The Other Side


Inserting infertility into everyday conversation

It was just another every day moment. I found myself in a conversation with a fellow musician after having complimented her on how great she sounded. We had just finished performing a concert with the band I’m in and were mingling around a refreshment table at the venue getting to know one another better.

Although I’m ultimately an introvert, nine years serving part time in restaurants developed in me a propensity for small talk. I truly used to enjoy talking to people I don’t know before infertility came along and turned every day conversation into such a fencing match. And in this conversation I was, for a flicker in time, enveloped in the ease of connecting spontaneously with someone I didn’t really know. She was a fantastic conversationalist (with two or three slightly older children), and we shared compatible points of view and feelings on music teaching, auditions, and musician burnout, among other things. She was also very interested in other things I was doing and flowed well with my middle aged randomness (of course exacerbated by infertility) of “well I used to keep about twenty five private students and I had a wedding music business too for a while but things have shifted and I started writing and I’m fairly certain I’m going to complete my yoga teacher training soon…..” Yes, she was able to roll with it all fine. And then, her question. “So what you do write about?”

Now this is where a normal (and smarter) person would lie. This is where the savvy aversionists of the world would come up with an answer that is both creative and benign, enough to peak one’s interest but not so much as to provoke too many questions. Even more realistically this would have never come up at all, since those endowed with the ability to keep themselves in the shadows would have never even mentioned their writing in the first place. I don’t completely know what the temptation is with me. I get nervous and anxious just like everybody else, perhaps even more so, although I wasn’t in this particular situation. I do know that because infertility is a part of life, I believe it belongs in conversation. And I’m willing to go out on a limb for that when I’m able. Is it one part pride, one part I kind of suck at lying? Probably. I strongly feel I’ve done nothing wrong as far as infertility is concerned so therefore why should I wither away and hide? And for all of the pitfalls of self-revelation, there is something I truly LIKE about throwing down a thorny unexpected subject matter and seeing what comes of it. So for whatever reason, if there’s a can of worms to be voluntarily opened, apparently I’m your person.

“Well, it’s a tough thing that I write about.” I never said I didn’t believe in fair warning. And I need a segway myself. A brief pause in time and space to prepare for the abrupt screeching road runner like halt of energy that most often occurs when infertility is brought into the mix. Usually to be followed by a conversation that has a much more obstacle laden, plummeting, splattering coyote like tone.

“My husband and I just spent the past three years and eight months trying to conceive a child, and it didn’t work. So I write about infertility. We’re going through a very sad time now and I find writing to be extremely therapeutic.” Since infertility is so soaked with negatives, I make every effort to include in conversation the 2.3 positive things that have come out of it.

“Oh yes, that’s something a lot of women deal with” she said as she looked away.

Back when I was 39, in my younger naïve days, I actually took this as a sign that the other person understood. My how I’ve grown. It’s in our conversation patterns to say we know even when we don’t, and for some reason fertile people have a particularly difficult time wrapping their heads around the fact there’s something child related they are clueless about. But I pretend to take her cue and play that we’re on the same page.

“Yes, it’s extremely alienating and isolating” I say as I nod in “agreement”. Meep meep…..well at least I’m off and running.

She covers extremely well, but at this point it’s clear, more from the expression of her body than her face, that she is uncomfortable. She said she was sorry, which I always appreciate and made sure to let her know, and then broke into the “solution part”. “You know what you do? You know those horrible kids that are just obnoxious disasters? Focus on them. Because, I mean, you can get ANYTHING when you have a kid.” Attempts to make the loss of one’s biological children “ok” have the potential to be about as successful as the coyote’s attempts to catch the roadrunner. Figuring I’ll save THAT, as well as the point that the very off chance I could have given birth to a serial killer does not exactly soothe the loss of my biological children for some other fine day, I laugh but then realize she’s actually serious. “Well, it IS a crap shoot,” I offer. Now who says I’m not reasonable??

“And you can always foster or adopt,” she says, as if I can do that with the ease with which I buy milk.   I understand this is her attempt to point out that these are methods of family building that are just as valid as natural conception, which is a very good thing. However at this point all that I’m dealing with flashes through my head. Having to find the energy to speak with adoption attorneys upon the traumatic end of our fertility treatments in order to find out if my husband’s immigration status will prevent us from adopting altogether (fortunately it looks like it won’t be a problem). Investigating fully open adoptions, the idea of which right now feels entirely upsetting, invasive and violating. Learning that private adoptions involve independently soliciting pregos and even possibly taking them out for dinner. Eeeew. I’m so NOT there right now and I may never be, who knows? The knowledge that most children in foster care have some type of mental, physical, or emotional disability. And that a couple such as ourselves who has been traumatized and depleted by infertility is likely not in the right position to take on such a responsibility. That after the loss involved with ten failed fertility treatments bonding with a child or children who then leave my home would not be in my best emotional interest. I don’t think my PTSD would take too kindly to it either. How to come up with the $35,000 or so we’ll need to adopt after spending everything we had and some we didn’t ($77,000) on not getting pregnant.

And yes, I’ve been around this carousel enough times to know the arguments that can come up. That I can’t expect everyone to just understand my problems. And that who am I to expect people to just know about infertility. Turns out I can answer to all of that. First of all, this isn’t just “my” problem. Infertility effects approximately 12% of the child bearing aged population. Second, I don’t expect people to understand. Let me be clear, it’s the inherent ASSUMPTIONS that things like going through fertility treatments, choosing to end them, and considering alternative family building options are EASY that need to change. Last, people absolutely can know more about infertility. It is a trauma, and it’s estimated that 50% of our population endures some type of trauma throughout the course of their lifetime. I wouldn’t be surprised if the actual percentage is higher. Infertility can happen to anyone. Assisted Reproductive Technology is something that has changed the landscape of the type of life crisis people in their family building years endure. Since we are a culture that obsessively talks, shares and inquires about everything baby and family, then we can know about all of it, not just the easy part. Infertility IS the baby family aspect of my life.

The notion, however well intended, that I can now trot along after the transfer of 24 embryos that turned into nothing and mindlessly pluck a child to raise up out of nowhere, all in a single bound, is not something I’m willing to let slide. And I have no problem attempting to redirect this misperception through calm matter of fact conversation. It’s not like our talk had fallen completely off the tracks. I let her know that although we may adopt, it’s a lot more complicated than it looks. That we just went through something arduous and would need time before entering the tangled maze of adoption. That I wasn’t in shape for much after one surgery and ten failed fertility treatments, but that I had found the energy to contact adoption attorneys to find out about my husband’s immigration status in regards to adoption. I let her know it seemed that his status likely wouldn’t be a problem and that we were grateful for one less potential obstacle to deal with. Like I said, I always include the positives. There are so few so it’s not as if they are hard to remember. I acknowledged that many people adopt successfully, but that it’s a lot to take on. Especially since right now the most important thing is for us to grieve. I finished with “The main thing I tell people is that I can’t tie this up with a neat little bow, it’s really a very tough thing.”

As I was trying to get all of the above words out, something different hit me. “This is hard for her,” I realized. And for a brief moment, I saw a slight glimmer of the other side. The other side that is the innocent inexperienced unsuspecting person from our limited western culture who is suddenly stuck absorbing the infertility story in three minutes flat. I do really think she meant well, and I don’t say this lightly because I don’t believe everyone who throws their two cents into the infertility pool does mean well. I’ve ended up in my share of stale mate conversations, as I’m sure all of us infertiles have, where I’m told dismissively “I’m SURE they meant well.” Which is really code for “I’m not interested in hearing your feelings”. To which I’ll sometimes respond “No, I really don’t think they meant well at all. I really don’t” (conversation plummets down ravine –splat!).   There are many who walk amongst us who believe that avoiding the “bad stuff” is actually an MO for dealing with life. These people, who are typically void of a connection to their own emotions, actually believe they are better off by staying away from people like me, or from anyone who is having something bad happen to them for that matter. But then there are those who do care, who are trying to do the right thing in conversation but just don’t have the tools. I guess in the midst of all of my pain I had been figuring to an extent that if I actually lived through infertility and survived, then how challenging could it be to hear about it? Hearing about it is much easier than going through it no doubt, but for this brief moment I could see that hearing about it is tough too. And really, if I can’t fathom it all having gone through it myself for almost four years, why wouldn’t someone hearing about it for the first time be a bit overwhelmed? So yes, I had flash of empathy for the fertile world. Hold onto your hats, fasten your seatbelts, alert CNN, do whatever you’ve got to do. But in this moment, I for whatever reason was able to see an otherwise open, intelligent, insightful person reach the limit of her current skills and capacity. Infertility really does that to everyone, not just its direct victims. But it’s not only the components of infertility and the individual that are in play here. It’s also the fabric created by the things our culture perpetuates – the coyote-like attributes of avoidance through action, desperately needing resolution, and not stopping to pause, just to name a few, that can lead these conversations to form figurative splattered outlines against rock.

There are many reasons for the awkwardness. We women thrive, too much I think, on having things in common with one another. Men seem to leave much more space for the differences between them. But more importantly, in taking a look at our conversations with one another, I wonder this:

How often do the conversation patterns in our culture willingly acknowledge loss?

Acknowledge trauma?

Demonstrate comfort with and acceptance of emotional pain?

Dwell in the space of “no answers”?

How often do the conversation patterns in our culture stay away from the need to fix?

Stay IN the present (for ex. “how are you right now”)?

Possess an inquisitive tone (for ex. “what challenges you”)?

How often do the conversation patterns in our culture accept a lack of resolution?

Allow capacity for the unfathomable?

How often are any of us really willing to take the leap of faith that we might actually be enriched, or at least informed, by sitting with the pain of another?

I venture to say the components that are most deficient or quite possibly entirely absent from our conversation patterns are what we infertiles need the most from people. And that, perhaps, is one of the culprits of the repellant dynamic that is so often present in conversation between fertiles and infertiles.

Our conversation, as to be expected, dissolved both somewhat gracefully and awkwardly, with her bowing out having to head home. In a way, we simply parted as two human beings limited by our own needs, perceptions and expectations, and influenced by those that pervade our culture. Hers could have been anything from feeling uneasy with the lack of resolution and my outright unwillingness to say everything was OK, to an unreasonable expectation to make others (me in this case) feel better, to the discomfort people feel when we find out something we hadn’t given a second thought to is really much more intricate and torturous than expected. Or maybe none of the above, who knows? Myself, I was left wresting with a bit of what I call “infertile guilt”. Which is really the discomfort I feel in the process of divorcing myself from the childish patriarchal notion that my main job in conversation is to make people comfortable.  It isn’t, plus, like lying, I was never so good at that either so it’s high time I officially move forward……..meep meep.


So instead of a song (or a sauwong, as they say here on Long Island), I leave you with a cartoon.

Substitute the word “cartoon” in the sign in the last scene with the word “conversation”.  That says it all.


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