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What Almost Four Years in the Land of Infertility Taught Me About Waiting

Michael Frank

To wait: there was a period in my life when I considered the verb just about the most heinous in the English language.

My wife and I coupled late, on this (she) and that (me) side of 40. Seven years passed between our initial flirtation, which we later came to call “Phase One” of our relationship, and “Phase Two,” when we started dating again and recognized that we had found the right person after all. One evening at the beginning of Phase Two we had a conversation in which we agreed that we both wanted to have a family. Why not start trying right away — like that night?

Six months went by, and nothing happened. We got married, tried for another six months, and my wife became pregnant. She lost the pregnancy after six weeks. We tried again, and once again we became pregnant. Once again she lost the baby.

Two weeks later, realizing that we might be among the 12% of all couples across America who need help conceiving, we went for a consultation at a leading New York City infertility clinic. My sperm quality checked out. She had no cysts, fibroids or other obvious physical impediments, and her FSH level, an indication of ovarian reserves, was average for a woman of her age. Cause of the repeated miscarriages? Unknown. Or, rather, likely diagnosis: age (hers). Not for the first time in the journey we were about to embark on, we were turned into a statistic: a woman’s ovarian reserves drop off precipitously after age 40, a line that seems arbitrary, except when, as we would soon learn, it isn’t.

Nevertheless we delayed diving into fertility treatment. We were stubborn; we were stupid (or afraid); in the story we told ourselves about how our lives would unfold, we hadn’t left room for the possibility that we would need this kind of assistance.

We gave ourselves six more months — and yet again she became pregnant. Third time’s the charm? Not for us. This pregnancy also ended in miscarriage.

The next time my wife and I walked through the door of that fertility clinic, we might as well have been moving to a new country, one where we ended up living for almost four years. It was a country with its own language, its own calendar, its own leadership, its own climate (well, emotional climate) and its own sense of time. People often send reports from the land of infertility, but I wasn’t prepared for the agony of living through these cycles of treatment, where waiting is consistently broken down to slow, painful, fractal-like interludes of sub-waiting. It’s not just your body you hand over to complete strangers but your mind too.

The land of infertility: my wife and I came to know it intimately. We came to know how the quest to have a baby can take over the life of a new couple the way that (with the important exception of illness) little else that comes at you can. It invades your physical relationship, your psychological relationship, your body, your partner’s body, your individual and joined senses of hope; it isolates you from your extended family and your peers; and it upends those life plans, the ideas you hold about who you are and what you are capable of as human organisms. The quest to have a baby becomes a kind of mental and psychological myopia — the one narrowed lens through which you see every aspect of your existence.

The waiting room, the gateway to all matters reproductive, was our personal, dreaded, and it sometimes seemed perpetual, limbo. As we waited to be summoned to this or that blood test or ultrasound, we spent many hours in a sea of ugly upholstery among people who never spoke to each other, looked each other in the eye or sought to puncture the palpable tension in the air — which is strange when you pause to think about it, since the exact same quest had brought every one of us there. On the rare occasion when a woman or a couple wandered in with a toddler, he was regarded (over the pages of a magazine, or around the edge of a device) as a kind of alien creature, a figure escaped from a fairy tale, in one memorable instance shedding crumbs (in truth: Cheerios) as though to help him find his way back out of this dark forest.

Then there was the day a woman appeared in the doorway looking disoriented. A man leapt out of his chair and hurried over to her. She fell into his arms and began sobbing, over and over, “I was sure this was the time, I was sure this was the time.” As I watched them clinging to each other and living out this intensely private moment in public, I felt the equivalent of a knife slipping in between my ribs, and I told my wife that she and I would never become these people.

Of course they are exactly who we became, only we managed to do our sobbing at home, huddled together in the bathroom as we peered in the window of those over-the-counter pregnancy tests, or waited for the phone to ring. Or, worse, answered it to learn still more disappointing news.

We waited for test results. We waited for the stimulation to work. We waited, sleepless in the middle of the night, to come up with something that we could do. I had never felt more powerless. There were no physical reserves I could dig into, no crafty solution I could think up that would have any effect on the test we were being put to, the physical and mental distress my wife was undergoing, the particular anguish we were living with.

I looked everywhere for comfort and — possibly even trickier — enlightenment: psychotherapy, religion, friends, family. Only how can you turn to the people around you who have not undergone this very specific experience and expect them to understand? It’s like grief. Your friends and family may be the most sensitive people in the world, but even if they are parents — especially if they are parents — ultimately they have no idea, unless they’ve struggled with it, what this kind of anxious, unrequited yearning feels like.

One night I attended a talk by Sharon Salzberg, one of my favorite instructors of Buddhist meditation. During the break, when she invited people to come up to ask personal questions, I joined the line. When my turn came, I said, “Can you offer anything to help with the difficulty of waiting?” Sharon thought for a moment before answering, “I’ll answer you when we’re all together again.” She made me wait to find a way to tolerate waiting! Even the people who are trained to help are, I thought in the moment, utterly clueless.

But as I returned to my seat in the audience and sat there uncomfortably counting the minutes until the break was over, I realized what Sharon had done. She had treated waiting with waiting. It was like being injected with a micro dose of the flu to ward off the flu. Sharon was trying to expand my consciousness of waiting, inviting me to inhabit it more fully instead of trying to escape it, as I had been doing for months — years; my whole life, it seemed. Her point was that if you can come to know what it is that you are struggling with, you can feel less trapped in it.

Another lesson I learned from Buddhism came later, as I was listening to a frequent refrain of Pema Chodron’s: Let go of the story. All of a sudden, I heard this suggestion in a new way — or maybe I really heard it for the first time. And I allowed myself to experiment. I tried moving from moment to moment without dragging along that burdensome linking narrative of life plans lined up just so. I discovered that it was much easier to undergo an experience like fertility treatment without thinking that each injection was going to be the one that would change our fate. I let go of the notion that if we ate healthily and drank moderately, slept sufficiently, thought affirming thoughts, read the right books, everything would work out the way we wanted it to.

No stories, no solutions, no tricks, nothing to do but submit to a spin of the wheel of fortune — or (more precisely) a chemical reaction in a petri dish: these are not easy concepts to wrap a 21st century mind around. With distance I now see that all the meditation in the world could not have concentrated me in the moment the way that four years of infertility treatment did. Committed to a goal that was plainly in sight but tantalizingly out of reach, in the end all I could do was follow the steps, administer the drugs, let someone else temporarily seize control of my and my wife’s bodies and fate. In between I simply existed. And each moment was agonizingly, weirdly vivid, because I was more rooted in the present than at almost any other moment in my life. I came to see that the only thing any of us has the slightest control over is the beginning of the experience. The middle is where you learn to wait, to let go of the story and to make peace with not knowing. The middle is where you truly learn how to live.