There’s a myth promulgated by high school Sex Ed classes nationwide: having sex gets you pregnant. Sure, some women seem to grow a bump merely by caressing a virile man. But not me, and not millions like me (officially, the CDC reports nearly 11 percent of all Americans suffer ‘impaired fecundity’ — a nicer way of putting it). And while my thirty-something-year-old friends believe the recession fostered a baby boom, anecdotal evidence of baby strollers crowding Park Slope does not a trend make — The Atlantic reports that births in the U.S. fell to a 12-year low in 2011.
For reproductively challenged women like myself, the Internet has become a meeting place for a smorgasbord of disorders. Do you have PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome)? Join SoulCysters.com. Concerned about undergoing IVF?Meet others like you at FertileThoughts.com.
When you’re in ‘trying’ mode, everyone has a story about their fertility woes — my hair colorist has been trying for years, with bouts of unsuccessful IUI (intrauterine insemination). A woman I met at a spa gave herself hormone shots of hCG — human chorionic gonadotropin — after two and a half years trying; luckily, that worked. A writer friend underwent several rounds of unsuccessful IUI before conceiving twin boys through IVF. For women suffering ‘impaired fecundity,' the language of fertility becomes a secret handshake: one mention of ‘TTC’ (trying to conceive), ‘fertile CM’ (cervical mucus) or ‘temp charting’ and you’re in.
But I don’t have any diagnosed reproductive issues. In fact, I’ve been told by a series of Ob-Gyns I have a ‘beautiful cervix’ (my reproductive tract gushes with pride). I’m just your standard candidate for internet-obsessed fertility assistance who has been TTC long enough to be well versed in the subject. Also, I’m Type A and apparently not schooled in the art of waiting. Like most women my age (32), I spent my twenties blissfully unmarried. I traveled, drank at bars, slept in on weekends, pursued my dream of becoming a fiction writer (where the waiting game is as intolerable), and finally, at age 31, married my long-term partner. When it came to getting pregnant (i.e., when we finally decided we were ready), I thought my baby would be waiting for me, as if my eggs, so woefully unused all these years, would be bursting with excitement when finally given the chance to meet my husband’s unimpeded sperm.
My obsession with the online fertility world began slowly. The first month, I found Fertility Friend, a website (and iPhone app) that for a fee will help you track your daily temperature and a range of symptoms (including cervical position — charting is not for the sexually modest). Armed with a basal thermometer (something all wannabe moms must acquire), I dutifully took my temperature every morning waiting for that spike to suggest I was ovulating. It spiked. I was. (Insert sigh of relief.)
After tracking my temperatures and timing intercourse didn’t work, the next step was the Ovulation Predictor Kit — a scientific-sounding test that’s really just a plastic stick you urinate on (if you have trouble reading the results, check out aptly named PeeOnaStick.com, which displays hundreds of real results). The stick measures the amount of luteinizing hormone (LH) in your system, predicting when your lovely little hatchling will burst from your ovary. Contrary to what I believed as a teenager (that all unprotected sex would send me to Planned Parenthood with $500 cash in my back pocket), the egg only lives an average of 24 hours. That means your partner’s sperm (or donated sperm in the case of my TTC lesbian friends), has only a one-day window to hammer through the egg’s outer membrane.
Now let’s talk sperm, or spermatozoa for the science geeks. Sure, sperm can loiter for up to five days around a woman’s cervix. But if you’ve got an ‘acidic’ vagina, forget it — sperm don’t like acid. That’s right: as if being a woman wasn’t difficult enough, now you’ve got to worry about the happiness of your vagina (countless TTC friends have, while casually sipping coffee, mentioned their ‘hostile’ uteruses to me — perhaps the origin of the God-awful, misogynistic term ‘frigid bitch’?).
Along these lines, the beef I have with the online fertility world, and fertility in general, is that the focus nearly always lies with the woman — despite the fact that, as an LA Times article attests, in 40 to 50 percent of infertility cases, male factors contribute. Yet it’s women I see daily on messaging boards, exchanging advice and asking for tips. Men are nameless and faceless, known as ‘DH’ (Dear Husband), painted as hapless victims of female trouncing on +OPK days, when the CM is EW, Cervix LSO, and it’s time to BD (translation: on Positive Ovulation Predictor Kit days, when the Cervical Mucus is the consistency of Egg Whites, the Cervix Low, Soft, and Open, and it’s time to Baby Dance).
Messaging boards are full of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (with gratitude, Woody). Is missionary position best or should you try doggy style? Does the use of actual egg whites improve sperm mobility? Should you do a shoulder stand after sex to allow gravity to do the work? (My Jewish husband and I joke his sperm are elderly Jewish men tapping their canes along my vaginal walls muttering ‘Oy vey! Are we there yet?’)
After you’ve tracked ovulation and timed intercourse as perfectly as possible (my Ob-Gyn told me to ‘flood that egg,’ surely doctor-speak for ‘fuck like bunnies’), you enter the period women lovingly term the ‘Two Week Wait’ (the time between ovulation and a missed period is a near-regular 14 days). And yes, there’s a website for this too: TwoWeekWait.com is the alluringly dark rabbit’s hole of the online fertility world. I’ve spent countless hours searching its boards to know if lower abdominal cramping on 5 DPO (days past ovulation) means implantation or just gas. On the site, pregnant woman chronicle exactly what symptoms they had on what day past ovulation. It is utterly unscientific and insanely addicting — who wouldn’t want to believe that the Tarzanian nipples they’re experiencing at 8 DPO are attributable to a growing pea in the pod?
And the crowning achievement of all this ‘trying’? The BFP on the HPT: Big Fat Positive on the Home Pregnancy Test (for months, I thought BFP stood for ‘Big Fucking Positive’ — surely a more apt description). Women awarded the double lined test announcing their pregnancy share this news with online friends by posting ultrasound images accompanied by due dates and baby names. Sadly, miscarriages are denoted by angel baby emoticons and the date of loss. This could be construed as either sweet or creepy, depending on one’s mood and fertility struggles.
Still, the overarching theme of these websites, messaging boards, and books like Taking Charge of Your Fertility, is the mistaken idea that fertility is something we (men and women alike) can control. Sure, it helps to have a good diet, a healthy BMI, and to address any real fertility issues like PCOS, endometriosis, and a low sperm count. But for the vast majority of women who while away their still-fertile years looking for answers to unanswerable questions, popping endless Vitex pills (chaste tree berry is said to regulate hormone levels), pricked by acupuncture needles (to balance one’s qi), and sipping fertility shakes of whole milk, raw eggs, cinnamon, and the revered Maca root (the tuber is believed to cure Andean Peruvians of altitude-induced infertility), the only real lesson is this: Cultivate Patience — or CP.
CP is a strange concept in a post-Steinem world where women are taught, from a young age, that we can do anything we set our minds on. We are, quite wrongfully, instructed that so long as we want something enough and work incredibly hard, we will succeed and our efforts will be rewarded. Clearly, when it comes to having a child (or, one could argue, scaling the corporate ladder), this isn’t always the case. The psychological effects of not ‘achieving’ pregnancy are deep and lasting. Women need other women to commiserate when we feel our bodies have betrayed us. After all, isn’t it our biological imperative to have children? Didn’t that virile-looking white bearded man, Charles Darwin (who, incidentally, married his first cousin and sired 10 children), teach us this?
A week before I received my umpteenth BFN (Big Fat Negative), I attended a yoga class for fertility (these exist too!). After the class, I told the instructor of my fertility woes and she said, “In the yogic tradition we have a saying: When you plant a seed, you don’t constantly scratch the soil to see the sprout.” I smiled, immediately making a vow to let my uterus germinate unimpeded by my obsessive interfering. During our next BD, my husband and I lit candles, played Bon Iver on the iPod, and reminded ourselves what it was we intended to do: create a life.
By the end of our first month trying without scratching at the soil, we were not rewarded: yet another BFN, that solid, lonely line lacking its matching ‘positive’ indicator. I threw it in the trash feeling defeated. If my husband weren’t there, I would’ve snapped the darn thing in half or burned it as an effigy of my unborn, unconceived (ill-conceived?) child.
The unspoken problem with infertility is that time marches on. You do everything correctly (or, at least, according to messaging boards and online articles) and yet you don’t conceive. You relax, doing it the ‘natural’ way like those sex-hungry teens knocked up in high school, and receive the same result: BFN. Meanwhile, that tempting course of action followed by so many before, beckons, an entirely new code to learn: Clomid, hCG, IUI, IVF, surrogacy, adoption…
But for now, I’m swearing off the messaging boards, as comforting as it is to know that PreSeed worked for a couple in Tennessee trying for a year, that the Floridian who seduced her husband to the tune of Pearl Jam is now pregnant with a boy named Jeremy, or that the Australian who switched from soy milk to whole milk in her cereal is soon birthing twins.
I’ve always strongly believed that a baby is a baby is a baby. I’ll take whatever someone hands me, but at the same time, there’s the inevitable feeling my body has disappointed me in failing to do the one thing it’s innately wired to do: I’ve got the wide hips, the beautiful cervix, the pretty uterus. What is wrong with me?
We, the ‘fecundity impaired,’ are women caught between the double-edged sword of contemporary American society: we must be sexy and seductive (not a whiff of temperature charting or cervical position), but just as quickly morph, post-marriage, into a fertile, baby-making Mama. What happens when we fail to fall into either camp? For many of us, we are lost to the wilds of the online fertility world, where women convince one another there are a million reasons you’re not sprouting that bump, with so many competing causes and cures it could make your uterus spin (note: tilted uteruses exist in one of three women). In truth, the art of baby making is not an art at all, nor even a science, but completely governed by the absolute nonsensical unknown that is at the heart of all existence here on earth and elsewhere.
Unfortunately, none of the fertility messaging boards address this. Angel baby emoticons float like judgmental Seraphim, chastising us for our every margarita consumed, the days we forgot to take our folic acid, or didn’t pounce on our tired husbands after an exhausting day at the office.
We, the infertile and fertile alike, sometimes forget to be in awe of the unknown. We have forgotten that which is so beyond us, so infinite, we cannot give it an acronym or search for it on messaging boards. A recent scientific study at Stanford University (forthcoming in Psychological Science) touched on this very subject, noting that awe has the ability to “alter the subjective experience of time.” But what awe is there in chronicling one’s every psychosomatic symptom on TwoWeekWait.com?
Even that beautifully fertile chump Darwin understood the strange power of creation, as he wrote at the end of The Origin of Species: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
My lower abdomen flutters and I reach for my mouse to Google whether or not this is a sign of pregnancy, but I slap my own hand and retreat. I remind myself that perhaps we are better off without answers, and that, for this, I will wait … and wait … and wait … for my BFP in whatever form it may arrive. And then, I know, I will battle a host of forthcoming obsessions and their online answers: what is normal weight gain during the third trimester? How to increase the odds of a natural birth? Why does my baby sneeze when I change her diaper?
The digital age has fostered a new psychology of impatience, one rewarded by the near-instantaneous ‘answers’ at our fingertips. But what if waiting is the answer? What if the unknown is actually the known course of action?
I would search the fertility messaging boards for answers to those questions too, but I have a feeling most obsessive wannabe moms online aren’t suffering fertility-induced existential crises just yet, or there would be a new acronym to add to the list: FIEC. As in, ‘How do I cure my FIEC while also CP and enjoying tonight’s BD with DH?’
Kaitlin Solimine has been the Donald E. Axinn Scholar in Fiction at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and a Fulbright Fellow in China. An excerpt from her forthcoming novel, 'Empire of Glass,' was awarded the 2012 Dzanc Books/Disquiet International Literary Program award. She's on Twitter @LetsGoKato, and she takes issue with the word 'fecundity.'