We’ve been travelling in infertility circles for a long time. I’m coming up on eleven years, since my medically-indicated hysterectomy, the decision that left me unable to be pregnant. The Electrician and I have been together more than eight years, and while we’ve been working toward parenthood through gestational surrogacy for more than five of those years, the fact that I cannot carry our babies myself has been part of our relationship since I told him my uterus was gone; that conversation happened on our second date.
We’ve had all kinds of comments and “advice” from people who truly don’t understand where we’re coming from.
People out of the loop or just out of their minds have asked my husband–in front of me–when he’s finally going to get me pregnant. Once, a woman asked me on the street of my home town when I was going to give my dad grandchildren, because he’s certainly been waiting. Dad was with me. Another time, I was snuggling my new niece and struggling with the knowledge I may never get to hold my own child when someone half-jokingly told us we’d better get working on a baby.
I have been told that I need to pray harder so God can work a miracle and start me gestating. Umm, yeah. If I get pregnant, I’ll get to start a religion and declare a national holiday. I’ve also been told that God just doesn’t intend me to be a parent, and I need to accept the will of the Almighty. Sometimes, I hear about the evils of infertility treatment, as an affront to God or to nature, or warned that IVF and/or surrogacy is immoral.
Folks trying to be helpful have mentioned all the things I’m lucky to miss out on, like stretch marks, or a nursing infant biting me, or mountains of poopy diapers. Episiotomies come up regularly. People have pointed out that we have so much more disposable income, we can travel when we want to, sleep in, go to real restaurants whenever. The list seems endless and does not help. It always stings when people try to suggest we are lucky to be childless.
Many, many times someone has jokingly offered to give me their children, or pointed out how much parenting sucks and how hard it is. I’ve been told by several people that I wouldn’t be so eager to be a mom if I knew how much work it is.
If they knew how damn hard I’ve worked on being a mom, they begin might understand.
The comment that’s been really irritating me lately is actually one of the least ignorant, but also the most frequent. Countless people refer to this experience as our “infertility journey.” It’s very common wording in the circles of people trying for babies, even the ones who are struggling to reach that goal, so it’s not incongruous to our situation.
At first, the phrase “infertility journey” just struck me as off-key. I feel myself react unintentionally when people use it to describe what we’ve been experiencing, especially if people have had their children without intervention. “Journey” doesn’t sit well with me and I have noticed my bristling intensifying over time; I’ve been working to sift through my response to the noun.
On the surface, “journey” just indicates a process, perhaps a lengthy one. See my opening paragraph about time. Under the surface, though, it carries more meaning and somehow has simultaneously become nearly meaningless. We refer to someone’s “cancer journey,” or to their “diabetes journey,” or “depression journey.” Fair enough, but fair only if that is how people choose to refer to their own experiences. If the people using the expression find it relevant, it’s relevant. In this context, “journey” could indicate a situation from which a person learns, grows, or becomes somehow stronger than he or she started.
Unfortunately, we can also sift through the internet and find “journeys” through learning to drive stick or growing out natural hair colour or learning to fold a fitted sheet. In this light, the term has lost its weight, surrendered its resonance, and become trite. Many people apply the label to anything that takes more time than we’d like it to, or anything that presents a mild challenge.
I have decided I dislike the term “infertility journey” because it glosses over what we’ve been through on this unmarked path. Sure, we might be somehow learning, growing, and getting stronger, but we’re also utterly exhausted.
This process has been a brutal experience. We long ago lost count of the appointments, phone calls, medications, needles, tests, sleepless nights, and callous remarks from others: medical and otherwise. I have tracked our spending, and while we don’t regret a dollar of our investment, the total is significant. Our first beloved baby died in miscarriage and it tore me apart.
Studies indicate that fertility treatment creates the comparable stress levels in many couples as active cancer treatment. I believe it because I’ve lived it. Divorce rates are high in infertile couples. We actively choose to let our surrogacy experiences bring us closer together rather than drive us apart, but it isn’t always the easier option.
“Journey” is wholly insufficient to describe what we have experienced and continue to live. I don’t know if there is a word that could adequately capture our swim against the current. I’m not even sure if I can express it in the essays I write about our infertility.
Lately, I’ve been feeling a connection to the phrase “Parenthood Quest.” I’m using it purposely as a proper noun. I prefer to focus on the goal, becoming parents, rather than the obstacle, infertility. Runners focus on the finish line. Students focus on the diploma. I want to focus on the outcome, not everything it drains from me.
“Quest” makes me think of a noble calling, of struggle for a higher purpose. It’s not about the pain or the exhaustion or the expense, but about the dream of holding my own child and seeing the love my marriage contains reflected in his or her face.
A couple on a quest may face difficult odds, but deliberately continues onward because the goal is more meaningful than anything they may encounter on the way. As much as I find The Lord of the Rings series terrifying, it is much closer to my thoughts on the nature of a quest versus a journey. The Electrician and I have fought through our versions of orcs, seemingly impossible terrain, and entities so much stronger than us. Yet on we travel, ready for whatever test comes next and determined to carry on toward an unsure outcome.
Think of your favourite book or film involving a quest. Maybe your protagonist is in the middle of The Fire Swamp or battling The Nothing or trying to destroy the One Ring. Perhaps they are running out of time against The Goblin King. Maybe some joker has sent them to steal a broomstick and they could lose everything in the process. These are quests. We don’t have flying monkeys (so far) but I promise you we’ve had to draw on strength we didn’t know we had and cope with obstacles no one saw coming.
What’s the point of my focus on semantics? Are words really that important to a person dealing with such difficult circumstances?
Words can make the difference between comforting a struggling person and adding more pain.
Words can help others feel supported, rather than isolated.
Words can show another human being that you may not comprehend everything he or she has gone through, but you are willing to offer what is needed to make that process easier.
My suggestion is to let the people in your life who are going through shit determine how you talk about it. This advice doesn’t necessarily apply to just issues of fertility. Talk to your loved one who is experiencing disease or heartbreak, and take their lead. Ask them how they would like you to refer to what they are up against, and listen to their responses.
There are many out there for whom “infertility journey” isn’t an uncomfortable phrase. That’s okay. My point is that the cliche makes me clench my teeth, and you would have no way of knowing that unless you ask. Some couples may respond, as we do, to “jokes” and inquiries about their lack of offspring with black humour to hide the pain underneath. What the person doesn’t see is me lying awake at night, swimming in the pain their questioning caused.
Perhaps we need to revisit our approach to this topic. I argue it needs to be at least as private as our finances. You would never go up to friends, family members, or (heaven forfend) acquaintances, and ask them about the contents of their bank accounts, so why do we consider it appropriate to ask them about the states of their reproductive tracts?
I write very openly about fertility as we’ve experienced it because getting my words out of my head is healing for me. Doing so has forced me to consider the words I use to refer to my own situation and to the paths others are walking.
People will tell you as much as they are comfortable telling you. They will tell you if and when they want to, and will help you choose words that are meaningful or at least benign to them, if you ask. Assumptions risk creating more pain in people who are already struggling.
Thank you to those who have supported us on our parenthood quest. Your kindness had eased our way along this punishing road.