A couple of weeks ago I got an email from a national nonprofit infertility organization with the subject line, “Hey Warrior.” The email said the organization wanted to recognize me as a “2018 Infertility Social Warrior!” and explained that if I participated in a hashtag campaign for National Infertility Awareness Week — which is this week, April 22 to 28 — I would be eligible to win a “social influencer” award. The email concluded, “Thank you for being the warrior that you are by sharing your story with so many.”
My husband and I host a weekly podcast about going through IVF; receiving an email inviting me to participate in this campaign and calling me a “warrior” wasn’t a surprise, but it wasn’t exactly welcome. It’s possible I’m in the minority here — I’m sure that for some people going through infertility, it’s useful to think of themselves as warriors. Maybe this language gets them through the shots, the blood work, the vaginal ultrasounds, the meds, the surgeries. Maybe it gets them through the constantly moving goalposts, or the times they get their hopes up only to have them plummet. Maybe it gets them through looking at ever-mounting credit card bills for every fertility treatment or medication that’s not covered by insurance — which, depending on your employer and which state you live in, can be tens of thousands of dollars.
So yes, I acknowledge that calling yourself a warrior — with all of the strength and fortitude that implies — might seem helpful when you’re navigating infertility. But I personally do not find it helpful. And I think, even for those who do, it’s worth considering how this vocabulary ultimately might not serve you very well.
There’s a tendency to frame illness or disease (and infertility is a disease) in battle terms. We are warriors, fighting infertility. But this language implies that we are more in control of our narratives than we actually are, that if we “give it our all” we will achieve the “victory” that we deserve. This narrative, I believe, is a dangerous one.
It’s the same one that tells women that if they eliminate this one toxic chemical from their lives, or start eating this food or not eating that one, or take this exact combination of supplements — essentially, that they are the perfect infertility patient — then they will be rewarded with “victory.” Never mind that if your doctor tells you that “everything looks perfect” and you still don’t get pregnant, it’s definitely not because you missed one prenatal vitamin. As a woman who listens to my podcast emailed me, “It doesn’t matter how hard you ‘fight’ or how strong a ‘warrior’ you are — in the end it’s a crap shoot. It’s genetics, it’s circumstance, it’s luck.”
Besides, what exactly a “victory” means is never really articulated. Is it a biological child? Is it an adopted child? Is it deciding not to have children at all? If all we have to show for two surgeries, four egg retrievals, and two embryo transfers are some pretty big credit card bills, can’t we consider it a victory if we just decide to stop?
Indeed, if I’ve learned anything over the last two years, it’s that infertility isn’t a “battle” — it’s more of a depressing, heart-wrenching slog without an identifiable enemy. Because if “infertility” is the enemy, have I declared war on my body? And I guess that would mean I’ve also declared war on my husband’s sperm. No wonder we’re both exhausted — apparently, we’ve just been fighting ourselves all along.
Another woman told me, “I feel like ‘warrior’ is just so condescending. Look, I understand that these things come from the right place. But I don’t feel like I am a ‘warrior’ or that I am ‘battling.’ I just want to have a damn baby!”
She added, “Overusing terms like this just takes away from people who fight real oppression. Please don’t think that I am trying to negate what it is like to go through all of this. I just don’t find any of it to be particularly heroic.”
That’s how I feel most days, too. It’s the same way I feel when people ask my husband and me if in some way we feel grateful for having to go through infertility, if it’s made our marriage “stronger.” Certainly, it’s forced us to confront some issues that probably would not have manifested until much later, and it’s also forced us to become better communicators, because you have to — but am I grateful? Hell no. I’d gladly trade our questionably stronger marriage for not having to go through this.
When we started this whole process, doctors told us that even though I was in my late 30s, “everything looked good” and that the proximate cause of our inability to get pregnant was my husband’s sperm count, which was very low. (It turned out I also had a septate uterus, which meant that I probably wouldn’t have been able to get pregnant even if everything was perfect, but we didn’t learn that until a year in.) No one’s ever tried to call my husband a warrior, though, or told him that he’s “brave” or “heroic,” or confessed they can’t imagine what he’s going through. Instead, the language around infertility is almost always centered on women — which avoids the complexities of our actual shared experience. While my body is going through much more in the whole process than my husband’s (he’s mostly just had to masturbate into cups), he still bears a lot of the emotional weight, not to mention the guilt he feels for having what he calls his “dumb sperm.”
Most days, what we’re both going through is some combination of dread — over what unwelcome news we’ll get from the doctor next — resignation, and anger. Right now, we’re mostly angry that our last egg retrieval, which failed to produce any embryos, wasn’t canceled despite my husband’s plummeting sperm count. All too often, and especially as women, we are told that anger is not a useful emotion, that we should channel it elsewhere. It’s not productive to be angry. But maybe that’s because anger — and especially women’s anger — makes people uncomfortable. Lately, I have been getting quite a bit of comfort in allowing myself to be angry: currently, one of my favorite subjects of rage is the state of California, where I live, for specifically excluding IVF from their mandate that insurers cover infertility.
A woman who miscarried her only pregnancy emailed me, “I don’t feel strong. I don’t consider this a journey. I’m sad and angry and have every right to feel what I want about it. Rather than speaking in platitudes and inspirational poster quotes, it would feel much better to have someone to act like they see me and hear me and just say, ‘that sucks.’” And perhaps that’s what I ultimately wish that this week of infertility awareness were more about acknowledging: It all sucks, and it might not end the way you want it to. But I guess that doesn’t exactly make for an inspiring hashtag.