In the Fertility Clinic Waiting Room

holly schechter fertility clinic waiting room

When we first started trying for a baby, it was fun and sexy for me to get to work late and a touch frazzled, or for my husband to race out of his office a bit early, so we wouldn’t miss an opportunity. We didn’t anticipate then how many times I would be late for work in our efforts to get pregnant. Unfortunately, the fertility clinic soon replaced our king-sized bed, and the reason for arriving late was no longer fun or sexy.

The first thing I noticed when I stepped into the fertility clinic waiting room for morning monitoring was a console table. On its surface was a slender bud vase with a single silk flower and various pamphlets: “Everything You Need to Know About Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome;” “IVF: The Facts;” “Egg Donation: Know Your Rights;” “Male Infertility and What It Means For You.”

It was quiet in the clinic waiting room. An eerie sort of quiet, given the number of people seated inside, which made the background pop music feel alarmingly loud. The room was a drab shade of brown, the chairs and sofas, all brown and orange, itchy and tweed or cold and leather, were situated in circles around low coffee tables. The design encouraged conversation, but each woman sat alone.

Nearly all visits were before 7AM, and most women were there without their partners. My husband came with me the first few times, but I preferred to be there alone. Little information is provided at morning monitoring; it’s all about blood draws and sonograms. Invasive practices performed by a rotating series of phlebotomists and doctors who didn’t know my name or my story. They were just eager to take care of each woman on the extensive list that morning.

I preferred to be at the fertility clinic without my husband because I didn’t want anyone bearing witness to an experience that felt so isolating and so shameful—I felt like little more than a statistic, someone whose story would be boiled down to a data point on one of the charts in one of the console-table pamphlets.

I would look around the sterile waiting room filled with women also diagnosed with some form of infertility, but I didn’t feel a kinship with these other patients. As I looked around the room, I wondered: What was her diagnosis? How long had she been trying? How many times had it failed?

My competitive nature was exacerbated in that drab brown room. I believed that I wanted success more than anyone else. That my personal struggle was far worse.  These women couldn’t understand what I was going through. We occupied the same waiting room, but I felt like no one could understand. I just couldn’t speak to anyone while I sat on the itchy sofa waiting for my name to be called. Everyone else avoided eye contact, too.

The sign on the reception desk read: “Due to the sensitive nature of our practice, we ask that you arrange childcare in advance.” Perhaps it was a fair request, and maybe even a reminder that some women here had found success—their children needed to be left at home! There was hope to some.  Though each time I read those words—sensitive, childcare— it felt like a kick in the gut, insult to injury, a reminder that others might have children and I didn’t.

I would look around the sterile waiting room filled with women also diagnosed with some form of infertility, but I didn’t feel a kinship with these other patients. As I looked around the room, I wondered: What was her diagnosis? How long had she been trying? How many times had it failed?

Due to the sensitive nature of our practice… the sign implied that patients who currently can’t or don’t have their own children might be upset at the sight of someone else’s baby while they wait for their blood-work and their ultrasounds in the bleary-eyed early morning.

Or perhaps, due to the sensitive nature of our practice, when you’re spending this kind of time, money, and emotional energy to have a baby, you don’t want to question all of those efforts when someone else’s little cherub screams his head off uncontrollably. You don’t want to question why you show up here long before the sun makes an appearance; why you’ve trudged through a snowstorm or cancelled a vacation or not had a sip of wine in months even though you aren’t even pregnant; why you walk to the reception desk with a Band-Aid on your arm and goop in between your legs to pay a bill for many thousands of dollars, because insurance coverage ran out. Why are you suffering like this for a screaming, crying, snotting, shitting baby? That sign, intended to spare our emotions, made a mockery of them, too.

Each woman was dressed for the workday to follow, though most mornings, things moved swiftly, and there was time to kill before going to work. Like me, she may have walked rather than taken the train, and she, like me, may have stopped to cry on the corner, bad news or not.

It was just so draining, and the strain was palpable: the conscious choice not to sit near or speak to other women with the same struggle, feeling bloated and uncomfortable from hormone injections, eyes unable to focus on the magazines that lay abandoned on the low brown coffee tables. Instead of connecting, relieving the burden, we stared into space until called by the nurse: Emily R! Monica B! Lynn G!

Emily R crunched on chips while she waited, each bite reverberating above Katy Perry’s “Roar,” a song too chipper for this windowless room, for this early morning wait.

Monica B didn’t wear a wedding ring; she might have been pre-emptively egg freezing. There’s a pamphlet for that.

Lynn G was always absorbed in her phone, scrolling aimlessly. Her name was sometimes called twice before it registered.

On one morning, a couple sat in the far corner of the room. She looked like a bride, or a pageant queen, with buoyant blond hair and a white eyelet dress; her husband’s t-shirt was sweat-stained from an early morning jog. They talked about dinner on Saturday night, and he kissed her in between their perusal of Yelp! reviews.

The mornings of clinic visits passed, evolving into years, but the waiting room—despite a renovation, and then a shift to a different clinic— remained the same, only with different faces. I began to soften, though. Some women cycled in sync with me, and we’d acknowledge each other with a glance or a nod.

Due to the sensitive nature of our practice… the eyes of the rest of us screamed as we looked up from our phones, our tissues, our lucid dreaming. A moment of solidarity among us Infertiles! This couple was new; they didn’t get it yet. By the next week, she sat there alone, her hair a bit greasier, her clothes a bit tighter, staring into space until her name was called: Lauren M!

The mornings of clinic visits passed, evolving into years, but the waiting room—despite a renovation, and then a shift to a different clinic— remained the same, only with different faces. I began to soften, though. Some women cycled in sync with me, and we’d acknowledge each other with a glance or a nod. I once shared a taxi with a woman in a blizzard, and we shared our stories in the dark backseat because the sun hadn’t yet come up as the car made its way through Central Park.

The last time my name was called was on my husband and my eighth wedding anniversary. I was six weeks pregnant with our second child. My husband came with me that morning so together we could hear the miraculous sound of our baby’s heartbeat.

We haven’t returned to the clinic together since that morning, so when we inadvertently walked past the clinic building one night early this spring, we paused on the street corner.  I grabbed my husband’s hand.

“It wasn’t even a year ago we were there,” I said, almost wistfully. “It feels like lifetimes and also like yesterday. It’s so crazy.” I thought of the women still sitting in that waiting room trying to see through the fog of their own infertility, trying to do whatever it would take to have a baby.

If only I had known years earlier that the babies would finally come, that the science would work, perhaps I could have found comfort within that cattle call of women all with some diagnosis that boiled down to: she desperately wants to be a mother. Perhaps we could have talked or laughed or cried together as we watched the sun rise outside the clinic window all of those mornings.

I was unable to find comfort in the commonality of the shared experience with the other women in the fertility clinic.  I didn’t see them as kindred spirits or soul sisters.  I saw them as competition—who would have a baby first? In my misery, I didn’t feel connected to them, but now, on the other side, I feel a surge of empathy, and I said a little prayer for all of them.

My husband squeezed my fingers, and we continued walking back home to kiss our children goodnight.


Holly Schechter
Contributor

Holly Schechter

Holly Schechter is an English teacher at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. She also serves on the editorial staff of Intima: Journal of Narrative Medicine.


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