Published on July 25th, 2023 | by Sammi LaBue Hatch2
Does personal always have to mean private? On the language we lack around infertility
My first weekend out after the reign of the Delta variant, a rainy March night in 2021, I stood at a dive bar in the East Village listening to my husband’s colleague’s wife explain exactly how I should have sex in order to conceive a child. She detailed what type of vessel she used to pee in for her ovulation test strips, how she positioned her hips during intercourse, and even what outfits she wore if her husband needed encouragement to eventually end up with their beautiful, new baby boy.
TMI? If so, I couldn’t be too offended, since I was hoping to come across this kind of frankness. It was a part of my new philosophy on reproductive transparency.
Thirty years old when my partner and I began trying in spring of 2020, I was well aware of the commonality of miscarriage (12% in my age range) and wary of the term “geriatric pregnancy,” which I was only five years away from. I decided if anyone from acquaintances to family members asked (and they would) over Zoom catch-ups or quarantine reprieves at the park, whether my husband and I, college sweethearts married for five years, would have a baby soon, I would answer honestly that we were, in fact, working on it.
In an era defined by death en masse, attempting to make life seemed more daunting than ever. A goal I thought I ought to not shutter up but to share.
Even though I have my husband to lean on, as a writing teacher, already obsessed with self-expression, I knew I specifically wanted the support of other women. Reproduction has, after all, been considered our social responsibility through the ages. Every journey to conception is personal. But I asked myself, does personal always have to mean private?
We discuss mental health issues, racism, and grief more openly than ever before, but on the short list of conversation topics still considered “taboo,” infertility (the inability to reproduce after trying for one year or longer) remains. Not some rare issue, infertility is experienced by one in five American women attempting pregnancy for the first time.
There is no widely known rule for when to tell people you are trying to conceive, but it is commonly recommended by doctors to withhold a pregnancy announcement until after the first trimester. The reason is that you are less likely to have a miscarriage after this time. But it’s always been unclear to me who this rule benefits, as it seems to only suggest a woman shouldn’t burden anyone with their bad news and should instead suffer in silence.
While in the past women were expected to privatize pregnancy issues, the last couple of decades have seen an upswing in transparency on the subject, the Women’s Health Movement, pioneering sociologists like Ann Oakley, and the emergence of IVF in the late seventies having brought infertility into public consciousness.
By the late 2010’s we saw more blogs about infertility than ever before, celebrities such as Chrissy Teigen and Kim Kardashian detailing their experiences with IVF and surrogacy on social platforms, and television shows like This Is Us and Parenthood filling in some infertility stories where only Charlotte York of Sex and the City had gone before.
When I first went to see the fertility specialist just after the evening at the bar, I found out I have endometriosis. Endometriosis affects 11% of all women, though I never learned what it was until I was well into my 20’s, and didn’t realize that of those affected 30-50% will experience infertility. If I had known about endometriosis, heard it spoken about more freely, I may have been able to prepare and plan for possible fertility trouble ahead.
After this diagnosis, I dug my heels into my open communication idea as my friends and acquaintances began to get pregnant and populate my feeds with their requisite second trimester, baby bump announcements. I knew that infertility support groups exist, but I craved a normalizing of the topic in everyday conversation. Despite my attempts to do just that, telling others about my journey has made trying to conceive during one of the loneliest eras in history even lonelier than I ever imagined staying silent would.
Though many of my closest friends offered a listening ear and tender sympathy or a helpful memory, more common was an uncomfortable shifting followed by hasty advice. So much advice. At lunch, a friend suggested I see an energy healer for possible bad juju. At a backyard barbeque I received the common suggestion to “just relax and have fun!” from three different women. Many people—including an acquaintance at yoga, close friends, and my physical therapist—inadvertently hurt my feelings by suggesting I wait, even asking, “Why now, anyway?” All this caused me to wonder at all the ways I could screw this thing up. Maybe bringing a baby into this unstable world was selfish and even dangerous.
That fall, after the sex ed lesson at the bar, I found myself once again alone on the train to another imaging appointment. “You don’t need all that,” the advice a friend echoed in my mind as I made my way to my MRI. “Don’t stress!” another sounded off. “Try acupuncture.” “Just live your life.” “Those ovulation tests are not reliable.” “You should be testing every day, not just during ovulation.” “Maybe you’re not eating enough.” “Want to take my kid for the day?” “Maybe it’s not meant to be.”
At the check-in counter, two employees argued loudly about whether or not they could proceed with the imaging, given a mistake on some old paperwork in their system.. A nurse came, and then another, until there were four people yelling at each other about how I had accidentally marked “unsure” under “Could you be pregnant?” though I was painfully aware the answer was “no.” I had, just the day before, taken another at-home test. I took a shower during the five-minute waiting period, and when I stepped out I could see through the steamed screen the familiar words on the digital display: “not pregnant.”
Women in the waiting area thumbed at their phones, slipped Airpods into their ears, shifted their eyes across their masks. Finally, an older nurse appeared to scold the others for shouting. “It says right here the reason for her visit is that she is trying to conceive. That means she would know if she were pregnant.”
I swallowed hard, nodded.
As they moved me back into the MRI machine, I found myself alone in a sterile shell of seclusion. While they took the image, my chest and legs buckled onto the cold, hard tray, I cried as quietly as I could.
Recently, wondering how the women posting pictures of their newborns had dealt with this loneliness, I asked viewers of my Instagram stories how those who attempted childbearing during the pandemic handled talking about trying to conceive. While I had assumed, with visibility having become such a huge part of modern-day feminism (as with #MeToo and the Women’s March), that I wasn’t alone in my open communication tactic. It turned out I was.
Only two of the twenty-plus I spoke to were as open as me when trying to conceive during the last two years. Some told a handful of friends or family, but most “dreaded people asking for updates” and “unwanted pressure.” One friend was “afraid of the judgment of others.” Her older husband would be fathering a fifth child. You might say, why would anyone judge her for that? But her concerns may not be unfounded.
In my twenties, I was working as a high school teacher, and one of our administrators (in her upper-thirties) was leaving to focus on conceiving. After the last student left, a few of us opened beers in the teacher’s lounge, slouched awkwardly on purple bean bag chairs. Some coworkers scoffed when her departure came up. “She needs to quit to have sex?” “Must be nice.” “I hear her parents have money.”
I didn’t finish my beer, claiming I had to get home, but my stomach turned for something I couldn’t quite yet empathize with. Now, when I’m questioned as I reach for an oyster at dinner—“I read you shouldn’t eat that even before you’re pregnant. Have you been eating too much fish?”—I think of my old boss, the twin boys she has now, conjuring her as a kind of low-key hero, feeling guilty for not sticking up for her then.
I know that as with grief, it can be hard to know what to say when someone is experiencing infertility. But now I also know that I am not the only one searching for the right words from others, words even I myself didn’t know how to say then and maybe now.
Women still don’t quite know how to talk to each other about conception and infertility. One new mother looked back saying, “Everyone’s journey is different, but it was hard and lonely to go through.”
Maybe the personal doesn’t have to be private, but as our feminist predecessors cried as they marched arm in arm, the personal is political. Airing personal information means inviting others to form an opinion. Advice, when unasked for, is just criticism in disguise.
In an era defined by dichotomy, fertility is not an argument with sides to take. And all people who are experiencing infertility are really looking for is an offer of tenderness, not solution. Someone else to share in the hope that soon, they will get to lay their baby’s ear against their heartbeat, drink in that pink, baby smell.
After two years of trying to conceive, I laid face up on a massage table—feeling like an open wound, wondering if I should have heeded the advice of the hundreds of “do’s and don’t’s of announcing your pregnancy” articles available on the internet, demurely smiled and said “not much” when asked what I was up to. Just then, the masseuse asked me if I had any children.
“No, but I want them,” I answered, eyes shut. “We’ve been trying.”
“It took me ten years,” she responded without a beat. Without self-consciousness or shame or discomfort.
I peeked my eyes open to find her grinning peacefully. “It took my daughter ten years, too.” She reached her hands beneath my shoulders, cradling the back of my heart.
“Don’t give up.” Her name was Mercy.