That Time I was Given a Label [NIAW]

Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” –Henry David Thoreau

This is a week-long series to invite you to look through the eyes of infertility for a moment, as part of the NIAW (National Infertility Awareness Week). This is not a series about the medical condition of Infertility – you can find facts here if interested. Instead, this series is dedicated to the heart’s awakening to emptiness – and ultimately, to life. Even without an answer. Each day this week, I’ll be sharing a letter that I penned throughout this journey of infertility, as I tried to find words to describe the silent experience. Days filled with hope, cynicism, laughter, tears – and sometimes all at once.

One in eight couples are experiencing infertility right now – about 7.3 million. We are 1 in 8.

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“Oh, so you’re infertile.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa – let’s not go throwing labels around there, Doc.

The objection was clear in my head – the actual words that came out of my mouth were a bit more stutter-y … “I, uh, well, I don’t know, if, well, but, I … we’re just … under a lot of stress right now.”

“You’ve been having unprotected sex for a year and you’re not pregnant. So you’re infertile.”

And BAM, just like that I had a label.

The doctor wasn’t wrong, he was stating clinical fact – and it’s not that I need to be coddled – it’s just that, well, it wasn’t a label I was ready for. It took me another year to use the label for myself. Somehow, taking on that label felt like an admission. An acceptance. Of something I was all too unwilling to accept.

The thing about labels is we know that they can’t capture who we really are. We know that. But still we fight against them as if they will brand us permanently.

Am I infertile? No, I’m a woman who is experiencing infertility. But also yes, I am infertile. Will I be forever? I don’t know – that’s not part of the diagnosis. I just know I have been for seven years.

Some of my reasons to avoid the label “infertile” included:

  1. It would mean admitting I was truly actually trying. That’s a vulnerable thing. To declare to the world that you are trying at something that for many comes naturally – or even accidentally.   Not just casually you-know-whatever-if-it-happens-it-happens. If I’m the married girl who doesn’t happen to have kids yet but isn’t trying, I’m just a happy childless girl. But if I’m infertile, it tells the whole world that in my most intimate of relationships and desires, I am trying – and coming up empty.
  1. Labels suck. They just do. They can’t ever be fully true. And a lot of them are painful. Widow. Orphan. Cancer patient. Infertile. They describe something we’re experiencing, but not who we are. Somehow, though, the person often gets lost in the label. I was afraid of getting lost. No longer being me, but being the infertile girl. A stigma. Something to be pitied.
  1. Infertility is awkward. Let’s just admit it, it is. From the lame jokes about “are you sure you know how it works?” to the uncomfortable silence when a friend tries to find the words to tell you that SHE’s pregnant while you are not. It’s awkward. Procreating is one of the most natural human experiences and involves the most intimate of human interactions, so whether you like it or not, placing yourself out there as an “infertile couple” is going to be awkward, because your sex life just became open for discussion.

But perhaps most of all, hearing that label – pronounced so abruptly – left me feeling broken. I could no longer hide behind “we just didn’t get the timing right this month”, or “we just have to get through this stressful season” or “I ate the wrong foods this month” or the myriad of other excuses you come up with when answers aren’t making sense.

Now, six years after that fateful labeling-moment, there’s no doubt that the label fits. There are no medical explanations, but our bodies don’t make babies. After I learned to accept the label as a description of part of my life but not my whole life, using it became easier. But sometimes – somedays – there’s still that bruise from the initial label. It’s usually when something breaks. A couple weeks ago I set out to bake. I rarely bake. But I’d had a few days off in a row and I thought I’d celebrate with a morning baking project. I diced the mango and mixed the oats and started dreaming of the smells that would fill my home, the smile that would cross my husband’s face when he came home to his little Suzy-homemaker, not to mention the nom-nom factor I was expecting for my own tastebuds. Then I opened the oven. Which was still cold. Though I’d turned it on 20 minutes prior. Broken.

I know, I know – it’s just an oven. But it’s a broken oven. I want to label it “Broken” and call up the shipping company to haul the brand-new-oven-turned-piece-of-junk out of here. See, my tolerance for broken things changed when I realized that my uterus was one of them. It’s just an oven, but it’s a trigger, too. Reminding me that some things are just supposed to work – and they don’t.

This week’s letter is one I penned many moons ago as I discovered that we had a new label awaiting us: “Unexplained Infertility”, which affects about 10% of infertile couples. I know, I know, we’re in the top 10% of something – woot!

Dear Doctor,

I will do it. I will give you more blood. I am 100% powerless in this, so I will comply with your process – again. You’re not the first doctor I’ve talked to, you know. Probably won’t be the last.

You’re not the first to start the conversation with a sympathetic nod and insightful questions to “figure me out”. You probably won’t be the last to finish the conversation perplexed, since my reproductive system hasn’t offered a lot of clues.

So, here is my blood. Take it, analyze it. I’m pretty sure I know what you’ll find. I think you’ll tell me I’m fine, and healthy, and “would make such a damn good mother”, yet here I sit, with nothing but a skimpy gown between you and me, looking at a calendar and analyzing body fluids, informing you of all the intimacies of my healthy sex life, including date and time.

I remember when I used to be scared of what you would find, what the results would show – something terrible that had to be fixed. Or worse, couldn’t be fixed. I didn’t really think of this option: finding nothing wrong. Having no “answer”. Having nothing to fix.

I like you, doctor. I really do. I appreciate all your efforts and tests. I just need you to know, though, that at the end of the day, I think we are both playing here – playing house, playing doctor – you remember the games. Because if we’re not playing, then it’s real. And I hate remembering it’s real.

So, when you call or email me and tell me that all the results are normal, that I’m perfectly healthy and we just need to “give it time”, I will smile and nod, because you see, I’ve played this game before.

Post-script: Email from Doctor the following week read: “Your blood test looks good.” Called it.

3 thoughts on “That Time I was Given a Label [NIAW]

  1. Thank you for allowing us into this intimate, vulnerable place in your life! It is a privilege and gives me permission to look at some of the places in my own life where I have been labeled! Keep writing and sharing! I need your words!!!!

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