Unbearable: The Lightness of Being an Infertile Woman

by Caroline Diggins


Even before I knew the word “infertile” applied to me, I found it needlessly accusatory, like a lot of terms that get assigned to female bodies: “incompetent cervix” or “poor responder.” I always hated listening to my sisters and friends talk about the particular circuitry of their female parts, and my prudishness has been the subject of their teasing for years. But I think I knew intuitively, even as a girl, that our bodies were capable of destroying us in ways that we could not fathom, that we did not quite have language for.

My husband gets irritated, and I suppose slightly nervous, when I periodically ask him, “What’s it like to have a penis?” Not that I especially want one, but I am impressed by how straightforward they are: easily accessible, easily excitable. This has always struck me as slightly unfair, and never more than now. As a couple, we were recently diagnosed with “unexplained infertility,” after bloodwork for both of us; a semen analysis for him; and three rounds of fertility drugs, a trans-vaginal ultrasound, and something called an hysterosalpingogram for me. During an HSG, which is meant to determine whether or not you have any blockage in your fallopian tubes, a speculum is inserted into your vagina, a catheter is inserted into your cervix, a balloon is inserted into the catheter, the balloon is filled with dye, and the dye is released to move freely through your fallopian tubes. The pressure of the balloon filling up feels similar to the initial sensations Gilbert Kane must have experienced in Alien, right before his chest exploded; the available literature describes it as “light cramping.” My face was so white after the doctor finally removed the balloon from my uterus that she insisted I lie down and drink a juice box. Which I did, while bursting into tears at the news that my tubes “looked great.” I still don’t know if I was crying out of relief or frustration or the inhumanity of being pumped up like a bicycle tire.

At my doctor’s office, I never feel like a woman so much as a container for a faulty uterus. On the rare occasion that I’m called in by name, it’s never pronounced correctly (yet the doctor’s staff has no trouble with “estradiol” or “prolactin” or the aforementioned hysterosalpingogram). I vacillate between being outraged by this whole process and completely devastated by it. I had to tell my boss that I needed to use my flex time to start pursuing “intrauterine insemination protocols.” He could not have been kinder or more understanding, and yet to my horror I was crying — WITH SNOT — before I had even completed this sentence: “Chris and I are trying to have a baby, and so far it’s not going very well.” (Which, to be in the position where I can both afford infertility treatments and work for a company that allows me the flexibility necessary to pursue them is a tremendous gift. “What would you do,” I have been asking myself since I first began suspecting something was wrong, “if you didn’t have Chris? If you didn’t have this job? If you didn’t have this insurance? What options would you have?” The answers are, “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know” and “none.”)

A popular piece of trivia from infertility blogs and websites is that an infertility diagnosis is as psychologically devastating as a cancer or HIV diagnosis, and many fertility experts will tell you that there is no small amount of grief involved in processing this news. I’m lucky enough to have never suffered from either, so I guess I’m not in any position to weigh in. But I don’t know if it’s grief I feel so much as righteous indignation. I never thought I’d be here, mostly because I never thought I’d have trouble having a baby. It had occurred to me, fleetingly, in the “noted and moving on” way of most modern optimists, but I always assumed infertility would be someone else’s problem. Now that it’s mine, I’m a lot less surprised by my diagnosis than I am by my reaction to it.

To find myself in the position where I have to announce, somewhat publicly, that I want to be a mother so badly that I am going to start paying groups of strangers to inject me with drugs, poke me with catheters and needles, probe me with cameras, and pump me full of what they refer to as my husband’s “washed” semen, fills me with an anger I find isolating and difficult to articulate. So I obsessively scour the internet for information about other infertile women. I’ve read every essay I can find on the subject, even the flowery ones that compare uteruses and their contents to various types of fruit (so long, my lifelong love affair with pears). My least favorite colleague has caught me reading articles about endometriosis and listening to disquietingly chipper podcasts about PCOS. I have visited message boards full of acronyms that confuse and disgust me: TTC, TWW, MENTS, DH, AF, BD, OPK, BFP, BFN (more horrifying are the words they spell out: cervical mucus, creamy cervical mucus, not a lot of cervical mucus, baby dust). There’s a whole language around infertility that I never wanted to learn, yet I find myself constantly stalking these boards, drawing comfort from magical thinking strangers who write sentences like, “I pray your rainbow baby is on her way.” I have a hard time with stranger prayers and rainbow babies, but I can appreciate their origins.

As a woman, you spend a lot of energy trying to ignore what our culture constantly tells you: that your worth is equal to the sum of your parts and how appealing they are. Are your breasts big enough? Is your stomach flat enough, your ass bouncy enough, your hair lustrous enough where we want to see it and eradicated where we don’t? As a woman battling infertility, you’re battling the language of your body in the same way, the words are just different and the checklist is turned inside out. Is your uterine lining thick and lustrous? Are your eggs beautiful and abundant? Do your tubes look good? Can your cervix cooperate?

Blunt, wrenchingly instructive medical language seems available only when it can insult you or gross you out. Words that might actually help prepare you for what’s to come — like the ones that could tell you, concretely, whether or not you can ever actually have a healthy baby — aren’t available. It’s all percentages, acronyms, inscrutable hormone levels, and diagnoses that describe your body’s failings without offering ways to correct them. I have been told countless times by the staff at my clinic that in vitro fertilization can be a “great diagnostic tool.” That’s a cute way of saying, “For fifteen thousand dollars, there’s a chance we might be able to find out a little bit more about what’s wrong with you. Dildo cameras, light surgery, and lots of needles, will also be involved. No guarantees, though.”

I don’t delude myself that the experience of actually being pregnant would be much better, at least from a medical standpoint. Or from a cultural one. In fact, one of the more excruciating stops I’ve made on my infertility tour was the baby shower of an old friend. The shower was hosted by a woman who had gone deep into that middle-class earth mother thing: she wore no bra and no shoes and served the guests obscure tea blends out of handmade, lopsided mugs. She gifted my friend with used cloth diapers and kicked the shower off by inviting all of us to wash the expectant mother’s feet, using a giant vat of hot water and some type of Burt’s Bees product. Then, sitting cross-legged on her living room floor with my friend’s foot in her hands, our braless host began making a speech about pregnancy as an ancient and warrior-like tradition, how birthing a child was the truest expression of womanhood, and how you’re not fully a woman until you experience it.

There has to be something in between “incompetent cervix” and “magical warrior woman.” I certainly don’t think of childbirth as a prerequisite for living as an authentic woman. I think of it as something gross and painful and necessary; something with an end result that would make it worth enduring, if you wanted or were able to endure it in the first place. What infertility requires, more than deep pockets or flex time or a softening of boundaries and appetite for acronyms, is the ability to take inventory of a sea of unknowns and from them make a decision about how much you’re willing to endure, and at what cost. I’m almost three years into my fertility quest now, and getting closer to making that kind of decision. My husband and I are considering adoption, but we’re at the very beginning stages of that journey and we have yet to learn that language. I’m hoping it will be easier to understand.

Photo by The Farmstrs