I am quite familiar with the tundra myself. In my late twenties, I was finishing up my doctorate in clinical psychology and doing a residency at a Chicago hospital, when I first began learning about infertility. The hospital had a large fertility clinic and, as part of my training, I began leading support groups for the couples who were going through in-vitro fertilization, or IVF. I was taken aback by the emotional demands of infertility, and by the drastic differences between men and women when coping with those demands.
I was curious to understand these differences and to see if the “feminine” style of coping was more effective than the “masculine” (which I suspected), or the other way around. I decided to research the couples at the clinic and document the results in my doctoral dissertation. I spent a year studying infertile couples and writing my paper (to my surprise, men’s coping strategies, such as emotional distancing, distraction and humor, seemed to work better than women’s, but more on that later). Throughout this I continued to see infertile clients and began building what would become later a thriving clinical practice focused on infertility.
But first, it was time for my husband and me to have a child. We started trying to get pregnant, then trying and worrying and then trying and panicking. Eventually we learned that we were part of the small group of infertile couples who is dealing with both a male and a female factor. We ended up undergoing five years of medical treatment that culminated in several cycles of IVF. I learned, during those years, that neither academic nor clinical knowledge of infertility could prepare me for the actual emotional experience.
Nothing had prepared me for how the desire for a child can burn your heart till it blisters. Nothing had prepared me for what it’s like to hope for good news, only to have your hopes struck out by the single red line in the window of a pregnancy test. Nothing had prepared me for the desolation of feeling like you are the only woman in the world who is not a mother. Before and since, there has been little in my life as challenging, demanding and overwhelming as those infertile years.
I remember one Saturday night, about a year into our fertility treatment. We were at a party organized by a couple acquainted with my husband. After the initial gathering around the drinks’ table, everybody slowly drifted to other parts of the house. In the family room, most of the women took seats and engaged in an animated conversation about the preschools, baby gyms and “mommy and me” classes in the area. Outside, the guys were casually shooting hoops.
For several minutes, I found myself standing in the kitchen, feeling and looking totally lost. I dreaded joining the women. I dreaded the moment someone would ask me: “Do you have any kids?” They, of course, all had children, and at least two were pregnant. My world, of negative pregnancy tests, of self-administered injections, of sperm counting, and of endless grief seemed as remote from theirs as the far side of the moon. Meanwhile, the men outside seemed to have formed their own pack and being that I’m a chubby 5-foot-tall klutz, I didn’t think I could easily mingle with this band by shooting hoops with them.
I did not belong anywhere. I lacked what every other woman in the room (in the world, it seemed) so naturally had. I felt alienated, godforsaken, damaged. I turned around, looked for the bathroom and locked myself in for a long cry. I became acquainted with many bathrooms in the course of our fertility treatment as the feelings of loneliness and isolation were frequent and powerful.
During those years I was haunted by a fantasy in which I was standing alone in the dark, outside a beautiful manor. Through its gleaming windows, I could see comfortable, spacious rooms, illuminated by dozens of lights. Sounds of music and laughter were drifting out in the cold winter air. People were smiling, laughing, and greeting each other with familiarity and warmth. Their faces seemed lit from inside with joy, confidence, and pride. I understood in my dream that they belonged to an exclusive and prestigious group. Standing outside this mansion, shivering in the frigid night, enviously looking in, there was nothing more that I wanted but to join the blissful party inside, to be like everyone else, a member of that fellowship. But I knew that no matter how much I wanted it, no matter how much I tried, no matter how hard I prayed or how loudly I cried, I would never be able to join. I was destined to be an outsider looking in, forever.
The long winter of my soul did eventually end. And, as someone once said, the harsher the winter, the more glorious the spring. My wish for you is that your winter, too, ends soon; that from the frozen plains of your soul a green sprout emerges and the warmth of spring thaws your pain. Until then, I want to offer you a few gifts in this blog. I hope to give you a thorough, thoughtful and sensitive look at the challenges that you may find yourself facing in a culture centered on parenthood. I also hope to give you a practical guide to coping with these challenges, abundant with proven tips and fail-proof strategies. Finally, I hope to give you a means to connect with the “club” of fertile friends and family members in your life. I view this blog as a small, portable flame to help you warm and thaw some of the frozen relationships with those loved ones