It had never occurred to me I would struggle to get pregnant, because I’d already struggled to want to try. Sure I wanted a family in some faraway future, but the thought of having a baby had always instilled a sort of terror within me; cold chills followed by waves of guilt. It took great courage for me to go off birth control, a decision I announced to close friends almost as though I had already conceived. I met those first unprotected months with thrill and dread, waiting for my great fear to be realized, but then it wasn’t.
And then it wasn’t, and it wasn’t, and it wasn’t some more.
And the months went by and the worry began to grow. Cue Google searches and doctor’s visits and the fear I was being punished for being scared of babies, all until I found myself headed somewhere I never wanted to go: the infertility clinic.
My husband and I wound our way through the sprawling Kaiser campus, with streets named things like “Wellness Way” and “Prevention Place,” and I felt surprised to recognize the stench of marketing there. At check-in I found myself saying the word “infertility” out loud and in public. It sounded so damning coming out. Could they not call it the “fertility” clinic? Am I not innocent until proven guilty?
I was handed a pink sheet to take into the waiting room, which I assumed all patients got until I looked around and realized nope, it was just us ladies with our pink lady problems! It seemed strangely graphic, this pink sheet I carried into the office where the doc said she’d like to do an ultrasound (seemed premature).
And it was so strange to see it there - the familiar black and white sonogram shape, typically appearing as a pillar from heaven shining down on the blessed little alien, only there was no alien. “Should we post it on Facebook?” my husband joked, and I thanked the Lord for his dark humor. The doctor showed us charts, discussed stats and theories, but I was having a hard time concentrating because of the shocking décor.
On the wall hung a massive black canvas depicting what looked like a red octopus with one long tentacle snaking out of it. Several eyeball-looking things floated down the tentacle toward an opening, where a baked potato sort of thing exited. A chart beneath the monster informed me these were my fallopian tubes. Aha! I might have accepted this display as existing for educational purposes, except it was so very art-like in the way it was hung. It was framed in that new style of home art, where they wrap a printed canvas around a wood frame so the artwork sort of floats, you know what I mean? Like, did they make this at Costco?
I came-to just in time to hear the doctor schedule our next visit. We exited her office, past a splattering of baby announcements in the hall that was supposed to make us feel better about spending our first $784 on our unborn child. We left the infertility clinic and I found myself feeling betrayed by the marketers – why couldn’t they rebrand this department as something catchy and fun?
The Weight Of Being Empty. What a dramatic title, huh? But see, I had to make it overly dramatic because otherwise I don’t know how to convey the depth of my grief.
The life of a childless woman is, technically speaking, one of bliss. It means there is neither a mouth sucking life out of me, nor screams keeping me up at night. It means we can go to movies whenever we want, or the beach at a moment’s notice. It means double income, no commitment! I feel guilty for being sad about my current situation, especially when I am so often reminded by people with kids to “enjoy it while it lasts” because “life as you know it will end.”
I would like to enjoy this footloose and fancy free time, it’s just that in the back of my mind are all the sunday school lessons where the teacher taught that to delay or not have children was selfish.
I don’t know how to be sad about infertility, because sometimes I am also relieved by it. My sadness is worlds away from bereavement, where something would have been taken from me. I am trying to mourn something I never had. And I don’t know how to do it.
The pain of infertility is also unique in that it has a rhythm — a looping monthly cycle with ups and down down downs.
Over and over I drive to the infertility clinic, clutching my pink sheet, my scarlet letter marking me a woman without child. Each time I notice more and more shocking kitsch. A keychain with a green dangling sperm. A Christmas card from the local sperm bank with cartoon sperms decked out for the holidays: a Santa sperm, a snowman sperm, a Hanukkah sperm! A mug with the word “LOVE” on it, only it’s spelled out using things like baby feet, hearts, syringes, and – you guessed it – sperms.
Over and over I visit the pharmacy, scoring more strange drugs, more expenses for our unborn.
Over and over I come home to the 2-bedroom apartment we moved into because “I needed a home office” but really we both assumed it’d be a nursery.
Every month it is different but the same. Always we are left fools trying to comprehend this greatest mystery of life, wondering, is the eyeball not floating down the tentacle? Is the potato not being released?
I go through the motions of my fabulous life except as the months pile up, my lack becomes oppressive. My emptiness is everywhere.
It is in the outrageous productivity of my days – that I work, work out, do volunteer work, read all the books (even watch all the shows!) because I have nothing to do but me.
It is at church, where the women around me are tugged on and poked and prodded, their arms full of bright baby bags overflowing with supplies. And all I carry is my cell phone and keys, plus a mounting resentment for a church that taught (still teaches) me my life’s purpose is to bear children.
It is in the super-power I have developed, which is to see babies everywhere I go. I see babies screaming or throwing fits and try to be glad I don’t have one, what a pain!
No one knows about my pain, because this crisis does not come with public drama or Hollywood flair. There was no newsworthy crash or terrible accident. I have no bruises or scars or battle wounds; the trauma lies squarely in the fact of my unscathed body. The only way to feel seen is to tell people and then humiliate myself by crying. And then hear how their mom’s cousin’s daughter drank cactus juice and she conceived! And I say how interesting we’ll try that, but I’m thinking please shut up.
And there is nothing for it but to realize sadness has made me a jerk. A jerk who cries daily and in public. A jerk who could go for a pedicure, right now! A woman who day-to-day really likes her life and is also about to snap under the excess of so much nothing, the relentless negative, the suffocating weight of being empty.
(Design: Josh Fowlke) (Editor: Rachel Swan)