Deck your private hell with boughs of holly! The holiday season is upon us, and it can be excruciating for anyone going through infertility. With its glitter and gatherings and chatter, with its emphasis on children and family and cheer, the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas-to-New Year trifecta can feel like a series of events designed to highlight what you lack.
Of course, many people cherish these traditions, and I am all for the joy of coming together. Yet it’s also true that there’s no place for grief in the social spaces typical to these celebrations. I wish there were the option to show up wearing some kind of white flag, something that means, I’m here, but also somewhere else.
This winter, the twins my husband and I conceived through IVF will be nearly four years old–but I vividly remember that year I was barely holding together a fragile presence at the Thanksgiving table, clutching at goblet of wine while my abdomen cramped. Each pulse of pain reminded me that once again, I’d failed to fall pregnant. I’d hauled my tired body to my aunt-in-law’s house, but my mind drifted over my doctor’s difficult advice: “Whatever you do, don’t cry when you get your period.” As if from a great distance, I heard my cousins make silly chat, riffing about words they disliked.
“I hate the word ‘luncheon,'”one said.
“What about the word ‘moist?'” someone countered.
“Ew,” the first agreed, affecting a shiver.
I thought to myself, I hate the word fertility. It sounded like a poison flower. But I didn’t say a thing. That would evoke the other word I hated: infertility. The events that saturated my thoughts could not be discussed. I couldn’t say, hey, I’m bleeding a bucket of blood, and I might fall off the chair and just die. Rather I stirred my sweet potatoes, offered small smiles. There I was, a wordless contributor to the big silence.
I grasped Ken’s hand beneath the table, the solid warmth of his palm and fingers. By then my husband and I had been trying to conceive for over eighteen months–triple the amount of time that qualified me for the “infertility” diagnosis. Still, I resisted it.
It wasn’t shame or stigma that kept me quiet about this fact. At least, not in a straightforward way. I couldn’t speak about infertility because as someone whose tears rise quickly, frankness meant either uncorking my emotions completely, or expending tremendous effort to squelch them. Better to float above and avoid. I didn’t want pity, condolence, or worst of all, advice. I didn’t want to hear the story of how so-and-so finally relaxed, and then boom–out came the baby! All it took was a deep breath! Or how the dentist’s daughter’s sister had chosen to adopt.
The uncertainty of infertility also girds its silencing power. The hope tightrope wobbles beneath your feet, and cuts you as you fall. Then every month you climb back up, because one time, you might make it across. Our culture likes to celebrate the idea that if you are courageous, if you try, if you endure, things will work out. I want that justice too, even now, even as I know so many times, that isn’t quite how it goes.
Finally, here is the least speakable aspect of infertility: it’s an experience that happens in a specific, invasive way to your physical being. You are trying to help your body to do something, but it can feel like you are trying to force your body to do something. That is fundamentally solitary. It’s also confusing. Medical treatment for infertility is a privilege not available to everyone, a cherished chance. I am firmly of the belief that high-tech intervention is as sacred as nature. At the same time, the very thing you seek for a blessing creates a sideshow of trauma, and trauma finds no space between the cranberries and the pumpkin pie.
So, back at that Thanksgiving dinner–I didn’t embrace the word “infertility.” Instead I sensed its cruel presence settling in, the way you reach a point in winter when the days are so short, you know you’re in for a span of darkness.
My period meant that the very next day, I’d go in for the blood test that would kick off my “Clomid challenge”–a phrase Ken and I had mocked in deep voices as a means of fending off fear. I had the dreaded bottle of pills, and accurately sensed that this drug wouldn’t sit well with my already volatile feelingscape. Still, I had to try.
As soon as Ken and I were alone together in the car, mercifully headed home, we began to talk about our real lives–this next medical pitstop in our babymaking odyssey.
“Why do they call it a ‘Clomid challenge’?” I complained. “I know I’m going to fail.” The wine hadn’t sparked optimism.
Ken tried a pep talk. “It’s like any challenge in life. Remember Rocky? When you get beat, you keep training, you keep fighting.”
“But I’m fighting my own body. I am the enemy.”
“Those are the most important fights of all.”
I knew he meant the wrestling with demons, facing down the despair. I paused. “Didn’t Rocky lose?”
We kept trying.
My next period came on Christmas day. I barely remember it, only that I walked around feeling like a burlap sack had been tossed over my head, making everything look dark. The new year brought more tests, more periods, a surgery, another Thanksgiving with my period, another Christmas, a spring round of IVF, a high-risk pregnancy, twins.
This Thanksgiving, I feel gratitude, but not the rah-rah kind. I know that as talk unfolds around me, the rapid, skittering on the surface kind, in some way I am still partly outside it. I can’t quite blend back in, because I know too much. I see people’s pinned white flags, even if they don’t exist. I feel them, and I raise my glass again to everyone out there in the big silence. You are not alone.