Wouldn’t That Be Lovely?
Like most people with infertility, I limp through my waning fertility like a returned Civil War veteran. To first glance, I look fine, but the shrapnel of our failures fester beneath my clothes and my cheery “hello.” If I unbuttoned my blouse, I’d expose the heaped up edges of my wounds and threatening gangrene of my soul. At work, I hide it. Only the people who have to know, know. Others may suspect, but say nothing about the sudden changes in schedule that cluster around an uptick in doctors’ appointments. My side of the family knows; my husband’s side does not. Secrecy in infertility is not unusual. Despite the enormity of its impact similar to a death in the family, more than half of couples with infertility keep their infertility a secret. Whereas you might confide with a co-worker your sorrow of your grandmother’s death, the disappointing follicle count from your morning’s transvaginal ultrasound is not a water cooler topic. I wonder if should wear a button, “No baby zone.” At least is would protect me from well meaning questions and commentary.
“Dr. Horan, are you expecting?” a respiratory therapist’s question boomed from behind me as I gossiped with an oxygen sales representative, Stephanie, in the hospital corridor.
I nodded to the , “Expecting? Yes, I am expected. I should get back to work in a second,” I nodded my head, and without missing a beat, I finished with my conversation with Stephanie.
Stephanie’s eyes grew wide. “Did she just ask you…?”
I shrugged. In a bizarre and unfortunate twist of body shape and good will, people that I work with often think I’m pregnant. Whereas Stephanie is tall and thin, I carry a familial “pooch” or a fullness below my belly button. My mother and sister have it. Well meaning people often mistake it for a baby bump. As a teenager, I assumed that this anatomical annoyance would pay off in some sort of karmic swap for the sartorial punishment of poorly fitting jeans. Nope, quite the opposite. When I am most vulnerable, my body invites people to ask me if I’m pregnant.
I’d venture to guess that the majority of us have all committed the mistaken pregnancy faux paus. I, myself, once asked an oncology fellow if she was pregnant. She was not. She wasn’t even married. Or dating. She hadn’t even been on a date in four years. Her saucer like brown eyes filled with tears before she shoved her face back into a patient chart.
So, to save you from the embarrassment of inadvertent childbearing conversation no no’s, here’s a review.
1. Never grab a woman by her hips and ask “are you blessed?” It will only earn you a fake laugh and a flippant, “Nope, I’m just getting fat.” In fact, unless you attend a religious service every weekend with someone, it’s best not to ask anyone if they are blessed. The mere question pops the top on a existential can of mixed nuts. To be safe, only comment on pregnancy when the woman’s water breaks.
2. If you know a couple who married in their late 30’s, do not ask them when they are going to start a family. Chances are, they are already trying very hard and are oversteeped in the bitter tea of their failure. One-third of women over 35 years old have infertility which makes the odds of offending someone quite high. (www.cdc.gov)
3. Do not suggest to people who are trying to get pregnant that it will “happen when it happens.” It may never happen–up to a quarter of infertile couples go on to adopt. In the same vein, avoid the cliche “it will happen when you least expect it.” Despite three years of infertility, I am still gluttonously optimistic, scanning the horizon for an opportunity to least expect IT. No sneak attack from fate will get past my laser vision. To give an example, earlier this year during a breast lump scare, I actually thought, “This be a great time to have the unexpected happen!”
4. If someone replies to your question about having children with a prim “I don’t have children; I have a dog,” listen for the subtext. If you pay attention, you will understand one of the following: she is hoping to have children and the dog is her furry surrogate, she hates children, or she would like you to fuck yourself for asking. Ask to see a picture of the dog on her cell phone, share a chuckle over the dog’s uneven ears, and then if you are dying to know more, go fuck yourself.
5. If you ask about someone having children and she hisses, “Wouldn’t that be lovely?” it is time to back away. Back away slowly, and start talking about something innocuous like health care reform, because that infertile woman has reached her nuclear option.
I make it sound so confrontational, don’t I? A kind question on the wrong day about childrearing can rip open the hidden wounds of infertility and make you snarl like a wounded dog. My own responses to inappropriate or unwelcome comments about my infertility have varied from stoic to tearful to angry to wistful. At a banquet the other night, an older mother, old enough to know better, started quizzing the table’s childless women, all above the age of forty, when they were planning on having children. Thankfully, the first woman took the bullet for the rest of us. She had perfect hair and plump painted lips. She sighed, and flipped her mahogany hair over her bronzed bony shoulder, “I’m an aunty to plenty of kids. I think we’ll forego disrupting our fantastic marriage for kids.” When pushed further, she countered, “I’m forty three and so I don’t see it happening.”
Under the table, Dan squeezed my knee. Unsatisfied and undeterred, the breeder inquisitor turned her eyes on me, and I squeaked out, “We are old, too.” I gulped my red wine, and a Good Samaritan bulldozed the conversation elsewhere.
Just to be clear, I don’t recommend the “We are old” response. Well-meaners will whip out their smart phones and barrage you with chubby cherubs born to older Facebook friends and family. Instead, I recommend the line that will satisfy everyone if delivered with sincerity and a firmness that prevents further exploration. “Wouldn’t that be lovely?” If you are infertile, I recommend that you practice “Wouldn’t that be lovely?” in the mirror. Think Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Wear gloves and pearls if necessary. Form each word, watching your lips for a giveaway sneer and your eyes for a wistful tear.
Because beneath their impertinence, the well meaning questioner do not want to hurt you. It’s the opposite. They see something in you worth passing on. They associate babies with happiness and they want happiness for you. They want to share the excitement and the joy of your pregnancy and childrearing with you. And, if you were pregnant, you would be right there with them celebrating.
I learned this lesson the hard way. A patient of mine, Jan, never had children. She wasn’t really my patient at first. Her husband, Don, was my patient. Freshly minted from my fellowship training, I stumbled through Don’s diagnosis and treatment. His wife, Jan, in snappy pink petal pushers and bright white Keds, came to his follow up appointment to thank me for fixing him. With a warm sweetness and intensity that bordered on ferocity, she fixed her bright blues eyes on me and said, “He is my star, my moon, my light.” They had been together for forty years. She had heard that I had gotten married since Don’s last visit. She asked sly questions about my husband and how we met. Her eyes lit up delight and she shared the parallels of their unlikely meeting.
Then, I asked the unforgivable; I asked if they had children. She sagged with the weight of emptiness. The room became silent. I know how heavy that emptiness can be. How can you mourn for something you never had? Her head still bent she told me, No, they had wanted children, but never had them. Don looked out the window. She straightened her shoulders, and flattened a fold in her cardigan. “Will you and your new husband be having children?”
I smiled. “We are older, but we hope that we will be able to.” At that moment, I wanted to be pregnant for Jan. To win one for the losing team.
Tears made her blue eyes gigantic, her bouffant head bobbed, and she said, “I hope you will, I will pray for you.”
Two years later, Don dragged Jan in to see me, for weight loss and back pain and she became my patient. I found lung cancer. Don was devastated. Jan was determined. “He needs me. I can’t die yet,” she announced.
Weeks later, I passed her on her way to her specialist’s appointment. Although her body had shriveled to less than 100 pounds, she still snapped along in the hallway. Her eyes brightened at my empire waisted dress. “Dr. Horan, I’m so excited! Are you pregnant?”
It was after our second IVF and I was wearing the shapeless dress because my pooch was bloated and angry. I shook my head , “No, I’m not.” Tears fired in my eyes and I watched her fragile face fall. I grabbed her bowed shoulders before she scuttled away with embarrassment. I whispered in her ear, “I would love nothing more, Jan. I would love for it to be true, so just keep thinking those good thoughts.”
Don visited me after she died. Jan had worried that she offended me. I reassured him that I held no bad feelings. She wanted some justice, a wonderful fat baby in exchange for the horror of her cancer. She wanted so much for us, the perennial losing team, to win this game. She carried her own festering wound like mine, scarred over but still tender to the touch. In a way, I felt that I let her down.
If I am ever lucky enough to have a child, I’ll hoist that child into the night sky and let the moon and the stars wash their light over unblemished skin. And, I will think about Jan, knowing that some of that light is her, and she will see that we won. Wouldn’t that be lovely, Jan?