Today's post is by guest blogger, and Emerald Doulas Community Member, Anna Jefferson. Anna offers perspective on her journey to parenthood, and through infertility; and we are so grateful for her openness, and for her sweet family.
It’s National Infertility Awareness Week (NIAW). I lived infertility for more than five, heart-rending years but this is the first time I’m marking it publicly. While a handful of people bravely share their struggles in real time, I was like what I think the majority of us 15% of infertile couples are like.
Which is to say I felt isolated and cast out from the human condition.
I rearranged my life around the rigors of infertility: Waking at the same time every day to take my temperature. A pulsing awareness at all times of what Cycle Day I was on. Obsessively scanning my body for phantom early pregnancy cues. Being “on-call” during an IVF cycle: leaping to answer my cell phone with my monitoring results even if I was in a meeting. Arranging my work schedule and headspace to be ready to be called in for an appointment or a retrieval with only a day’s notice or less.
Would I be able to attend that meeting I was invited to? Would I be uncontrollably sobbing at that point in the day? If I’ve just received devastating news, can I afford, professionally or financially, to go home? Or will I soldier on through the afternoon after hearing that our embryos died or I’d failed to get pregnant again?
And before and between IVF cycles having so much sex: what we originally referred to as “mission critical sex” then, as the shine wore off, “homework sex.”
It took me years to give myself permission to acknowledge how depressed I was over it. It wasn’t until a loved one, whose first child was a surprise, told me after her first month of unsuccessful trying for a second, “the sadness is more than I expected.” Then I let it sink in how that felt compounded by the 36 cycles that had failed by then. I learned from the wonderful therapist I started seeing shortly afterward that it takes healthy people 60 days to start recovering from their grief from losing a loved one. New grief every 28 days (albeit for the dream of a person) ground me lower and lower below my baseline.
For those people I hadn’t told about our situation, it was difficult to know how to navigate relationships in those years. Professionally, I worried about seeming like a flake, needing to take off at unpredictable times, turning down travel opportunities, dropping additional writing projects, and sometimes just needing to check out for self-preservation. Personally, I wanted to tell people I met during the dark time, “You’ve never even met the best version of me.” Even among those who knew, it was hard to connect to people who hadn’t gone through the hope-despair-obsession-depression cycle, and with women who were on the “other side” with young children.
My stepdad has what can best be described as chronic cancer. He's had it more than 15 years, it's never been assigned a stage, his symptoms and wellbeing come and go, and his treatments are primarily to help mitigate the damage that's already been done. A quiet man, the most profound conversation I've ever had with him was when he framed both of our conditions as invisible disabilities. Among the difficulties of invisible disabilities are that you don't look sick and that your energy and capacity swing unpredictably from completely fine to decimated. It’s easy then for people to assume you’re always just fine, potentially way overburdening you; or to assume you’re always sick, which feels condescending and frustrating when you’re fine. While infertility certainly didn’t limit my life in the ways that other medical conditions (cancer, Crohn’s, MS, and on and on) do, it had changed and constrained my life for years.
The flip side of infertility’s invisibility is just how damned visible the thing you can’t have is.
Like most of the infertile women I know, I developed a pathological anger and aversion toward pregnant women. I didn’t hate them personally, of course, nor did I have anything but warm feelings toward their real babies once they were born. But I lived with fear of pregnancy announcements cropping up on me unawares. I took an indefinite hall pass from baby showers. And for years I tried to avoid babies and young children--any child under the age ours could have been.
When our reproductive endocrinologist told us after our fifth IVF cycle failed he saw no point in us trying again, I didn't only feel gutted. I felt erased from the human family, evolutionarily dead. Having my experience seen and acknowledged was what I craved most of all. I even created a ceremony I shared with my closest family and friends to honor everything we went through.
Our infertility shaped everything about the way I carried my eventual pregnancy. I was so grateful and so afraid the first trimester. I tried to worry myself sick the first many weeks. I didn’t have morning sickness and heard a gnawing repeat in my head that not being sick was associated with higher miscarriage rates--even though about a quarter of women just don’t get it. I also couldn’t (and still can’t) stand anything saccharine or essentializing about pregnancy and motherhood. A certain popular birth book set my teeth on edge talking about birth as an ancient rite of passage that inducted women into the “society of Mothers.” As if I needed anything to reinforce the damage done by infertility that made me feel outside and less-than.
Our infertility became invisible in another way as the pregnancy progressed normally. I postponed announcing the pregnancy on Facebook. I knew too well how much it hurt to scroll upon the umpteenth gleeful pregnancy announcement during a fragile morning when all I could handle was cute cat memes. I was becoming the thing I had so desired and loathed (this sounds like rich terrain for a psychoanalyst). Improbably, I had become a potential trigger to suffering infertile couples.
To defang the threat, and to be true to myself, I decided to start talking about it. I couldn’t choose visibility when I was in the thick of medical interventions and grief. Today I choose to be forthright and visible with my story: because infertility pushed me and changed me; because I hope it offers any solace to someone who needs to feel less alone; and to raise awareness among those without this experience.