Last weekend a friend announced she'd schooled her 4-year-old in the facts of human reproduction, with the handy aid of an age-appropriate book.
As she described her son's reaction to the news of interlocking anatomical parts -- "no way!" -- I couldn't help imagining my own parallel tale. Mommy and Daddy go to the doctor. Mommy gets a lot of shots. Daddy goes in a bathroom with a cup. Doctors put tiny bits of Mommy and Daddy in a dish and stir. Then everyone prays it will all swim together and grow for five days...
Of course, there's no universe where a child needs to learn the details of IVF, but my moment of private musing reminded me that even when the literal aspect of infertility comes to an end, other parts of the experience linger well into motherhood. I feel blessed to have conceived twins through IVF, and at the same time, I carry a sense of having been marked by infertility. I've written about this before, in "A Twin Mom's Post-Infertility Survivor Guilt."
Though time has passed, I vividly remember how much three years of infertility consumed me -- body and spirit. It became a kind of lens through which I viewed the entire world. I look back at pictures of myself at a friend's wedding, and I recollect not so much of the dancing/food/festivity, but rather trying to endure the multitude of wink-wink inquiries about when my husband and I would have our own children. Infertility is not a blur. I can conjure it all: the waiting, the uncertainty, the cyclical despair, the social dread, the physical discomfort.
If there's an upside to this, it's that having written and spoken so much about infertility has opened the door to frank and vulnerable discussions with other men and women about what people go through to make babies. Friends, neighbors and acquaintances tell me their stories: the miscarriages, the donor eggs, the ultrasounds where the doctor says, "I'm sorry."
As I look back, here are the top 10 things I wish I could have told myself during my struggle to conceive:
1. Recognize that the limbo of infertility puts you in an impossible situation. It's hard to talk about in the middle of it, because without knowing the end, it's a roller coaster of uncertainty. You can't fully grieve, because the outcome is unknown. Nor can you be fully hopeful, for the same reason. It feels like the vision of your future family is on life support, and no one can tell you which way it will go -- if it will live and thrive, or slowly pass away.
2. Feeling sadness will not define your path. There's so much pressure to be positive, and it flies in the face of how difficult the experience of infertility is, with its myriad invasive treatments and the pained repetitive waiting. Not only did infertility leave me frequently upset, but I also felt a compounded despair that my "negative thinking" was prolonging the problem. Of course it feels better to stay positive, when possible. When it's not, it means only that you are human. Don't stress about being stressed out.
3. Define and honor your limits. There's pressure to "do everything" on the medical front, and a parallel pressure to adopt a child. All these choices are profoundly personal and no one else can define your path. It's possible to maintain the power of choosing what you will and will not do, and to change course as you go.
4. Listen to your doctor and trust your gut. Find a doctor you trust and like. It's worth interviewing more than one, if possible. Even after three years of infertility, I felt a terror of IVF, in all its medical intensity, alongside the fear that it would all come to nothing. It meant the world to me to work with a doctor who not only had a good track record, but also left me with an instinctive feeling of yes.
5. Have rote answers prepared for nosy questioners. I never knew what to say to people who asked questions about when my husband and I were having kids. I landed on the phrase, "Only God knows." Or, "We'll see." These aren't fabulously clever responses, but they were brief and worked for me. Everyone has a different degree of comfort with self-exposure. My husband would answer, "We're working on it," which satisfied half of the question, but politely limited potential follow-up. I know other people who were far more frank about infertility. Figure out where you stand, and prepare your words.
6. For every medical procedure you go through, find a soothing activity for your body. It might be a walk, a nap or a focused chunk of minutes cuddling with your dog, cat or partner. Can enough be said about the healing power of nature? There's also a massage, a pedicure, a bath, a haircut -- though your soothing act doesn't have to be expensive. There are soft socks, favorite foods and Netflix. It doesn't matter what you do, as long as it's in the spirit of self-care and self-acknowledgement.
7. Take care of your heart. Do whatever you need to do. This might mean skipping a baby shower, or assessing your relationship with the Internet. There comes a time when you need to take a break from the stress of it all. I spoke to an infertility counselor who told me that while she was struggling to conceive, she would let herself shop for baby clothes as an act of affirmation and hope. For me, in that time, I often needed some distance from all things child-related.
8. Invent a project. It's useful to have a project, especially one where you can see change and progress externalized. Take up a sport, clean up your basement, plant a few flowers. Having something creative to do, no matter how small, creates useful distraction and reduces the feeling of powerlessness.
9. Find one person to whom you can talk uncensored. Check in with yourself about what and who feels good. This might be a friend, a counselor, a support group -- anyone who can support you unconditionally and isn't invested in the outcome.
10. It will be OK, though your definition of OK will change. Our lives seldom fit into tidy spreadsheets or set schedules. Resolutions come in unexpected ways. People get through it, and you will find peace again.