When I stood in the soft grass, barefoot underneath my satin gown, and declared in my vows that I couldn’t wait to “carry [his] baby in my belly,” our landscape spanned infinity with its promise and wide-open possibility. Ahh, life begins here, I thought, with this incredible man and this love that rang from every pore in a symphony of horns and bells and bliss. Do you remember that first time you “tried”? We started right away, fresh off the plane from Hawaii. There was the innocence of lace panties, making love, the tingling of every nerve, breath and limbs and fingers, and then the moment afterward when we both looked at my belly and thought, Maybe, with a shared smile and flutter of excitement and newness.
Maybe. Anything was possible. The future was large.
The pregnancy losses started right away: third month of trying, in characteristic strangeness, AF showed her face; I, again, absorbed the little wave of disappointment (who knew then how many times I’d do this, and how the wave would become tidal in proportion) and ten days later I turned up pregnant. I had felt weird that day–dizzy, foggy–and someone at work had asked me, with a chuckle, after I poured coffee in my oatmeal, “Are you sure you’re not pregnant?” Shit! Is that possible? I raced home. My best friend had called me as I walked in the door, chattering in my ear while I sat on the toilet clumsily tearing at the foil wrapper. Then those two lines materialized in the plastic window for the first time.
“Oh my God,” almost in a whisper.
Mostly I remember her squealing and the elated point, “You have a little peanut growing inside you!!” How did I plan to tell B, she wanted to know, insisting that I do something “cute” like buy him a present. He was working late that night, so I made the trip to Target, lingering over the aisles of rattles and booties, settling on a yellow blanket with “Baby” embroidered in patchwork lettering and lovingly packed it in a gift bag with pastel tissue paper. Yes, the future was large. That night the pain started and made it difficult to sleep. By morning, I was bleeding and barely able to move. How could I have known then that the doomed embryo was ripping apart the far end of my right fallopian tube? It took five days of couch-ridden agony and a week and a half in limbo to confirm that the pregnancy was dying. That’s when the original fear was born, that first loss. We pulled in, contracted, learned the dangers of getting too excited too fast. Simultaneously, other women were conceiving what would become their children; a close girlfriend and a co-worker come to mind. I can’t even look at them, now toddlers who’ve celebrated three birthdays. I thought, this baby should be my baby. This is how tall he should be. These are the toys he would play with. These pictures on, this is what it would be like to drop him off on his first day of preschool. So of course the friendship withered, died like a flower at the end of a broken stem, starved and damaged, the double-loss of miscarriage.
Thinking about this now, four years later, the insight emerges that the wearing on of long-term infertility in general, at its core, is a narrowing–of relationships, of comfortable spaces, of options–and that’s its real tragedy. All the world becomes a minefield that we find ourselves negotiating gingerly, reluctantly, and this self-protective caution inevitably confines us to the refuge of our ever-shrinking emotional bomb shelter. For some it’s stockpiled to the ceiling with bottled water, beef jerky, and batteries–they’re prepared to bar the door and hunker down alone for the long haul. Just try and get in. I dare you. She packed a gun too. And that’s what came to mind recently, when I was reading Jennifer Wolff Perrine’s somewhat famous “Breaking the Silence on Infertility” in Self magazine, thinking of myself and my own girlfriends, sisters in the struggle, who isolated themselves, some who continue to isolate themselves.
She was at work when the nurse called with the news that barely any of her eggs had become fertilized. Lisa phoned Jack, and together but apart, they each closed their office door and sobbed. That night, they huddled together in their bed, lights off, ringing phone ignored. “We were in a very dark place,” Jack remembers. They began avoiding friends, canceling plans and not making new ones… By now, the couple has grown so anxious when questioned about starting a family that before going out, they have to strategize about how to handle their feelings if the conversations veer in painful directions. Lisa regularly declines baby shower invitations, claiming she is heading out of town. They celebrated last Thanksgiving with a cousin whose children are preteens rather than be around family who have babies or toddlers. “No one means to say the wrong thing,” Jack says, “but inevitably people have questions or comments that start off innocuously and then turn into an emotional land mine.”…The longer the process drags on, the more uncomfortable they tend to become talking about it to other people. “Even in well-meaning attempts to make you feel better, people say something that makes you feel worse,” says James Grifo, M.D., director of the New York University Fertility Center in New York City. “Isolation is a defense mechanism against overload. It isn’t necessarily a good thing, but it’s what infertility patients do to protect themselves.”
This experience is downright routine. I think of how many years in a row I have skipped the faculty luncheon at the end of the school year because it’s just too hard to keep coming back without my own tiny visitor as the building’s tiled hallways, gymnasium and cafeteria fill with the sensory overload of children, toys, scooters, cupcakes, and games. The first year I decided I needed to skip it, my close girlfriend and fellow teacher took me to lunch as a show of support. But she has children, and in subsequent years, she quietly registered her contribution to the pot luck and joined in the camaraderie and fun with her own toddler son and school-aged daughter. The people who aren’t trapped in devastating childlessness can only seem to bear our struggle for so long, as gracefully stated here. So this year, I holed myself up in my classroom, the whirring air-conditioner and Pandora station drowning out the sounds of other people’s happiness, confined quite literally to a room. When I left the classroom to get lunch, the journey from door to door was like slinking through a war zone, and as I fled the building into the blinding sunlight of the parking lot, my breath was short, face flushed, heart racing, tears threatening–much the same as I felt the last time I attended a baby shower (the child is now 2 1/2 and about to be a big sister) when I sobbed and struggled to breathe in a public restroom because yet another pregnancy was bleeding out of my body as I watched my friend moon over diaper cakes and ruffled dresses. I think of a friend who didn’t speak to her sister for 2 years because nieces and nephews were born as she endured 7 IVF failures; how she and her husband essentially stopped celebrating holidays; how she admits to having alienated them from everyone prior to the birth of her child. And then, this week, my three-member support group broke up, caught underfoot in the blameless and unavoidable conflict between one woman’s new pregnancy and another’s final and terrifying attempt at IVF.
As fears mount and the options shrink, so does our world. This has certainly been the case with me as I have stumbled, dazed from trauma, and layered walls of protection between my injured heart and the hurricane of triggers spinning unwittingly around me. But there have been all these points in this where something in me snapped, shifted: the point when I stopped torturing myself over whether or not I would attend the shower or birthday party or christening but just accepted my presence there for the absurdity it was and forgave myself as I RSVPed no, the point when I almost died from the second rupture of my fallopian tube and the dynamic of my marriage shifted because I learned to ask for the support I needed, and now the point when the isolation from the fertile world hurts more than it comforts or protects. I miss them. I love them–my cousins, my friends, the children in their lives–and I miss them. I’m lonely in this shrinking room, so lately I have been opening windows, peeking my head out, cracking the door. Sometimes the wind is bitterly cold, and it stings my face. Sometimes I feel like a prisoner emerging in “The Allegory of the Cave” because the sunlight hurts my eyes after hiding in subterranean darkness for so long, but I also feel brave. Over the summer we rented a mountain house in California with our friends and their one-year-old son. It was scary to commit, really painful at times, and I did cry. However, I am closer to my friend than ever, and I now know this wonderful little person whom I didn’t know before. Something that I feel now, having conquered that: the people who invest in us are worth it. Love, friendship, they’re worth it.
So I’m moving out. Slowly, warily, timidly.