Infertility has a cost. Thousands of dollars, maybe tens of thousands, if you are so unlucky. Maybe more. Some insurance plans cover treatments after a certain point, after a number of failed treatments, but ours did not. We paid in full for the “opportunity” to stab a needle into another human being, for the trials that accompany this.
After a while, or maybe after that first attempt, you question the much larger cost of it all. The money, of course, but more than that the disappointment, the failures, the judgment—of yourself, your wife, because of whom, you begin to think, you find yourself in this situation bordering on the absurd.
And the pain—she’s experiencing the physical pain from all the treatments. Her bloodstream is chock-full of meds, and she’s suffering their side effects, most of those from the shots you administer to foster the baby you want, you need, because a baby means the ordeal is over, but you, you have to give the shots. And you are no doctor, my friend.
But before it ends, the shots themselves become a kind of therapy for you, plunging a needle into another human being—even the love of your life—sometimes the only release for the impotent rage infertility can bring. Because you are only human. Don’t judge yourself for this.
One day you might find yourself about to plunge needle into flesh, and there is a moment when you will hesitate, when your arm is raised, your thumb depressing the plunger clawed in your shaking hand, your wife, face-down on the carpet you have not vacuumed in a month, eyes closed and face averted because she will not witness needle pierced buttocks. You will hesitate because this is an unnatural act. You will hesitate because husbands should not drive cold steel into the flesh of the women they love.
And then you will take a breath, maybe two, and you will do it anyway, and when she cries into that filthy carpet you will remind yourself you do this—this pain, this violence—for love.
Sure, she’s experiencing the physical pain from all the treatments, her bloodstream chock-full of meds, she’s suffering their side effects, most of those from the shots you administer to foster the baby you want, you need, because a baby means the ordeal is over, but you, you have to give the shots. And you are no doctor, my friend.In 2008, my wife and I decided to have a child. Or, perhaps, she decided and I agreed to do my part for the immediate benefits that entailed. Five years married and we were still dropping money on condoms, popping birth control like candy. I was happy to put an end to that for a while and, well, unprotected sex possesses a certain appeal for any man.
Now, almost a decade later, I cannot recall with any clarity why we decided to start a family then. I am not old, or so I tell myself, so it’s difficult now to fathom quite how young and naïve we were.
A cruise to Alaska (perhaps two or three months away) that we won at a charity auction became a gift to my parents, because why explore that vast and magnificent peninsula with morning sickness, we agreed. (They saw a bear wandering the streets of Juneau. I would have liked to have seen that bear.)
A friend’s upcoming wedding (about six months away) led to prolonged debate about whether my wife should remain on birth control. Did we want to be that dowdy pregnant couple huddled in the corner while everyone drank champagne and danced?
No, we could not explore Alaska, and we would refrain from the more raucous wedding festivities, because we would be pregnant by then, or at least she would be and I would play the dutiful husband.
Things were great at first. Like newlyweds again, coupling perhaps even more than that first year. Our marriage was a happy one, and surely this would benefit us. Or maybe just me. But as the months wore on without success, passion dimmed, rose-colored glasses fogged, and the reality of our situation became both obvious and opaque, because we knew we could not get through this alone.
Less than a year passed before we explored fertility treatments with her OB-GYN, and later, when those initial medications proved ineffective, with a local fertility clinic. At the time I considered this premature, yet another sign of my wife’s impatience, but now, all these years later, I remember my wife’s absent menstrual cycle, the stress this elicited, which, in turn, only delayed its arrival. (That I can write of my wife’s menstrual cycle perhaps is proof that the ordeal brought us closer in ways that would not have happened otherwise, maybe even that I have matured from the arrogant prick I once was.)
Those months and years, among the darkest of my life, ranked up there with the tragic deaths of family and friends. Because those events, so horrible, involved a cutting-off, an absence, life divided into what came before and what came after. While this, on the other hand, just dragged on and on and on in an endless barrage of doctor visits, and long drives to pharmacies without notice because we needed one more pill, one more syringe, and we needed it that night, the stock of every pharmacy within a fifteen-mile radius depleted for some reason.
And these drugs, in the end, did not work anyway.
There were tears. And tears. And tears. No pleasure comes from witnessing the woman you love crying, then screaming, then crying again when the pregnancy tests come back negative again and again and again, those little blue strips appearing for everyone but you. I hate pregnancy tests.
Eventually, we rarely had sex without ovulation. Not much point with assured failure. You learn to hate sex—the scheduled, clinical nature of this act you used to enjoy suffered without pleasure, pursued only with purpose. Your teenage self wouldn’t believe you but it becomes the hard truth.
Some advice: Disassociate yourself from all the pain—or at least try. Be there for her but divide yourself so you can leave it behind later.
To help lessen the pain, lighten the load, you learn to walk on eggshells. You learn, too slowly, the topics to avoid—playgrounds and weddings and schools, any topic even remotely connected with the concept of ‘child.’To help lessen the pain, lighten the load, you learn to walk on eggshells. You learn, too slowly, the topics to avoid—playgrounds and weddings and schools, any topic even remotely connected with the concept of “child.” Understand that friends’ pregnancies spark days of depression, your only solace that they may live far away, their swelling bellies more abstract than if she ran into those budding mothers at Starbucks every day.
Tell yourself you are strong, because being stoic is what men do. Become the rock against which the waves break, permanent and enduring and implacable. Given enough time, though, the water will force itself into the rock, seek out the fissures and hammer until the slab splinters and cracks and falls into the sea.
You will try to hide this, you will try to swallow the anger and the fear and the sadness, but one day you erupt, lash out at her, at the doctor, at the drugs that don’t work, because it’s not your fault, your sperm count is above average and motility superb (angry now because you know what this means) and you scream at each other, cry at each other, and then you’re lying next to each other, wishing your room was large enough for a king-size bed so you weren’t pressed back-to-angry-back. And then, somehow, sleep will come, and the next day you will start all over again.
You complain to your wife about masturbating in a cramped, dimly-lit room at the fertility clinic, this the room’s sole purpose, relieved and ashamed you brought your iPhone because no magazines or videos await you. Your eyes averted as you exit because all the doctors and nurses know what you just did. Meanwhile, your wife undergoes procedures of increasing complexity and invasiveness. IUI, IVF—the acronyms so anodyne you ignore the cost on your wife, your wallet. You just hope that this time, this procedure, will work. This will make me a father. This will give me my wife back. Maybe.
We endured, we persevered, and IVF did finally work for us. Two years of our life we would rather forget. We have a son, seven years old, a rambunctious, sly, convivial, curious, implacable child, prone to tears when he loses his favorite toy (R.I.P, orange lizard), rage when he does not get his way, silliness when he gets too little sleep.
One day I will tell him, a young man then in possession of a clear mind, mature enough to understand he hails from love, not science. Perhaps he will not care, though. Perhaps this is the new normal. Since our experience, I can count the friends on one hand who have not dealt with fertility complications. Or another way—of the six men who attended our annual steak night, a rotating crew of fathers pretending they’re not really getting older, five could have penned these words just as readily, our individual experiences differing in some respects but ultimately alike.
We have a daughter now, too, a different kind of miracle, a blond, curly-haired beauty born without fear. When we decided we wanted a second child, or maybe just forgot how difficult those first few months of child-rearing can be, we wasted no time in returning to the clinic that gave us our first. But it was too hard. The memories were too sharp, the scars too deep, and it took only one cycle, I think, for us to abandon our efforts. We had a child, a gift, who needed our love, our strength, our best, and we had only so much to give. The cost was now too much. We said one was enough, at least from needles. And then the months passed, my wife became pregnant, and our daughter arrived.
Our children are no angels—no different from any in this regard. They scatter food across the table and floor, spill milk and juice and water over couches and chairs, stuff candy wrappers and half-eaten croissants under ottomans and between books and under blankets. They run outside naked when our neighbors walk by, urinate in bushes and on sidewalks when we do not pay attention (and, sometimes, when their father encourages this). They laugh and they cry and they pout and they scream at volumes no human should achieve. And, most days, we love it.
Of course, some days I snap at them for any of the innumerable reasons why parents lash out at these humans crowding the world at half-height. Of course, I want to be a better father, a better husband, a better man.
I remember the toll that having my son took on us—the physical, emotional, and monetary costs. And it is because of our son, what we endured to bring him into our lives, and our daughter, who helps me see women as I always should have, that I try.
When I look into my son’s eyes that my wife calls brown but where I see that touch of green he and I share, I know we got what we paid for, and then some, and then some more.
One day, if you confront infertility, you may drive a needle into your wife, and she will hate you for it, and you will hate yourself, too, but that will pass. Love has a cost, but love is an investment as well, a reservoir to draw upon when you believe you have nothing left to give but you still must. And you do.
So maybe, just maybe, these words will help you men out there with arms raised, needles in hand, because if comedy is just tragedy plus time, then one day you, too, might be laughing with your wife about the time you stabbed her and got away with it.
Zander Strong lives in Winter Park, Florida, with his beautiful pincushion wife, Liz, as well as their two children, whose boundless energy never quite ebbs. A version of this essay originally appeared on his wife’s website, www.infertilityoutloud.net, which is dedicated to supporting and empowering individuals experiencing infertility.
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