When I meet other women struggling with infertility, we always seem to engage in the same trading of stats:
The time spent trying.
The failed attempts.
The bad ultrasounds.
The sad-faced doctors.
We’re quick to offer up our war wounds, but we rarely talk about our fear.
It might be because eternal hope is the language of the infertility community.
For years, I lurked on message boards where women cheered each other on through trials, tribulations, and two-week waits. I scrolled through their encouraging comments — “I just know you’ll get a BFP!” “Baby dust to everyone!” “It’s not over until Aunt Flo shows up!” — but I never felt able to partake in the positivity. My own war wounds stopped me.
First there was the miscarriage — the devastating surprise that upended my naive assumption that two pink lines were some kind of guarantee. Then there was the struggle to conceive — the long months spent waiting to ovulate that robbed me of my fantasy of effortlessly skipping from one pregnancy to the next. Finally, there was the troubled second pregnancy, in which a sonogram at 16 weeks revealed that my amniotic fluid had drained away many months too soon. My son survived, but it was by the skin of his teeth: His limbs were dislocated, his lung collapsed, and he spent two months in the NICU learning to breathe without the assistance of machines.
Although he eventually made a fully recovery, somewhere among the bloodwork and ovulation tests, the ultrasounds and the infant ventilator, I lost the optimism that had once come so easily to me. I suspected I’d always be a person who saw the risk first. A person whose fear of the downside outweighed any joy about the upside.
When my husband Emmett and I began trying to have a second child, I wore my pessimism like a suit of armor. The less I expected, I reasoned, the less I could be hurt.
I scrolled through the encouraging comments – ‘I just know you’ll get a BFP!’ ‘Baby dust to everyone!’ ‘It’s not over until Aunt Flo shows up!’ – but I never felt able to partake in the positivity.’
Six months later, I got pregnant. We decided not to tell anyone, though, because I didn’t assume I’d stay that way. We didn’t buy anything. We didn’t partake in the jumping guns, counting chickens, or putting eggs in one basket that might amount to tempting fate. Instead, I examined my toilet paper for blood every time I peed. I consulted a daily miscarriage rate chart with such regularity that its URL became my top web search autofill. I compulsively poked my breasts, hoping for a reassuring pang of pain.
This fear, I think, is a cost of infertility that’s rarely discussed.
Our culture cleaves the desire to get pregnant into two clean categories: the yearning before and the satisfaction after. The stereotype holds that, once pregnant, women pass over into some state of grace. A land of happy endings. But, in my experience, the fear outlasts even the infertility. The most persistent thing about my reproductive challenges hasn’t been the obsessive period tracking, the crest of envy that accompanies each baby shower invitation, or even the challenges themselves. The most persistent thing has been the fear.
That’s one of the parallels between infertility and pregnancy: It’s extremely easy to let fear colonize them both. To see shadows everywhere. To always be anticipating the worst. To sink into despair.
Recently, as I sunk ever-deeper, I began searching for strategies to pull myself back to solid ground. I returned, again and again, to the advice I’d seen so often on message boards: Take it day by day.
I started aiming for fertility neutrality: To live neither in the familiar world of fear and dread nor in the performative land of whatever-will-be-will-be serenity, but in a much more achievable middle ground.
The first time I saw that phrase, it infuriated me. I am a woman used to focusing on the future — the next cycle, the next appointment, the next milestone — and I couldn’t fathom how my forward-facing self might adopt a one-day-at-a-time mindset. Plus, I’ve never been particularly zen, about my fertility or anything else. I filed that advice away alongside other unhelpful maxims such as “Just relax” or “When it’s meant to be it will be.”
However, the fear, the gnawing thing in the pit of my stomach, had consequences. It isolated me from the people I love: From my husband, a rational guy who incensed me by citing how common — normal, even — reproductive challenges had become; from my mom, who empathized with my anxiety but having sailed through three uncomplicated pregnancies, couldn’t feel it for herself; and from my friends, for whom losses were to be glossed over and gains were to be celebrated. They couldn’t see the spectrum from hope to terror along which all of my reproductive experiences ricocheted.
I returned to that “take it day by day” advice. I decided to try to stop my mind from fast-forwarding to all the scenes I’d lived before — the bad test results, the ultrasound without a heartbeat, the baby unable to breath — and, somehow, to live in the moment instead.
This isn’t to say I became suddenly zen. As my pregnancy progressed, my meditation app remained unused, mocking me with each monthly charge. I didn’t take up yoga. I didn’t find peace in the solitude of a Marie Kondo-inspired decluttering. Instead, I gave myself permission to feel better, not in some productive or photogenic way, but by any means necessary.
First, I gave into a vice I’d long denied myself — the pleasure of watching enormous, brain-warping quantities of television. I inhaled all seven seasons of Gilmore Girls. I gobbled up all eight seasons of The Great British Bake Off. I devoured nearly all 19 seasons of Law & Order: SVU.
These shows satisfied a need much deeper than mere diversion. They gave me the predictable world I wanted so badly: A world of small-town sweetness, where the dramas of will-they-or-won’t-they relationships played out formulaically. A world of low-stakes competition, where the worst possible outcome was a collapsed soufflé. A world where, no matter how bad things got, resolution was achieved by each episode’s end. In all my years of fertility challenges, I’d never felt any sense of control over my body or fate, so I found it elsewhere.
Next, I eased up on the magical thinking. When my brother, Matt, got married a few years ago, he told a story during his vows about when he used to play basketball, he’d say to himself, “If I make this shot, I’ll get to be with Nicole forever.” When it came to my fertility, I’d been doing the same thing for years – “If I eat salad every day, I’ll get a positive pregnancy test,” “If I read this parenting book, I’ll hear a heartbeat,” and “If I drink gallons of water a day, he’ll survive.”
I thought I could manifest a better outcome through my behavior. Lately, though, I’ve surrendered to the truth that I can’t. Bad things sometimes happen to people who do everything right. When they do, it isn’t because they didn’t get their daily dose of greens, read the right parenting primers, or chug enough water.
Finally, I stopped trying to strong-arm myself into thinking positively. Just as the “body positivity” movement can pressure women into feigning an adoration for their bodies they don’t feel, “fertility positivity” always made me think I had to fake everything-will-be-OK optimism. Instead, I started aiming for fertility neutrality: To live neither in the familiar world of fear and dread nor in the performative land of whatever-will-be-will-be serenity, but in a much more achievable middle ground.
Unlike all of the other times I tried to force myself to feel better, this time it actually seems to be working.
I don’t feel like a new woman — suddenly free from baggage and ready to run head-first into a new life as a motivational speaker — but I do feel more like myself. Like the woman I was before I began spending most of my waking hours obsessing over my unruly body. Like a woman who, instead of scoffing at exclamation-mark-laden message board comments, might someday stop lurking and actually contribute a comment of my own.
It wouldn’t be a message of false hope. Or pat wisdom. It might just be the reassurance that none of us needs a pessimistic suit of armor to survive this. Perhaps all that is needed is a good guilty pleasure, a little less weight on our shoulders, and the freedom to be honest about our feelings.
Justine Feron lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son. Her work – also about motherhood – has been published in Slate, the Huffington Post, The Globe and Mail, Entropy, and Motherwell. She can be found on Instagram @JustineFeron and Twitter @JustineCFeron.
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