Traveling with Infertility
In January I went to a doctor for real healthcare for the first time in many, many years. She ran tests worth hundreds of dollars to look for everything that might be lurking inside this shell of me. It was a good visit because now I’m getting treatment for issues that have affected me in an overwhelmingly bad way for a long time. In between directions for starting meds for this and that, she mentioned that my hormones indicate that I’ve been infertile for years and probably will never carry a viable pregnancy. She said it just like that, between talking about my cholesterol and my RA factor.
I stumbled out of the office, numbed by the 18 pages of test results I was carrying. In a haze, I sent a few text messages and wrapped myself in the motions of dealing with every other piece of news the doctor gave me. “This is how we live now,” I told myself. “We change. We pack away some of those dreams and live into the real world now.” Then I joined a gym.
To be perfectly honest, joining a gym did not help me come to terms with my new reality, nor did reading blogs about infertility, reading fiction with infertile characters (often written by male authors), nor going to worship, talking to other humans, or even thinking about the fact that my body and I have a fundamental disagreement about a particular functionality. There was no helping this fact. All I could do was to try to ignore it.
But I’m not very good at ignoring the stirrings of Spirit. Spirit pulled my heart this way and that for months, attaching me to little pieces of pop culture that offered some salve for the still-burning, smoldering remains of hope that had lived in my heart. A quote here, a song lyric there, a snippet of this, or even a gentle look from one of the non-parents at my partner’s Unitarian Universalist church was the right thing for the new crater in my heart. When I picked up an intriguing new translation of a Finnish bestseller at the library, I blamed Spirit for nudging me towards a book with a fabulous plot that opened with a discussion of the main character’s infertility. Of course I blame Spirit (in the kindest possible terms) for finding myself awake at two in the morning while my tent flooded on the final night of yearly meeting sessions, reading Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s novel The Rabbit Back Literature Society, whose protagonist, Ella, does things quite unrelated to her fertility status. A writer and teacher in her mid-20s, Ella describes her infertility as “something cold and defective at her core.”
She talks about infertility the way I expected a male author to describe it, a foreign sensation that could be summed up with the right words. But the fictional Ella talks about being young and infertile. She describes—in a peripheral way—changing her plans as she has changed. She never fully details her future that will be without the magic of gestational parenthood, perhaps because Ella’s restructured future is not relevant to the mystery unfolding in Rabbit Back, Finland. But there are glimpses of Ella dealing with her new phantom.
Those glimpses and Jääskeläinen’s imperfect treatment of his heroine were enough for me, though. I was reading a story about a character in whom I saw myself, and little bits of my new shell cracked away. The cracks revealed something ugly inside me. As the light started shining into my deeper self, I had to face the reality that a web of bitterness and anger and pain was thick in the new void that being pregnant would never fill. I also had to face the reality that I had a deep (and misplaced) leading to throw all of the “not having children is a blessing for the Earth!” literature on display at yearly meeting in the lake.
In the final hours of yearly meeting, I did not relocate any pro-childfree literature, but I also didn’t crack open my protective shell wide enough to actually tell anyone about this new black hole growing in my soul. Thanks to an unexpected car repair on the way home from yearly meeting, I spent two days in Beaumont, Texas, in strange hotel rooms alone with my thoughts and feelings. So I did what any young, foolish product of early 2000s late-night television would do: stretched into my void to see what weirdness lurked there. I measured the void. I taunted the void. I threw things into the void. I probably hurled myself into the void a few times, just to see where it would spit me out. I cleaned up the cobwebs and tried to bottle up the bitterness. I stopped planning anything related to my future. Then I sat by my own personal black hole, just to see. And more importantly, I vowed to stop saying things like “When we’re parents …” or “If we have kids …” in conversations with my partner.
By the end of all that taunting and hurling and stopping, I was exhausted. Emotionally, I felt like I’d just finished swimming the longest mile of my life. The exhaustion after such rigorous introspection was exactly like the exhaustion I met after swimming a mile at summer camp when I was 13. Both days ended with me flopped out as tears mixed with the water dripping from my wet hair. I missed dinner on both days. The differences came after that. When I was 13, my cabin-mates rescued me on a bicycle with a backpack stuffed with granola bars. But here, on the cusp of 30, the only person who came to my aid was Spirit.
I was not left to be a black hole. I was not left to hold a black hole. As my tears dried up and my sobs stilled, it was easy to sink into a centered place. There, Spirit met me. There, Spirit performed a slow, quiet creeping into my broken, ugly place. In Holy Silence, J. Brent Bill talks about Quaker silence as a place of sanctification and a reunion with the holy. In my silence, I was being sanctified. Spirit was creeping over the void in me in a beautiful, primeval way that I knew from the very beginning of time. This hovering Spirit was the same beautiful, powerful thing that created the world from a formless void in the opening verses of Genesis. Now I was being created from the formless void. Something new was building in me and for me.
There is plenty in the Quaker way that speaks to difficult and painful situations in this world. Our theology and our history are full of very serious questions about injustice, power, equality, and ugly social problems. But perhaps the most powerful of the Quaker tools is the holy silence that Brent Bill wrote about. In that silence, I could hear messages from the Spirit that from any human tongue would have sent me into a flying rage. In that silence, Spirit and I could tackle some of the hardest parts of the conversation around involuntary infertility. In that silence, I could be made holy just as I am. In that silence, I am not unfortunate for being infertile. In that silence, I can be a mourner and be mourned. Spirit is my parent and my child, letting me be nurtured and be a nurturer.
Some months later, I am still not fully sanctified or even remotely healed. My body is a tender, broken place littered with old dreams. Logging into Facebook is a minefield with birth announcements popping up every few weeks, all making me feel raw again despite my joy for my friends. I still cannot hear platitudes or comforts from anyone about the potential blessings of not being a parent. (In fact, I keep a list of the five worst things to say to someone who just found out they are infertile; it is ever changing.) But I also spend half my summer serving food to children at one of Baltimore Yearly Meeting’s summer camps, and I can truly bless the food that nourishes these small Friends. I can delight in the growing families all around me. And I can feel the work of creation in me, even if I will never create another generation of loud, sturdy, headstrong Friends with my own flesh and blood. Spirit is growing something else in me.