The first moment I realized how difficult my path to parenthood would be, it felt like a punch in the gut. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon — the kind of day when I should have been relishing my current child-free life. The sun was out, the birds were literally chirping, and I was sitting out on our back deck with a cup of tea and the Sunday New York Times.
It was a gorgeous moment of calm, but it was eclipsed by the news of the previous week. I had been having trouble ovulating, and my husband and I had just found out we'd need to undergo in vitro fertilization, or IVF, to conceive.
On top of that, in a one-in-a-million stroke of bad luck, it turned out we are both carriers for a rare genetic disorder called Tay-Sachs. That means we’d have a 25% chance of having a child born with — and dying from — this terrible disorder. But (as I’d been sure to tell everyone) it was okay. We had an excellent doctor. We knew our odds. We had a plan. IVF, plus a process known as PGD (pre-implantation genetic diagnosis) would let us test embryos for Tay-Sachs before implanting them. It was all going to be fine.
So, that Saturday, I sat out on our back deck, enjoying a much-needed moment of quiet after the startling week we had just survived. My laptop was propped open, and I was casually perusing Facebook — just one quick peek before returning to the newspaper by my side. Then, I saw it. Both “it”s, actually: a one-two punch, executed with a boxer’s precision, disarming and then laying down the real hurt.
A friend from high school, someone who I knew had struggled with infertility issues herself, had just changed her profile picture to one of those alien-like images produced by a 3-D ultrasound. My first thought was, “How dare she.” It was an affront to what I saw as an unbreakable code. The first rule of the Infertility Club, unlike Fight Club, was not to avoid talking about it. According to the rules I had drafted in my head, the rule was that you owe it to your fellow members to not be a jerk if and when you do conceive. If you've ever struggled with infertility, I figure, you're forbidden from posting your ultrasound pic on any form of social media.
Then came the real damage: An additional scroll down the page showed photos from the baby shower thrown for my husband's friend and his wife. I flicked through the 50-some photos, every last floral arrangement and place card, with the kind of guilty pleasure I usually reserve for celebrity wedding spreads in the tabloids I pretend not to read. Then, I got to the last photo. It was a gift from the husband to his wife: a tiny, white hoodie sweatshirt, emblazoned with pink bubble letters on the back that spelled out “Sammy’s Little Sister.” Sammy was their beloved pug — a hilarious and elderly dog. Suddenly, I was swimming in a pool of hot, salty tears.
My husband, Matt, who has an uncanny ability to enter a room whenever I am at my most emotionally fragile, swung open the door to the deck, his own mug of tea in hand. “Nice day today,” he said, before he spotted me. “Oh God. What happened?”
I felt like an idiot. Saying any of this out loud would make me sound like a cruel, vicious, shallow person; I didn't want to be the kind of person who couldn’t allow other people joy. I didn't want to find myself wrecked by the mere mention of infant-sized hoodies. But, I told Matt about the ultrasound photo.
“Well, you should unfriend this person," Matt responded. "Unless you are a fetus, that should not be your profile picture.” “Ha. Ha.” I said, emphasizing each syllable sharply. If only life were that easy, with all instigators of hurt easily defended. Than, I told Matt about the shower pics, and the tiny hoodie.
"It said 'Sammy’s Little Sister' on it," I tried to say, but I could hardly get the words out. I was choking on tears because of a small sweatshirt and its very sweet, ridiculous messaging. I hated myself in this moment, trying to explain to my impossibly kind husband why I was so saddened by other people’s happiness. I had no better explanation for him than the truth: “I just feel sad because it was wonderful."
For the first time since learning about the genetic disorder, I was asking myself if I would actually be denied not only pet-themed baby clothes, but the joy of parenthood itself. Matt nodded. He had that look in his eyes that meant he was trying to sequence things, creating order where none had previously existed.
“Do you want to use the chainsaw?” he asked.
“My new chainsaw. I think you should go and chainsaw something. It will make you feel better. Cutting up stuff is really fun.”
I decided not to chainsaw anything. But, at least Matt got me to smile.
I had already come to terms with the impending IVF process. I had told everyone how fine I was. But, that day, I wasn’t fine. I let myself feel loss and sadness. I was angry that I was different, and that my desire to become a parent had become complicated, expensive, and exhausting. I cried all afternoon, until I couldn’t cry anymore. But, when I was finally done crying, I felt an ease I hadn't felt since we had first learned of our situation.
Facing IVF would be hard, yes, but infertility wasn’t good or bad; it was just a different kind of experience. Every time a child is conceived, whether the old-fashioned way or through assisted reproductive technologies, it is a triumph against the odds. In that, I wasn’t different.
The next day, I insisted on snapping pictures with my phone of Matt and I having our blood drawn and swabbing away at our cheeks like we were on a bad reality-TV show. I wanted to document how different this process was for us, and to have these images to hopefully show our future children: pictures of me in a hair net in pre-op, those of our embryos at six days old. I didn’t begrudge my pregnant friends their Facebook posts, but I wanted to collect all the evidence of our own process — so I can share it with other members of the Infertility Club.