As I write this, Baby J has been taking his first hearty, wobbly steps towards walking. Any moment now he’ll work it out and then he’ll be off…leaving his well-scuffed knees for a more upright view on the world. Perhaps even in time for his first birthday. That’s right, in just a couple of days our third child, our uncanny surprise, our marvellous medical mystery, our God gives even more one, will be crossing over from the measured-in-months age bracket to solid figures.
As is the case at all three of our kids birthdays, I’ve been getting a little nostalgic, a little blown-away and blown-over again at how far we’ve come, in His grace. In response, below I’m attempting to share a little of our story….
Infertility as Waiting Room
If you don’t know us well you might not know it. Even if you do, it’s sometimes easy to forget. We didn’t always look like this. That mum and dad at the kiddy-park, keeping swings swinging, and slippery-dips slipping…. we weren’t always them. Just as we are now players in this parental pantomime of chaos and beauty, we were once the on-lookers. The couldn’t-be parents.
There are many metaphors that could be used to describe infertility. One that rings most true for us is that of the waiting room. We spent over seven years in the limbo of not-knowing if we could have a child (and many hours in actual medical waiting rooms trying to find out). And even now, with a third baby feeding at my chest, inside I still carry it, the memory of that long, silent uncertainty.
Infertility is one of those elusive, invisible struggles. Hard to discuss, even harder to carry around. Yet since going through our own infertility journey I’ve met many others who’ve been there too. I’ve found the sharing of stories to be helpful. Perhaps this is in part why we retain our memory-shadows, to help others walking in similar murky, unknown paths. I hope, and pray, that in laying bare the rough contours of our story here it may be of some comfort to those of you who are currently sitting in the waiting room, or for anyone who knows someone residing there, that it might aid you as you sit alongside them.
Several years after we tied the love-knot something happened. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, there was news, news, news. Everywhere you turned, there was this chatter: Have you heard? I need to tell you something. I’m not sick I’m….
Our friends were becoming poster couples for glowing-pregnancy (or so it seemed to us at the time. Infertility has a way of distorting your vision a little, of seeing things in black and white). Perhaps the feeling of excess was exacerbated by the fact we’d many of us gotten married at a similar time. We were used to charting our life journeys on parallel lines. To not be a part of such a big next step seemed somehow…wrong.
In an earlier post I discussed my longterm monthly abdominal pain and our first, largely unfruitful, consultation with a doctor regarding this. While he gave us no definite diagnosis to explain my discomfort, he did suggest that conceiving might be a problem for us. As my level of pain continued, and now with the ‘on the table’ status of growing a family quickly becoming a hot topic of conversation around our table, we decided to consult another professional to see if we could find out the inside story to my insides.
First Stop: Dr A
From the moment of walking into Dr A’s office we felt a certain confidence. Kindness and calm wisdom, coupled with just the right amount of humour (and appropriate humour is important when discussing one’s most vulnerable places) characterised his approach as we first encountered him, and has done so consistently since knowing him. A simple examination was all that was needed for Dr A to tell us what no one else had yet been able to. I’m almost certain you have endometriosis, he said. Naming has power. Especially when the name so perfectly fits the experience.
With the naming came hope.
Dr A, unfortunately, could do nothing more for us at this stage. He referred us on, with the rather monumental words: Come back to me when you are pregnant.
Another metaphor to describe infertility is that of a train ride. Not an express train but a protracted, frustrating, all-stops one. This was still just the beginning of our tour. But we had begun.
Next Stop: Dr B
Dr B was smooth. Smooth skin, smooth voice, and small smooth surgeon’s hands. The only way to offer a full proof diagnosis of my endometriosis, he told us, was to examine by keyhole surgery. Our fertility journey really was becoming a journey. In this case an exploratory mission. And the directions were vague. IF they found endometriosis in there, they would operate on the spot as they found it. If not, they’d sew me up and on we’d go.
I went in for day surgery, nervy and hungry. I woke, blurry and confused in a hospital bed, to find the investigation mission had gone well.
That is, they found what they were looking for. I indeed had endometriosis. My insides were fused together. My tubes were blocked. On follow up appointments Dr B delighted in showing me the gory images, like gruesome holiday snaps taken when I wasn’t aware there was a camera in the room.We were undergoing an education in Endo (Endometriosis’ quirky little nickname). Endo is measured in stages. 1 is the least vicious case, while 5 is the worst. I had stage 5. Severe. They’d been able to burn most of it out, Dr B said.
My sizzled insides and I stayed in hospital 3 days that first time.I was bloated like an over-blown balloon, and feeling shock-shaken. But at least we’d done it. We’d defeated the endo enemy, or so we thought, for now.
Fertility journeys would make good material for a reality television program.The Amazing (Fertility) Race, for instance. At a follow-up appointment with Dr B we received instructions for yet the next leg of our journey. With the surgery behind us, and my system ‘clear’ for the moment, he suggested the time was nigh for action in the form of further medical assistance to see if we could kick-start those sluggish pregnancy vibes.
However, the timing of this next step was not so opportune (fertility-journey timing rarely is). We had just made plans for an overseas trip. Dr M had received a grant to head to the States to trace down sources for his doctorate in US history. We were to stay in a Manhattan apartment of a very generous friend and his wife and family who were coming back for a trip to Australia. We were going to visit the New England Seaport village of Mystic where my mum spent her teenage years. We were going to hunt books!
We wondered what we should do: if the treatment was successful, and we became pregnant, would this be the right time to travel? And if it wasn’t…
It was a hard decision, but in the two months until our departure date we decided to give the treatment a go and see where it took us.
The treatment came and went, and took us nowhere. Another stop-point on the all-stops journey. Another period passed in the waiting room. We were free to go overseas. But the freedom was a mixed feeling.
New York, New York
As I’ve been recounting the physical details of our journey, I’m not sure if I’ve yet conveyed the degree of ongoing emotional pressure. Any fertility journey, because of its length, its stubborn twists and turns, its deflating dead ends, can be very wearying. We were weary, and we were trying our hardest to make new life. A strange and ironic partnering.
Despite this, the trip to the US was one of great joy. If it was bittersweet, it was mostly sweet. We traversed New England, a place I’d longed to go since I was a teenager. We toured the libraries of Yale, Harvard, and Princeton: I taking the position of Dr M’s ‘research assistant,’ thereby granting me special access alongside him. We attended a conference. We visited the famous ‘Strand Books’ store, literally miles of books. (Dr M still has the t-shirt, and refuses to throw it away, no matter how threadbare). For book-nerds like the two us such a trip was equivalent to a tour of the Bahamas.
And we walked. And walked. And walked. Walking has always been, and still is, a form of therapy for us. We walked through the light and shade of the change of seasons. We saw Central park in the heat and in the chill. We walked by the windy water of Mystic Seaport. We ate pancakes and bacon (together). And as we walked, and ate, and talked, no one would have known the keen young tourists from Australia, eyes wide at all they saw, did so against backdrop of uncertainty.
One of the decisions with any fertility journeys is how exactly to pace it. Such journeys tend to be long distance, but how long? You don’t want to risk running out of steam. And the question is always there? Will it ever end, or even more somber, when should we end it? The energy required to endure is both emotional and physical. And of course spiritual. And then there’s your relationship. The travel and travail can cause pressure on even the soundest partnership. These were some of the questions we were starting to consider.
Time passed. Children grew. Our friends started going back for a second, and even a third time at family-forming. Some even more. No matter how much we ran it seemed like we were being continually lapped.
And then there were the comments. People began to notice our delayed start. Those close to us, of course, treated the situation with the utmost of discretion and empathy, but there were others who made their own conclusions. No doubt such comments were innocently intended, but this made them no less deeply felt.
Anyone who has grappled with infertility will know such comments.
When will we hear the pitter patter of tiny feet?(BTW what child ever pitter-patters? They thump, and jump, and far more lively, less sedate terms.) And then on the other end of the spectrum: You are young, you have heaps of time.
This second comment I found more irksome. We were youngish, in our mid to late twenties, but only in our modern society would that be considered young in child-bearing terms. More importantly, apparently age had nothing to do with it. Statistics told us that our best chance was now, and if it wasn’t working at this point….If a machine was broken, it was broken, it didn’t matter how old it was.
And that’s how I was starting to feel. Like broken machinery. I didn’t work. My insides were like glue. I’d seen the gory photos. Like any good perfectionist woman, I began to hear failure bells ringing.
We tried other, different directions in our journey after we returned from overseas, including alternative, herbal medicine. We found ourselves in many more waiting rooms, one of which in particular reminded me distinctly of a set from a Harry Potter movie, with ancient looking bottles and jars lining the shelves like righteous, crusading soldiers. But still no results.
Sometimes, the longer you sit, the more you start to lose perspective.
Our fertility journey of course wasn’t the only journey we’d been on those last four years or so. There were also our individual study/work journeys. Dr M. was at the end of his doctorate, but as anyone who has been crazy enough to embark upon a doctorate knows, ‘end’ is a relative term. Meanwhile, I had just started one…
Dr M had been on several casual teaching and research contracts, but we were looking for permanent work. When a job came up to teach at Monash university in Melbourne, it seemed like the perfect opportunity on several coinciding fronts, not the least of which was an opportunity for change, an escape from the hot room of pressure we found ourselves in.
Dr M flew to Melbourne early one morning and I prayed through the whole interview. He rang me later that day – as he was picking up a cup of coffee – to tell me that he had got the job! We were moving interstate in the New Year.
That summer break before we left for Melbourne we headed to the Snowy Mountains (sans the snow) for some time-out. We stayed in an apartment in Jindabyne that had a verandah that looked out over the lake. We walked, and walked, and walked, taking advantage of the fresh alpine air, the wildflowers, the heights. All that space felt good.
We spent New Years Eve with just the two of us, the sunset reflections over the lake, and the distant mountains. In such a setting, in such a context, it seemed fitting to do something we hadn’t done before. We devoted the night to prayer. For the year ahead, for our new home. In particular we prayed for something to happen, for some sort of resolution, to our fertility marathon.
And then we did what we had been doing all along. We waited.