For many couples who find themselves unable to conceive, it can be a very painful—and largely private—struggle. In this deeply personal essay, American journalist Debra Kamin opens up about the difficulties she and her husband have faced in trying for a baby, including suffering a miscarriage and undergoing IVF treatment.
It’s 24 hours after my gynecologist told me I was going to miscarry, and I haven’t started bleeding yet.
I am chugging water all day long, forcing myself into the bathroom to pee once an hour like a demented cuckoo clock. Each time I lock myself in the toilet, I yank down my underwear, hold my breath, and stare.
No blood yet. No real cramps, either.
Dante in purgatory had nothing on a woman with a leaking womb.
For nine days, I have been cooing at the fetus burrowed into my uterus, beaming messages of love and safety and spinal cord development into its coiled, microcosmic subconscious. For nine days, our two years of tracked cycles, doctor’s visits, scheduled sex and headache-inducing scrutiny of pregnancy tests somehow seemed as if they were worth something.
They told us, “You’ll never conceive naturally.”
They told us, “Science is the only way.”
And then two weeks after we resigned ourselves to the fact that we would not have a baby on our own, I peed on a stick and proved them all wrong.
It was, from every angle, one of those saccharine old-wives’ tales come true. Like the couple who conceived naturally just weeks after adopting, or the 40-year-old woman who thought she had hit early menopause but was, in fact, expecting.
We had stopped trying, and in that same cycle, had finally succeeded. The universe, it seemed, was actually good.
So, for nine days I had a miraculous secret inside of me, and after nine days my gynecologist looked at my blood work, clucked her tongue, and said I should prepare to start bleeding. “It was never going to be a viable pregnancy, ” she told me calmly. And then, perhaps remembering she wasn’t just a doctor, but also a woman and a human being, she added, “I’m sorry.”
Around midnight, the blood starts gushing, hot and fast and electric red. That night, sweating in my sleep with two maxi pads stuffed up between my legs, I have a hyper vivid dream. I am walking through green Jello in my high school English classroom, searching for my teacher. The Jello is thick and gooey and cold. I push my way through, only to brush my hand against a dark black blob—human tissue, I know, that was once alive inside of me and is now oozing its way out.
I am 19 years old, a sophomore in college in upstate New York, and my roommate asks me if I want to go with her to see a psychic. There is a woman, she says, who lives in the backwoods an hour from campus and can see the future.
We climb into her Subaru wagon and drive through hills of white pine and sugar maple until we reach her crumbling wood bungalow. Seated at her kitchen table, I pass her $50 and she grabs my wrist, staring hard at the lines creasing my palm.
“You will marry for love, not money, ” she says. “And you will have two children.”
She releases my hand, but then hesitates and pulls it back toward her. She lowers her glasses to the bridge of her nose and squints.
“Two adopted children, ” she says. “You will never have babies on your own.”
Twelve years later, I am lying on a cold exam table in a Tel Aviv hospital as a doctor who doesn’t speak any English inserts liquid into my cervix. He watches on a screen as the dye fills up my uterus, and as my pelvis burns and I writhe in pain, he nods as it drips out through my fallopian tubes, proving there is no blockage preventing my eggs from becoming fertilized.
“Hakol b’seder, ” He mumbles in Hebrew. Everything is fine.
My husband, whom I married for love, not money, squeezes my hand. But everything is not fine. I think of the lines of my palm against his skin, the imprints of faith and fear that have trailed us into this room, and refuse to meet his eyes.
Everyone in Israel wants me to have a baby.
The receptionist at the ultrasound clinic, whom I see every third morning for a scan of my ovaries and uterine lining, smiles as she takes my insurance card and writes down my name. B’hatzlahah, she says. May you be successful.
The phlebotomist, a plump, soft-skinned woman who has drawn more negative pregnancy tests from my veins than I can count, pulls another vial of blood out of me and winks as she slaps a band-aid on my inner arm. B’hatzlahah, she says.
Even the pharmacist is invested in our fate. He pulls carton after carton of hormone injections from a refrigerator and wraps them with a bundle of ice packs while telling me he hopes that this is the cycle that finally works.
“B’hatzlahah, ” he says as he swipes my credit card. I can tell he means it.
This month’s medication, which includes two weeks of shots to make my ovaries produce a dozen eggs, another set of injections that will keep those eggs from being released too soon, and a bottle of oblong progesterone tablets that I have to shove inside of my vagina each night with an applicator, will cost me NIS 1, 400. About $350. It’s the only bill I will have to pay.
In America, one cycle of IVF can run up to $20, 000. My husband and I know we are lucky that we live in Israel, a country we both chose years ago, back when he was still stashing condoms in the bedside drawer and I was gulping down birth control tablets every night.
We spent so many years delaying the things we wanted only to find, when we finally decided to chase them, that the net in our hands was always full of holes.
The doctors here are the best in the world. The hospitals handle more IVF cases, per capita, than any other country. Assisted fertility is routine here, commonplace. It’s like the bomb shelters in every single building—anywhere else, such a thing would be strange, but here, no one even blinks at it.
But there’s a downside. Assisted baby-making is free in part because it’s a national obsession. Every taxi driver and grocery store clerk asks us if we have children, and when they hear the answer is no, what in God’s name we are waiting for.
Everyone is rooting for us, which is one gift, and their tax dollars are supporting us, which is absolutely another. And if we don’t succeed, we won’t just be letting ourselves down. We’ll be letting them all down, too.
I live my infertility in three languages: English, Hebrew, and stupid online acronyms.
My doctor, whom I might love just a bit too much, is young and handsome and speaks excellent English. But he is the conductor of a vast, elaborate orchestra of nurses, lab technicians and exam specialists, all of whom call me with medication doses, prod my body with objects sharp and cold, and thrust consent forms into my hands where dense, impenetrable text swims before my eyes.
My Hebrew is good. My Hebrew is confident. But words like “fallopian tubes, ” “endometrial lining” and “cervix” still continue to confound me.
Online, the women in secret Facebook groups and infertility chat rooms ask me how many DPO I am: days post ovulation. They want to know when my husband and I lastBD’d (babydanced, or had sex), if I have seen any EWCM on my panties (egg white cervical mucus, a strong sign that ovulation is coming), if I am doing an FET (frozen embryo transfer) and if I can tell them—TMI! (too much information)—if during my2WW (the two-week wait between ovulation and a pregnancy test) I saw any IB(implantation bleeding).
They wish me “baby dust!” and offer up hopes for a “sticky bean!” that will implant and grow into a viable pregnancy. They speak of their “angel babies, ” lost to miscarriage, of their frustrations with their DH (dear husband) and then they tell me, cheerfully, to: Eat More Pineapple! Put My Legs Up After Sex! And Drink Raspberry Leaf Tea!
That, they say, is the only way for a BFP: a big f*&king positive.
It is late afternoon, nine days after the embryo transfer of my first IVF cycle. Four long days left until I can go to the clinic for a blood pregnancy test.
Every hour on the hour, I am breathing deep. I am imagining the embryo imbedding itself into my uterus. Burrowing deep into welcoming tissue. Stitching in, coming home, holing up to stay.
Please let this work, I say to my body. Let this embryo know it is welcome here.
But today, something is wrong. There is a pain in my side, a throb-stab-throb-stab-pull. It feels like someone has stuck their hand into my lady parts, grabbed onto the right side of my groin, and started yanking repeatedly.
I call my doctor. He is not in the office. I call his nurses. They are gone for the day. An on-call secretary tells me, in rapid Hebrew, to go to the emergency gynecology clinic across town.
I call my husband, and an hour later we are in the waiting room, surrounded by chattering Israeli women whose bellies stick out like proud, ripe fruits.
Eize shavuah at? The receptionist there says to me, eyeing my flat stomach. How many weeks are you?
I stutter and tell her in Hebrew that I do not yet know if I am pregnant. But where are the words for the rest of what I need to say?
Nine days ago, my doctor dropped a tiny ball of cells into my uterus, and now I am waiting to see if I can be a vessel for that little life. But something feels wrong.
How do you say “spasm” in Hebrew? How do you say “nine days past embryo transfer, three months past miscarriage, two years past the age of 30?”
More importantly, how do you say, “Why must I share this waiting room with all these beautiful rounded bellies?”
Later, the on-call doctor explains, in a halting blend of English, Hebrew, and Russian, that my right ovary has reacted to the stimulation medications and swollen up like a grapefruit. That I shouldn’t exercise or lift anything heavy until it returns to normal.
And three days after that, as I sit still on the couch and count the hours until my pregnancy test, my body spills its secrets and I get my period. Deep beneath my gut, the ovary is still swollen, and the transferred embryo has scorned my womb.
For the following week, I don’t post any acronyms in chat groups. I don’t strain for the right Hebrew words to talk to my nurses, and I don’t use my native English to share my pain with friends.
This time, I take on a fourth language for my infertility: the language of silence.
I’m breaking that silence now.