Before we started trying to have kids, I looked at infertility as something dark and incomprehensible. I understood it to be a tragedy – one of life’s big blows. However, I had no idea what the day-to-day emotions would be like. Nor did I realize that infertility is not black and white. There are many variables, options and unknowns. Infertility is just defined as having regular sex without protection for over twelve months without getting pregnant. Therefore, it is often a journey, but not necessarily a life sentence. Many people experiencing infertility can eventually, somehow, have kids.
Even if there is hope, the process of waiting, of not knowing, of testing, of trying different medicines/treatments is an emotional rollercoaster. Lately, much of my energy is simply spent trying to be okay. Some of the feelings I’m experiencing were expected, while others, and their intensity, have surprised me. Just when I feel like I’ve got a handle on myself a different emotion pops up and blindsides me. I feel like I’m whack-a-mole with the messy emotions related to “infertility”. Sometimes I’m fine and other times I cycle through these emotions.
To be going through something so profound but not being able to talk to anyone about it is incredibly lonely. Even though I have a fairly robust social support system, there are very few people I can talk to openly. My single friends are empathetic, but they have no entry point to understand what the process of trying to conceive is like. My friends with kids are generally much easier to talk to because they are “on the other side”. They know more or less what you are talking about and most of them know someone who has experienced infertility. I guess once you have had kids, conversations about this topic have become more commonplace and less taboo. The downside of friends with kids, of course, is that they have kids or are pregnant. On good days, this is not a problem, but on other days, listening to a pregnant friend vent about their symptoms is infuriating. Then there is a diatribe of complaints that parents talk about. The friends who tell you how lucky you are to have so much free time and how “one day you’ll understand” how hard parenting is. Everyday my Facebook feel is full of article on the trials and tribulations of parenting, but we are still not allowed to talk about how hard it is to experience infertility.
This brings me to spite.
I certainly feel angry and jealous of my friends with kids, but it’s not just anger – I find that it’s the lowest form of jealousy and resentfulness that comes out of me – spite. I find myself hating the people I love because I feel that they are “luckier” than me.
I was on the phone with a friend telling her about how we had just been told that it was unlikely we’d be able to conceive naturally when her toddler woke up from a nap. Her attention was divided between feeding the kid an apple and regaling me with stories of how many couples are able to conceive through IVF. I understand that you can’t control kids and that she was doing her best…but I just wanted to yell at her. Yes, what she was saying was logical but it was the last thing I needed. She was pregnant and has a toddler. How dare she talk down to me about how “it’s a good thing there’s science”. I didn’t need a pep talk, I was upset and I wanted someone to talk to. Not only was I spiteful of her pregnancy and child, I felt completely isolated that she hadn’t understood my grief.
I don’t know how you can grieve something you never had, but this is the best way I know how to describe the incredible sadness that is always lurking behind the surface. It’s a sadness that I can’t understand. I don’t know where it’s coming from – I had no idea I felt so strongly about having children of my own and having them naturally before we found out we couldn’t. I had no idea what an attachment I had to the concept of children coming from a place of love. I suppose that it’s just how I saw the world – the sky is blue and when two people love each other, they make a baby. But when that doesn’t happen – when conception or the preparations for conception involve lying on a medical table while nurses poke at you and there’s a line-up of other women waiting their turn behind you – that isn’t how it’s supposed to be. Yes, the final result of having a child may be the same, but there is something distressing about (hopefully) making a child when you feel vulnerable and alone in a sterile medical environment. It is the complete opposite of sex. You are not with your partner and it is not loving. It disrupts my image of how my life should be.
I’ve felt grief most strongly at significant moments in our fertility process – when I get my period, when I first went for testing, when we were told that our chances of conceiving naturally were low. Other times I’m fine. I’m fine and going about my business and then…bam. I can barely hold back my tears. This happens at inopportune times. On the subway. At work. While making small talk at parties. Of course, you usually can’t explain yourself. When you are crying in the washroom at work or when you have to cancel on work or social commitments because you can’t handle the world – there’s no way to explain it. People don’t give you leeway the way they would if you had experienced another type of loss – of even if you were pregnant. People tread pregnant women compassion because “everyone knows it’s hard”. New moms are screened for post-partum depression because it’s a known risk. Yet infertility is taboo. You can’t call in sick to work and tell them it’s because you cannot handle another office kitchen conversation with intrusive colleagues telling you “you’ll be next”. You don’t get any special treatment for going through something this difficult, because you are not allowed to talk about it.
Sometimes I just feel broken. I don’t know if this is specifically tied to infertility, or if it’s just low self-esteem being exacerbated by circumstance. They way of the world, as I saw it somehow naively until now, what the old “first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby with the baby carriage”. It’s just a fact of life that when women don’t use birth control, they get pregnant. This is such a universal truth that it’s everywhere – in academia, in movies, in TV shows, with your neighbours and friends. Yet, somehow, you don’t fit into the way of the world. You are an exception.
When I think about how historically women haven’t had access to family planning, I think “wow had I lived in a different time I’d have 5 kids by now”. Now I realize that’s not true. Had I lived in another time, I wouldn’t have access to the drugs that will hopefully enable us to conceive one day. If I had lived in another time, I would be a social pariah – the one without children. It would have been so much more obvious than it is now when most people assume our childlessness is a choice.
I don’t blame my asthmatic friends for having bad lungs, I don’t blame my friends with glasses for having bad eyesight; but somehow being unable to have kids – at least without scientific intervention, seems like a personal deficiency rather than a medical problem.
The first time I saw our fertility doctor, I asked if there was anything we should be doing while we waited for the testing and results. She told me “Make sure to do things you enjoy. This can be stressful.” It was just a sentence, but it was the only validation I’ve gotten about the psychological challenges that would come with this journey. She didn’t tell me how sad and angry I would feel. She didn’t tell me how this would test my relationships. She didn’t tell me how much energy and resolve getting through each day would take. However, she did acknowledge it wouldn’t be easy.
At the end of the day, I don’t want my friends and family to tell me that everything will be okay, I just want to be able to lean on them without judgement. I want to feel less alone as I experience this emotional quagmire. It’s bad enough to be going through it, but to feel like your unpredictable, sometimes irrational emotions aren’t valid just makes it so much worse.