I had a friend once who said that the challenges that couples face are like a six-hundred pound gorilla in the room; they’re big, they’re ugly, and you don’t look them directly in the eyes. Infertility was our six-hundred pound gorilla for a while. It was a beast. A monster. Our own journey began with a miscarriage, a surgery, and an unfortunate diagnosis. Since then, my wife and I went through five IVF cycles, with all the various hormones, shots, hospital visits, Big Freaking Negatives, Big Freaking Positives that led to Big Freaking Negatives, and the emotional roller coaster that goes along with all that. Depression and hopelessness was part of the relentless grief, as our hopes were continually shattered with each failed cycle. And for the longest time I didn’t want to look at what was happening directly in the eye.
A couple of caveats. I’m not going to pretend that I really know everything that infertile couples go through. For one thing, my desire to have a family was satisfied with the arrival of our adopted son almost two years ago. My wife and my longing for a biological child ended when our second son was born in August (If that makes you mad and you want to stop reading here, I totally get it). So if nothing else, I don’t know what it is like to live a childless life. But I do know what it is like to face the prospect of a childless life. The second caveat is that I am not a woman, and that means, perhaps obviously, that I am not privy to the real pain that women go through when it comes to infertility. But I have my own journey through this. And like many journeys, there are monsters on the path.
Much of what I experienced in IVF was shaped by the adoption of our son. First, I did not feel like I needed to have a biological child to feel complete. We had our family from the moment he came into our life, and for me that would have been enough if that’s as big as our family ever grew. Second, part of the process of adopting is about coming to terms with the idea that the genetic mix is not yours. You’re responsible for the nurture, not the nature. So I let go of the desire to have a mini-me long before our adopted son was even born.
So while for me the pressure was off, through all the IVF (some of which we did concurrently with the adoption), we still struggled deeply- my wife with the unbearable thought that she may never have a biological child, the illogical thoughts that this somehow made her less of a woman, and me wondering if there were limits to how crazy-making the hormones could be. There were many days when I would drive to work wondering what happened to my wife and who was the crazy lady that replaced her? Or who would come home today? Dr. Jekyll or Mrs. Hyde? If it was Dr. Jekyll, great, life feels normal. But more often it was Mrs. Hyde, and I didn’t like having to deal with Mrs. Hyde, because it meant facing a hard truth. Mrs. Hyde demanded to be heard. Mrs. Hyde was emotional.
I don’t want to paint my wife in a negative light. I was the one who wasn’t dealing with it. The possibility that this might not work was the six-hundred pound gorilla in the room. It made ME-ANGRY to have to deal with it. It made ME-ANGRY that my wife had to process the grief of infertility. It made ME-ANGRY that it took so much time for her to do that. It made ME-ANGRY that she wanted to talk about it. It made ME-ANGRY that she couldn’t just be positive and power through it. It made ME-ANGRY that this was my life, and not the beautiful, problem-free, ideal life I could see on my friends’ Facebook pages. But mostly it made ME-ANGRY that there was an emotional aspect to this that I had to deal with and it wasn’t mine. If it was mine I could control it. I could properly bury it into the recesses of my heart, sixty feet down under layers of dirt and rock. In the grand scheme of things that probably made me selfish and uncompassionate and I don’t really like to admit to that, but this is about truth, not appearances. The ME-ANGRY monster came out to rage against the truth I did not want to face. ME-ANGRY was big enough to intimidate and distract from the truth, or to shut the emotion down and send it back into the depths from which it came. So I would turn into a rage-beast on my morning commute. I screamed so loud one time that I think I damaged my vocal chords. It gave me a voice like Alec Baldwin for about a week. So there was that.
I remember asking the therapist why this was different than, say, losing a limb. I was trying to equate this to something I might be able to relate to- I hadn’t lost a limb, but I could imagine what that would be like for me. I couldn’t figure out why this wouldn’t be like that. Why this wasn’t something that she could just adapt to. If I could figure that out, I could show her how this could be overcome, that it was “all in the attitude.” The therapist did a good job of explaining the difference. That losing a limb was like climbing a mountain in some ways- there are milestones, accomplishments and adaptations that you could feel good about, like when you learn to use your left instead of right arm, or learn to walk again or run a 5k with a prosthetic leg. There was NOTHING like that for infertility, only emptiness and loss, NOTHING to “rise to” per se, just grief to process and there were absolutely NO short cuts or prosthetics to help. The NOTHING monster offered no hope. The NOTHING monster offered no goals. The NOTHING monster offered no pride. There was only the big empty NOTHING.
Don’t misunderstand. This wasn’t my wife’s thing to deal with alone, and while having an adopted son could help assuage some of the broad anxiety around trying to have a biological child, it could not stop all of it. I felt a lot of the same things she did, but I don’t think I felt it as intensely, in part because I was not as attached to the idea of having a biological child as she was. But I still felt the rising hope, the falling disappointment, the waiting. Oh, the waiting. I felt fear. Fear that the IVF would not work. Fear that this was totally out of my control and also my fault. IFONLY. IFONLY we had started earlier. IFONLY I had committed to this path sooner. IFONLY. But IFONLY was another monster on the journey. IFONLY was the self-doubt that creeps in when you start to second-guess your life choices. IFONLY was insidious, without the muscle of the six-hundred pound gorilla but every bit as harmful. Like a gooey green slime it crept into my veins and into my bloodstream, infecting all the good intentions and perspective I once had.
We are now on the other side of this crisis. But deep crisis has a way of revealing deep issues. The monsters we met along the way, ME-ANGRY, the NOTHING and IFONLY, almost destroyed our marriage. But we saw our way through to our family, with our two boys and own version of a modern family. Both of our sons bring us tremendous joy- and they have our complete focus. Somewhere in there my wife and I began to communicate more clearly with one another. We began to align ourselves, side-by-side, to life’s challenges. We faced the monsters- the ME-ANGRY, the NOTHING, and IFONLY, and came out on top. The six-hundred pound gorilla in the room has become a little smaller. Now we just have to take care of our two little monkeys.
Max Tuefferd directs professional development for charter educators in the state of Massachusetts. He and his wife have two sons, the oldest of whom they adopted. His wife went through five fertility treatments for two years before they conceived and delivered their second son. Max continues to be involved with panels and discussions on different pathways to family. In the few moments in between work, epic hot-wheel/Elmo mashups and late-night diaper runs, he likes exercise, writing and theatre.