Written by my husband, Zander, this is the most personal post I've published thus far. It's his account of our experience with infertility. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do and please share with any partners you know currently going through infertility.
Admit it, fellow husbands, you stabbed your wife at one point or another. It’s fine. I’ve been there. Don’t turn yourself into the police.
This wounding on an emotional level, of course, hurting our wives sometimes the only release for the impotent rage marriage can bring. I have felt this anger. You have, too. Because you are only human.
But one day you might find yourself about to plunge needle into flesh, and I will tell you there is a moment when you will hesitate, when your arm is raised, your thumb depressing the plunger clawed in your shaking hand, your wife, face-down on the carpet you have not vacuumed in a month, eyes closed and face averted because she will not witness needle pierce buttocks. You will hesitate because this is an unnatural act. You will hesitate because husbands should not drive cold steel into the flesh of the women they love.
And then you will take a breath, maybe two, and you will do it anyway, and when she cries into that filthy carpet you will remind yourself you do this for love, this pain, this violence. And later, after weeks or months or years, maybe, just maybe, you can laugh about the time you stabbed your wife in the back.
In 2008, my wife and I decided to have a child. Or, perhaps, she decided and I agreed to do my part for the immediate benefits that entailed. Five years married and we were still dropping money on condoms, popping birth control like candy, and unprotected sex possesses a certain appeal for any man. Now, almost a decade later, I cannot recall with any clarity why we decided to start a family then. Only a few friends had children already, most of those living elsewhere, no pressure from our families. (Well, maybe from our mothers, but when is that not the case.) I am not old, or so I tell myself, so difficult now to fathom quite how young and naïve we were. A friend’s upcoming wedding led to prolonged debate about whether my wife should remain on birth control, because we wanted to enjoy ourselves, not be the dowdy pregnant couple huddled in the corner while everyone drank champagne and danced. (This maybe six months away.) A cruise to Alaska we “won” at a charity auction (Yes, alcohol was involved. Quite a bit, actually.) became a gift to my parents, because why explore that vast and magnificent peninsula with morning sickness. (This jaunt perhaps two or three months away). They saw a bear wandering the streets of Juneau. A normal occurrence there, I am sure, but it has been decades since I’ve seen the same in North Carolina, or Idaho, or California, or any of the innumerable places bears exist but hide from me. I would have liked to see that bear. No, we could not explore Alaska, and we would refrain from the more raucous wedding festivities, because we would be pregnant by then, or at least she would be and I would play the dutiful husband.
Things were great at first. Like newlyweds again, coupling perhaps even more than that first year. Surely this would benefit our marriage. Or maybe just me. She was nineteen when we met, and we married young, so young that now we laugh at the foolish children binding themselves in their twenties, the irony not lost on us. Every marriage stalls at some point, either because of work, or money, or family, or, more simply, because of the passage of time. Passion, like gunpowder, burns as hot and bright as it can but expends itself faster the hotter the flames. Ask anyone married for a decade or two and they will confirm this truth. Our marriage still a happy one then, but the extra sex didn’t hurt. But as the months wore on without success, passion dimmed, rose-colored glasses fogged, and the reality of our situation became both obvious and opaque, because we knew we could not get through this alone.
Less than a year passed before we explored fertility treatments with her OB-GYN, and later, when those initial medications proved ineffective, with a local fertility clinic, a partner in which a family friend since retired. At the time I considered this premature, yet another sign of my wife’s impatience, but now, all these years later, I remember my wife’s absent menstrual cycle, the stress this elicited, which, in turn, only delayed its arrival, this absence cumulative and self-perpetuating with each passing day. That I can write of my wife’s menstrual cycle perhaps proof that the ordeal brought us closer in ways that would not have happened otherwise, maybe even that I have matured from the arrogant prick I once was. (And can still be, truth be told).
The precise order and names of those medications blurred now, drugs like Chlomid and Ovidrel creeping out from where I banished them with other memories I have willed into absence. Those months and years, among the darkest of my life, ranked up there with the tragic deaths of family and friends. Because those events, so horrible, involved a cutting-off, an absence, life divided into what came before and what came after. While this, on the other hand, just dragged on and on and on in an endless barrage of doctor visits, and long drives to pharmacies without notice because we needed one more pill, one more syringe, and we needed it that night, the stock of every pharmacy within a fifteen-mile radius depleted for some reason. Which drugs, in the end, did not work anyway. And tears. And tears. And tears. No pleasure comes from witnessing the woman you love crying then screaming then crying again when the pregnancy tests come back negative again and again and again, those little blue strips appearing for everyone but you. I hate pregnancy tests.
I will mention now that we were not having a lot of sex without ovulation. Not much point with assured failure. You will learn to hate sex, the scheduled, clinical nature of this act you used to enjoy suffered without pleasure, pursued only with purpose. Your teenage self won’t believe you – you might not even believe me now – but this is truth. Sorry.
Some advice – disassociate yourself from everything. Be there for her but divide yourself so you can leave it behind later. Here’s why:
You learn to walk on eggshells. You learn, too slowly, the topics to avoid – playgrounds and weddings and schools, any topic even remotely connected with the concept of “child.” Understand that friends’ pregnancies spark days of depression, your only solace that hers live far away, in other states, other time zones, their swelling bellies more abstract than if she ran into those budding mothers at Starbucks every day. Tell yourself you are strong, because stoicism is what men do. Become the rock against which the waves break, permanent and enduring and implacable. Given enough time, though, the water will force itself into the rock, seek out the fissures and hammer until the slab splinters and cracks and falls into the sea.
You will try to hide this – she has her own burdens, after all – you will try to swallow the anger and the fear and the sadness, but one day you erupt, lash out at her, at the doctor, at the drugs that don’t work, because it’s not your fault, your sperm count is above average and motility superb (angry now because you know what this means) and you scream at each other, cry at each other, and then you’re lying next to each other, wishing your room was large enough for a king-size bed so you weren’t pressed back-to-angry-back. And then, somehow, sleep will come, and the next day you will start all over again.
You complain to your wife about masturbating in a cramped, dimly-lit room at the fertility clinic, this the room’s sole purpose, relieved and ashamed you brought your iPhone because no magazines or videos wait for you. Your eyes averted as you exit because all the doctors and nurses know what you just did. Meanwhile, your wife undergoes procedures of increasing complexity and invasiveness. IUI, IVF – the acronyms so anodyne you ignore the cost on your wife, your wallet, just hope that this time, this procedure, will work. This will make me a father. This will give me my wife back. Maybe.
I do not mean to sound disingenuous, but in so many ways I have left that part of myself behind which experienced these things, at least as much as one can. I forced myself to forget the drugs we used, my awareness of my wife’s menstrual cycles and progesterone levels, because I wanted to move forward. Even the procedures foreign to me now, like something learned in high school and forgotten again when no longer of use. You can teach yourself about them all. I am not here for you in this. Some hurt we remember, return to again and again, because it made us strong, because we measure ourselves by those moments, because we honor the people we have lost through memory. And other hurt, well, we cannot allow ourselves to repeat. And I was just the husband.
I put off writing this for years. Procrastination had nothing to do with it, just a desire not to recall that time. Memories – writing this evoked a few, none cherished, interred moments better left unmolested. But never embarrassment, then or now, and I still commiserate with friends who underwent similar fertility issues or harder circumstances. Because there should be no shame in bringing life into this world, a task difficult enough without someone making you feel lesser simply because time between the sheets with your wife doesn’t work. (Roll her over? Thanks for the advice, asshole.)
IVF worked for us. I should tell you that now. We have a son, six years old, a rambunctious, sly, convivial, curious, implacable child, prone to tears when he loses his favorite toy (R.I.P, orange lizard), rage when he does not get his way, silliness when he gets too little sleep. A normal six-year-old boy, though we often convince ourselves smarter than his years. All parents do at one point or another.
One day I will tell him, a young man then in possession of a clear mind, mature enough to understand he hails from love, not science. Perhaps he will not care, though. Perhaps this the new normal. Since our experience I can count the friends on one hand who have not dealt with fertility complications. Or another way – of the six men who attended our annual steak night, a rotating crew of fathers pretending they’re not really getting older, five could have penned these words just as readily, our individual experiences differing in some respects but ultimately alike. Perhaps I just know too few people, or perhaps I just know the unlucky ones, though, in the end, we all were given what we sought. Maybe we are lucky after all. Most of us, anyway.
We have a daughter now, too, a different kind of miracle, a blond, curly-haired beauty born without fear. When we decided we wanted a second child, or maybe just forgot how difficult those first few months of child-rearing can be, we wasted no time in returning to the clinic that gave us our first. But it was too hard. The memories were too sharp, the scars too deep, and it took only one cycle, I think, for us to abandon our efforts. We had a child, a gift, who needed our love, our strength, our best, and we had only so much to give. So we said one was enough, at least from needles. We kept trying, lost a child along the way, just a month-old bean, long enough with us to feel that loss you never quite forget. And then the months passed, and my wife was pregnant a third time, and after enough time passed our daughter arrived.
Even now I don’t understand why. Maybe it just took my wife longer to wean herself from birth control after the stuff coursed through her system for half a lifetime. Maybe the medication primed her body, wakened her womb from its slumber a little later than normal. Maybe we just needed to give up, let go, our desire for a child the stressor that kept pregnancy at bay. I believe stress thwarts us in so many ways. I believed it then and I believe it now. Try telling a woman who craves a child more than oxygen to relax. You won’t get far.
I won’t lie - being a parent has its downsides, though I have always found it more boring than difficult. This, perhaps, because I am the backup parent, or they’re still young enough not to have real problems. My wife, I am sure, would disagree with me, since she spends far more time with them. If Hell is other people, children, after enough exposure, are its ninth circle. They are my children, and I love them, so I can say that and still meet my gaze in the mirror. If you haven’t cursed at your children, or at least let the words cross your mind, you are either lying or a far, far better person than anyone I know, certainly better than me, which is probably a pretty low bar anyway.
No angels, these two, no different from any children in this regard. They scatter food across the table and floor, spill milk and juice and water over couches and chairs, stuff candy wrappers and half-eaten croissants under ottomans and between books and under blankets. They jam Play-doh into kitchen drawers and decorate the pale shades of our walls with marker and crayon and once, when we walked away for the briefest of moments, poured an acrylic-based paint Hadean-black across our windowsills and floors. That required some touch-up. They poured molasses on the floor (why do we have molasses, dear?) and spread honey and syrup across the counter whenever we pull either from the pantry. They track mud and dirt in the house and once, to our endless delight, chased my wife around the dining room table with a translucent snakeskin shed from a creature as long as they were tall. Not a lot of rats around here. They jump on and off beds and couches and chairs and coffee tables and benches. They vomit and cough without covering their mouths, eat boogers and scratch bare bottoms and defecate in bathtubs and on floors and themselves and, sometimes, us. (It happens. You’ll see.) They run outside naked when our neighbors walk by, urinate in bushes and on sidewalks when we do not pay attention (and, sometimes, when their father encourages this). They laugh and they cry and they pout and they scream at volumes no human should achieve. They want one more cookie, one more story, one more push on the swing, one more piggyback ride, and one more minute, and one more minute, and one more minute, and we give it to them because this is life now. And, most days, we love it.
I still snap at them, however, as prone to rage as the next father, when I am too tired, or they are too silly, or for any of the innumerable reasons why parents lash out at these humans crowding the world at half-height. When the moment has passed, though, I remind myself how and why my son is here, that I almost did not have a daughter. I am petty, and selfish, and impatient, and dismissive, and cruel, and yet he is here, my son, the boy who almost was not, and when I look into his eyes that my wife calls brown but where I see that touch of green he and I share, or I tangle my fingers through my daughter’s curled blond hair softer than feathers, I tell myself this moment will not come again, these children will remain for only as long as they can, and that I should relish the moments that slip through my fingers like so much sand. Sometimes, when I am the man I want to be, I do. I want to be a better father, a better husband, a better man, and it is because of our son, what we endured to bring him into our lives, and our daughter, who helps me see women as I always should have, that I try. I am not perfect, and I fail each day, but every now and again, when the stars align and I am luckier than I deserve, I get it right.
Maybe these words will help, you men out there with arms raised, needles in hand.
I want to tell you everything will work out in the end. I want to tell you that you will forget the thirty or forty thousand dollars, or more, every time you gaze into the eyes of a child as beautiful to you as mine are to me. But I can’t. I don’t know whether the drugs will work, or you will need a surrogate, or an egg donor, or to adopt, none of these a failure, for you or your wife. Remember that.
I hope you get there. I hope you find yourselves deluged with soiled diapers and tea parties and dinosaur costumes. I hope for you
what was given me, gifts like my son, my daughter, the former standing beside me as I first write these words, wailing for me to finish so I can read of dinosaurs and insects and the other beasts of the night that fascinate him to no end. So I will.
And if you are so lucky, when the time comes, as it will, that you seethe at that squealing brat crawling beside you, remember it took more strength to create this child than you need now. So relax, friend, take a breath, pick up a mop, put on some rubber gloves, and get to work, because, if nothing else, at least you got to stab your wife and get away with it.