Infertility: When Good Intentions Wound

Everyone has heard the phrase, “to listen without hearing.” I tend to do that as I drive. Today as I listened to the radio, one host was interviewing another (Amy) about her struggle with infertility. My interest was stirred, and I wanted to hear what she had to say. Amy spoke of her long road to adopting two children from Haiti. The interviewing host asked if people had ever told her that once she had her adopted children, she would likely be so content that she’d get pregnant right away. Her response spoke right to my heart. She said, “Yes, I have heard that…and you know…I think we all just need to stop saying things like that,” a suggestion to everyone including herself. She explained that after 4 years in the adoption process, she IS a mom, she has her children; they just haven’t arrived in this country yet. “But,” she said, “I’m still not able to get pregnant.” 

The interviewer’s statement was lighthearted, meant to address an oft-repeated cliché, and by no means intended to wound. Perhaps he even thought it was hopefully suggestive. But it was clear that his seemingly-innocuous question cut straight to the quick. Although not extensive or defensive, although no soap-box was taken and no anger crept into her voice, Amy’s response spoke volumes to the social, emotional and psychological obstacles of infertility.

When your heart’s desire is to have a child, or children, and your body doesn’t respond, it is heartbreaking. Knowing that there’s a common physiological function of which you, as a female, are presumed to be capable, and knowing that your defining anatomical framework is more like a brand-new car that you discover to be a lemon – well, “frustration” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. Self-loathing, regret, desperation, anger, anguish, hopelessness, envy, despair, guilt: all of these emotions tumble through your mind and body on a daily basis. With such intense emotions at a constant high, and such a personal issue at stake, comments like the one above wound deeply regardless of intention. Although directed to Amy in a purely conversational manner, as someone who has struggled and continues to struggle with infertility, I heard her feelings in that response. I heard her say that her reaction to her condition, and whatever inability she might have to master the emotions caught up therein, aren’t her own undoing. I heard her say that all of the doctors’ visits, medication, and blood tests she has undergone for years were not unnecessary. I heard her say that there was no guarantee she would all of a sudden be with child if she could “just relax.”

Was I projecting my own reaction onto hers in hearing those things? Yes, to an extent, I’m sure that I was. But the tone of her voice, the fall of her words, and her hesitation in trying to find the right response signaled to me that what I heard wasn’t all my own fabrication.   

I always felt that I was meant to be a mother. Yet I never even contemplated infertility as a hurdle I’d encounter. Certainly, I was naïve. I’ve read that 1 in 8 couples struggle with infertility. 1 in 8! That’s a ratio so low that every other group night out is potentially plagued by this particular silent sorrow, this repressed hope. I started out plodding along in silence, but as someone who processes and heals by sharing (and, likely, oversharing), it became more than I could bear. Every day began a new struggle to bury hope, stay calm, and save face for the rest of the world while my inner dialogue was screaming. I sobbed in private and fervently pleaded with God and my body. I fought to keep my head above water and to banish the apathy for all other things that threatened to creep in.

So after a time, I wasn’t silent. I shared with a number of people in whom I hoped to find comfort and solace, as well as a literal shoulder to cry on. I received so much loving support and quiet care that it sustained me from day to day, and allowed me to become unashamed of being even less silent. But I still did all of those things I just mentioned. Because you know what? It is HARD. So damn hard. More difficult than I could have imagined if I had somehow known.

Through the magic of modern medicine, the grace of God, and a mutually supportive marriage, I achieved a healthy pregnancy. I worried every day that it would be stripped away, but graciously, miraculously, our glorious son arrived healthy and perfect. No greater gift have we ever received. To us, our little boy is more than miracle, and I know we are not the only parents to feel that way about our little one, infertility issues or no.

Our path to the family that we had hoped for is uncertain, but has already been blessed beyond measure. There are still difficult emotions that come to bear when the topic of our family size is touched upon in public or in private, and I recognize them even though they come unbidden and unintentionally provoked. The derisiveness I feel present in the inquiry of when we “plan” to have another; my acute defensiveness when it’s implied that we should feel our family is complete under the circumstances; the girding against hope I undertake to avoid a painful fall. All of these perceptions and feelings arise from my infertility, but many wonderful things have, also. I am far braver than I was before. I am much more in tune with my body than I ever was. Ordering my priorities has become easier. I feel I am more articulate when it comes to expressing my emotions, and I have become more cautious and sensitive about offering conversational comments or inquiries about parenthood.

It’s true that everyone is fighting some battle in their lives, and I believe that is why we truly should err on the side of kindness in our encounters with others, even in areas that do not seem fraught with tension or anything but optimistic joy.  We’ve all got something that ties our tongues, heightens our reactions and renders us, in our own position of vulnerability, a bit more likely to offend in responding. It’s that thing in our lives that tries us, tests us, brings us to our knees, and keeps us striving to overcome. If infertility is yours, as it is mine, I hear you, and I understand why you can’t “just relax.” No matter what stage of the road you’re on, and whether your journey is a matter of months or years or decades, it’s not for the faint of heart.