Our culture, aided by the ‘fertility’ industry, routinely discards women who don’t achieve motherhood. Ironically, a book on trying to conceive shows how
There is nothing neat, tidy, or predictable about infertility and childlessness in our pronatal society.
Unexplained, circumstantial and social infertility surround us. We all know someone who has faced one or more flavors struggling to fit into a culture that glorifies parenthood. On a personal level, infertility losses and grief compound and forever change you and your world.
This is something author Amy Klein makes clear in her book, The Trying Game: Get Through Fertility Treatment and Get Pregnant Without Losing Your Mind:
“When you’re diagnosed with infertility, your world stops. Plans stop. The future stops. Your present has even stopped.”
Here, Klein and I are of one mind. The primal desire to hold your child can haunt and torment. This hunger also fuels the ‘fertility’ industry.
Some days the associated heartache hides deep in your subconscious. Other days it looms large, like this past Tuesday.
My phone vibrated with a new email alert. A Random House marketing manager offered me a chance to read Klein’s book. It launched last April — ahead of, you guessed it, Mother’s Day. This email, however, came with a different hook: October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month.
Ah, but October is every month for women in my shoes.
Lost in this thought, I toggled away from the email and found my journal.
The Trying: Infertility Paths Diverge
My journal, before I wrote Silent Sorority, is where I originally recorded my decade’s long struggle toward motherhood.
June 12, 2002 — that is the day I bid farewell to my 38-year-old self.
Soon thereafter, July 9, 2002, I wrote about the warmth of my husband’s hand in mine as we participated in the gentle transfer our three embryos into my womb. This is a day I have relived more times than I can count.
All the details pulse in my memory. It was a blazing hot summer day. The scraping sound of the door opening into our treatment room as the embryologist arrived with what she called our ‘beautiful embryos.’ The unexpected and strange pride I felt when our doctor doubled down to tell me if he only had the photos to go by, he would have believed mine were the embryos of a 30-year-old woman.
I was, for a brief time, aglow with the promise of motherhood.
March 30, 2003 is another day forever engraved on my heart. That is the due date of our much anticipated childlings. We do not know how any of those three childings, or the subsequent four equally beautiful embryos we created, might have changed our lives, or the world.
Had our first embryo transfers led to a live birth, they would now be 17 and a half years old and into a final year of high school, tussling with all of today’s inherent COVID challenges.
There are other glimpses of what my life as a frazzled teenager’s mother might have been life.
One of my friends just returned from dropping her 18-year-old daughter off at a COVID-prepped dorm. Today, another shared a photo bursting with pride and sadness. She is now an empty-nester with her third and last child launched. Weeks earlier, still another friend posted photos of her cherubic grandson. The commemorations keep coming.
On days when I am not prepared these reminders of what might have been sting. Other days they can elicit a form of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Such wondering, trauma and loss are a messy part of my life. I long ago accepted that infertility’s shadow will follow and taunt me forever.
Ironically, The Trying Game email arrived at a different sort of trying time. A severe asthma attack initiated by wildfire smoke choking the U.S. west left me unable to get off the couch. A new read would safeguard my depleted energy. With labored breathing, I plunged into Klein’s book to distract from election politics and social unrest. Moreover, my conversation with her more than a year ago left me curious to see how she’d address the black sheep of the infertility community in her book: women like me.
Black Sheep Then and Now
In 23 chapters on trying to conceive, Klein’s voice is relatable and her emotional roller coaster unnervingly familiar. Her honest story-telling and accessible research lays out the many hurdles — physical, mental, and financial — that infertility and childlessness inflict. Chapter 23 ends with a section subtitled, ‘Keeping Up with the Kardashians.’ It underscores how women are derided for their choices, which might include egg donation or surrogacy.
Chapter 24, by comparison, is a speed date through stopping treatment, adoption, and childlessness by circumstance. Each of these three topics are the basis for standalone books. Klein spoke to me, Jody Day, Lisa Manterfield, Dr. Marni Rosner, and others who are not mothers but years ago thought we would be.
Klein’s focus is, after all, on mastering pregnancy, so there was no reason for her to delve deeply into our multi-dimensional narratives of lost biological parenthood or failed IVF treatments.
However, it’s stunning that neither Klein nor her editors saw the glaring juxtaposition of copy. Our condensed insights in Chapter 24: ‘The End of the Road: Life After No Baby’ ends with one now childless woman telling Klein:
“tell yourself a great story…I have come out on the other side and am doing great. I am a happy woman.”
There is no further explanation about the hard work necessary to make this ‘great story’ a reality. Likewise, there is only a passing glance at the social gymnastics and pervasive prejudices childless women face. The chapter reflects some of the who and where we are today, but it seemed a bit too pat. Some of our hard-won learnings are there, but in a treatment this brief we come across as flat. Our appearance at the end of this book felt, in a word, off.
The next page, ‘Epilogue Pregnancy and Motherhood After Infertility,’ begins:
“Congratulations! You’re pregnant! Really, really pregnant, this time.”
That wholesale dismissal felt like a kick in the gut. So, if you count yourself among those who did not achieve pregnancy or find your way to motherhood you might come away reading this book, as I did, feeling a bit… slighted … discarded … triggered.
The Epilogue positively coos with motherhood pride.
While I am sure it was not Klein’s intent to treat childless women as an afterthought, to ghost us, the structure of the book did just that. It also reeked of tokenism.
Sadly, I am not altogether surprised. Women who do not become mothers in our motherhood worshiping society have grown accustomed to getting short shrift. Much of the infertility and pursuit of motherhood literature feeds this strange form of tokenism. It took root in the salad days of blogging. We who endure failed assisted reproductive technology treatment are briefly introduced, acknowledged, and then cast aside.
We are and remain the skunks at the garden party.
So, perhaps not squeezing us into the last chapter of The Trying Game might have been a better editorial decision? As we are there, though, this an opportunity to ask for more. First, recognize and the tokenism, please.
Infertility and childlessness complexities (and the multi-billion-dollar industry that surrounds them) are immense. We need more daylight on these topics and the unproven treatments sold to women.Those of us in Generation IVF are learning as we go to address the cultural misunderstandings and judgements in the trying times we now live. We recognize that in the balance of probability, childless outcomes — circumstantial, social, biological — are increasing and deserve more space and more context. We need this not simply in this book, but in reporting, culture, and research more broadly.
The ‘mommy-club’ today, by and large, act as the gatekeeper in many publishing houses, magazines, and production houses, deciding what does and does not get published and produced.
As it stands, this particular ghosting is a foretaste and a warning. IVF’s global failure rate sits at about 77 percent. It gets progressively worse as women age. Furthermore, early data shows women using their own frozen eggs in treatment had a success rate of 18%, which offers no guarantee of achieving a successful pregnancy and birth.
I fear that unless our culture acknowledges this behavior and commits to change, many more in the years ahead will need to learn how to navigate being left last and then ghosted — just as the women interviewed in the last chapter have done.