The same day my husband and I met with our fertility doctor for the first time, we had dinner plans with a friend at a new Mexican restaurant. When deciding on a time, I’d been unsure of how long the appointment would take, and so spoke in strange, fuzzy phrases.
“We have a thing on the Upper West Side at 4,” I said. “So maybe later is better?”
At dinner, it took only one, easily deflectable question from my friend for me to break. I told her that we’d been to see a fertility doctor, that we were beginning the process of getting pregnant, that I’d had an ultrasound and we’d both had vials of blood drawn and been given a checklist of things to do before the treatment could begin.
The truth came flooding, unstoppable, from my mouth, and I felt a thousand times better. The guacamole literally tasted better. But I knew that this had to be a one time thing, that I needed to reply to future questions with innocuous canned responses, because it is not acceptable to talk about this type of thing—not trying to get pregnant, not getting pregnant, and certainly not fertility treatment.
Trapped by Lies
I didn’t slip up again. I hedged effortlessly, spilled out falsities without blinking: “Just a check-up” to explain a doctor’s visit; “A meeting” for why I was in a neighborhood I never go to; “Frustrating work shit” when I was on edge and red-eyed after an hour long argument with my insurance.
Being married and over 30, I also had to deflect more direct questions about plans for procreation. Here, too, the lies came easily. “Yeah, we want kids, but not sure when,” I’d say, and I’d feel myself dissolve, my mind becoming untethered and hovering above, watching the platitudes pour out (“It’s a big decision,” “We’ll see,” “When the time is right”), my heart retreating inside itself, going dormant until it was safe to return.
I don’t fault anyone for asking these things; it’s normal, and I’ve probably done worse. I fault only the code that deems those questions OK, but an honest answer not.
Before long, the lies became difficult to stomach, leaving me increasingly isolated as the treatment ramped up. The discomfort of a round of potent antibiotics; the excruciating pain of a test to determine if my fallopian tubes were blocked; the injections I gave myself, sitting on the cold toilet alone in my bathroom; the endless struggle for phlebotomists to find my veins on early morning fertility clinic visits; the long, lonely commute from Brooklyn to the Upper West Side and back again, sometimes three times in a week: all of this, I felt I could speak aloud to nobody but my husband.
Even the other women at the fertility clinic seemed to understand that this was not an experience to be shared. They averted eye contact in the halls, stared fiercely at their phones in the waiting room. I don’t fault them—I did the same.
Freed by Honesty (and Beer)
A month or two after we began fertility treatment, I was out with some friends at a bar. I’d had a beer or two, and an acquaintance was telling me about her and her husband’s desire to have kids soon. Suddenly, I couldn’t remember a single reason why I needed to keep my fertility treatment a secret.
“Us too,” I said. “But there are some medical issues, so I’m seeing a fertility doctor.” Her entire face transformed, and I worried for a moment that I’d crossed a line, made it awkward; that, in fact, there was a good reason to keep it a secret. “Sorry if that’s an overshare…I’ve had a beer,” I joked.
“No,” she said, and broke into a wide, unguarded smile. “We are too!”
Suddenly, I couldn’t remember a single reason why I needed to keep my fertility treatment a secret.
We both fell into a fit of relieved laughter, then talked excitedly for an hour, sharing our experiences with the painful HSG test, the drug regimens we’d been put on, the strangeness of it all. My mind returned to my body, my heart grew back to its full size.
After that, I didn’t need a beer to tell people. I began answering questions honestly, telling the frank truth about why I saw a doctor that morning or what the pills were I was taking. Each time, regardless of whether the person I was talking to had any personal experience with infertility, I felt the same intense relief.
Why, if honesty felt so good, do so many women—61 percent, according to one survey—keep their fertility treatment a secret? And why was my initial instinct to do the same? Why did it still feel like a transgression when I told the truth?
The answer is complicated, but much of it can be summed up in one word: shame. Despite the fact that 10 percent of American women struggle with infertility, many women feel uniquely burdened with the shame that her body doesn’t work as it’s “supposed to.” I feel this shame too, of course, but I also call bullshit on it. Because the truth is, I feel a lot of things inside—regret, hope, fear, longing—but the shame, that comes from outside. Shame is what the world tells me to feel, and shame breeds in secrecy. By removing the latter, I hope to dissolve the former.
One study of IVF patients found that women who underwent group therapy were 160 percent more likely to get pregnant.
There are, of course, other reasons not to tell people. I just don’t find any of them compelling: I’m imposing my problems on others. (No, people are grateful that I’ve trusted them with the truth.) My husband should have a say in how public we are. (He said he doesn’t care.) If it doesn’t work, we’ll have to tell everyone. (If we can’t have biological kids, I’ll have to tell people anyway.) People will have expectations. (People already have expectations.)
Plus, openness might even improve my odds: one study of IVF patients found that women who underwent group therapy were 160 percent more likely to get pregnant. The lead researcher did not mince words about the conclusion to be drawn: “Isolating oneself during fertility treatment is not helpful to getting pregnant.”
Alone, But Not Lonely
Of course, there is much of fertility treatment that can be borne only by the woman undergoing it. It is, by its very nature, a solitary journey with an unknown destination.
I still take the long, early morning subway ride by myself. I’m still alone as I push the syringe into the soft flesh below my belly button. There is nobody beside me when I look down at my small stomach, my child-sized hips, and wonder.
But the comfort that comes from visiting people along the way, from telling them where I’ve been and sharing my fears about where I’m headed, is profound. Knowing that those I love will provide support and bear witness to this journey, no matter where it goes, coaxes my heart out of hibernation.
Last week, I was having side effects from one of the fertility drugs I’m taking, the discomfort reaching its peak just as I met a friend for drinks. I cannot tell you the relief I felt from simply being able to say, “Oh my god, these progesterone pills are giving me insane dry mouth.”
Surely not everyone going through fertility treatment will feel as I do. Surely infertility is a deeply private experience for many. But for me, fertility treatment is my life right now, and I want to live my life authentically, to let people join me on this solitary journey wherever I can. I want to do this regardless of the social protocol that tells me to do otherwise.
And despite the fact that I do not know where this journey will end.