When You Can’t Be A Mother, Infertility Changes You

by Rachael Flanery
Originally Published: 
Tom Merton / Getty

As a little girl I was going to work at a grocery store and be a mom. Be a teacher and be a mom. Be a Broadway star and be a mom. A brain surgeon and mom. Anthropologist and mom. Writer and mom. Sometimes I had a husband. Sometimes just a house full of kids. A whole soccer team…the Von Trapp singers.

When I grew up I was pleasantly surprised that life didn’t suck. Sometimes life turned out just like you planned. Sometimes it was much much better. I was married at 29, months before the deadline of turning 30. Now to get to work before the next made-up deadline: having kids before 35.

I knew something was up with my insides. My periods were always irregular and painful. When I say irregular I mean like maybe four times a year. And not a super convenient every three months, but sometimes every 21 days, then 144 days. Trying to chart my cycles was like making sense of an ancient lunar calendar. We spent a year crossing our fingers that lightening would strike in my fallopian tubes.

When I went to the doctor for my first infertility consultation I thought I would be leaving with a baby. My first of many disappointing appointments. I left with folders of information and a schedule of tests.

All the initial blood work came back fantastic. This was good news, but it also meant there wasn’t an easy fix. They actually deemed my husband’s sperm to be some of the most hearty and bountiful they had ever seen. (He will like reading that in print again.)

With nothing instantly slamming the door on conception, we moved to the more invasive tests.

Now we might have found our problem. PCOS or Polycystic ovarian syndrome. Over the course of the next few years, there would be a debate in my files if this was really the culprit. My ovaries looked the part with their rings of eggs never hatched. But I had very low testosterone and male hormones (must be why conflict makes me cry). I was neither obese, nor apple shaped, and my excess facial hair could be blamed on my Eastern European grandparents.

If I was obese, losing weight might solve our problem. If I had too much testosterone, hormones would do the trick. Being told nothing is wrong with you while everything is going wrong is devastating.

Our doctor was a kind soft-spoken man with very long eye lashes. He was a source of calm for many years to come. We tried combinations of pills and inner uterine inseminations. Most months my body still didn’t follow the rules. Some months the eggs dropped, but were too big. Some months they were just right, but then I would get my period too soon for anything to stick. That was a whole different problem not really worth exploring.

The bottom line, if we wanted a baby we would need to adopt or move to IVF. The kindest thing our kind doctor did was not tell us everything was going to be alright.

The year was spent with weekly 7 am appointments to be poked and probed before work and monthly trips across town with my husband keeping a cup of sperm warm in his shirt. The pills were worse than the shots. Maybe because I knew the shots were looming. Maybe because I knew the percentages weren’t really worth all the bloating. I could not keep my shit together. I cried constantly. Soaked the sheets with night sweats, and was so filled with estrogen rage when I shut my eyes I saw faces melting “Raiders of the Lost Arc” style. When we reached a fork in the road, it was nice to have a break.

The break was short. We talked about our options. We talked about divorce. Not because we didn’t love each other, but because we always wanted to. We had different finish lines in mind and neither one of us wanted to be the cause for decades of resentment. I needed children. I would make a family any way possible. I would become a science experiment. I would move right to adoption. I would adopt tween-aged siblings if it meant we could build our family sooner rather than later.

My husband didn’t need a family. He admitted he felt like an asshole, but he wasn’t sure he could truly love a child that wasn’t biologically his. He was interested in having our children. He hated the idea of IVF being such an ordeal to both my body and our bank accounts. Maybe kids weren’t in the cards. He could be very happy just being with me for the rest of his life.

I admitted I felt like an asshole, but I wasn’t sure I could.

We agreed that we would check out the IVF clinic.

We met with our new doctor. He was bald with little glasses. A big belly in a lab coat. A smooth and steady voice, someone you trusted right away. He showed us charts with finance options not ovaries. We kept asking questions about the why or the what and he told us none of that mattered anymore. IVF makes the baby for us. My eggs could be completely un-fertilizable, but no way of knowing until a scientist tries to fertilize them. We were 32 years old. If we spent twenty five grand, we had a ninety percent chance of having a baby.

That was all my husband needed to hear. He was sold. After that appointment I was the one backing up. What if I was in the ten percent? I kept thinking of one hundred women and needing to stand with nine of them on the sad side of the room.

We signed up first with a bank, and then for more blood work. The first cycle started on December 26, 2010.

Every appointment at the infertility clinic was an exercise in fractions. Looking around the waiting room, only four out of five of us would end up a mother. I would try to spot obvious reasons why one of them would be going home empty handed. Too old. Fighting with husband. Wearing a dumb hat.

This was changing everything about me. I would step over your dead body to get to my baby. I didn’t want to hear about your day. I had to Google discharge consistency. If you got pregnant, I wasn’t mad at you, but I would not go to your baby shower. The women on the infertility chat boards were idiots, yet I couldn’t stop scrolling through their lives. They were much braver than me to actually put themselves out there, acronyms and all. And no, they were not idiots. I was just so desperate to get out of their club. I couldn’t be like them.

Nobody says the right thing. Here’s some of the worst things to say:

It will happen when it happens. Stress makes it worse. Just adopt. Just have more sex. I bet you end up with twins! You’re a great auntie.

Here’s what you can say:

Life sucks. This isn’t fair. I’m sorry. It might not work out. It’s okay to be really really really fucking pissed off. Be stressed. This is fucking stressful.

Our Thomas was made in a lab. Our ending was a happy one.

There’s an uncertainty with my motherhood and Tom. Maybe most moms feel that little twinge when it comes to their first borns. We all feel like a fraud. Maybe the happy ending doesn’t erase the scars from the journey. I can’t help but look over my shoulder for science coming to take it’s baby back.

It wasn’t a straight line to happy, but we were very lucky. It’s an odd thing to spend so much time being angry at God only to find your heart full again. I suppose there’s something to that whole “Footprints” thing.

If you find yourself walking down the unwanted path of infertility, I’m holding you up too.

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