12/01/2014 04:20 pm ET Updated Jan 31, 2015

When Strangers Ask About Infertility

K.K. Goldberg

If you let it be known that you have twins, either by mentioning their existence or leaving the house with them, you might as well wear a T-shirt that reads, "Go ahead -- ask me how they were made!" I'm used to it. Most of the time, I don't mind.

Still, I wasn't expecting to be asked about fertility treatments at 3:00 a.m. at the pet emergency hospital on a rainy night in November. Yet, that's what happened when a young vet tech finally entered the dim exam room after an hour-long wait. I was huddled with my tired bichon, Friso, who'd been shaking half the night.

Though frazzled with worry, I tried to be friendly to the woman. "It's funny that it's the dog keeping me up, when I have 2-year-old twins at home, sleeping through the night." This was my desperate bid to expedite the exam.

With an unlined face and a trim figure in scrubs, the vet tech looked to be in her twenties, and seemed unfazed by the late hour.

"Twins," she said, peering down at my dog, who had mysteriously stopped trembling. "Did you do fertility treatments?"

I was startled. It was almost as if I'd given birth to the bichon, and she legitimately wanted to know how. Usually ,people go for more masked forms of nosiness, like, "Are your twins natural?" Or, "Do they run in the family?" To these questions I either say "yes," since both are true, or more precisely in my case, "We had a lot of help from doctors."

The vet tech's approach -- the straight-up inquiry about my medical and reproductive history -- was jarring. For some reason, it gave me a burst of energy. OK, I thought, let's go there!

"I did IVF," I said. "Are you considering fertility treatment?"

Immediately, I regretted my reply -- not the IVF part, but the volleying back of the personal probe. My burst of zeal for the inappropriate vanished into the silence. This wasn't really my style. I was sleep-starved. I knew I should just go back to the obfuscating half-truth, or the mild total truth. Social norms exist for excellent reasons.

She stared down at the scale, where Friso's weight clocked in at 14 pounds. His tail had gone back up, and he looked suddenly content, if weary. Meanwhile, I cringed. I felt like I had passed verbal gas, and it wouldn't clear in that small space.

"I'm in the process of donating my eggs," she said finally.

"That is such a gift," I told her, and the air changed between us.

She nodded. "I'm doing the injections now."

She took my dog onto the exam table, where he bravely endured a thermometer to the posterior. I remembered all too well the despair of infertility, the agonies and invasions of the medical methods of babymaking.

"It's a big deal," I said.

"Did you use your own eggs?" she asked.

"I did. But I know women who used donor eggs and they feel unbelievably blessed."

She turned back to her notes. "I hope it will be a gift."

"It is," I said. "Infertility is excruciating."

I felt the intimacy of the moment, how quickly something that could have been harsh had turned into something kind.

"The vet will be right in," she said, and took off.

Friso turned out to be fine, but just to be safe, my bichon got the doggy version of Pepto-Bismol while I waited by the front desk.

The vet tech returned with my pup in her arms, transferring him to mine, both of us cradling him like a baby.

"Good luck," I said, and even with my puffy, contented dog against my chest, somehow we ended up exchanging a hug, out of nowhere.

As I drove home, it occurred to me that in some alternate universe, I could have been the mother of children with her DNA. Likewise, I might have been the vision of what her effort could yield.

It's easy to rail against intrusive questioning, and there are worthy arguments for opting to stifle curiosity rather than indulging it. I support any woman asserting her privacy, and her right to be free of the burden of explaining, soothing or educating others.

It occurs to me, though, that so many people go through infertility and its treatments in silence, and that the discussion of it so often doesn't come up until long after it's been resolved -- that is, until long after the need subsides.

Especially as the holidays approach, I remember the terrible weight of unspoken suffering. It wasn't that I was ashamed -- I wasn't then and I'm not now, but that the dialogues I had, even with well-meaning people, were so bruising that I chose avoidance.

These moments of revelation, like the one at the pet hospital, remind me how much all women go through, with or without kids, with twins, or with more or with fewer. So many of us don't know how to ask, and don't know how to answer, so if 10 nosy strangers lead me to help even one person poke a hole in a big frightening quiet, then I'm grateful to be asked.