Each of us who confronts infertility has no idea where it will take us.
We launch into turbulent seas unaware of when or if we will encounter calm water or be delivered into a safe harbor.
Certain contributing reproductive conditions are more easily treated than others and some individuals have more disposal income than others to gamble on advanced and risky procedures. Read any infertility blog and you’ll get a window into how prolonged disappointment and loss combine to color decision-making, fray relationships, challenge principles and, at its worst, weaken our spirit. Trauma soon follows. With the advent of blogs, weary companions now gather to share and puzzle out their next moves.
I began following one high-profile series, The Fertility Diary, featured on The New York Times Motherlode blog after contributor Amy Klein shared her response to the Selling the Fantasy of Fertility op-ed (co-authored by Miriam Zoll and me). Since September I’ve read with curiosity how Ms. Klein’s thinking and behavior continue to evolve with each development in her infertility journey. Her latest asks the question: “How Much Would You Pay to Have a Baby?”
While the question is couched in financial terms, there are other significant costs associated with pursuing treatment (ranging from emotional tolls to long-term health concerns). On the emotional front, I remember when I was where she is now. Like her, I once pacified my fears and blindly pushed forward with the next procedure envisioning myself in the lucky minority of those who succeed with treatment against the odds. One big difference in our situations: I was without the benefit of the Internet to offer a reality check. All I had were women’s magazine articles and popular media stories affirming that if I simply kept at it, I would magically succeed. There was no counterpoint.
While I believed I was an informed patient, it was only years later that I learned how haphazard reproductive medicine truly is and how much of today’s reproductive treatments are still a mystery without the controls found in other clinical procedures. As former ASRM ethics committee member George Annas shared in a PBS Frontline interview:
There hasn’t been what you have in cancer, for example, or other major diseases where you have long periods of people doing experimentation, looking at protocol, developing protocols. Finally, finding something that works and then standardizing it, so other physicians can follow it. Nothing like that in assisted reproduction. Basically, it’s individual. It’s developing their own techniques and then marketing them.
Ten years have passed since I went cold turkey and kicked my addiction and began to move forward with my life. Today I’m wiser about the reality of failure, heartbreak and money lost forever in the pursuit of a dream that hundreds of for-profit clinicians were willing to sell as long as we were willing to write checks.
Furthermore, I also see in hindsight the glaring lack of readily available independent mental health services needed to help couples review and assess what is in their best interests. Rather than treat the whole person, infertility patients are treated as clinical specimens or bank accounts moved through a system of increasingly complex and expensive treatments divorced from the emotional juggernaut that accompanies diagnosis and treatment.
Looking back we felt a sense of urgency and single-mindedness coupled with emotional isolation that was daunting. We mustered everything within our grasp to put an end to infertility even when the odds were heavily stacked against us. Perhaps most cruelly, prolonged fertility treatments and interventions stole our innocence, caused our hearts to grow heavy and dominated our life.
Physical mystery + emotional disengagement met the added challenge of social impatience and expectations for a speedy resolution.
Routinely reminded that society was indifferent or ignorant of the trauma we experienced and tortured by the conventional wisdom that we weren’t trying hard enough, week by week and month by month, the chains that bound us to our next expensive fertility fix began to chafe. At some point we awakened to the fact that the pursuit of fertility treatment had become its own insidious demon, one that imprisoned not only our bodies but our hearts and our souls.
The prison metaphor came to light on the day the courageous and inspiring Nelson Mandela passed away. News reports reflected on his life and the legacy many of his ideas and quotes circulated. His strength of spirit and capacity to forgive will forever motivate us to become better people.
The next day I awoke to find an email from the Director of the Infertility Awareness Association of South Africa. In it she shared a blog post from Mash, a support forum member. Her book review compared the infertility journey I wrote about in Silent Sorority to the ideas contained in The Life of Pi.
In the mother-centric world we live in, the author is kind of like Pi, alone on a life raft and left to deal with her own inner struggle.
As those of us who have been imprisoned by the pursuit of fertility know fear and its marauding attendants anger and bitterness render us incapable of finding inner peace. Mash observed of my story:
In the end, when her inner torment is at it’s worst, well there it is, the shore. She starts to find a way of existing and being in a world that accepts only parenthood as a meaningful purpose in life.
Advancing this idea, she writes:
The only real freedom … is the one that Pi found as he surrendered his entire being … in the moment of his life when there was no water, no food, no hope — and the tiger’s head [the metaphor for his demon] — was in his lap. [Pi] was facing and acknowledging his mortality, his deepest darkest fear. Looking it in the eye and being at peace with it. That’s what it takes.
So true. I remember the sense of sheer exhaustion that resulted in battling my metaphorical tiger and the torment it inflicted. Once I finally surrendered my chronic frustration and angst at living a life different than the one I had hoped for and envisioned, accepted my body for not functioning on demand, and forgave those who inadvertently wounded me with their infertility insensitivity, I reached a state of peace. I embraced the life I have and became committed to seeking truth and transparency about the limits of Mother Nature and science.
I respect the need to understand and responsibly combat the underlying conditions that lead to infertility. In fact, providing more education and screening about biology’s limits early will allow young women and men to work up a plan and make informed decisions before reaching crisis stage.
I also know the freedom and peace that comes with accepting that which will never be so that life can move forward.
Fertility medicine can’t cure infertility for all. Not all women and men possess the capacity to conceive regardless of how hard they try, and some simply time out. There is no shame in that. Nor is one life path of greater value than another. The sooner these truths permeate society, the easier it will be for future generations confronting infertility to release their demons and get on with the business of life rather than remain in the business of expanding revenue for fertility clinics selling futile, expensive cycles.
In this year-end time of reflection, I wish Amy Klein and all who find themselves in the grip of infertility’s worst struggles the strength to find wholeness and the priceless gift of peace.
As always, welcome your thoughts. How, dear readers, are your lives unfolding?