This story is purposefully not date-stamped because this piece is not about a sprint. This piece is about a marathon. And while I am exploding with the need to share this story, there’s a lot about it I cannot and do not want to discuss, including where we are with this and why we are in this at all.
I wrote, because I needed to, and because I’ve been writing it in my head and my heart for a long time. I also think this is a story that’s under-told and it’s important that the world (or at least my list of a few dozen readers) knows that things that are easy for some, sometimes even too easy, are not easy for others. There are a lot of women I did not know I shared this journey with until I opened up about it (do I sound a little like a contestant on The Bachelor?). What at first feels like the closest secret, gradually, as I shared with women I knew, I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t talking about it before. So again, no wheres, no whys, and if you work in health insurance, just close the tab right now. This is not that interesting. Seriously, go away.
It’s 6:36 a.m. on a Tuesday and I am pulling into a sparse parking lot. I see another woman about my age in a car a few rows away so I rush even more quickly to grab my waiting gear: lap top, water, and coffee. I head toward the glow, yank open the door, too rushed to hit the blue opener button, and power walk to the steps inside which I bound two and three at a time. I throw open the door on the third floor, and see that I am fifth in line.
The office doesn’t open until 7 o’clock and I am 24 minutes early, but I am fifth in line. I settle into my spot against the wall and begin attacking the day’s emails. I’m here, sitting on a well-worn carpet next to a metal box for disposed needles. When the desk-nurse-person-lady arrives a few minutes later, she walks past our row of female desperation and says nothing. She unlocks the door without greeting us (she will say hi if it’s Friday) and lets us into the next waiting chamber, where we will sign our names and write our phone numbers, in order of arrival. Although it disgusts me, I also almost enjoy her lack of grace because it proves everything I feel about these types of situations when I’m feeling pessimistic. We are not unique. We are all just letters and numbers on a list. And they put on Today’s Lite (sic) 101.9 to drown out our yawns, sighs, and hushed conversations with our partners. When “Moves Like Jagger” comes on again, I consider taking the knock-off Bose and throwing it down the stairwell. Nevertheless, she persisted.
So we wait, with drawn faces, avoiding eye contact, because this is private, we suffer alone, our journey is our own, and IVF is not something you’re supposed to talk about or share. I think in this case, and other situations similar, silence begets silence and because no one talks about it, no one talks about. What I have found having been on this road for a good chunk of time, is kind of the other side of what the desk-nurse-person-lady makes me feel. Yes, I am not unique and my letters and numbers might be on that list, but I’m also not the only one. And while we don’t talk or really interact at all–I’ve done way more eavesdropping than I have actual conversing–the ladies in the hallway and in the waiting room, we all have one another. Our co-presence proves that we are not alone, that this has all been done before and it’s worked before and it’s been painful and exhausting and so draining and unpredictable, before. But there are also babies’ photos on the board in the back and notes I try to steal a moment to read from women whose feet occupied the same metal stirrups mine do now.
There are many reasons that women go through IVF. This is hardly a single story.
But what we don’t have in common pales in comparison to what we do have in common. When I look around the waiting room and see couples and women alone, I know that each of the women, between 4 and 8 p.m. every night, is rubbing her belly with alcohol preps. She takes the G one out of the fridge and clicks the right dose because it’s a multi-use pen. Subcutaneously, in it goes. I prefer to do the M one first because it hurts more. With the M one, she has to uncap and then rub the tops with another prep. She uses the Q cap to open the vial, draw out the liquid and use the Q cap to put the liquid in with the powder. She draws the powder and liquid mixture back out into the syringe. Then, subcutaneously back into the fold she creates in her belly. When she first starts doing it, it’s hard not to bruise. (The very first week my belly looked like an unpeeled, unrolled plum skin.) When she’s farther along, she adds the C one. This one is the worst. There’s a syringe pre-loaded with liquid she has to use a needle straw to put the liquid into powder, mix that, suck it back up the needle straw, switch the needles out in the syringe and then finally, into the belly.
If there’s a woman in the next phase in the waiting room, I know what she’s doing every night, too. She’s slapping estrogen patches on her sides every other day, ripping them off, leaving goo behind because it’s impossible not to, and then she’s adding more where she can’t see any goo. She’s creating a sort of gray graph paper all over her abdomen. The patches make her feel crazy, but she’s not sure if it’s just this whole thing making her feel crazy. Tears come at random and so does anger. She will keep adding patches until she’s 11 weeks pregnant. Then, maybe, she gets to be like the rest of humanity?
She and we are all navigating this world of shots and hormones, full bruisy or sticky bellies, confusing feelings, hope and not-hope.
I appreciate when they summon me by my first name. “Ms. Amanda” is also kind of sweet. I’ve waited my turn and it’s time to enter the caverns of the office. I confirm my name and date of birth for the 2230948th time in the past year. I’ve watched that “age” field rise. I undress from the waist down, cover myself in my paper sheet, and saddle up. There are several doctors who could walk in. I have my faves and I certainly have my least faves. Today’s doctor walks in (she’s fine, tiny, young, a little aggressive with the pressure), asks me how I am, and I remark that several of the doctors in this practice are pregnant, including her. We joke that she should share the wealth. It’s not actually funny, though.
I slide down the bed and she tells me that I will feel her hand and up goes the camera. We look at my eggs on the screen as she measures each of them with clicks and strokes as a nurse assistant records their sizes on a sticky note. I imagine a wall somewhere in the back with all of these sticky notes peppering the plaster like a science fiction fertility rainbow shrine. It’s clear my eggs need a couple more days even though I feel like I’m carrying a Tupperware full of jello in my belly. We finish and I head downstairs to the lab to get my blood drawn. Unfortunately, the lab just got an electronic check-in system. This means that most days I have to wait for 1-3 elderly people to figure out what a touch screen is. I have a favorite phlebotomist, she, like the doctors upstairs, is also pregnant. She listens to gospel in the mornings and always checks on me.
The office will call me later in the day with my blood results, which might as well be in Japanese, and to give me my injection instructions and when to return. I always let this go to voicemail out of fear that I will get nervous and forget the directions if I take the call live.
There are several things comprised in IVF in which I’d never thought I’d be skillful: giving myself shots, having my blood regularly drawn, surgeries, being completely out of control of my own body, forgoing exercise, anesthesia, and visiting into a medical office 2-3 times per week and being late for work on the days I have appointments.
If IVF were up to the man, I think it would be a public topic. I think men would speak out about their journeys and discuss their difficulties. I think they’d qualify their tears and explain away. Fox News would report about how hard it is for men to go through infertility treatments and that it hurts their penises and their egos. But the world will never know. Because fertility control and infertility treatments are all up to women. And we can do hard things and keep them to ourselves. Although, we don’t talk about it, doesn’t mean we can’t. Right?
But men do have a role, if they choose to accept it. And not everyone in this situation has a partner like I do. Chas comes to every appointment and brings our folder of paperwork, which started out the thickness of a quarter and is now more of a tree trunk. Sometimes the nurses make fun of him “doing his homework.” He writes down the questions we have, because I am usually too emotional or weird to even remember what it is we need to know. He asks them to repeat answers, he pushes for me to receive the best care. Sometimes when Chas says something to the doctor, I realize how much better equipped he is for the science aspects of this than I am and that in some ways, he’s better at caring for me than I am for myself. I’ve joked that he’s my manager. Whatever he is, he’s a good one.
Now that I am part of this world, I feel pride when I hear about well-known IVF-ers. Becoming by Michelle Obama is next on my nightstand but I already feel pride that she spoke about about her own IVF journey. This article makes the point I keep thinking about too. IVF is a luxury for those who have the insurance to cover it or, god knows how, the money to pay for it themselves. Because education and economic inequality are often closely tied, this, from the same article, struck me in particular: “The education gap is equally stark. While 56% of adults with a postgraduate degree say that they have either undergone infertility treatment or know someone who has, only 20% of those with a high school degree or less report experience or knowledge of infertility treatment.”
I know that I am fortunate that I am able to do this and on the days I feel like the fattest tub of lard and that this is never going to result in anything, I have to remember that I have an option and not everyone does. I have a support system who will listen to me and that same support system respects that Chas does not ever want to talk about it.
When I look back at this time in five years, a decade, a few decades, I hope I remember only that I was stronger than I thought I was, that I can do hard things, and that it was all totally worth it.