I’m fat and I’m not pregnant, which feels entirely unfair. The hormone injections I have been taking for almost two weeks have worked their magic and I am swollen with stimulated follicles. I am anxious to be put under sedation to lay my eggs. If I could choose to be put out for the entire IVF process, I would.
My husband, Stephen, and I sit on the couch together for the better part of 24-hours post-egg retrieval, holding hands, waiting for the clinic to call with fertilization news. The phone rings. Stephen bends his neck as he listens and I try to discern if that’s a good sign or bad. It’s bad. After one round of IVF, we have only one embryo. There was another one, one the clinic described as “so-so,” that might have pulled through, but it bit the petri dish. We had hoped for a better result. There will be no discussions now about how many embryos to transfer or how many to freeze. There is just one little embryo that we hope will remain viable to implant.
We quickly silence our disappointment because, as we keep repeating to ourselves, “it only takes one,” and we are so very lucky to have even come this far. There is still hope. And I don’t want our one little embryo to somehow sense our discontent. To think it isn’t good enough. Because of course it is. Of course it’s the sweetest embryo of all the embryos.
And so the two of us sit, the dog between us, holding an embryo vigil. We jump every time the phone rings—terrified our embryo has suffered a similar fate as his mediocre embryonic sibling. It’s best to be practical about these things. To not get our hopes up. The odds here are not in our favour, so it’s best to remind ourselves it’s just an embryo and not a baby. Definitely not a baby. We definitely shouldn’t think of it as a baby.
Do you think it’s a boy or a girl?
I’m disappointed. I planned to have a girl first, like my best friend Sarit.
We proceed to have a disagreement about what to name the baby we are not pregnant with. I had always liked William for a boy but, I don’t know, this embryo just doesn’t feel like a William to me. Maybe we need to see the embryo? We vow not to call and bother the clinic to check in on our embryo, but then of course we do. Twice. But we had also vowed, when we first began trying, to make baby-making fun. And it was, for a time, back in those days when we would just have sex and I would wonder if every tweak or twinge in the second half of my cycle was the first signs of life growing inside me. Stephen would rub my back and make me tea because I could be carrying his child, for all we knew. I could be pregnant, and the possibility was overwhelming and electrifying.
Trying to conceive, though, becomes much less fun, and the prospect of pregnancy much less romantic, when you have to buy a baby with the help of reproductive endocrinologists, urologists, andrologists and anesthesiologists. We tried to keep our spirits up—Stephen would jump around the room and play “Shots” by LMFAO featuring Lil John, before proceeding to give me my daily injections during the stimulation phase—but it didn’t take long for us to come down. The second part of IVF is much less funny than the first. The second part is where you may, or may not, get a baby. There are no guarantees. Except for the bill, which will come as either a joyous or painful reminder in April, May and June. Thank goodness for payment plans.
I never expected us to be here: waiting on egg shells to hear news of our genetic material growing in a lab. I don’t think people expect to have difficulty conceiving. Why would they? Babies are everywhere; the world is full of adorable, chubby, cooing little ones and all their accoutrements. I see them all the time. I pass an empty stroller outside a coffee shop and it hurts. There is a mom and tots music group at the library where I work and I stifle tears as I lean back in my chair, listening to them sing. “Wave hello to Elmo,” they trill. “Wave, wave, wave.” I peer over the top of my computer and wave at these mystical little creatures through the window sitting in their mother’s arms and I wonder if it will ever be me. Will I ever hold a baby of my own?
It’s difficult not to feel isolated in the throes of infertility treatments. I remind myself that despite my Facebook feed, filled with unending birth announcements and pictures of beautiful children, I am not alone in my suffering. I know many other couples are struggling with infertility. I know Christina T. is struggling with it right now, too. I see her every morning at the fertility clinic as we cycle monitor in sync, signing in for blood tests and ultrasounds one after another. I know nothing else about her, but I know we share this. We give each other a cordial nod, a tight grin of acknowledgment, as we slide into our seats waiting for our numbers to be called.
I know there are nine other women having eggs retrieved the same day as me, all of us sitting huddled with our partners in curtained-off pre-op rooms. Though we are all here for the same procedure, it somehow feels taboo to talk to one another, to look each other in the eye. We shuffle into treatment rooms, one by one, with our IVs trailing behind us.
As I compulsively google IVF diet tips, IVF sleeping positions, IVF stretching routines, I discover a network of women posting their experiences in online forums. Under anonymous screen names, fertility statistics are listed like on the back of a bizarre baseball card in some kind of Fantasy Infertility League: “NotYetAMom—“34, TTC since 2012, 2x IUI, 3x IVF, 2BFN 1BFP=MC1.” I know there is a real woman behind the chicken avatar. I know she’s there, even if she doesn’t want to use her real name or picture. And I’m not totally fluent in Infertile yet but I’m pretty sure those stats mean she doesn’t have the baby she’s trying for.
People are still reluctant to talk about infertility, to put their real names to their stats and heartaches. While cutesy pregnancy announcements have now become a cultural trope, I seldom see status updates detailing difficulties trying to conceive. And that’s too bad, really. One of the greatest strengths we infertile women have is in our numbers, in holding our hands out to each other. So I outstretch mine to you, here.
I’ve been writing about my struggles with infertility since we were first diagnosed, bringing my private pain public because talking about it normalizes the process for me. It uproots the comfort of denial. It forces me to answer on a regular basis whether or not I am expecting, but writing about it has also brought me a community of support that has been vital. Women have reached out to me to tell me their stories, to share medical details with a stranger on the Internet, though they haven’t been able to talk about it with their families. I am grateful for their courage and only wish they could draw comfort from the people who love them.
There is an African proverb that says “a woman without children is like a tree without leaves,” but I don’t feel that way at all. I don’t feel leafless. On a daily basis, I email a flurry of ridiculous questions to my sister-in-law, Michelle, a busy doctor and mother of two (Can I drink raspberry leaf tea? Can I still go for walks? If so, how fast? Can I love this embryo into existence?), and she answers each one with patience and tenderness. Her strength is a bud on my brittle branches.
A friend mails me a “foam finger of bravery” to wear while I get my injections and another bud blooms. My niece, Katie, calls to tell me she loves me and her sweet voice is a precious flower. My father takes me to a doctor’s appointment because I am too nauseous to drive and there is more foliage still.
Each woman who shares with me her story, each call from my brothers and sisters-in-law, each email from a friend, each text and inquiry into how we are doing adds more and more blossoms, more and more life to my dry twigs. And there’s my husband and I at the roots, the strength at the core of our seedling, our limbs entangled as we hold tightly to each other, hoping against hope that this embryo, our embryo, will grow into a baby.