Just Relax: Infertility and the Pandemic
The pandemic has given many Americans a shared set of uncomfortable feelings as we collectively navigate a new way of life. Isolation, stress, and anxiety reign, but we’re also learning to live with and name new, more subtle feelings as well: loss for our usual way of life, which we were expecting to continue without interruption; the unknown of when, or if, things will return to normal; a feeling that we’ve been forced to hit “pause” on normal life; being compelled to wait.
Infertility makes me well-acquainted with these feelings. I’ve become an expert at grieving for the life I was expecting, living with painful unknowns, and, most of all, waiting. I endured a year of negative pregnancy tests before consulting a fertility clinic. Now, I wait two weeks for my ovulation day, then wait another two weeks to see if the latest treatment worked, and think about the final step of in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and it’s 2-month process filled with waits, and wonder if it’s in my future. I wait for a new medical protocol, and wait in line at the pharmacy. I wait for certain cycle days to have invasive ultrasounds, and wait more days to have my blood drawn. I wait for that moment when the unmistakable cramping in my lower back signals that this cycle has become yet another failure.
And now, the pandemic has brought us a new and unexpected form of waiting: waiting for the number of cases to peak, waiting for non-essential businesses to open back up, waiting to feel assured that we can safely visit our friends. Many of us have become so exhausted with waiting that we’ve pushed our states to open despite enormous risk. The rest of us continue waiting for the experts to let us know it’s safe to resume our normal lives.
When my husband and I started trying to get pregnant over a year ago, I wasn’t prepared for any waiting. We researched obstetricians, read pregnancy books, and discussed baby names. We had every reason to assume we’d be successful, as we’re both young and healthy, without any indicators of infertility. Both of our families are full of unplanned pregnancies, and there are no stories of struggling to conceive. In early 2019, we made our plans. There was no global health crisis, no warnings in the news, and no reason to think that our plans wouldn’t work out. On a personal and global level, we were naive about what was in store.
As the year mark approached without a single positive pregnancy test, our optimism waned. I switched my research efforts to finding a fertility clinic. We did assessments and were told we were both healthy and, on paper, very fertile people. And instead of feeling hopeful and excited about my future as a mom, I began to grieve: for the life I thought we’d have by now but don’t; for my inability to make an exciting announcement to my family; for the knowledge that if I do become pregnant, I’m now so keenly aware of what can go wrong that my enjoyment will be mixed with fear. As the months wore on, I settled into life with this new, unwelcome guest, this grief for the child I thought I’d be holding in my arms by now.
During this pandemic, we are all mourning a future we thought was guaranteed. “Ambiguous grief” is a psychological term for grief over a loss that’s not as concrete as the loss of a loved one. Many of us are mourning the loss of authentic eye contact on Zoom calls, loss of proximity to strangers at concerts and sports games, loss of the concept that doing good work means we’ll get to keep our jobs, loss of the ability to plan a vacation and know that unless there was some truly wild and unexpected event, we’d go and enjoy ourselves. But that wild and unexpected event happened. It’s still happening.
Just as infertile couples can’t enjoy the anticipation of pregnancy or make plans for a new baby’s arrival, we as a society are unable to count on the futures we once thought were guaranteed. The inability to plan is one of the most difficult things about being infertile. Just like the story of this pandemic, I have no way of knowing which chapter of my infertility story I’m on: maybe I’m at the beginning of a successful end, or maybe I’m just at the end. How can we plan for our futures in the face of so much uncertainty? What does a plan for accepting a new job, buying a house, or taking a family vacation look like in the face of a second wave of outbreak and no vaccine? Will this next treatment work, or should I start with the process of adoption, which is often a years-long journey with no guarantees? I wish I could say that I’m grateful for the head start in learning to live with uncertainty, but the reality is that there’s no silver lining to infertility.
Unlike the globally shared experience of the pandemic, society dictates that infertility remain private. There are precious few narratives in the media about the inability to get pregnant. Health issues concerning the quality of our eggs or sperm, our uterine linings and fallopian tubes, and our inability to carry a pregnancy to term are extremely difficult to share publicly. Most people aren’t aware of terms like “diminished ovarian reserve” or “extreme low sperm morphology.” Trying to explain my diagnosis of “unexplained” infertility requires that I patiently educate the listener on the fact that there is a medical problem, the doctors just don’t know what it is. They’ve ruled out many possible issues, and every test shows a body completely capable of getting pregnant. But for some reason, it’s not happening.
And while the pandemic is physically and emotionally isolating, so too is infertility. A Harvard Medical School study found that women who receive an infertility diagnosis feel as depressed and anxious as those diagnosed with cancer. I’m not going to compare infertility to cancer, having only experienced one of them; but I do know that to be infertile is to be devastated, terrified, and alone. But unlike being stressed about the potential of my grandma getting sick, I can’t easily share with my co-workers the fact that I’m infertile and trapped in a monthly cycle of grief that corresponds with the arrival of my period.
The knowledge that I may never be a parent is too painful to closely examine. I compare this with the knowledge that certain elements of our pre-pandemic lives may be gone forever. It’s much easier to assume that we’ll soon be back to normal, hugging our families, chatting with hair stylists, and planning vacations. The alternative — that our forced isolation could go on for months or even years, and that the life we knew before the pandemic is effectively over, replaced by something much less joyful — is too harrowing to consider. Indeed, some people have already decided against this pain, and are now demanding a return to normal life, willfully ignoring that a safe and authentic return is not yet possible.
It is a weird time to be working hard to get pregnant. We know that pre-natal check-ups, delivering a baby, and receiving postpartum support are now fraught with new challenges. And while many articles examine the reality of pregnant women in the time of COVID-19, or what it’s like to deliver and care for a baby during this time, I have yet to find one that explores infertility.
What I have found are articles aimed at women contemplating getting pregnant during the pandemic. In them, fertility and a successful pregnancy are given. The fact that one in eight couples experiences the deep-in-your-soul ache of wanting to start a family and being unable to do so is not acknowledged. Instead, women thinking about trying to conceive are advised to consider if they want to be pregnant when many of their routine appointments will be virtual, and when only one person is allowed into the delivery room, and when they’ll likely face the first months of caring for their baby without the traditional support networks of friends and family. Yes, I think when I see these questions. Yes I still want to get pregnant, yes I still want a baby. No matter how strange, difficult, or risky the experience is compared to before, no matter how much I’d wish for the help of my family, no matter how tough it would be to manage my job without access to daycare — yes, I still want a child. More than anything.
Now that my employer has gone fully remote, I see kids all the time. It’s unavoidable, even when parents try to keep their kids away during video calls. The flip side of seeing moms and dads cuddling with their kids during company meetings is the flood of parents earnestly complaining about their children, which has become an acceptable and shared experience for parents. I look at these Tweets and Slacks and think, for the millionth time, that parents absolutely deserve support and empathy, but it sure as hell won’t come from me right now. I’d give anything to be in their shoes, dealing with those annoying kids.
Pandemic aside, infertile people are generally well-practiced at smiling when seeing people’s babies or pregnancy announcements, despite the pain inside. Privately, we build walls to decrease our exposure: we unfollow people on social media, mute keywords on Twitter, and opt out of certain workplace Slack channels. We might limit contact with pregnant friends or families with children. When I was still riding the train to my office, I found myself physically turning my back on pregnant women so that I didn’t have to look at them. We learn how to deal with these feelings without letting them derail our days. We learn to live with our grief and loss while still showing up to work and doing our jobs.
But during the pandemic, pregnancy and child-related content has reached peak levels of inescapability. Baby photos and pregnancy announcements, assumed by the sharer to elicit feel-good reactions in everyone who sees them, have markedly increased in the last few months. The assumption is that during this dark time, we’re all eager for a little more positivity in our lives (true) and that everyone gets joy from a pregnancy announcement or cute kid photo (false).
I recently clicked the play button on a video posted in my workplace Slack. It was labeled “some good news to brighten your day.” It was a video of a co-worker and his wife ecstatically opening an envelope that revealed their baby is a girl. In the video, their joy is palpable. While my co-workers sent their congratulations via emoji responses of baby bottles and chicks hatching out of eggs, I slowly closed my laptop and surrendered to the onset of grief over the lack of such joy in my life, and the knowledge that no matter how hard I try, I may never get to experience it myself. My carefully built walls had been breached by a video with a vague label, with the result that the rest of the day was lost.
Unlike my private struggles, the pandemic has forced us all into a shared experience of what it means to be a human in the year 2020. We’re in a unique moment in history; before even asking “how are you?,” we already know the answer. We are exhausted, anxious, and scared. Many of us have lost a loved one or our jobs, and we’ve all been forced to deal with vulnerabilities within our relationship and ourselves. Collectively, we are not doing well.
I recently took the plunge and opened up to a friend about my specific flavor of “not doing well.” Her reply: “Just relax — it’ll happen!” I stared down at these words on my phone for a long time. Unsure how to respond, I never did.
Contrary to popular belief, infertility is not a mindset or a self-applied label for people who want to be pregnant but aren’t. Infertility is a medical diagnosis treated by specialized physicians. Telling someone to “just relax and let it happen” is to misunderstand this. My only truly safe space, aside from my therapist’s Zoom room, is an infertility-focused reddit group. I learned there that receiving the “just relax and let it happen” advice is universal to the experience of infertility, a standard form of initiation into the club.
In a way, the shared understanding of the stress we’re all under during the pandemic is liberating. Many of us are able to express our real emotions, suffering and all, in social and professional spaces that previously demanded we leave our authentic, often sad selves at the door. Despite the newfound collective anxiety and sadness, infertile people are still being advised to relax, have some wine, and see what happens. “Just relax” is difficult advice to follow during the best of times. During a pandemic, it’s downright impossible.
Those of us with infertility have learned to live with a new, unwelcomed normal; similarly, people worldwide are adjusting to a new normal in the midst of this pandemic. Whatever we were all doing before this pandemic, we are doing things differently now. We may still achieve our goals, but if we do, it won’t happen in the manner we had planned. And although we can’t yet see the light at the end of the tunnel, we wait for it to get closer while hoping and dreaming that it’s there.
I’m a veteran of waiting and hoping and dreaming. Over a year ago, I thought I was running headlong towards strollers and onesies, but my feet were actually carrying me towards fertility clinics and Reddit support groups. Things may turn out how I want, but they might not. It’s impossible to know if we’re in the beginning, middle, or end of this story. All I can do, all any of us can do, is continue to walk forward, taking all of the necessary steps along the way, and hope a happier future is just around the corner.