I really don't. I heard that song of yours on my way home from work today. I'm not going out tonight -- who can afford it, when you're bleeding money from every orifice for infertility treatment? I'm not feelin' alright -- I could fry an egg on my chest from Lupron-induced hot flashes. But "Oh, oh, oh, go totally crazy" -- now you're playing my song, sister.
Of all the humiliations of being infertile, this one shrivels my soul: Infertility neuters me. From the moment I learned my ovaries could not produce viable eggs, I devolved from she to it. Or if you like, from young(ish) to old. Before, my wrinkles were laugh lines and my few gray hairs were extra blonde. After, my youth was over. And I had missed it.
Through sheer bad luck, I learned I was infertile on the day I found out I had uterine fibroids and a lump in my breast. I had scheduled my mammogram months before, and it happened to fall on the same day my brand new reproductive endocrinologist (RE) wanted to meet with us to assess the results of my Clomiphene Challenge Test (CCT) and perform a hysterosalpingogram (HSG). I almost rescheduled the mammogram, but the appointments are so hard to get, I let it stand. I was concerned that we hadn't become pregnant in six months of newlywed effort, but at 38, I was confident that one baby was achievable, even if we had to have medical help to do it.
We went first to the RE's office for the FSH blood draw and my very first ultrasound. I was shattered to learn that I had produced only one undersized follicle on the challenge dose of Clomid. Even uneducated as I was then, I knew that was bad. I started crying and barely held it together through the HSG, when the doctor told us that although my tubes were open, I had uterine fibroids that might interfere with a pregnancy. I remember my husband saying when I was still on the table, "She's already given up. Tell us, can she get pregnant?" The doctor looked at me with such pity in his eyes. "With her own eggs? Probably not. But let's see what her FSH is. I'll call you later today."
I was numb. We went to a restaurant and ate lunch; I managed only a few spoonfuls of soup. My husband offered to drive me to the mammogram, but I thought, "How much worse can this day get?" And he needed to pick up his son from Grandma's. So I drove myself. I got to the women's health center in the blackest of moods and filled out the paperwork. The receptionist called me up and said, "Now, we have to verify: Could you be pregnant?"
My heart twisted. I muttered, "No." The receptionist must have thought something was odd about my tone and body language, because she pressed, "You understand that x-rays can harm a fetus? Are you sure you're not pregnant?" I started crying -- again -- and burst out, "No! I'm not pregnant. I saw my uterus this morning and it was empty. It will always be empty because I'm infertile!"
Oookay. Psycho lady. They treated me very gently after that. I had the mammogram, got dressed, and waited. And waited. I wasn't all that surprised when they took me back in for the day's second ultrasound, this time on my top half, and told me I had a lump. I called my husband, and he said, "Oh, honey. I'll come get you..." But I told him there was no sense leaving my car stranded. I drove myself home, and by the time I walked in the door, I felt as if I'd been beaten. I went straight to bed. My husband came in and lay down beside me. He told me that the RE had called and my FSH was 40. I would never have a child with my own eggs, and he couldn't treat me further because his office did not have a donor egg program. I cried so hard I could barely breathe, and I remember saying to my husband, "I'm not me anymore."
When I got up that morning, I was a woman. I believed that my ovaries could start a child, my uterus could cradle one, and my breasts could suckle. By the time I went to bed, my ovaries were shrunken pits; my uterus bred fibroids and not babies; and my breast was possibly cancerous. In the span of one day, I had become an asexual thing. I felt deeply betrayed by my own body. By my self. (The breast lump, by the way, turned out to be benign.)
The next few months were grim. Besides delivering my doom, the CCT whacked my cycle and my hormones for two months afterward. Nights were a torture of hot flashes and sweats, and sex with my husband of six months? Puh-leeze. The whole idea, when I felt so unlovely, was faintly repulsive. I did it only when my calendar told me I must. I signed on with an equally pessimistic but more lenient RE who put me on Lupron to shrink my fibroids in preparation for myomectomy surgery. I had decided -- because I needed it to be so, and because the Internet is a Magic 8 ball; shake it enough and it will tell you anything -- that the doctors were wrong and that I could flog my ovaries into producing the fabled "one good egg."
We did two IUIs and one IVF, and miraculously, though I produced a pitiful one or two eggs each time on thousands of dollars worth of drugs, I became pregnant twice. But I lost both my babies, at 8 weeks and 9 weeks, after seeing slower than normal heartbeats. And if I thought I had reached the limits of self-hatred in my infertility, I had new depths to plumb after miscarriage. Real women, I told myself viciously, have healthy eggs to give their children. Real women can carry their babies to term. You are not a real woman.
And then I started to gain weight. You know what I'm talking about? Between the bloat-producing battery of drugs they gave me and the chocolate therapy I gave myself, the pounds started to creep on. Did I say creep? They practically leapt on me and wrestled me to the ground. Now, I look at my wedding pictures and then into the mirror, and I hardly recognize the person staring back at me with bleak eyes. Everywhere I turn, I'm confronted by gravid bellies for sale on eBay, or with lush, healthy young women who are so, well, young, that they've got to have eggs in there. I feel like an inferior life form.
Why should this be? I ask myself. If my liver were to die out from, say, an excess of tart New Zealand Chardonnay, or if I developed a stomach ulcer from hassling with my insurance company over IVF coverage, I would not allow those organ defects to affect my self-esteem. It would not even occur to me. So why is it different with my ovaries? Why, when we're not in the mood for His Softer Side and a man is behaving less than alpha, do we say, "Oh, just grow a pair!"
God, I wish I could. Gender is a part of us; it is our blood and bone, and because of this we are all, in some way, judged by our sexual characteristics. Although, I'm sorry, I can no longer scrape up any sympathy for small-breasted women. Between implants and Victoria's Secret push-ups, they're golden -- and God knows they'll have great racks when they get pregnant. Whereas, my ovaries are beyond rescue. My body simply cannot perform that most female of tasks: Conceiving and bearing a child.
Except...a small voice inside me whispers...except, that it can. If I allow myself to be still, and to peel away the layers of shame at my infertility, I come to this: Both men and women contribute sex cells to their children, but women do something extra. We nurture our babies within our own bodies. Even though my sex cells are damaged, I can still perform the one function that is unique to women.
And even if, in the end, I cannot do this, I will be a far better mother to any daughter that I adopt if I remember: There is more to a woman than her biology, and the greatest acts of motherhood are performed after a child is born.
So sing it, Shania. Maybe I'm a woman after all.