Like many Generation Y women, I was raised on a steady diet of “girl power,” “having it all,” and “you can do anything you set your mind to.” I believed that every problem had a solution: All I had to do was find it, apply some ingenuity and elbow grease, and watch a solution materialize before my eyes.
This mentality served me well — until I tried to get pregnant. My husband and I both wanted a family, so the moment my wedding papers were signed, I went off the pill and filled my Kindle with titles like Taking Charge of Your Fertility and Yes, You Can Get Pregnant! Some encouraged rigorous cycle-charting, others proposed affirmations and positive thinking, and a few acknowledged that “older women” (I quickly learned that in fertility terms, this means wizened crones over 34) might need to see a doctor. But all had more or less the same message: that our fertility is something within our control.
To me, this made perfect sense. I’d learned about contraception in the same breath as sex, and my generation was led to believe that pregnancy can and should be on our terms. Our sex ed teachers taught us to wait until we were ready — conveniently leaving out the part that by the time we're ready, it may be too late.
Since I still had a few years before entering wizened-crone territory, I figured I had plenty of time to get pregnant in what I considered the “right” way: spontaneously and naturally. I knew that assisted reproductive technology existed, but at the time I viewed it as a shortcut for lazy people who didn’t want to put in the time and hard work. You can do this! my inner Gen Y cheerleader whispered in my ear — stubborn, encouraging, naïve. You can do anything you put your mind to!
That voice wasn’t alone. She had backup singers: the books telling me that all I had to do was take my temperature and perform unspeakable acts with my vaginal goop, and the well-meaning friends who told me to “stop stressing; it will happen as soon as you quit trying.”
So I tried to relax, but not be lazy. I tried to bone with military precision, but also make it sexy and fun. I tried all-natural fertility lubes and baby-boosting positions and keeping my feet up in the air like a roast chicken for half an hour afterward. For the first time in my life, I was giving 100% to something and not seeing results. This was not what I’d been promised in middle school.
I tried to relax, but not be lazy. I tried to bone with military precision, but also make it sexy and fun.
Even better, she had all sorts of plans for how we could fix my little not-getting-pregnant issue. For the next few months I was to completely cut gluten, dairy, sugar, soy, corn, rice, cold foods, and anything processed from my diet. All meat had to be organic and grass-fed — all fish low-mercury, wild-caught, and cooked. She sent me home with a long list of forbidden foods, $300 worth of herbs and supplements, and instructions to keep a journal of every single thing I consumed, every day.
Now, in addition to the inner cheerleader, the pregnancy books telling me to meditate and believe in my body, and the well-meaning relatives cooing that all I needed to do was relax, I had another voice in my head: my acupuncturist, informing me that everything I ever wanted to put in my mouth was wrong.
Yet I embraced the challenge of eating like a yuppie cavewoman, not realizing that by placing the entire onus of getting pregnant on myself, I was actually starting to sabotage my chances of having a child. At our twice-weekly sessions, my acupuncturist critiqued my food diary (“Instead of sweet potato fries, why not a sweet potato?”) or clucked in disappointment at the bagel I allowed myself on my birthday. My sluggish menstrual cycle grew more regular, and I definitely had more energy, but after nearly a year of following her advice to a (organic, gluten-free) T, I still wasn’t pregnant.
Every time the pee stick came up negative, I beat myself up for not trying hard enough. I shouldn’t have had that extra glass of wine with dinner or eaten the cookie at the office party: Sugar could literally shut my reproductive system down! If I didn’t have enough willpower to deny myself an Oreo, what made me think I had the moral fiber to be a mom?
It’s time for us to recognize infertility as a medical condition rather than a mental or moral issue.
I realize, objectively, that viewing my infertility as cosmic retribution or moral shortcoming sounds insane. Pregnancy and motherhood aren’t a reward for being a good person — but our society sure can make it seem that way. Think about the fairy tales you read growing up: The real mother is always good, and the childless stepmother is always wicked. Think of our obsession with celebrity baby bumps, our mass hysteria about birth control and abortion, and the $2.93 billion we collectively dropped on Mother’s Day last year. Motherhood is seen as selfless and virtuous — the hardest yet most rewarding job a woman can have. Is it that much of a mental leap to believe that if I wasn’t a mom, it was because I didn’t deserve to be one?
Eventually, I broke down and went to see a reproductive endocrinologist. I hated that I was about to become one of “those lazy, desperate women” I’d always judged for seeking medical intervention to get pregnant. But at that point, I wanted to have a baby more than I cared about doing it “right.”
After a half-dozen failed attempts at intrauterine insemination with the help of an ovulation-boosting drug called Clomid, I received a diagnosis of “unexplained infertility” and a recommendation to try IVF. For a woman who already feels like her infertility is her own fault, this is the worst diagnosis you can receive. It kicked off an epic battle between the Gen Y cheerleader, who insisted that all I had to do was double down on organic bone broth and positive affirmations, and the cynical goth, who thought I should just stop trying.
Once again, my biological imperative trumped both. I plunked down an obscene amount of money on a brand-new credit card, filled my Kindle with books on assisted reproductive technology, and started IVF.
When my first attempt failed, I (of course) blamed myself. I’d been eating like a champ and doing yoga daily, but I’d had one major fail: A couple of days after the embryo transfer, during the very critical implantation period, I drove a brand-new car in Saturday-night Manhattan traffic. I don’t drive regularly, and was convinced that my body’s heart-pounding fight-or-flight response to the horns blaring around me and taxis cutting me off had scared away that poor little embryo for good.
To my surprise, my doctor didn’t share my sentiment. She confessed that she was shocked the cycle didn’t succeed. “That embryo was perfect,” she told me. “The fact that it didn’t implant makes me think something else is wrong.”
She ordered more tests. Nearly three dozen vials of blood later, I had not one, but two new diagnoses: a rare blood-clotting mutation and an autoimmune issue. According to my doctor, either could explain why I’d never successfully gotten pregnant — and both were treatable, although they’d require a complicated regimen of pills and injections.
These new diagnoses shut the voices in my head up fast. Not only were these conditions not my fault (the blood-clotting mutation, at least, was hereditary; somehow, no other doctor had ever thought to run a thrombophilia panel, despite my family’s history of stroke), but they weren’t something I ever could have fixed on my own. No amount of positive affirmations could have shut down my autoimmune issue, and all the wild-caught salmon and organic kale in the world wasn’t going to change the way my blood clotted.
My infertility, as it turned out, was no more a moral failing than my asthma or high arches. What was missing all those years that I tried and failed to get pregnant wasn’t my own dedication or worthiness. It was a doctor who knew what to look for.
My infertility, as it turned out, was no more a moral failing than my asthma or high arches.
The Gen Y cheerleader and the cynical goth will always be there — not just in my head, but all around me in the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that our society tells women that we, and we alone, are in charge of our reproductive destiny. These voices are sirens beckoning us into the ocean’s darkest depths, and they can be as damaging as they are wrong.
It’s time for us to recognize infertility as a medical condition rather than a mental or moral issue, and stop blaming women — stop blaming ourselves — for something that’s so often out of our control. And it’s time to give women more unbiased information about and access to assisted reproductive technology, so we can make informed decisions about when and how to seek help without feeling guilt or shame for our choices.
Despite my years of self-sabotage, it’s not too late for me to have a child. Now it’s just a matter of listening to my very smart fertility doctor, doing what I can to help her efforts, and recognizing that much of this process is simply out of my hands.