What Infertility Really Feels Like

Photographed by: Tayler Smith.
Every infertile woman carries with her a list of questions, comments, and suggestions she steels herself against: When are you finally having kids? Oh, you can’t? Maybe you should gain weight, lose weight, go on vacation, take vitamins, take your mind off things for a while, adopt. These questions and suggestions come from well-meaning people, she reminds herself, and she carries them with her not to dwell on a sense of isolation but because they are always waiting, at the next picnic, church service, family reunion, wedding, book club, potluck, grocery aisle.

The worst experience like this, during my five years of infertility, happened during an annual performance review at the rural high school where I taught English and creative writing. I had been fitting doctor’s appointments around my teaching schedule, taking ovulation tests in the gross school bathroom before scheduling intrauterine inseminations at my fertility clinic, a half-hour’s drive away. I thought I would begin IVF soon, and wanted to make sure my principal understood that I would need more time for medical appointments (protected under the Family and Medical Leave Act, I was ready to mention). I was close to this woman, and remained close, even after she said what she said. Which was: "Drink whole milk, and if it doesn’t work, it probably wasn’t meant to be." She also made some suggestion about why it wasn’t working. Maybe there was some problem in my marriage? I can’t remember exactly, because I left my head for a time and couldn’t speak, I was so angry. I told my friends about it later, and promised I’d quit, but I didn’t quit, because I needed the money and insurance for medical treatments. I wrote about it in an essay and deleted that part, guilty and embarrassed that it even happened.

I forgave her. And completed my IVF treatment, and told her about the pregnancy, and accepted her effusive, awkward congratulations in front of the whole school. Of course I forgave her, a flawed human just like all of us. It wasn’t even the worst story I’d heard, in my two years at an infertility support group. Not even close.

But listening to the misconceptions of people who have never been through infertility has changed me. It has changed my relationship to social media — never a close one, I’ll admit — because before I post anything about my child, I think about the friends I have who are still waiting, testing, hoping, in treatment. It has changed the questions I ask when I meet someone. I try to wait for the person I’ve met — older or younger, man or woman, single or partnered, queer or straight — to bring up children.

The unfulfilled longing for children, I’ve learned, is a complex, often hidden, and common experience.

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The unfulfilled longing for children, I’ve learned, is a complex, often hidden, and common experience. One in eight American couples experiences infertility, a statistic that noticeably leaves out single people as well as others who can’t conceive “naturally” but may not be infertile, like same-sex couples. Those of us who long for a child, or for the experience of pregnancy, often don’t match the stereotype our culture teaches us to expect: older career women who “put off” having kids until it's "too late." Some of us have been trying for years and years and years. Some of us are past our reproductive years, but carry the disappointment with us. Some of us are single moms-to-be, undergoing expensive donor insemination or donor-sperm IVF. Some of us are LGBTQ individuals or couples navigating complex and sometimes discriminatory adoption laws. Some of us are trans women who wish we’d been born with ovaries and a uterus and hope that one day, medical science will catch up.

Recently, I took my 2-year-old daughter for a haircut at a salon that caters to young children. We watched, before her appointment, as the hair stylist meticulously clipped the thick, dark locks of a four-month-old baby while his father held him and his grandparents and mother filmed and photographed the event. When it was Beatrice’s turn, she chose the chair shaped like a boat and sat nervously, hands clasped in her lap, as the stylist draped her in a colorful cape and praised her calm demeanor and pretty face. She sprayed Beatrice’s hair with water, gently, and started combing and snipping. I snapped pictures — I always do — and hovered in what I hoped was a not-too-annoying way.

“Your first?” the stylist asked.

“My only,” I said. She made some other comments about kids, and seemed so comfortable and warm that I asked her the question I thought I’d trained myself out of. “Do you have kids?”

“No,” she said. “Me and my husband, we haven’t had any luck.”

Though she spends her days surrounded by the trappings of childhood — cartoons, toys, hair bows — in a way that I never could, this woman’s history was much like my own. Married the same year, treated by the same doctors, saddened by the same sense of exclusion and longing. It was all the same — except for the luck.

'Your first?' the stylist asked. 'My only,' I said.

“It’s worst at church,” she told me. “Everyone has kids, and everyone wants to know why we don’t.”

As she gave my daughter’s bob its final careful touches, she said she likes working with kids. It’s the adults who bother her — the people who haven’t learned to mind their business, though I imagine she forgives them.

I’m still learning, as I go, about the incredible, diverse range of experiences and longings we humans carry around with us. Becoming a parent has made me more vulnerable to the world around me, but I also hope that it makes me more sensitive. Every experience of pain, joy, heartbreak, longing, failure, misunderstanding, and triumph — that could be in my daughter’s future. I think that’s what we who are lucky enough to be parents should remember and remind ourselves before we make assumptions about anyone else’s life.

An old habit I’ve recently taken up again is finding and pressing four-leaf clovers. I find them on walks, at the park while my daughter plays, at home under my mother’s clothesline, and I press them into whatever book or notebook is nearest at hand. Though I’ve found them all my life, the clovers have taken on new meaning for me personally. I must have collected hundreds of them while I was in fertility treatment, and dozens more while I was pregnant. Sometimes I keep them, but I always have plenty — enough to give away.

So far this year, I’ve mailed them to booksellers, given them to some wonderful writers I worked with at a conference in Vermont (Bread Loaf’s campus, like the grass under my mother’s clothesline, is excellent for finding clovers), and I just put one in the mail to the hairstylist I met. I hope they carry luck with them, but when I give a clover to someone else, I know that what is lucky for me is not the same as what is lucky for her, and I give them in that spirit. Here’s a clover! For whatever you want the most, right now (which is also none of my business) — I hope that whatever it is, it comes your way.

Belle Boggs is the author of the story collection Mattaponi Queen. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Paris Review, Ecotone, Slate, Harper's, Orion, NewYorker.com, and many other publications. She teaches in the MFA program at North Carolina State University.

The Art of Waiting, described by The New York Times as a "thoughtful meditation on childlessness, childbearing, and — for some — the stretch of liminal agony in between...Quite lovely and laudable," is available wherever books are sold.

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