A friend of mine, Mary-Beth, has been walking this journey with such incredible grace, transparency and truth. She holds nothing back. This is a special one that I wanted to share with you, because you are not alone. Here is the voice of a woman who is currently walking this journey. May you find hope here.
It’s Mother’s Day as I’m writing this. The third one since we decided we were ready to be parents. If I’m getting really specific, it’s 984 days since I’ve wanted to be a mother. 23,616 hours. 1,416,960 minutes. 85,017,600 seconds.
Infertility feels like that last number: long, interminably long, made-up almost. For people outside infertility, it might be easy to interject here and say, but that it’s only seconds. Seconds go by quickly, and without permission. For those of us in the thick of the waiting though, those are 85,017,600 seconds that we haven’t been growing a baby, taking deep breaths of baby smell just for the sheer joy of it, waking up in the middle of the night to keep them alive. Those are seconds our hands and heart ache to not be holding them. Seconds filled with holding our own pain, because no one else will carry it for us.
85,017,600 seconds I have not been able to watch my husband be the tender-hearted and responsive father I know he will be. No less than half of those 85,017,600 seconds have been filled with anger, frustration, jealousy, and animosity towards my body. Almost all of those have been filled with the weight of what it’s like to carry a mostly invisible pain everywhere I go—just waiting to be wounded by the well intentioned words of others.
It was a beautiful starry night when Ben looked over at me on Labor Day weekend and told me he was ready to be a dad. We were on a last minute camping trip. The fire was crackling. My eyes filled with tears as I looked up at the blurry stars that I couldn’t see anyways, because my contacts were out. We spent the rest of the night dreaming of our kids, and how we wanted to shape them to be active and generous members of the world they would live in. I miss the naivety of that night. I miss dreaming without the pain and cynicism of waiting.
Because I live with a chronic disease, we knew the first step for us would be getting permission from my doctors. It felt so clinical: one by one, I asked them if I was healthy enough to make and carry a baby. They all said yes, excited at the prospect of someone with my disease carrying a baby. We made a high risk plan with a perinatal specialist. Met with a geneticist. Put together a first trimester timeline. All this before I was even off birth control. I remember one of my doctors recommending we go to a reproductive endocrinologist from the very beginning, but I was stubbornly hopeful that natural pregnancy would happen for us, and it was so expensive. A lot more expensive than free sex with the person you love, cherish, and want to make life with.
The beginning of trying to get pregnant is fun. You’re more attracted to your partner than ever. You’re not charting yet. And your sex is purposeful. Sex feels like a really good use of your days and nights. By the time you’re a few months in, you’re casually scrolling through TTC (trying to conceive) message boards on the internet that are 7 years old, that mention something similar to this weird sneezing sequence you had yesterday in the middle of the night, and how that could be the earliest sign of pregnancy. But your period comes every time, convincing you to keep your Pinterest pregnancy boards a secret. Eventually, a few more months in, the sex fatigue hits. If you’re lucky, it happens at the same time and you can both laugh about it. If not, welcome to the world of arguments around, “are you not attracted to me anymore?” and “I feel like my body is being used for a science experiment.” This is when your up-to-date message boards come in real handy. In Cis-hetero relationships, the women in these groups will happily jump on your “I can’t believe he doesn’t want to have sex?? I’m literally asking him to have an orgasm?!” train.
One of our most frequent arguments revolves around how we grieve and cope. I am an oversharer by nature. I’m one of those people who will not be shamed by any circumstance, and so I take control of my narrative, and talk about my grief. Our grief. Benjamin is a lot more calculated. He focuses a lot of his grief energy into being stable and consistent in his love for me. He says things like “I hear you,” and “do you want me to hold you?” when my hormones come out to attack me. In return, I ask through sobs whether he even wants kids, because I don’t see him grieving like I am. My poor, beloved husband patiently tells me he does grieve, but it just looks different for him. He reassures me that he has daydreams about carrying our babes around on his shoulders at the farmers market, and being the weekend pancake king, in keeping with our family tradition that he cooks on the weekends. My heart swells all over again, as I apologize for my big feelings taking up all the space, and we sink into each other.
For that first year and half, I didn’t publicly speak about our journey to parenthood. I typed vague instagram captions about grief. Our best friends knew, of course, and they carried the grief as best they knew how. But no one really knows, until they’re there, you know? It also happens to be that our best friends are the most fertile people on this earth. The day our last best friends without kids tell us they’re pregnant, I finally made an appointment to see a therapist.
Church becomes hard. There are families everywhere. All I can see as I sing up front are people who I imagine just looked at each other across the room and became pregnant. Women’s conferences revolve around motherhood. I look around the room looking at my single sisters, my infertile sisters, and my sisters who are full people without the desire to parent, and I hope they feel seen. I hope they know God believes in all sorts of womanhood. That He created you as a whole being outside these yearnings, or lack thereof. That you aren’t broken, and you ARE worthy, even if the people at the front only remember you for two sentences in a prayer during a three day conference.
Because we’re in our early/mid twenties all our married friends are getting pregnant. Their announcements joke about not believing the test because it was their first month trying, or better yet, they weren't. Facebook and Instagram become hard. Especially around the predetermined days you already know people are going to announce: Labor Day (there is an impassable pun there), November (we’re extra grateful this year), Christmas (we’ve got the best gift coming), New Years (This year is gonna be the best one yet), Easter (some bunny new is joining our crew), Mother’s Day (I can finally call myself a mother), Father’s Day (I can’t wait to watch you become a daddy), 4th of July (goodbye independence, hello parenthood). The worst are probably the in-between dates when you don’t know to stay off social media, and you run into an announcement you weren’t expecting.
There should be a self help book for the infertile titled : What kind of pain to expect, when you’re STILL not expecting.
You never notice how often people small talk about children, until they do and you feel like you become invisible, or you have to go cry in the bathroom. There’s a quick panic that settles in as you hope they bypass the conversation with you (and you simultaneously daydream about spilling your guts about how hard it is to get and stay pregnant to make them feel an ounce of the shame and hurt you carry everywhere), and a wave of anger at the invisibility of infertility. Seriously. My infertility comes with me everywhere. To the store, on vacation, in the car as I drive behind a Prius with a “baby on board” triangle, to the flashes of anxiety and grief that settle in right before I want to fall asleep. There isn’t a context in which I exist and my grief does not.
Inevitably the day comes: you are young, committed to your partner, and so someone asks you “when are you going to have kids?” If you’ve been expecting it and are emotionally prepared, you might answer with “It’ll happen when it’s meant to happen,” or “we’ll let you know,” or even the very permissible lie that ends all follow-up questions, “we’re not ready yet.”
If you’re having a particularly bad day (maybe you’re even on your period after a soul-crushing medicated cycle), you might give them a human anatomy lesson on how unlikely and miraculous pregnancy is. You might tell them the statistic that 1/8 couples go through infertility, and 1/4 through miscarriage and pregnancy loss. You might tell them its NONEYA, because it is. Or that unless you're in the room trying to miraculously conjure up that baby, you can sit tight until we’re ready to talk about it.
It’s a real toss up which way it’s going to go, especially when people are prone to say all manner of hurtful and stupid things in the discomfort of stepping into someone else’s grief. Things like,
“just have more faith,” as if my infertility is a visible sign that I am faithless.
“just stop stressing out about it and it’ll happen”
“why don’t you just______”
“My cousin did/drank/took ________ and got pregnant immediately”
I don’t have any advice to cover you against other peoples’ foolish advice or opinions about your reproductive life. The best thing I can say to you, is that it’s okay to pushback against things that are hurtful, and explain to people why they are. It’s okay to not have the words to say anything at all. It’s okay to take space and distance from people who are hurtful, and to create boundaries that protect your tender, aching heart.
When I finally broke the silence, I felt this wave of relief. First of all, because I was tired of being vague about my pain. But also, because the hearts of mothers from all parts of my life poured in. I heard stories about miracle children I didn’t know were miracle children. I heard from mothers through adoption, and the fullness of their motherhood. I heard from women who tried for so long, and decided they would mother through being aunties, teachers, and mentors (I felt a special tenderness here, as I came to appreciate their investment and love towards me). I heard from families who suffered loss after loss, and became parents through IVF, IUI, and surrogacy. Finally, my pain had companions and faces. I could look out while I sang in church and pinpoint miracles. I could see that everyone’s journey to parenthood is hard in its own way.
For a lot of women, silence is still a better space because of fractured family relationships or the heaviness of others’ expectations for your womb. Or because naturally you’re a private person, and like to talk about things once you’ve processed the whole experience. That’s okay, too. I promise oversharers like me will still be stepping out to break this norm society holds around how getting and staying pregnant is easy work. If there’s anything I hope for you though, it’s a dedicated space to grieve. Whether it’s with best friends, your therapist, your partner, or strangers on a private internet group. This is a big load, and you will need someone else to carry you through it at times.
I used to think that I would hate talking about infertility. Because of the shame and stigma. Because I am a naturally competitive person, and this felt like waving a giant flag of failure (when instead it’s just my reality, and that of 1/8 couples). I winced at the idea of people feeling sorry for me and treating me differently. Instead, because I had been carrying this for so long, I found that I felt relieved when people treated me like I was fragile. Almost three years in, y’all, and I’m ready to tell you: I AM SO FRAGILE. I avoided the soup aisle at my grocery store for months because they combined it with the baby food. I need for people to treat me tenderly. To choose their words wisely. I’m not forfeiting the strength and grit infertility has built in me, in saying that I experience weakness, pain, and grief.
For us, fertility treatment was totally unattainable until we got insurance coverage for it. To get insurance coverage, we had to move halfway across the country. Half a country away from both friends and family. I’m telling you, y’all, we have and are working hard for this baby.
Once you recognize that you might need a little science to reach parenthood, you almost feel like you gain back a little bit of control. At least that’s what it was like for me. A sort of excitement, like we were trying again for the first time, but this time with a little super hero juice to give us better eggs. Better chances. And yes, diagnostics are invasive. You get a full rundown of your body’s fertility. For men and women both, the experience can be full of performance anxiety. You don’t want to be the cause, but you also want to get answers. It is a physically and emotionally taxing experience. Starting treatment protocols include medications that give you coldsweats, and mood swings, and 10x more feelings than you already feel. But you’re getting closer. Closer to knowing if biological parenthood is an option. Closer to moving towards adoption or fostering. Maybe even closer to choosing a childfree life, full of loving and supporting the kiddos around you, and reclaiming your life outside the experience of infertility.
I’m fully aware most days that this still might not work. That biological parenthood might not be in the cards for us. But damnit it if we aren’t trying. Damnit if we haven’t learned to love each other in hard places. There is a resilient, powerful love that has taken over the love of our first two years of marriage. A love that grows in the midst of grief. A love that says, let's just connect, and talk, and have sex OUTSIDE our almost-crippling desire to make babies and be parents. Let’s invest in vacations, and just-us traditions. Let’s learn how to fight and make up well. Let’s learn to listen to each other, communicate expectations, and forgive so quickly.
Because, because, because, when I think of the next 85,017,900 seconds of our life together, I see and believe that they will be filled with little humans who will learn to love, and fight, and make-up based on how we do. They will learn that it’s okay to be sad, and we will teach them about how grief and joy can coexist in powerful ways. These next 85,017,900 seconds, in my mind, are filled with early morning routines where we hopefully laugh in delirium about how these little beings we wished, and hoped, and prayed, and plugged ourselves full of hormones for, can be little gremlins sometimes.
I don’t think this is the biggest grief of our life together, and maybe that’s morbid. It comes with the territory of having a chronic disease. But I believe so firmly in the love of the last 85, 017, 900 seconds, and the foundation each second is building for the rest of our marriage, and our experience in parenthood. An experience that teaches us to be patient with the different ways we cope. To listen and not try to fix pain that cannot be fixed. To hold each other up and carry each other out of bed and into this beautiful world, on really hard days. An experience that teaches us to ask for help frequently—from each other, friends, mentors, and therapists. To build boundaries that protect our hearts and relationships with others. To learn to speak up when we need to, and accept gentleness from others when we’re fragile. I believe in the last 85, 017,900 seconds, and the ways they have taught us to choose each other over and over again.
Whatever second count you’re at in this journey, I am sorry for your stay here in the valley of the infertile. I’m sorry for the resilience you have no choice in living out, because life keeps going even when your desire for parenthood is crippling and all-consuming. I see your grit. I wish you a speedy exit from this experience. But I also wish you support from random strangers on the internet and from unexpected sources in your life, accessible and comprehensive medical teams, and love with your person in hard places.
Love from someone who sees you,
For more from Mary-Beth, follow Heart of Celebration.