Consider This is a column focused on how important elements of a woman's life look in single life and in marriage. This week, we're considering how we experience our bodies and fertility as single and married women—with and without children. One single woman, one married woman with children, and one married woman without children have written essays, to be published on different days. On a fourth day, they respond to each other’s experience.
It’s funny how you can take something for granted for years and years and then, without much warning, that thing is suddenly, somehow, in charge of your world . . . right?
Here’s an equally funny scenario: I’m a 28-year-old with everything going for me. I’ve got a good home, a loving husband, and decent hair. And I’m infertile.
Trust me: it’s not a plot twist we were expecting, either.
Those innocent, rosy, blushing family plans my husband and I dreamt up on early dates—kids’ future names discussed over dinner, their prospective careers decided by dessert?
Yeah—consider those postponed, indefinitely.
With the strange label of infertility suddenly slammed on our young family and no real, external culprit to blame, I found myself bearing the brunt of the guilt. I found myself looking inward for a place to direct our frustration. I found that blaming my body for our weird fertility issues was an easy way to manage our stress.
But, as it turns out, when you’re playing the awful game of Us Versus Infertility, your body’s a victim, too.
The ultimate period drama: feeling betrayed by my body
When you start googling fertility issues, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.
There are, after all—as described by millions of sex-ed pamphlets and medically-reviewed articles online—hundreds of contributing factors that make a woman’s monthly cycle tick. Your hormones have to be just so; your stress levels have to be just so; your digestion and your immune system has to be just in the right place.
If anything’s slightly out of whack, your delicate reproductive system is supposed to set off blaring alarm bells.
When we got married and started talking about growing our family, I was very confident about our chances. I’d been regular since I was a teenager. I’d never done birth control. I’d always been a pretty perfect specimen of young female health.
PCOS ran in my family, and I’d researched it; but every single article I’d read about the condition said that if something was wrong along those lines, I wouldn’t be as regular as a carefully-calibrated Swiss watch.
I allowed myself to relax. Everything was going to be fine. More than that—I thought that I was reading the signals my body was sending me closely, and I thought that my body was telling me everything was great.
I trusted my body, I guess.
When we got our diagnosis, that trust was the first thing to go.
The need for a culprit: painting my period as the bad guy
Here’s the thing: you know when you read a really well-plotted thriller and find out, at the 80 percent mark of the book, that the call was coming from inside the house? That the killer was in the building the entire time?
Maybe I read too many crime novels, but that’s what it felt like—for several months—as my husband and I worked to figure out what was going on with my body.
Learning last year that I have silent PCOS and a condition that makes my body look like it’s ovulating when it probably isn’t made me freak out a little (a lot).
It introduced a lot of really, really easy and very, very harmful opportunities for negative self-talk. The thoughts sprinting through my head on repeat for months were, to say the least, extremely unhelpful. My body is broken. Something’s wrong with me. Why am I like this? Why can’t my body just get something right?
And, when my period showed up each month, suddenly it wasn’t just telling me that I wasn’t pregnant—which, after a solid couple years of trying, was a tough enough message. It was making fun of me. It was reminding me that my body was fooling me into thinking that everything was just fine. It was pouring my precious energy resources into this gigantic facade of okay-ness. It was all just infuriating, and I didn’t have anyone to yell at for it.
For a long time, my body got the brunt of my anger. My self-care systems screeched to a halt. I spent a lot of time making my life harder than it needed to be.
Over the last few months, my body and I have come to more of an understanding. We’re in a better place now. I’ve done a lot of research, my husband and I have had way too many tough conversations, and I’ve done a lot of weird therapeutic journaling that has led to my being comfortable with mildly odd, dissociative phrases like “my body and me.”
Here’s what we’ve learned.
My body does so much
Through this process, I’ve learned to listen when my body is trying to tell me something. Now, instead of being annoyed with myself when my stomach feels off or I have a night when I can’t sleep, I figure, okay—my hormones are acting up, and that’s got to mean something.
I used to get mad at my body more, because I thought it spent a lot of time being impractical and needy.
Now, I realize that my body works overtime to keep me safe, happy, and healthy—and when it requires support, it does its best to keep me informed. Not always in the most pleasant of ways—but, hey, it works.
I’ve learned that treating my body well is a non-negotiable. I have to be happy for what it does for me, even if it doesn’t quite deliver what I want from it.
Even if my body isn’t up for making kids right now, it does so many other things for me. I’ve got a quick brain and swift fingers, and that’s helped me build a small business. I can run fast and work hard. My body somehow knows how to break down a steady diet of tacos and ramen into the building blocks of life. My lungs figure out how to get me oxygen, my skin protects me from harm, and my heart never fails to beat on time, steady as a drum.
There is so much about my body that is perfectly right.
The least I can do is nourish it, rest it, and let it heal so it can get ready to make miracles happen, if that’s what’s in the cards for us.
My monthly cycle is about more than just fertility
Because of our experience with infertility, I’ve become hyper-aware of what stage of my cycle I’m in and what my body is trying to do, each and every day.
This has helped me reframe some symptoms in a more positive light. For example, I get nauseated when I ovulate, which—trust me—can get really old, really fast. Where before I might have gotten frustrated about seemingly-random symptoms, now I have a better idea of what my body is trying to do. Now, when I see these symptoms, I try to rest and see myself as The Engine That Could. My body and me, we’re just trying to make things happen—and I have to be gentle with myself during that process.
I also work really hard to remember that a properly-working menstrual cycle generates hormones that do much more than just get my body ready for procreation. Progesterone doesn’t just prepare my body for childbirth; it keeps me rested and calm. Estrogen doesn’t just prepare my endometrial lining; it manages my brain’s production of feel-good chemicals and keeps my bones strong.
Right now, that may be enough. Right now, maybe I’ll just focus on that.
My relationship with my husband is going to be okay
My husband and I went into marriage with really practical plans to avoid conception for a little while; and, because we were using a fertility awareness method of family planning (translation: zero contraception), that meant that we started our life together by abstaining from sex a lot (a lot, a lot) of the time. This led to many, many not-fun decisions.
It was an exciting relief when we decided to start trying for a family and didn’t have to worry about avoiding intimacy so much . . . but then, seemingly at the speed of light, we had to start worrying about making the most of each month’s chance. The result? We’ve basically never known anything other than some form of strategic intercourse—which is perhaps a concept that couldn’t be further from fun. But we’ve made it work for us. We’ve had to. Neither of us were expecting this, but we’ve figured it out together.
I asked my husband what he thought about how infertility has shaped our marriage, and he noted, simply, that infertility helped us figure out that I was sick. To him, that means the world.
If it weren’t for infertility, we might not have caught my silent disorder for much longer—until, perhaps, it’d grown and twisted and become much more difficult to manage.
My husband reminds me to take care of myself. He makes me laugh through my tears—and there are a lot of tears, because infertility meds are no joke. He reminds me that we’re doing all of this so there can be a little person made of him and me running around; and that it’s going to be worth it, eventually.
It’s a bit of a broken-record statement, but it’s also a mantra for us right now: we’re going to be okay.
My fertility, or lack thereof, doesn’t define who I am
I used to think my ability to have kids—physically, myself, from my body—defined a lot of things: my relationships. My marriage. My body. My future. Breaking down those beliefs has taken time.
When my husband and I got married, we vowed to be open to each other—and to life. We’ve done that. And that’s what we’ll continue to do. And—eventually—we’ll grow our family, through birth or adoption. It’ll happen.
For now, I get to spend time learning how best to support my body so it can support me and mine. For now, I get to concentrate on the lessons I’ve learned about what my body does and what I need to do to keep it going. For now, my husband and I get to invest in super-strong foundations for our future family.
For now, I need to remember one thing:
My body and me, we’re going to be okay.