Walking the High Wire

A Reflection on Infertility in Two Parts

Part 1: Without a Net

Dealing with infertility is a bit like being up on a high wire. When you are first trying to conceive and learning (or refreshing your memory) about fertility and the impact diet, exercise, and good self-care has on it, there’s a certain feeling of exhilaration. This is a time of possibility, and in many of our minds it’s not a question of whether we’ll become pregnant, but rather how soon it will happen. If we don’t conceive right away it’s a little disappointing but not necessarily worrisome. We read books, subscribe to blogs and consult doctors as we scrupulously keep charts, take temperatures, and pay more attention to our bodily systems and functions than we were ever taught about in high school biology. The tightrope of trying to get pregnant is at first an adventure, and we are carefree yet determined, bravely taking every step on that high wire without ever looking down, going boldly forward without a net. But after a while things change. When there is no pregnancy month after month, suddenly loving our spouse with peaceful abandon becomes attention to technique. Vitamins and supplements, hormones, blood tests, at-home injections and sometimes invasive procedures – not to mention scheduling intimacy – become our sole focus. Walking the distance from beginning point (trying to conceive) to end point (pregnancy) becomes more deliberate than spontaneous. Trying to conceive is no longer exhilarating and freeing, but fraught with fear, frustration, desperation, and worst of all, the increasing possibility of failure to make it to the end of the line.

As the reality of infertility sinks in, we continue walking the tightrope, and it’s a dangerous prospect. If we shift our weight too far in one direction – becoming cold and indifferent, suppressing feelings of jealousy, anger and grief instead of addressing them – we run the risk of hurting ourselves, our marriage and our spiritual life. Shift too far the other way – wallowing in sadness, giving in to despair, isolating ourselves from family and friends with children, and even creating distance from our spouses – and our relationships and emotional/spiritual health are in danger. There is a third risk to walking the infertility high wire, and that is moving forward with singlemindedness, relentlessly pursuing every avenue, every medical intervention, every diet and supplement, appealing to every saint associated with conception and pregnancy in order to achieve the one thing we so ache to have: a baby. In this lies the danger (even unconsciously) of turning our view of the baby from gift to object of desire, our bodies into a laboratory, and our faith into a lottery requiring us to “play the right numbers” (i.e. prayers) in the right order at the right time to win God’s favor.

Circus performers who train to walk the tightrope carry a pole to center themselves and maintain their balance so they don’t fall. Walking the infertility tightrope is fraught with the danger of falling too, unless we seek balance and aim to center ourselves. Even now, after eight years of marriage and watching helplessly as my fertility window closes for good, pregnancy announcements, ultrasound photos, and texts with pictures of sweet little ones and their happy parents still produce those little stabs of pain in my heart. I don’t mean for them to do that; I don’t want to feel sad or jealous. None of us do. I’ve come to understand that those feelings are natural, and when I’m married another eight years – or eighteen, or eighty – it’s possible they’ll still surface. As it stands now, where I am emotionally and spiritually, there’s no telling exactly the shape my grief will take, or the fruits it may produce. What I do know is that time has a certain anesthetic effect, and while there are days I see a pregnancy announcement and am reduced to tears, there are beginning to be more days when I feel genuine joy without that tinge of sadness. These emotions, and the thoughts of regret and second-guessing, are part of the grieving process I am in and which I recently realized I’ve only begun. The way that I make sense of it for myself is to draw an (imperfect) analogy with having an addiction: only when one acknowledges the problem can one begin to deal with its causes, and change the destructive behavior. The fact that I still have moments of jealousy or anger is something I need to work on, but now I don’t ignore it. I no longer stuff those feelings down deep, only to have them surface at unexpected times and in ways that aren’t constructive. If I need to cry, I let the tears come. I know that I can’t isolate myself from every friend or family member who has a baby, just as I can’t avoid seeing children out in the world as I go about my day. But I also know that the sadness and the questioning “Why?” can’t be magically eliminated either. So where does that leave me? Am I on this high wire with no net? To what am I clinging to find balance? Truth be told, most times I still try to walk on my own, even though I know I’m not steady on my feet. My stubbornness does nothing to keep me from falling.

If step one in finding balance on this infertility “high wire act” I’ve been rehearsing for eight years now is “recognizing I have a problem,” (that is, acknowledging that this is the shape love has taken in my marriage) the next one must be some honest self-reflection, and the will to “cut the act” and embrace the grief so that my steps can become less shaky.

Come back next week, and we’ll take another step. Together.

Ann M. Koshute, MTS, lives in Central Pennsylvania with her husband Keith.

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