Experiences of infertility always have one thing in common: uncertainty. The countless visits to doctors, the months (or years) of planning, the tens of thousands of dollars, never add up to a guarantee. Even under the best of circumstances, there’s only so much about a pregnancy you can plan, and in the midst of a pandemic, the idea of planning anything seems foolish. For National Infertility Awareness Week, we’re exploring the uncertainty—and the hope.
“Why can’t you ever wash anything?!!” my husband Solomon shouted and threw the empty container from the fridge across the room at me. To this day he claims he was throwing it “near” me, “into” the sink. Prepositions notwithstanding, it was clear he was losing it.
Normally unflappable and practical to a fault, Solomon’s the type of guy to say, “Why is she depressed?” about someone. And for the millionth time, I’d have to womansplain that emotions aren’t logical and some people can’t always “snap out of it.” He tended to not want to fight or get upset about much. But we’d just found out our natural pregnancy—the second one, before we started any treatment—wasn’t viable. We’d already heard the baby’s heartbeat, we’d already started tossing around names (“something easy to spell at Starbucks,” he’d insisted), and then we found out our ten-week baby (boy, we later learned) had somehow stopped growing in my body.
There I was, lying on the couch, immobile, and Solomon was trying to go about his regular business, cleaning the house. How was he doing anything? I still had a…a thing…inside me, and I had to figure out how to get rid of it. Aside from that minor detail, I was wondering if we’d ever be able to have a kid. Who would we be if we were alone together, forever, without children?
“You want me to clean the fridge? Now??” I yelled. “Excuse me, I have to first get rid of a dead baby.” At the thought of my unpregnant future, I burst into tears. And on and on we went.
It was one of the first times we fought about infertility, but it certainly wasn’t the last. While all medical conditions are stressful, research shows that IVF takes a harder toll because both members of a couple are going through it. During fertility treatment, couples tend to have a stereotypically gendered way of fighting. “Men used proportionately greater amounts of distancing, self-controlling, and planful problem solving,” found one study of more than 1,000 men and women. That sounded familiar.
It’s like that scene in the classic film White Men Can’t Jump where Rosie Perez tells a young Woody Harrelson: “See, if I’m thirsty, I don’t want a glass of water. I want you to sympathize. I want you to say, ‘Gloria, I, too, know what it feels like to be thirsty. I, too, have had a dry mouth.’ I want you to connect with me through sharing and understanding the concept of dry mouthedness.” In response, Harrelson throws a glass of water in her face.
Infertility was giving me and Solomon a crash course in each other’s coping styles:
Me: Sit and cry on the couch and process every feeling, thought, and musing that popped into my head, as I had done after a million boyfriend breakups. (Thought I’d be done with that after marriage.)
Him: Wondering if I’d ever get up—and what he’d gotten himself into. (Those were his exact words when I later interviewed him for the New York Times. “In the beginning, I had the ugly thought, What have I gotten into?—but that’s what separates the man from the boy. And of course I didn’t make a mistake marrying you. I’m happy I married you, with or without this.”) That begat another whole fight. Had he really considered leaving me then?
Over the three years of our struggle to have a baby, there were a few doozy fights: That time he had a pot brownie (it was legal—we were in California) even though we were still doing treatment and many studies show marijuana use depletes sperm count. When I couldn’t be happy for a friend who was pregnant and he thought I should be a better person than that. When he told me the hormones, did, in fact, make me look fat. “You want the truth, don’t you?” he said, revealing a fundamental misunderstanding in our relationship. No, no, no, I don’t ever want that truth. Those are just some of the fights we had aloud. I’m not counting those nights I lay awake arguing with him in my head (and won!).
During the months/cycles/years of IVF, everyone likes to tell you, “Oh, you’ll have a child at the end of this, somehow.” But when you’re in it, you don’t actually know that. You don’t know when the end will come or what it will be. And that multiplies the stress of the whole process by a gazillion. One minute you’re on the road to your blissful future with 2.2 kids, and the next there’s an flashing orange detour sign taking you down an unknown long and winding road that may or may not bring you to your desired destination. To boot, the road’s adjacent to a cliff, and you’re driving at night, in the rain, with wild animals shrieking around you. It’s only normal that the driver and passenger will end up, at some point, screaming at each other—or retreat in silence to their own corners.
The crux of our fights was mostly emotional: how we deal differently, how public we were about fertility treatments, how much we allowed it to take over our lives, how we recovered from disappointment and failure, and how we decided to move forward. “What’s the point of fighting over this if there’s going to be no ‘us’ left by the time we have a baby?”
One of the primary causes of conflict in IVF is division of labor—actually, what’s come to be known as emotional labor. “It’s the unpaid, often unnoticed labor that goes into keeping everyone around you comfortable and happy,” says Gemma Hartley, author of Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward. With IVF, emotional labor “gets pushed into overdrive,” Hartley says. “There’s so much more to manage emotionally, physically, and logistically.”
Logistics seems like nine-tenths of treatment: which doctor you’ll go to, when and how you’ll get there, how you’ll pay for it, who will watch your other kids, where you’ll get your meds, who will administer them, who’s going to receive the results, what you’ll do after. Someone has to be in charge of managing that—and that someone is often the woman, especially since it’s usually her body under the microscope.
“You’re better at it, I’ll just go with whatever you decide,” Solomon said at the beginning, when I was clucking around like a headless chicken looking for a fertility doctor. I didn’t mind then, since I wanted to make the decisions…it was only when we were in it forever, when the decisions kept piling up, that I began to feel overwhelmed.
“The biggest thing I can stress to the partner on the noncarrying side of it is do whatever it is you can to make the other person feel they aren’t alone,” says Matt Mira, cohost with his wife, Doree Shafrir, of Matt & Doree’s Eggcellent Adventure, an hour-long podcast following their IVF journey and answering listeners’ questions on the topic. “Whether that means going into work a little late if you have to be at an appointment—even if it’s just an appointment to count follicles, it’s still important to go to those,” he says. “You can’t inject yourself with everything they’re injecting themselves,” he says, which reminded me of the time I begged Solomon to take some of my hormone pills so he “could feel what I felt.” He refused (shocking). “So this is the least you can do,” Mira says.
“If there were ever a time for a partner to step up and take on more emotional labor, this is it,” Hartley says, noting that when she went through back-to-back miscarriages between her second and third children, it was a turning point in her relationship. “My husband made the painful calls to family, cooked dinners, took charge of our other two children, listened to me when all I wanted to do was talk about it, and sat with me when I didn’t want to say anything at all.” In times of intense stress or grief or uncertainty, she says, the balance of emotional labor can either make or break a couple. Fortunately, she says, “Instead of becoming isolated from him, it brought us closer together.”
Sometimes treatment can drive couples apart. Especially when it doesn’t work. One study of almost 50,000 Danish women found that women who don’t have a child after fertility treatment are three times more likely to divorce or end cohabitation with their partner than those who do.
Some newer research shows, though, that infertility doesn’t cause relationships to end. A study titled “Fertility Treatment Does Not Increase the Risk of Divorce” concluded: “We also know that despite all the strain that this infertility can bring, going through ART [Assisted Reproductive Technology like IUI and IVF] can actually bring benefit to a couple’s relationship, because it forces them to improve communication and coping strategies.”
So are Solomon and I closer after infertility—and better off? Look, I’ll never be one of those people who sanctimoniously says, “Everything happens for a reason,” or who welcomes a challenge as a “learning experience.” And we weren’t one of those couples who say they “never fight” about infertility, nor did either of us do therapy. But we made it through three years of treatment, four miscarriages, one fraught pregnancy, and the birth of our daughter.
And that’s probably the best reason to try to keep your partnership healthy: When you have a kid, however you have it—as new parents, you’re going to really need each other.
This essay has been adapted and condensed from the book The Trying Game: Get Through Fertility Treatment and Get Pregnant Without Losing Your Mind by Amy Klein. Copyright © 2020 by Amy Klein. Publishing by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
Originally Appeared on Glamour