-Can we talk about the last implantation?
-I’ve been waiting for you to talk about the last implantation. I’ve been giving you the silent treatment for the last two weeks waiting for you to talk about the last implantation.
-You’ve been giving me the silent treatment?
-Funny, I said, I didn’t notice.
Infertility is a time sink, a black hole. Time and space warp. Time, in particular, stretches out before you and collapses behind you, propelling you forward. The next menstrual cycle. The next appointment, The next round of injectables. The next insemination. The next consultation. The next implantation. The calendar rules your life in a way you never thought possible. It is a ruthless and intimate taskmaster. I kept my menstrual calendar in my Filofax. Every month I put little Xs next to the days I was bleeding and little dashes next to the days when I was most likely to be ovulating. When I had my requisite year of Xs and dashes, my doctors decided it was time to see a fertility specialist.
You learn a lot about your body and yourself when you’re trying to conceive. I learned that my menstrual cycle was 21 days long, which is on the short end of normal. I also learned that my periods were 10-12 days long. To put this into perspective, a woman’s menstrual cycle can be anywhere from 21-35 days long, the average cycle is 28 days. Menstruation typically lasts 3-5 days, but anything from 2-7 is considered normal. In a 28-days cycle ovulation typically occurs midway through the cycle. This does not mean that ovulation occurs on day 14 on the dot, but that it can occur anywhere from day 11 to day 21. In my case, if ovulation typically occurs midway through the cycle that would put it around day 10. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that I was bleeding, heavily, through my most fertile period-if I was fertile at all.
The first doctor we met with was all bravado and swagger. The walls of his office were covered with awards, newspaper articles, pictures of himself. His degrees were there somewhere. He sat back in his chair and nonchalantly told us the playbook, I think that’s what he called it. When I raised concerns about the condition of my uterus, he smiled and said why don’t you let me tell you what to worry about. I told him that after three hysteroscopic myomectomies and one laparotomy, I thought I was just as knowledgeable about my situation as he and that my concerns were justified. (In time I was proven right, but that’s a tale for another day.) As we left I thought, the only thing missing was a picture of his penis. We made our next appointment with a different doctor one known more for his clinical acumen than his bedside manner. He suited me perfectly.
In my experience, fertility clinics are not like other doctor’s offices. They are not looking to form a long-term relationship with you the patient. They want your treatment to be successful, they want you to come back when you want another child, and they want you to refer your friends. Everyone is enthusiastic and hopeful. They’re like cheerleaders. Ready? As the woman it’s your fault so you get the personal questions and invasive tests first, OK! Great! Not responding to the drugs? That’s ok! Look at his sperm. It’s perfect! I remember feeling like the information I was getting was being dumbed down for my benefit; perhaps to spare my feelings. I looked around and saw that I was in a desperate place full of desperate couples. I wasn’t desperate.
As treatment dragged on we became like guests who’d overstayed our welcome. Between not responding to drugs, failed IUI attempts, a catastrophic fertilization failure where all of the embryos died, a successful fertilization of donor eggs, and four unsuccessful implantations, treatment dragged on for nearly four years. I freely admit that this part of my life is distorted and hazy. It’s like one of those stories where there are flashbacks within flashbacks. They ran out of reassurances. They never knew why procedure after procedure failed. I’d done the research and knew this was a roll of the dice at best. He took every failure to heart and could not understand why I didn’t. I tried to talk him into adopting or being a foster parent. You don’t know what you’re getting, he argued. I told him you didn’t know what you were getting with your own biological children. He asked, didn’t I want a little me running around? I told him the last thing I wanted was a someone running around with the same hangups and insecurities as me. Eventually they stopped talking to us. Eventually, he stopped talking to me.
A friend of mine asked me once if I felt like a failure as a woman. I shrugged and said that if my entire idea of myself as a woman was bound to my ability to reproduce then maybe I would, but it doesn’t so I don’t. The ability to have a baby doesn’t make one a woman any more than it makes one a man. If you’re young and/or immature when you have a child, you might have to grown up faster than otherwise. Then again, I have seen my fair share of couples where one partner takes care of the children and the other takes all the credit. Who I am as a woman is about who I am as a person. I may not be the most conventional person, so I guess that doesn’t make me the most conventional woman. In the end I can’t be any other way.