by Lindsey O-Pries
This week is National Infertility Awareness Week. It also marks the 3rd anniversary since my partner’s first artificial insemination. It will mark the 4th Mother’s Day that has passed without a baby for my partner and I. As a longtime activist who works towards reproductive justice, I hope we are remembering and honoring the 1 in 8 couples* who struggle with infertility.
In true lesbian fashion, my partner and I talked about our desire to have children from the very beginning of our relationship. Both of us wanted children, and we wanted them soon. We had no belief that getting pregnant would be easy, for either one of us. My partner was 39 when we started this process and it was made very clear to us how important age is to fertility (please don’t listen to the feminist fairy tale myth that tells you different!), and I had (have) Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Yet we had no idea that we were boarding a seemingly never-ending train called infertility.
This week and every week after, I want you to understand how infertility sucks people, couples and families into a vortex of grief, disappointment and isolation. There are some days when I feel like the grief is so intense that I am going to run out of breath because my sobbing is so violent and the pain cuts so deep. One time after a negative test I cried for three straight days and I was afraid I would never stop crying. When I see someone announce a pregnancy with a dreaded ultrasound picture on Facebook, it’s like someone sucker punched me and I am rolling on the ground withering in pain. How unfair it feels that my friends and family are welcoming their second child in the same amount of time that we have struggled for our first.
I feel so much guilt that I can’t be happy or feel joy for those people. It wrecks me and makes me feel like I am the most ungrateful, awful person in existence– especially because sometimes it feels like the only person I can talk to about my feelings is my partner, and she is carrying her own grief. It’s so incredibly lonely because no one knows how to talk about infertility, and those who try seem to tire after a year or two.
Through it all I have been constantly amazed by how little the reproductive rights and health movements prioritize infertility, or hell, having a kid at all, let alone bringing your child into a world where your family is loved, valued and able to thrive. As white lesbians who are middle class, educated and able bodied, I can only speak for our experience. I stress that we are very aware that we are incredibly lucky to be able to afford and have access to the some of the treatment options we’ve used so far. Infertility treatment is expensive, and I imagine that many people and families are never able to see a medical professional who specializes in fertility because the cost and stigma are so prohibitive. I never once witnessed infertility coverage being demanded by the feminist movement in the Affordable Care Act debacle or a dialogue about how saying you are “pro choice” is insulting because it insinuates that everyone can choose when and if to have a baby and give birth, which we know is not true for so many, including those of us who struggle with infertility. We can do better. We must do better.
There have been so many people who have loved us and tried to support us through this process. And while we appreciate their efforts, there have been so many mistakes made along the way. It’s likely that you know someone in your life who is experiencing infertility, and likely in silence because it’s something we aren’t supposed to talk about. Over the years I’ve noticed a few trends in our reproductive justice/health/pro-choice movement that I would like to address in hopes that as a community we can try to do better to support each other. Here are a few tips:
1. Stop the fetus jokes. As someone who had an abortion in my teens, has lost a baby through an ectopic pregnancy carried by my partner, and has known many people who have suffered through multiple miscarriages, they aren’t funny. Many of us who are in the trenches of abortion care and access need to blow off steam, but you need to find a different way to do it—it stings every single time.
2. Stop giving me advice about all of the things that I could be doing to get pregnant. I am fully able to research this chronic medical condition on my own. Please stop making it seem like I am doing something wrong! Do not tell me to just relax! This diminishes the fact that infertility is an incredibly stressful experience. These beliefs and statements put the fault on the person and family/couple who is trying to conceive. By the way, it has also been proven scientifically and medically false. Instead, support research on the long-term fertility effects of harmful chemicals, help to ensure that all people have access to healthy and fresh food and water, and support community acupuncturists to train in infertility.
3. Do not ask me if I have thought about foster care or adoption! It’s insulting to think that someone who is going through infertility hasn’t thought about either of these options. Of course I have thought about them, you are not dropping any new knowledge. Also, trust us to know what’s best for us. We know best! Y’all I live in Richmond, VA. Let me tell you first hand that foster care is not available to lesbian couples in Virginia. It’s really hurtful for my friends and family to bring it up as something that I should consider. Because I can’t. If you feel yourself gravitating to this question, you should work on adoption and foster care reform—you should think about all of the children who are put into the foster care system because their parents are poor, people of color, and/or incarcerated. You should think about the many white people who adopt children of color and have no idea how to raise them or care for them in a way that every child deserves. You should work to provide resources to people who worry about these issues, and still want to adopt, because I can tell you from experience there aren’t many resources out there right now.
So what can you do? Love me, support me, listen to me and follow my lead. Don’t tire from listening to me telling you once again that the test is negative. It’s exhausting for me, and I need you to help hold me up, and share the weight of my grief. Talk about infertility and make sure that people in your lives know that this is important to our community. Advocate for all people and families to have access to the full spectrum of reproductive health care– including infertility services. Don’t leave us behind in your quest for reproductive justice.
And finally, to all of you who are reading this and shaking your head in agreement, because you know all too well how hard it is to be experiencing infertility—please know you are not alone. I am sending you my love and strength and hope, so much hope.
*The 1 in 8 comes from research that most likely does not take into account all the different ways people try to conceive—trans folks, poly folks, queer folks, single folks, people of color, poor folks, undocumented folks, etc. It’s the most commonly used statistic but is in no way perfect.
Lindsey O-Pries resides in Richmond, VA and dreams of a world where every family is valued, respected and thrives.
Editor’s Note: Backline welcomes calls to our Talkline from anyone who wants to talk about experiences with infertility, pregnancy loss, parenting, abortion, and adoption. Call us toll-free at 1.888.493.0092.