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Infertility, feminine rage, and the secret mourning place of women trying to get pregnant
When my husband and I started trying to have a baby at the age of thirty-one, I had been craving motherhood for four years. I do not mean a casual wanting to be a mother, but a manic, addicted pining that arrived abruptly like a storm at age twenty-seven and left in wreckage all my previous priorities. At the time I possessed sixteen years of blue-chip schooling and had spent my early career in flashy San Francisco jobs working for men and striving to be perfect. I was excellent at making PowerPoint slides, and I processed thousands of emails per week, and I lived in the heart of Silicon Valley, where allegedly anyone can do anything. Then all at once, I felt compelled to position myself in restaurants so that I could see babies, felt a jolt of crazed jealousy when I saw pregnant women and new moms, followed babies down the street with my eyes—those wispy curls, those tiny fingernails! It was inconvenient at age twenty-seven in San Francisco to be afflicted with this baby-longing, as both my future husband and I were still playing out our parts on the stage of grand ambition—we had so much more to do! The sudden baby addiction was also embarrassing because I had rarely held a baby, had no close friends with babies, had no babies in my family who I knew well. How did I even come to this longing? But this was my situation.
There was only one readily available name for what I was feeling, “biological clock,” a phrase that is usually invoked to describe an inconvenient truth. I scrounged around for better words to explain how I actually felt, to try and tell that feeling to my future husband, a soft-spoken, deeply kind and receptive man who dislikes arguing and has raised his voice perhaps twice in the last eight years. He listened and I attempted:
It feels like I lost a family heirloom, like something is missing and it’s my fault, you see?
It feels like I have neglected to do something that earns me a place in the world, does that make sense?
It feels like I had a baby in my arms and then someone took him away, I don’t know how to describe it.
These didn’t land with any particular weight. Instead, this whole thing became a light joke, oh you know, Rae and her babies, oh Rae, can’t look away from the baby. I played along—I love babies, hah! I’m obsessed with babies!
But I’ll tell you: I wanted a baby like a dehydrated person wants water, I wanted three babies, seven babies, I would take all the babies.
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My feelings were entirely unmatched by my kind husband, the oldest tale in the short book of the modern, professional, heterosexual couple. As we rounded thirty, more and more of my female friends had their own version of my baby awakening, if not quite to the same crazed degree, and joined the ranks of professional women wanting babies too soon. Of course, this doesn’t happen in every such relationship or even most, but how shocking it was to progress through my late twenties and early thirties and watch this humiliating Sex and the City-esq story play out over and over: the naggy woman wants to move faster and the indecisive man isn’t ready to commit. This old story? In my life?
Sure, it’s more complicated than that, and the particulars of each relationship are complex, and so on, yada yada, but this is what happened as I saw it: in couple after couple, we women asked, we cajoled, we laid out (again) the biological timelines and our fears about declining fertility, we took the lead on purchasing engagement rings, we set deadlines for proposals, and, in final acts of desperation and with great shame, we gave ultimatums. These are modern woman I’m talking about! We were progressive and cosmopolitan and fluent in gender pronouns and went to sexuality workshops and watched Ru Paul’s Drag Race. We had partners who were unbelievably conscientious, who had therapists, who readily discussed issues of gender inequality and, as most were white, were clear in their conviction that they had been unfairly given a cornucopia of advantages in our world. We called them “partners,” for goodness sake.
And yet there was this fact, over and over in my little pocket of highly educated urban America, that the woman was ready to start family-building and the man was not. Sure, he wanted to be a dad eventually, but later. Looking back, I see that this happened with such regularity that it resembled a bug in the code, or a glitch in the assembly line, putting the wrong part into the machines over and over. But at the time, I only felt ashamed of myself for playing out such a lame cliché, frustrated at my husband for doing the same, and disdainful of the other women who, like me, were setting deadlines and giving ultimatums, because we all know that’s crazy.
My husband and I eventually crossed through all the conventional requisite checkpoints towards baby-having: the move-in, the engagement, and the marriage. Like I said, highly conventional story here. Right then, five years into our relationship and five years into my maniacal baby-wanting, I started in on acquiring a baby. My kind husband had agreed to it, even happily, but it was only me who was doing it, really. I blew forth in a frenzied whirlwind of desire, a huge amount of potential energy suddenly released towards this singular goal. I had started taking prenatal vitamins months before our wedding, as well as tracking my periods and ensuring that I could exactly identify the day of my ovulation, to prepare for this moment. I knew the best practices for sex—every other day from the end of your period until two days after ovulation. We started early and stopped late just to be sure. It takes a healthy couple up to a year to conceive a child, a fact that family, friends and doctors were all quick to remind me, but that was an unfathomable amount of time in my world then, and it simply wasn’t going to happen to me.
That very first month I learned what women learn when we fiercely want a baby and are waiting for a pregnancy result: that there is a vast amount of felt activity constantly occurring in a body, which we usually ignore. All the beeps and boops, all the gurgles and cramps, the feelings of pressure and dots of pain and small aches. All the minor spells of nausea and changes in stool consistency and drips of different types out of your vagina. There are whole sectors of the internet dedicated to the analysis of such symptoms, powered by the TTC (trying to conceive) community. One can look up whether a small ache on the right side of the pelvis at 10 DPO (ten days past ovulation) might mean you’re pregnant? And one can read threads of encouraging comments (10 DPO I totally had a feeling that I was pregnant and was having crampies but I just knew! And then next day got my BFP :D :D :D Good luck bless you praying for you!). The BFP is what we were all trying to divine from the crystal ball of our bodies: a Big Fat Positive. By the end of that first month, I had convinced myself, without a doubt, based on all the undeniable signs, that I was one hundred percent definitely pregnant!
I wasn’t. The first drops of blood made me cry, which made me feel stupid, because who gets pregnant in the first month. This feeling of stupidity was roundly validated by the world. The average time to conceive is so-many-months, people liberally reminded me. It took so-and-so seven months. See? It’s fine. My husband reported that his therapist said it takes many people many months to get pregnant. So all’s well then, relax!
With each failure my efforts increased accordingly, as did time and money spent. Around month three, I plunged into the world of alternative medicine, a place I had spent years in my early twenties attempting to address chronic pain in my right foot, with good results. I found a fertility acupuncturist and hoovered up tips and tricks from the internet. I stopped drinking coffee and started drinking raspberry leaf tea, I religiously went to bed early and focused on getting the exact right amount of exercise—a lot but not too much. I cut out gluten and dairy from my diet based on the hypothesis that it may reduce systemic inflammation, and started taking the supplement Ubiquinol, the purpose of which is still unclear to me, but it came recommended. My desire for a baby and my conviction that I would make one happen were so strong that each month by the time my period came, through some sort of mind gymnastics, I had once again one hundred percent convinced myself I was pregnant. Even after the bleeding started I was often able to maintain a tale of how it was almost certainly implantation bleeding, the blood that sometimes accompanies the implantation of the embryo into the lining of the uterus, and I gratefully relied on the online forums for reassurance in this department (13 DPO bleeding started pretty heavy and I was sure it was AF (Aunt Flow) but next morning it was lighter and tested with FMU (first morning urine) and BFP!!!!!! <3 <3.)
I began drinking bone broth every day, then teaspoonfuls of herbal supplements that tasted like rubbing alcohol, then a mixture of root extracts called Strong Woman’s Serum. These came at exorbitant cost at a time when we were in credit card debt for a knee surgery my husband had undergone the year before, but to hell with it, I was going to do anything I could, no matter the cost, and lack of evidence be damned. In month five I tried to gain five pounds to become, as the acupuncturist put it, “more juicy.”
“We’ll get you perfect,” she told at one appointment, “then we’ll check him.”
I respect and believe in many aspects of alternative medicine, which can fill gaping holes in the western medical system, but this idea was a poison: that I must get myself perfect, that this conception was fundamentally within my control. It was a central idea in the acupuncturist’s office—you must fill your own cup first before you have enough for the baby!—but it was also everywhere. Friends and family, oblivious to my late-night chatroom spelunking, reflexively advised me to relax, commenting offhandedly that it must be hard to get pregnant when you have a stressful job like mine. I heard countless versions of the story that as soon as so-and-so stopped focusing on it so much, she got pregnant. Fueled by the best of intentions, I was sent articles on fertility foods and fertility mindfulness practices. So, I earnestly tried to relax and stop caring while also getting myself perfect, as those were the prevailing recommendations, and I was the type who memorized the textbook. Looking back, I see how the notion that I alone was responsible for materializing this baby floated around like a toxin in the air, confirming over and over in small ways that I simply had to prepare myself, physically, mentally, spiritually, nutritionally, energetically, intellectually, sexually, and psychologically, and I would achieve a baby.
And so I retreated further into the internet, those endless blogs and forums, the waiting rooms of pregnancy, the purgatorial pastimes, the underbelly of her 30’s for this type of woman, full of us who longed so badly that it clouded our sense of reason and nudged us into the domain of the imagined and the unproven and the superstitious. These were not the rigorous support groups and the precise treatments of the actually infertile, but the domain of the nebulously hopeful and fearful. These were secret, guilty places for me, places of shame and self-disgust. And also in some ways, places of comfort, to know that there were others driven as mad as me. I had no idea what kind of women resided behind the anonymous screen names, wondered if they were as ashamed as I was. But at least, I thought, we were all there acting crazy together.
Why did I want a baby so badly? “Biological clock” does not do justice to this longing. So let me tell you two stories, both true.
The first is that I wanted a baby because society told me to. I had the schooling and the job and the partner, and baby was clearly the next achievement for me to make the right kind of life. Yes, this is difficult to square with the earlier part of my story where I was supposed to not want a baby, yet. To be the model professional woman in her thirties, one can’t nag her boyfriend about having a baby, but she definitely needs to have one before she shrivels up into an infertile, worthless, dare I say old, woman. Obstetricians have until recently referred to birthing mothers over thirty-five as “geriatric mothers,” and, well, who wants to be that? In this story, my baby-longing was essentially cultural assimilation. I didn’t want to fall behind. And it’s true, mine was not an entirely pure desire, that would be foolish to believe.
But the second story is more loving, more beautiful, and I think on balance, more true. I wanted a baby because for me, the act of directly caring for another individual brings more joy than anything else I have found in life. I have difficulty getting enthusiastic about a great invention, even if it helps ten thousand people. But to talk through a problem with someone across a table, to make a kind suggestion, to bring a meal, to sew a quilt for a newborn, to make a long-distance visit in a hard time, to mentor a young team member, these acts are how I weave myself into the fabric of my communities, how I ensure my place in them, how I perceive my own value, how I understand if it was a good day. Each of us has our own version of this, the irreducible building materials of our own self-worth, and these are wonderful when found, and such is mine. So what, from this perspective, could be more meaningful and fulfilling than helping a whole person become him or her or themself? My longing wasn’t perfect, it was surely tinged with the impurities of ego and “should” and keeping up with the Joneses, but I believe that it was mostly a freakishly beautiful happening in me, a desire more uncluttered and clear and true than almost any I have ever had.
But how to tell this feeling? I might say that my overwhelming desire for a child was miraculous, Godly, that it was a spark of the very regenerative energy that powers Mother Earth herself. But that is not the language we use to talk about a professional woman in her thirties wanting a baby sooner than her husband. Not in my world, not these days.
Around month eight, my husband and I got test results detailing our respective fertility markers. As it turned out, our issue was simple: a lack of vigorous sperm. The problem was not, according to these tests, a lack of juiciness on my part or an inability to fill my own cup, but simply a very low probability that the sperm would get to the egg. I could stop here and wallow forever in the psychological and emotional whiplash that this result caused me, the bizarre collision between those months of self-perfecting and this blunt sperm reality. But no, we have no time for that, there is a baby to conceive. The thing with infertility is, no matter the cause, the fix is most often to tinker with the hormones and mechanisms of a woman’s body, and I dove into the solutioning with gusto. Armed with the new information, I forayed alone (due to COVID) to the fertility clinic and began my infertility journey in earnest.
We decided to pursue Intrauterine Insemination (IUI,) a procedure that inserts the sperm as close as possible to the fallopian tubes. When six of those failed (at four hundred dollars a pop), we turned to IVF. My previous exposure to IVF was comprised of passing comments, things like, “Michelle Obama did IVF.” This phrase: so-and-so did IVF. That’s it. That verb, to do, seems wholly unfit to me now. IVF is a journey that one embarks on, hopefully with a lot of support, that one agonizes over and endures and rides and survives. It is impossible for me to write the emotions that my failed rounds of IVF brought up in me, so I’ll offer an image: me, on a weekend away with my husband, on a hilltop in the Santa Cruz mountains, screaming across the treetops, my face turning hot, my agonized wails dissipating upward into a tall blue sky. Then, seeing an axe on the ground, me, picking it up and slamming it into the soft dirt of the hilltop, slamming it again, again, shrieking with each blow. Me, yelling at my husband to get away from me; me crumbling onto the ground in a puddle of desperation, groaning and hyperventilating and begging him to please, please come back and hold me, tighter, tighter, anything to make me feel like all my limbs weren’t about to fall off and melt away.
I’m so ashamed of these episodes. I’m also ashamed of what else engulfed me in this period of time, a brewing, I guess, hate—wow that word feels too strong—but it was. With a blind, pain-induced, sweeping disregard for nuance, (and a complete dismissal of the gender spectrum,) I felt a brewing hate of All Men, which landed heavily on my husband. Because I had worked for ten years in the high-powered man-filled hallways of Silicon Valley, and had ipso facto experienced at the hands of men all those run-of-the-mill slights and degrading comments and harassment, and had seen too many idolized men supported by phalanxes of unnamed brilliant women, and had watched so many times that aforementioned hes-just-not-quite-ready-yet nightmare, I was predisposed to anger on the subject. So in this period, I ragefully concluded: what could possibly be more emblematic of All Men than this? A woman waits until he’s ready and then, mostly alone, deals with the problems. Somehow as a result, she feels crippling shame.
To wallow in a lifetime of small injustices by men—nay, the world’s history of grand injustices by men—at that point in time was, of course, irrational and unfair to my husband. But in the throes of agony, who has time to be rational and fair? The comedian Mike Burbiglia has a bit about how his wife always wins arguments by ending with, “that’s just how I feel,” because how can you argue with that? I was thirty-three and didn’t have a baby and I had six years of great volcanic motherhood desire stored up in me, and this desire had been repeatedly diminished by my culture, and I was being told by men, women and podcast hosts to just relax, and I was taking refuge in crazyland chatrooms, and I was burning alive inside, and that’s just how I felt.
Let me pause for a moment on how fortunate I actually was in this situation. I was overwhelmingly lucky to have access to fertility treatments and the ability to pay for them. The treatments are tens of thousands of dollars and rarely covered by insurance. I have met women who ran out of money trying to conceive their babies and had to stop for lack of funds, and I’ll tell you that I’m not sure the world holds a greater torture. I am additionally extremely fortunate because in the end it worked: it took nine rounds of fertility treatments and eighteen months for us to conceive, but it worked, and I thank every god in every pantheon for that excruciating and miraculous science. (As a side note: I barely told anyone about my baby. It was COVID, no one was seeing me, I didn’t send an email, I didn’t send an announcement card, I don’t have social media, so anyone outside my inner circle never heard from me about it. I simply could not subject someone else struggling with infertility to that announcement. I still feel this so strongly that it is difficult for me to write about my successful conception here in case you, too, are wanting a baby and struggling to have one.)
Given the outcome, it is tempting, even for me, to conclude that it wasn’t that hard, wasn’t that bad. Eighteen months? That’s nothing. Thirty-three? That’s young. But it was that hard, it was that bad. And (I must keep telling myself this), the fact that other people suffer more than me does not mean that I’m not allowed to suffer, that I’m not allowed to mourn the many losses that I endured and the ways that the experience of infertility still lives in me.
“My new favourite recent subscribe… this is brilliant.” - Hannah Ray from Substack's Community team
A year or so into my infertility journey, when desperation to find anything that could help me overcame inertia and fear, I joined two infertility support groups. We gathered on video calls, and over the months that I attended, I met a range of group facilitators and hundreds of women experiencing infertility. They all had different stories, and each was unfathomably vast, particularly the histories recounted by the group facilitators: ten rounds of IVF, three miscarriages, a vanishing twin that almost killed me, five years, seven years, ten years, an egg donor, a surrogate, a surprise pregnancy, a late term pregnancy loss. These phrases take on a new meaning when you are able to feel in yourself a little bit of each experience. Unlike the people in the internet chatrooms, these women were not anonymous screen names, but faces and stories, and I cried nearly every session. I was astounded that they were all still here on this earth, after all that. Each of the facilitators had resolved her journey in her own way, many relying on someone else for genetic material or a uterus, or deciding to live without children.
I particularly remember one of these group leaders, who had two children through surrogacy and had changed careers to become a therapist focused on infertility. A participant in that group was talking about “not really feeling that happy” to hear the news of a friend’s pregnancy (we tried to put it lightly, at first). The facilitator told us that, even being done having children, even loving hers like she does, even a decade later, she is still struck with a small flicker of anger when she hears about a new baby conceived, a shameful and familiar feeling for many women who have struggled with infertility.
Yes, those are some words for the experience that are worth trying out: a small angry, ashamed feeling that might be lifelong. A feeling you wouldn’t dare tell people about, for fear of how it makes you seem, like one of those crazy women.
But these women I saw leading the support groups were not crazy at all, they were damn strong. I saw in them a strength that was wise and stable, I even felt a strange shock of envy for their position, having been faced with such a profound trial, far more than I was facing, and having made it through, having emerged from that underworld, standing on those trunk legs, rooted to their piece of earth. We had been sidelined to this secret place of mourning through bad luck and biology and patriarchal forces and some dastardly mechanics of our world, but here was a coming together, at least, and it was gorgeous. Punching through my hating of All Men was a glimmering ray of loving These Women. Not all women, not yet, certainly not me, but these women, a little bit.
It was, after all, my first time seeing a woman like me who was unashamed: a woman who both wants to get pregnant more than anything else in the world, and who is also strong and wise. One almost can’t believe it in our America.
The problem is, I can write and write, can write the most eloquently crafted, airtight argument to justify my sadness and anger, and even then the sinister doubts will always break through: was it really so bad? No, no, other people have it so much worse. Was my anger really justified? No, no, what a grand overreaction. Did I really feel hate? No, no, I couldn’t have, shouldn’t have. That would be crazy.
I am angry that I still call myself crazy. That I can’t help it. I am angry that, although men were welcome to attend those support groups with those damn strong women, I never once saw one. I still wish for the words to adequately tell this experience, to others and to myself, to really tell it so it makes sense, so that the conclusion, (my conclusion,) is not “she’s crazy,” but “she’s normal,” or even, “she’s a magical force, thank God for her!”
I wish to tell what it’s like to witness a powerful, wise, deeply longing woman, a character I can barely conjure, she is so alien here.
✍️ Join me in the comments
Yes, you! Please join me in talking about…
When have you felt the most crazy? What was going on inside of and outside of you?
Have you ever experienced ‘baby fever’ or the ticking of a ‘biological clock’? What was it like for you?
Have you ever felt rage toward your partner(s)? How did you cope?
Let’s talk about it.