The Helpers

In 1997, just after my 4th anniversary, I made a plan. It was a plan with solid foundations. It was such a good plan, that I categorized it as God’s plan and pretty much counted it as done before I had even gotten started.

I was going to lose 20 pounds, pay off my credit card, and go to Italy. Right after that trip to Italy, I’d dip my foot in the “Let’s Have a Baby Pond” and 9 months later I’d be sending out my announcements. That’s how I roll. I get things done.

I did lose 20 pounds. I looked and felt good.
I did pay off that credit card and then tore it up and threw it away.
And we did go to Italy. It was a magical trip.

But that last item.
That one took a good bit more time and concentration. And it caused a whole lot more suffering than my days on the treadmill. My plan was good. It made sense in my mind. It made sense on paper. It made sense financially. The problem was that some of it was out of my control.

During those days, I had a lot of things. I had plenty of friends and no shortage of activity. I had money, because we were both working. I had family. I had a strong network of support. And of course, I had my plan.

The one thing I didn’t have was a baby.

And you know what you get when you’ve been married awhile and you don’t have that baby? You get people emerging from the woodwork with questions, suggestions, and advice. There’s a grace period of at least a year. You may get 2 years if your crow’s feet aren’t too defined on your wedding day. But on Day 731, all bets are off and the world is allowed to walk up and ask you where YOUR baby is.

The Questioners. This first group tried to baste their questions in innocence, sweet-grandma style, or humor. I really didn’t prefer one style over another. I mean, I already had a grandma with her own set of questions. And the humor I didn’t find funny. One friend approached me at the end of church one night, deep into our infertility struggles, and fired off some funnies. What’s the matter? he asked. Todd shooting blanks? I think I almost passed out. I was hoping I could pick up a pew bible and knock him out before I hit the ground myself. At the moment he asked, I didn’t know the fertility problem was mine, not that it matters. Because really, no matter who the problem had landed on, it was our problem. Not mine. Not his. Ours. Just in case you are recovering from a head injury or from being raised by wolves, this question is never, ever, ever appropriate. Ever. That was for free.

The Suggestors. Since this isn’t a word, I didn’t know whether to go with an “er” spelling or “or.” Ultimately, “or” seems a little more refined. This group seemed to think I hadn’t yet come up with a family plan on my own. They were just helping out in case I was just living the good life and enjoying a lavish, dual-income-no-kids lifestyle without even the thought of settling down. You two kids have been married awhile. You should get on that.

The Advisers. This one can be spelled either way and comes with all kinds of advice. Some of the advice came from people close enough to us that we were obligated by relationship to listen. Some of it came from people that were just a notch above a stranger but we felt obligated to listen out of sheer politeness. Some of it came from professionals who were claiming to help us with our problem. None of it came from anyone who knew what it was like to be us. What it was like to be me. The girl with a problem. The girl who could not get the thing she wanted most in the world.

My plan, along with the advice and the questions, unraveled down to a single line: “Unexplained Infertility.” After a major surgery to remove a grapefruit-sized fibroid tumor from the walls of my uterus (I was declared cured right then), a year and a half of lesser fertility drugs, 6 months of harder core fertility drugs, a miscarriage, and then a train-wreck of an attempt at in vitro, it came down to “Unexplained Infertility,” which was written in blue scrawl in my chart.

“I have no idea why you aren’t pregnant,” Dr. Tarantino said. “You should be pregnant.”

But I wasn’t.

There were a staggering number of opinions on why I wasn’t and how I could be.

You kids just need to relax. Go home, pour a couple of glasses of champagne, and see what happens.

What’s the matter? Someone shooting blanks?

Come on, Missy. Your parents aren’t getting any younger. I think they are plumb ready to be grandparents.

Listen, just stand on your head. Stand on your head and it’ll happen.

Have you tracked your cycles? Like taken your temperature and stuff? Maybe you just aren’t in touch with your cycles.

Oh, well-meaning fertility experts:

I don’t drink. At all.
And I didn’t need to relax. Sometimes I’m so relaxed people walk by and check for a pulse.
We had real bullets.
And I knew my parents were almost 60.
I had definitely, definitely tracked every last temperature spike, read every book on the topic, and knew at least as much as the first doctor who thought a lack of alcohol was my problem.

And no, mother. No on the standing on head routine. Back off, because now your voice in my head is another barrier between us and this baby we can’t have.

My days went by from hope to hope. When there was a procedure to try, I was hopeful. When it was time to either be pregnant or not, I prayed like a possessed woman. And when it became apparent that this month was another no, I fell apart at the seams. I grieved for the lost family member I hadn’t yet met. I grieved for the life I wasn’t being allowed to grasp. Sometimes I retreated. Into a public bathroom stall where I sobbed until my story was swollen all over my face for the duration of the afternoon. Or into my room for an entire weekend. Sometimes I escaped. Into extreme biking or a new college class.

It was a period of my life I can only describe as dark. There’s something about razor-sharp focus on an unachievable goal that can throw a black shroud around everything else good. There were days when no light got in. Looking back, I feel deeply sorry for Todd. He tried everything he knew to help me. But I was helpless.

Finally, I realized that the kind of help I wanted–the get-me-a-baby-kind–I couldn’t get. So I went for the only kind of help I could think of. I went to a therapist. No one could fix my broken body. I needed someone to fix my broken heart.

Through 2 sessions a week over the course of more than a year, I sat with a guy who had no idea what it felt like to be infertile. But he knew how to help me adjust my expectations. And he taught me how not to be led around by emotions that were tied to things I couldn’t control. He showed me the path to peace. How exactly he did that will get its own post.

One afternoon, in the middle of this phase of my life, I was sitting in Dr. Tarantino’s office, wearing a wafer-thin paper gown and staring at a metal set of stirrups in a room full of pamphlets about things that should not have full-color pamphlets. And I sat straight up and said out loud to no one,

“I’m done.”

That was it. No more procedures. No more pills or thermometers or breakdowns. Five minutes later, the doctor came in and asked me how I was.

“I’m good,” I answered. “But I’m done. I’m done with all of this.” He raised his eyebrows. After all, I was there to explore more options. I was wearing a paper dress. But he sat down on his swivel stool and allowed me to finish. “We’re going to adopt.”

This was my own announcement. Todd wasn’t even present for this particular appointment. There were so many of them that he only came to the important ones. Until this moment, this appointment had not been one of the important ones.

My doctor folded his hands in his lap, looked me in my eyes, and replied with kindness.

“I think that’s a great idea. If I can help you any further, you know where to find me.”

I did know where to find him, and I would eventually see him again. But at that point, he was not who I needed to find. Our answer to the “what now” question was about to take a hard right turn.

This one keeps me up at night.