Lifting the Crushing Weight of Infertility (With a Little Help from Sisyphus)

By Emily Walls
Illustrated by Aaron J. E. Headley

Let us imagine that we live at the bottom of a hill. Here is Childfree Land, where we sleep in late, and watch R-rated movies at 3:00 p.m., and dine out without fear or Wet Wipes. We love it here in the comfort of Childfree Land, but at some point, many of us will make the decision to move up the hill to Kidville. We’ve been dreaming of Kidville all our lives, and we’re now ready to make the move happen. In this world, the way to get to Kidville is simple: you just take a rock from the Childfree Land and throw it over the hill into Kidville. If you can manage it, bam! Permission to enter, here’s your deed.

Some make it up the hill on their first try with a simple toss.

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 Some take a few tries carrying it up the hill, but they get there with a careful effort.

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Some do it by accident.

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pe8pe9Most couples make it over the hill within their first four tries. Then there’s us–the one in eight of us, actually. In the beginning it wasn’t so bad.

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pe12textBy the twelfth month, we knew something was seriously wrong.

pe13redotextWe’ve been pushing that same stone up the hill for four years now, and we are exhausted. Each month is the same. We push hard for a few weeks, give an extra surge of effort at the halfway point (ovulation), push again for another two weeks, and then watch as the stone bounds back to the bottom of the hill, right where it started. The boulder has become so large and unwieldy that it doesn’t just roll down the hill at the end of every cycle. Now, it rolls over us on its way back down. You’d think that might get easier for us with time and repetition, but in fact, the stone has found new bones to break with every failed cycle.

pe14I have become so accustomed to being flattened that I now pencil in vacation days on my work calendar so I can stay home to cry and recover on the anticipated Crushing Day.

I admit that it has become difficult for me to hear other people’s pregnancy announcements.

pe15pe16textI don’t wish this boulder on anyone else–and the deep part of my heart is ecstatic for those who have reached the top of the hill–but it’s hard for me to feel anything but pain with this boulder on top of me. Once I’ve had a few days to process their news and get out from under the boulder, I can send all my love.

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On good days I can hold other people’s babies. On bad days I cannot. Never can I hear parents complain about pregnancy or parenthood.

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If you’re a parent, you have every right in the world to complain to someone about your struggles. Parenthood comes with all kinds of challenges and heartaches. Just know your audience, is what I’m saying.

Over the course of the four years we’ve been trying thus far, we’ve also run into the platitudes that people offer when they find out anyone is having a hard time. We’ve heard the cliches so many times that they no longer have meaning.

pe19text I try to take these words in the spirit in which they are given, so I internally translate them to, “I care about you and wish I could help you.” That said, you should know that my infertile brethren and I play Bingo with the cliches that we hear. Literally, we made Bingo cards.

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When we first started trying, we took solace in the old, “At least the trying is fun, eh, eh?” thing. We held each other tenderly and looked deeply into each other’s eyes and whispered, “Maybe we just made our baby.” A few years down the road, and after more than twenty months of unbroken disappointment, it became, “Do you have time to bang this out before dinner? My mucus is fertile.”

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Keep in mind, too, that common side effects of fertility medication are headache, bloating, constipation, and sore breasts. Add to it that sex is prescribed by your doctor on certain days, and you have guaranteed bad sex. Infertility sex is the assigned reading of sex. It’s the Brave New World of sex. We have had to reclaim our bedroom again and again.

Work changes too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve shaken myself out of a reverie, having spent the previous fifteen minutes lost in thought about egg quality or supplements or future family reunions. When the course of your life is being determined by whether or not that lead follicle is maturing inside you, it can be difficult to focus on the report due at 5:00.

This is a real pity, because if you’re infertile, you definitely need to work more hours if you intend to pay for fertility treatment in the U.S. A select few states have mandated insurance coverage; most do not. It’s one of those weird ailments where your medical issue comes with moral judgment. For instance, I have an endocrine system disorder that directly affects my ovaries. They try so hard to work, but they usually can’t quite do their job. I have heard many, many times from the public space that people like me just aren’t meant to have ovaries that work. I’m nature’s way of curbing population growth. The trouble is that we don’t seem to apply the same logic to other ailments that would curb population growth. “Oh, you have heart disease? Sucks for you. That’s just nature’s way.” “You’re having a hypoglycemic episode? I could give you these Skittles I have, but if you were really meant to have stable blood sugar, you wouldn’t have been born with diabetes.”

Infertility seems to have its own rules in the doctor’s office. With other ailments, it’s more straightforward.

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 Just to be clear, this is kind of like…

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The medical and financial factors can be overwhelming even in the first stages of intervention. I have to face the bitter reality that my chances of building a family are directly tied to how much money I can set aside. Many infertile people drain their savings accounts and take out astronomical loans to have a shot–just one shot–at conception. This is supposed to be the fun part, the free part, the part that any creature in the world can do. Months pass, money disappears, and the stone gets heavier.

I’ll tell you, though, the money is well spent when you find a competent, compassionate physician who can guide you up the hill. It took me fourteen years to find a doctor who could accurately diagnose me. We left our first consultation feeling buoyant. The boulder and hill hadn’t changed, but we were stronger, and now we had someone else pushing with us.

pe26We’ve also gone through the emotional, humbling, and glorious experience of having our friends and family surround us with love. For every little cliche we’ve heard from acquaintances and the public in general, we’ve had five times as many sincere expressions of care from our loved ones. When I was emotionally gutted from our last course of treatment, I sent out a call for help to my closest friends. I asked them to help me clean and organize my apartment, because I desperately needed to take back control over one part of my life. More than a dozen people showed up. They organized closets and hung shelves and washed walls and cleaned cabinets. They buffed and shined and dusted and polished. They spent all their energy that day just to lighten my load. Another friend sent me a gorgeous piece of art that she made for me, and she prayed for me while she worked on it. Another let me rant to her on the phone for a half hour before work. Before coffee. Another friend spent his spare hours drawing the pictures you are enjoying in this very post, just so I could better express myself. Our friends and family cannot push the stone with us, but they have held it in place for us time and again to give us a break.

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Infertility has been one of the most painful experiences of my life. It has been a slow burn of grief, each month harder than the last, with no bodies to bury, no ceremonies for healing, and no closure with time. It is an open wound.

We are taking a break from treatment right now while we save up for the next step. Hope, our great ally and enemy, is always with us. Perhaps we’ll conceive spontaneously without treatment. Perhaps we’ll conceive after treatment. Perhaps we’ll never have kids. I don’t want to minimize how devastating that prospect is for us, or brush it aside with a “We’ll be fine.” We won’t be fine. Childbearing is a biological imperative. I know not everyone feels it, but it has been nagging at me my entire life. This has always been my greatest dream, and it is no small thing to stand by powerless while you watch your greatest dream die.

We have built a lovely life in Childfree Land. We have fun, we love each other, and we have meaningful relationships. I know I’ll enjoy the life that I have while I have it, but I also know I won’t stop rolling this boulder until I run out of strength to push it.

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Three notes from the author:

  1. Infertility is a minefield of potentially painful interactions, and it can be difficult to know how to support your infertile loved one if you haven’t gone through the same experience. A general rule is to treat your loved one as if he/she were grieving a death. The national infertility association, Resolve, has excellent resources for family and friends of infertile people. If you’re nervous about saying or doing the right thing, take a look at this article, and take heart. If you speak from a place of honesty and compassion, and if you’re willing to listen, you can offer real and true comfort to your loved one, which is one of the best things any human being can do. Poke around the Resolve website for awhile. They have great suggestions.
  2. Our issue happens to be on the female side, so that is what I have focused on here, but male factor infertility is just as common.
  3. I cannot express how grateful I am for Aaron Headley’s generosity. He gave so much of his time and energy to produce these gorgeous drawings for me. He has extraordinary talent, both in word and visual art, and I am beyond lucky to call him my friend. If you like his style, check out his book, The Tales of Fawxie: Fawxie Finds the Bravery. It is an action adventure children’s novel about a young boy who unearths a family secret. Fawxie is a stylized sci-fi fantasy with influences from classic Brit lit, American tall tales, and Westerns. It includes over 50 of Aaron’s paintings, and if you want an idea of how intricate and detailed Aaron’s paintings are, just know that when I asked him to make the drawings for this post, I said, “Make them quick and dirty–like how you’d draw in a game of Pictionary.”

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5 comments

  1. Pingback: Some things. | The Art in Life
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  3. Betsy Herman · 12 Days Ago

    This is excellent. Thank you for writing and thanks to your friend for illustrating. (We’ve been pushing that boulder for 7 years.)

  4. Micca Brown · 11 Days Ago

    I have not read anything this accurate about our boulder pushing. Thank you for putting it into words.

  5. Jeff Heath · 11 Days Ago

    Thank you for your kind article. My wife and I have been pushing for children for a little over four years and it is beyond frustrating. We are in the middle of treatment right now and unfortunately for both of us, there are fertility issues on both the male side and female side alike.

    My wife and I couldn’t agree more with your article. We have many friends and family members whom have achieved pregnancy with ease but also have to nerve to complain how it sucks to be pregnant and to have kids some days. It really leaves us seeing red and I hope parents that don’t struggle with infertility like we do can see this article and understand from our perspective that there are plenty of couples in the world that struggle with this very real and crippling ailment.

    Thanks again and I hope you both achieve victory in this on-going battle that many of us fight too.

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