting too long or faulty wiring. There are those who think you should simply adopt, as if it were that easy. There is a whiff of not being womanly enough, or in some cases, manly enough. Some think it’s punishment for the past.
We were lucky where so many aren’t. But as that photo illustrates, all the needles and the probes and the blood draws, all the time spent with my knees in stirrups, the outdated magazines, the early morning subway rides before the sun came up, the waiting–how could it possibly be something I would be ashamed of? Every last prick and probe was worth it to see that tiny flicker blink and beat on the ultrasound screen. To hear, nine months later, my husband announce to me, “it’s a boy.”
It’s the story of our son.