* Culture, Featured, Health

On Infertility & the Ache of Longing

Sometime in March 2020, I discovered – after almost a year of trying – that it was going to be virtually impossible for me to fall pregnant without medical assistance.

The news hit me hard. I’ve always imagined myself becoming a parent and raising children, and so had my partner. I felt so ready, and yet my body wouldn’t play along with my plans. It might sound strange or perhaps dramatic to those who haven’t had a similar experience, but the truth is that I consequently fell into a very deep grief that was quite hard to find a way out of. And alongside the sadness within that grief, something even harder to come to terms with: a sometimes-uncomfortable sensation of longing, of wanting, and not knowing what to do with all that intensity of desire.

I felt like I was overflowing, bursting with the strength of this ache.  I initially sought relief by telling some friends and family about what I was going through. When I started telling people, I did feel very supported by several close friends, and for that I am extremely lucky. But other responses were hurtful. A couple seemed disinterested and haven’t asked about it since I told them; one of them simply replied ‘aw, shame,’ before moving on to another topic. The phrases ‘you can just do IVF’ and ‘you can just adopt’ have come up several times, as if these things are quick, easy, or guarantee that a child will become part of your family, when in reality these processes are often long, complex, expensive, and emotionally fraught. Some other people have tried to lighten the mood with awkward jokes like ‘take my kids for the week, I bet you’ll change your mind about wanting a baby’ and ‘eventually you’ll have a baby, and you’ll ask yourself why you tried so hard to have one.’ None of these things were said out of malice. Instead, they reveal a complete lack of cultural awareness around the topic, and the absence of social scripts to inform sensitive and supportive responses.

I find it alarming – given how incredibly common infertility and pregnancy loss are – that as a society we remain uneducated on the topic and have failed to develop adequate ways of supporting people going through it.

Before my own diagnosis, I thought miscarriage was relatively rare and that infertility was the plight of wealthy white women who had simply ‘waited too long’ to try to fall pregnant.

Neither of these things are true at all, and I am angry that these stereotypes persist, and that they are still being reinforced by large and influential publications. Because in reality, the picture is much more complex and urgent. For instance, people of colour are more likely to experience infertility than their white counterparts, and yet they tend to wait twice as long to seek medical assistance, in part due to fears or trauma around medical racism. And while we tend to imagine that cis heterosexual couples are the sole recipients of assistive reproductive technologies, infertility and pregnancy loss affect single, non-binary, queer and trans people too, who may experience additional barriers to treatment. Infertility and pregnancy loss affect many people from diverse backgrounds in profound and life-altering ways, and yet we cling to the notion that it’s not that big of a deal, or that it’s only relevant to a privileged few attempting to ‘defy nature’. It really is not good enough that people’s important health concerns are marginalised and erased by a society that is on the whole unprepared to support them. We really do push it away, out of sight; we don’t want to talk about it, we don’t want to know about it, thus placing social taboos on the topic. And our dismissiveness of infertility and pregnancy loss is, I believe, often due to an aversion to grief and its attendant ‘abject’ states.

For a while, I thought that what makes people uncomfortable about infertility and pregnancy loss is the absence of a pregnancy or child; after all, there is a great deal of social expectation and pressure to centre these things in our lives. But this is only a partial reading of the discomfort with infertility and pregnancy loss. What I’ve come to realise is that it is also a discomfort with desire, and more precisely, the deep ache that accompanies longing. For not only is this desire deep, it is also often immense. Belle Boggs writes about the infertile woman of our cultural imagination in her book The Art of Waiting: “I think the real trouble is with her unfulfilled desire—her grasping, her wanting, her circumventing … Resistance to the things that are, particularly resistance that fails, is undignified.” I relate so strongly to what Boggs writes here.

I have felt thoroughly abject not only in the sense that my body can’t do what it is ‘naturally’ supposed to do with miraculous ease, but also in my resistance in the face of this fact. My endless snotty crying sessions, IVF injections that bruise my skin and cause it to swell, hormonal fluctuations that cause acne, weight gain and mood swings, eruptions of jealousy and anger at those who I’ve perceived to have it ‘easy’ – all of these things feel so deeply undignified, and sometimes I have even felt monstrous.

My desire is such that it generates these intense, ‘unseemly’ experiences. Recalling some of the responses I’ve encountered from friends and family, I think the common thread is an impulse to dampen or even extinguish the monstrosity of my wanting. My sense is that I am seen to want too much and too hard, that it gives rise to an uncomfortable grotesque spectacle. Because conception is ‘supposed’ to be private, romantic, effortless, simple and miraculous, it feels like I’m breaching a serious taboo every time I disclose my inability to conform to this ideal. And even more still, my desire is written on my body as it goes through various treatments. It can’t be concealed or smoothed over; its eruption is in plain sight, on the surface of my skin.

Desire can be extreme in what it calls us to do, and how it occupies our bodies and minds. The person who deeply wants to have a child and cannot is full of desire. When we long, we are confronted with a limit and want to transgress it, or breach it, or defy it. That wanting is fuelled by something that is perhaps primal, but also involves a person’s biography, their sense of what community and family means, social expectations, cultural mythologies of parenthood (especially motherhood), and so on. This is all part of the tangled fabric of my desire to have a child, and there’s likely more that I’m not even aware of, informing my longing, keeping it alive, and willing me to find a way. When I first received my diagnosis, I felt my longing for a baby totally consume me, and it was so overwhelming that I sought out ways to make it more manageable. So I went online and Googled ‘how to cope with infertility,’ ‘infertility and jealousy,’ and ‘how long does infertility grief last.’ I thought that surely, feeling this intensely was not quite right; and more to the point, I wasn’t sure how big of a deal was I allowed to make of this newfound situation. It felt massive, but was it allowed to be? I honestly wanted to know.

A lot of what I found online called people to ‘beat’ and ‘master’ their diagnoses, to become ‘warriors’ who win a ‘battle’ against their unruly body. I contemplated suggestions of strict gluten free and sugar free diets, special fertility yoga practices, positive affirmations, going into appointments with the mindset that you’re going to ‘kick infertility’s ass.’ But in the end, I didn’t do any of it because none of it sat right with me. My aim here is not to criticise the language that resonates with others in the infertility community; rather, I mean to say that I don’t relate to it. When I consider the words ‘beat,’ ‘master,’ ‘battle,’ and ‘warrior,’ I sense a hardening up of body and mind, shielding against the ache of absence and loss, perhaps even turning against oneself. I don’t want to regard my own body through the medicalised language of failure – ‘incompetent,’ ‘hostile,’ ‘blocked,’ all words common to diagnoses of infertility. I don’t want to see myself as a body in need of disciplining, a bad body that cannot fall pregnant ‘naturally’ and thus requiring ‘unnatural’ intervention to correct it. My longing to become a parent feels really big and powerful at times, but it is also at its core tender and soft, and to me that is precious. I realised that I want to tend to this desire, not defend against it. I’ve made it my task over the last ten months or so to honour this process, and in doing so, I identify far less with the social shame and taboo placed on discussions of infertility.

Instead of guarding myself against the swell of my desire, I eventually resolved to gently collapse into it and allow it to exist. I very consciously tried to develop a relationship with my desires that simply affirmed them and fed them. During the extended Covid lockdown in Melbourne, I decided to nurture and feed my cravings, whims, and wants of all kinds. I made lasagnes for the first time in years, diligently whisking silky bechamel sauce and delighting in the perfectly burnished cheesy topping as I watched it bake in the oven. I whipped up warm puddings with whatever we had on hand – pears and ginger, or banana and roughly chopped dark chocolate, or lemon and sour cream. I learned how to make custard from scratch, gold with rich egg yolks and flecked with vanilla bean, and I ate it with poached berries and cream. I drank glasses of rich shiraz from little gold-rimmed glasses I found at the op shop. I woke up on cold mornings and brewed big pots of black tea, taking real joy in the plume of warm steam rising out of my cup as I poured in the milk. I lit lots of little tealight candles at night and felt warmed by their glow. I sought out over-the-top old Hollywood movies, craving fanciful images of opulent mansions, silk gowns studded with glistening sequins, men dressed in stiff tuxedos casually sipping on cocktails and lighting cigars, couples dancing in impossibly glamorous night clubs. I revelled in musical numbers featuring endless rows of smiling chorus girls sashaying along in frothy taffeta costumes. Technicolour films of the 1950s were a particular delight; their gaudy and sometimes surprising colour combinations dazzled me.

These things made me feel good. I felt cosy and nestled in, protected and distracted from the chaos of the world. But it wasn’t just this; I felt satiated, too. I was tending to the ache of my desire in a roundabout way, saying to myself

‘yes, you want this, you deserve it, and you can have it’

It feels like I’ve really needed to learn to get comfortable with allowing myself to want, and be able to sit with that wanting without turning it into a problem to be solved. I used to think ‘god, I really want a lot here; am I even allowed to want this much? Isn’t it undignified to want this hard?’ But after a year of tending to this part of myself, I’ve somehow managed to just take an interest in and affirm my desires instead of fighting them, feeling ashamed of them, or giving in to the idea that I could ever possibly constrain or discipline them out of existence. I do want to be a parent, and that desire is good. It’s also important – just as important as any other life goal that is deeply felt. It’s there, it’s allowed, it’s good.