Loving My Body Through Infertility

Self-portrait by Jen Hecht.

Self-portrait by Jen Hecht.

We start trying to have a baby the year after we get married. We do not know this yet, but we will try for four years to have a family, first my wife and then me.

We are incredibly optimistic when we start trying. We make a list of names and calculate what our baby's birthday will be. But a year goes by, then two, then four. We try to reframe things. We try to keep the faith. We try to keep perspective. Infertility can tear couples apart; we are determined to come through this closer than ever. We lose our shit sometimes anyway. We lose perspective. We lose faith. We are surrounded by friends getting pregnant. It seems like everyone is constantly celebrating and complaining about parenthood on social media, at parties, over coffee. We are inundated by it and yet outside of it.

Everyone knows we're good with kids and that we want our own children; we become everyone's favorite babysitters. Friends are well-intentioned but often oblivious to our heartache. A couple complains to us that they wish they hadn't gotten pregnant, and we fight the urge to snatch their baby away from them. Other friends commiserate, saying they understand what it's like to struggle with fertility because it took them three months to conceive. They kindly offer us the consolation prize of being aunties to their children. We know this is an honor, and we do feel honored, but it's not the same thing as being mothers to our own children. We fight tears at dinner parties, and we rage and cry in private when we are alone again. 

We take some time off from trying, give ourselves room to breathe. Feel our hope growing back. Try again. My wife gets bad test results. We grieve, and switch from her to me. We pour many thousands of dollars into fertility specialist appointments, donor sperm, procedures, ultrasounds, drugs. We switch donors six times in four years. We take breaks and try again. We do fertility acupuncture. Yoga. Herbs. Meditation. Visualization. New drugs. Sobriety. Clean eating. We accumulate baby gear and children's books, consoling ourselves by buying baby clothes when we get bad news. We eat sushi and then avoid sushi and then eat sushi again. We read parenting books. We try to relax and just let it happen. For four years we are suspended in limbo. We can't make travel plans or commitments in advance because the ovulation cycle is the first priority. We paint a room in our house and plan where to put the crib. We have a glider and a fancy diaper bag and a box of baby clothes in the basement labeled "Peanut". Our cat takes over the glider and gets fur all over it. At first we object, but eventually we let it go.

I get pregnant, but I miscarry when our baby is still the size of a sesame seed. I overcome my fear of needles and get really good at getting my blood drawn. My wife and I deal with the loss differently, and it takes work to heal it between us. As soon as we can, we start trying again. As soon as we find out a cycle has failed, I have to start taking hormones for the next cycle. I begin to feel like a lab rat. I am poked and examined with alarming regularity. Our hope seems to be quantified in physical measurements: hormone levels, uterine lining thickness, follicle sizes. Things always look good, but nothing happens. We try to find the silver lining in everything. We try to be gentle with ourselves.

Eventually we contemplate IVF, but our resources are exhausted. We are exhausted. Tapped out emotionally. Gradually I realize that I no longer yearn for an infant to come through one of us; the idea of it has become fraught with too much painful history and hopelessness. Without realizing it consciously, I have turned some kind of a corner. Even though there's nothing wrong with me and the fertility doctors have been unconcerned, I have just run out of steam. It feels clear: we're barking up the wrong tree.

I start to focus on our garden instead. If I plant things there, they actually come up. The tender green tips of new life poking through the soil bring such huge satisfaction. It is such a relief to do something that actually yields results. I develop a plant problem; I can't resist stopping by the nursery on my way home. The irony is not lost on me. 

I will be 39 in three weeks. She is 42. Time is passing. So much time has already passed. So many times when we thought we might get pregnant at the same time as our friends, and then they did, and we didn’t.

We begin wondering whether we could afford to adopt, considering that our resources have already gone to fertility treatments. A social worker advises us to tell all our friends in the hopes that they will know someone who is searching for an adoptive family. We hesitate. How public do we really want to go with this? How do we want to do this? We don't know. My mother is on hospice. There's a lot going on. We need to call the social worker back but it keeps slipping through the cracks. Maybe we want to adopt from the foster care system. Do we adopt a single child? A sibling pair? We will need to learn about attachment issues. Are we up to the challenge? Do we want to be? We don't know. All that's clear is that we're giving up on getting pregnant, but we still want children. And even though exploring adoption feels like a relief, our inability to create a child still feels raw.

Because of my work, I frequently receive messages from women sharing that they are finally able to love their bodies because their pregnancy and birth experiences have shown them how powerful and miraculous they are. That's wonderful for them. It really is. It's totally fucking amazing. I read their emails and posts about their miraculous bodies and I celebrate with them. But my joy for them is my pain for us. I read their emails with an equal mixture of joy and piercing heartbreak. I feel invisible. I feel lost.

I mourn for myself, for my wife. For the unlived life that we have worked to create for over four years. For the little kicks that neither of us will ever feel within us. For the lost chance at an awe-inspiring experience of childbirth and the milk-drunk slumber of an infant in our arms.

I had to find love for my body without experiencing the power and miracle of childbirth. I had to learn to love it because it simply gives me my own life, not because it gave someone else theirs. Because my own life is a powerful miracle, even when it brings me to my knees.

A core part of unconditional body love and self-compassion is finding the huge gifts that emerge from the shittiest parts of life. And as I reflect on our quest for a family so far, it is with an awareness that the greatest hardships of life have been my biggest teachers.

My body isn't going to give me a baby, but it has given me everything else I have received from this journey. I have learned more about myself and my wife and who we are together than I ever would have without these last four years. My body has given me an emotional resiliency I didn't have before. It has given me grief, but it has also given me deeper compassion, self-knowledge, and a marriage rich with mutual understanding and solidarity. And I believe that someday it is also going to give me the exquisite experience of falling in love with the family we create, however that looks and whenever it happens. 

Ours is a vulnerable and private story. We haven’t known how to share it. We didn't want to give the pain of our story more oxygen. We didn't want to make people feel bad. We didn't want our new-mama friends to feel that we've been anything but happy for them. We didn't want any more well-intended advice and recommendations. I didn't want women to stop celebrating their special brand of motherhood body-awe with me, as hard as it is for me.

But part of our pain is in its compression, in our efforts to smother it and keep it under control in mixed company. It is painful to be invisible, omitting the biggest story in our lives, this line running through our last four calendars, a long string of doctor's appointments and disappointments. And how many sisters do I have out there who are silently holding a similar story, feeling unseen, feeling queasy at every baby shower invite, wary of social media because one more baby bump selfie would bring them to tears? And how many mamas out there are unconscious of just how lucky they are, even on their worst days of motherhood?

So here I am, here we are. Invisible no more. Because I need my own compassion, and part of that is owning my truth and giving myself a voice. Because I want to offer my compassion to others who are walking a similar path. Here I am. Here we are.

--Jen Hecht

Update on February 1, 2016:

I'm humbled and moved by the response to this piece over the last week. I thank you all for your thousands of shares, your compassionate messages, and your recognition. It turns out there are indeed many sisters out there who feel the same way, and we feel far less alone today than we did a week ago.

This piece has also brought up other emotions for some folks, which took me by surprise at first. There are a few readers (like one voice in the comments below) who felt that I have levied a mountain of shame at parents. That couldn't be further from the actual intention of this piece, and I want to be absolutely clear about that. 

We see you, birth-parents. We know your job is unbelievably hard. We've been dress rehearsing for your job for five years. We know it's simultaneously the most brutal and most rewarding job in the world. We know that no matter how ready you are, you're never really ready for it. For the way pregnancy changes your body. For the intoxicating love you'll feel for your child. For having your identity completely destroyed and rebuilt around motherhood. For what pregnancy and parenting will do to your marriage, your sex life, your sleep, your orientation to the world. For never using the bathroom in private ever again. It's a crazy, exhausting shit-show. We know. And we have tremendous admiration and compassion for you, and for what it takes to keep doing the hardest job in the world.

And it is also true that we would give anything to know that rocky and staggeringly beautiful terrain ourselves. We would like to experience the exhausting shit-show firsthand. We would trade with you in a heartbeat. And we have silenced ourselves long enough. We want to have a voice, to be seen and to help others be seen; to cultivate mutual understanding and compassion, and to share the nuances of a body love journey that has not been without its hurdles. 

XO, Jen