The Dirty Little Secret About Infertility We Can All Overcome

Photo: Courtesy of Amy Emmerich
To mark National Infertility Awareness Week, Refinery29 is dedicating a full week of coverage to an open discussion about becoming a parent. Check out more, here.

We’ve spent all week talking about fertility and the plethora of challenges that can come along with it — partly because it’s National Infertility Awareness Week and partly because this is a subject that hits close to home for many of us at Refinery29. You may know that our wellness director is in the midst of her journey toward parenthood and maybe you’ve read about my own miscarriages. Our chief content officer, Amy Emmerich, also experienced difficult roadblocks en route to becoming a mom of two. One of the biggest things that inadvertently adds to the stress and anguish of infertility is the feeling you need to keep all the struggles that go with it a secret.

Here’s what we’re proposing at Refinery29: Let’s try to speak more openly about what we’re going through and, more importantly, what we need most to get through it to whatever outcome each of us deems GOOD. Ultimately, the need to keep our struggles private limits our access to accurate and useful information, not to mention a community of support to help you navigate through the maze of options and outcomes. That’s why Amy and I sat down this week to discuss our own experiences with infertility. The bottom line is this: You aren’t alone. We hope that by opening up this conversation, more of you will find the support and essential hope that so many of us need.
Christene: It’s National Infertility Awareness Week. Finally, this topic gets a week all to itself!

Amy: [Laughing] Exactly! I was so happy you wanted to sit down and talk, given that our coverage on parenting, conceiving, and fertility is just beginning to find its groove on Refinery29.

CB: I’d love to kick it off by pointing out that one of the reasons we both wanted to talk and write this up is because it’s been through our own experience working together and sharing what we know — our stories, our resources, our pain — that we realized one of the biggest pieces of this mission is to create a safe space to talk openly when you’re in the process of “trying” to have a kid.

AE: Exactly. I think it was probably a day after I started working here that we shared our experiences of infertility with each other. I know. It’s never been a topic that I feel particularly private about.

CB: Me, neither.

AE: You had written your essay about your miscarriages and you asked me if I thought you should publish it on the site. I remember reading it with you in our edit lounge and the two of us sitting together and crying. Reading and crying!

CB: [Laughing...and maybe crying a little, too!] You told me, “Of course, you have to share this story.” You were very serious and determined, I remember. So, I did. It became very obvious after it went live that while the essay helped me unpack a lot of complicated feelings I was having about my personal struggles, it was really for everyone else that read it. And how important it is for anyone to find an outlet to share your experience and stress and worries and uncertainty...all the stuff that comes up when you’re in the middle of the labyrinth that IS the fertility world.

AE: You got A LOT of emails and letters.

CB: There were so many stories out there. I think a lot of women and a few men were relieved that they weren’t “the only ones.” And of course, you and I both know, there are A LOT of us having challenging experiences. Starts and stops. Waiting. And when you joined Refinery29, you were pregnant with your second child. Shortly after that, I learned from you about your own struggles having a child.

AE: Well, first off, I remember thinking, Who even hires a pregnant woman? Isn't it sad that I thought I had to tell [fellow R29 cofounders] Philippe and Justin, “I'm pregnant, you may not want to hire me?” It's just so sad that I thought that was a societal norm. And their reaction was, there are a few hundred women here, many of whom will be expecting children. Of course, it doesn’t matter to us that you're having a baby! I thought that was a great response.

CB: It's been three years since you started going through the process of having your two kids. It was incredibly supportive and brave when you told me about your own difficulties in conceiving, going through a two years of tests, trying, and doctors, and then finally doing IVF, successfully. Do you and your husband [Colin] ever reflect back on that time?

AE: Yes. When I asked him what he thought the worst part was we both agreed it was hopelessness. You don’t know what's happening, what's coming...[crying].
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Photo: Courtesy of Amy Emmerich

CB: It’s crazy how it still brings up a lot of feelings, no matter how long ago it was.

AE: Then, I think, here I am with a happy ending, but when I think about that moment, and everyone has one, you're on the bed sobbing. You feel helpless. You have hopelessness, not only of wondering if this will ever happen, but also why is this happening now, because there just isn't enough information easily available on why some people can easily have babies and why some people can't.

CB: Also, this feeling like your body is betraying you. You turn on yourself in this strange way and you become the enemy...like, WHY can’t you DO this? Why won’t this work?

AE: That’s the anger. I don’t know if I still carry it around. I talk about it all the time to everyone, because I remembered how angry I was, mixed with hopelessness. I’ll often openly ask people, like, "Oh, are you trying?" In return, I openly share that I relied on science. Just so I could immediately remove that “barrier” that unfortunately comes from the embarrassment. Talking about it seemed to remove the stigma, you know?

CB: Well, I think it's the loneliness and the isolation that breeds a sense of shame that we're really trying to overcome and creating that community here is something we both feel so strongly is essential to the journey of creating a family or deciding not to. It's like we never really have an ending to our stories, because your perspective changes so much as you’re going through. That's where the hope comes from.

talking about it seemed to remove the stigma

Amy Emmerich
AE: It’s amazing to see the stories that are surfacing when you invite women in to share their experiences openly. I mean, look, when I read all these emotions, hopelessness and ignorance and — the thing that pissed me off the most was that I was hiding, because you can't tell anyone when you're trying. Why is that shameful to have a miscarriage, because you don’t want to share the experience you're going through?

CB: Maybe because "trying" implies failing.

AE: [Or it's] society's issue with sex. Think about it: Trying also means you're having sex a lot. God forbid we talk about sex in an honest and open forum! That’s a big part of what can change in this dialogue. [Also,] science isn’t a bad thing! It’s really just options. More choices. More directions to move in so a person can choose their own version of what making a family means. As with everything we do here, family planning is definitely not one size fits all!

CB: Can I just say I hate using the word “infertility?” Can’t you just be on the spectrum of fertility and not start this impossibly complicated journey on a deficiency?

AE: I like that. “Where do you live on the fertility spectrum?” It's truly the question we should be asking since we get our periods.

CB: You photographed your daughter surrounded by all the needles and paraphernalia and science you relied on to bring her into this world. It's a beautiful portrait and I'm so happy that you and Colin were okay with us featuring it here in the story, but tell me why you wanted to actually take that picture.

AE: It’s pretty simple: I wanted her to know how hard we had to fight for her. Everything becomes foggy over time and when you're going through that, the amount of drugs you're putting into your body...to be clear, I only went through it once. [My son] Flash was from the same session of IVF that Emzy [my daughter] came from. We tried for a year and a half before we noticed we had a problem. Then, they thought it was my problem for over a year, so we did IUIs and Clomid and blood tests. There was a moment when I literally had my legs in the air after an IUI; it was like a bad J.Lo movie! [Laughing] And the doctor looked at me and said, "Yeah, I don’t think this is gonna work, so if it doesn’t, you and your husband should come back and talk about more aggressive next steps."

CB: That’s so discouraging.

AE: I remember thinking, Dude, couldn't you have waited just five minutes to give me a little bit of hope? Then, we moved on to the second doctor who realized that what was happening was actually common, a decrease in sperm motility. Then a few months after that, we realized he barely had any viable sperm whatsoever. That led to understanding he had multiple symptoms that we just didn’t realize were attached to this.

CB: Another big part of the journey that a lot of people don’t talk about until you actually open up with other people who’ve had infertility experiences is how it affects your relationship. There’s some blame, anger, and resentment.

I want to see the totality of what I'm about to do and then if this works I want the baby to see it.

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AE: Exactly. For a time, it becomes your WHOLE relationship and you really have to make an effort to not let it destroy you. It took a friend of mine who actually had gone through a similar situation, who I knew about, who I reached out to, who helped pull me back and say this: You have to hold onto the hope. That’s each needle for me, I think. You're supposed to put them in a red box and bring them back to the doctor every week and I was like, uh-uh. I want to see the totality of what I'm about to do and then if this works I want the baby to see it. I think there was part of us that knew if this does work and we have this kind of "happy ending," we want to show what hope looks like. This was our version and that’s okay if we didn’t bring our children into the world the way so many other people do.

CB: Last question: Other than opening up communication and bringing more compassion to the topic of infertility and creating your own family, whatever that may be for you, what else do you hope we can accomplish in building this platform?

AE: That’s easy: resources and tools. When I went through this a few years ago, I was floored by the lack of information. You really are on your own. And thanks to sites like donoregg.com and FertilityIQ.com, there are more and more outlets to get the information and encouragement you need to educate yourself about choices and move forward.

And let’s be clear: People don’t have to have children. Having kids doesn’t have to be for everyone! That’s part of it, too.

CB: Absolutely.

AE: Maybe the pressure we felt was because we live in a society that taught [us that] the way to happiness was to go down the one path — getting married and having kids — and this is how it works. If we can create more content that’s not only smart and entertaining, but provides so much more information, and a glimpse at ALL the ways a “happy ending” can look — that [would] be enough.
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