On Infertility and Magical Thinking

On Infertility and Magical Thinking

By Jennifer Berney


Infertility is a solitary pain. The body, alone, remains alone.


When I first began trying to conceive, I believed that I’d be pregnant within a month. For one thing I was only twenty-eight years old. Because I’m a lesbian, I had already worked out all of the logistics: I knew when I ovulated, and I knew that the donor sperm we had purchased was viable—our doctor had watched them swim beneath a microscope. Of the millions of sperm that would be delivered directly to my uterus, only one of them had to find my egg. What could go wrong?

Besides these clinical facts, I had stories I told myself around conception. I had already spent years of my adult life pining for a child. Surely this desire would inform my body’s ability to conceive. Though I understood that conception took an average of three to six months, I knew plenty of women who had conceived on their first try. I held their stories close to me like talismans. The first time I lay on the exam table for an insemination—my feet in stirrups, my partner holding my hand—I summoned a feeling of openness and joy. Of course this would work. Of course it would.

It didn’t. Months later, when I still wasn’t pregnant, my stories about conception changed. I no longer daydreamed about the women I knew who had conceived immediately. Instead, I imagined I was waiting for the right child to choose me. I pictured little baby-spirits, hovering, taking stock of all the candidates. Sympathetic friends tried to console me with their own magical thinking. “It will happen when it’s meant to happen,” some of them told me. “It will happen when you finally stop worrying about it,” others said.

The stories I told myself and the ones my friends told me had this in common: they imposed order on a process beyond our control.

Story 1: If a child-spirit chose me, then I would be a parent.

Story 2: A force called destiny would choose when I got pregnant.

Story 3: My thoughts controlled my womb.

I didn’t know what to think of any of these stories, these tropes of magical thinking, including my own. I didn’t quite believe them, and yet they haunted me. The third story was the least comforting of all. Surely my attitude was within my realm of control and yet, the more I tried not to worry, the more I worried, and the more I worried the more I blamed myself for worrying.

One day, after nearly a year of trying and failing, after having spent thousands of dollars on frozen sperm and monthly inseminations, I ran into an acquaintance at the grocery store. She had dated a close friend of mine not long ago, and so she was privy to my situation. “What’s going on with the baby thing?” she asked me. We stood between shelves of toothpaste and shampoo. I looked at my shoes and then back at her. “It’s just not happening,” I confessed.

“Well,” she said, her voice strangely chipper, “maybe you just weren’t meant to be a parent. Did you ever think about that?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve thought about that.”

*   *   *

Now that I’m the parent of two young boys, there’s a mind game I like to play with myself sometimes. When my children are hugging each other on the couch or running ahead of me on a dirt road, I take a snapshot in my mind and offer it to my earlier self, the me of nine years ago. She is preparing to turn thirty and wondering what she will do if she’s not pregnant soon. Will she spend another small fortune on IVF? Will she apply for an open adoption and hope that someone will choose her? It is true that she has options; it is also true that none of them guarantee a child.

The me of nine years ago tries not to cry to her partner too often. Infertility is a solitary pain. The body, alone, remains alone. For two weeks of the month the mind hopes and imagines. With blood those hopes are dashed. Her partner, on the other side of things, continues in a body unchanged by the ritual of hope and disappointment. Her partner learns about the blood arriving, but is not the one checking her underwear every hour.

And so when I cried, my partner tried to comfort me by saying, “I’m not worried about it. I know that we’ll have a child. When it’s meant to happen it will happen.”

Destiny again. Magical thinking. These words didn’t help me nine years ago. The only thing that could have helped would have been a picture of my future life. With this evidence I might have waited calmly. But the snapshot of my children, handed through time, is a dream. In the real world no one can offer evidence. They can only offer hope disguised as certainty.

The longer I tried and failed to conceive, the more I saw that there were plenty of people around me who wanted children and would never have them. Some of them had never found the partner they were looking for, or they found that partner too late. Some of them conceived and lost a child and then couldn’t conceive again. Some of them pursued adoption but were never matched with a child.

This isn’t destiny, at least not in the benevolent sense of the word. It wasn’t the kind hand of the universe intervening for some unknown reason. Instead this was reality. Sometimes you want a thing very badly and still you don’t get it. When life presents challenges, when it drops bombs of longing and grief, we inevitably grow and gain depth. But this doesn’t mean that those challenges were pre-ordained.

I do believe that the stories we make of our lives are important. But they are just that: stories. We reach into the chaos of the universe and try to pull out some meaning and order. Because my story has a happy ending, I can pretend that it was destined after all, that I was meant to be a parent. But the true story is this: I got lucky.

The me of nine years ago reaches forward in time. She takes the snapshot from my hand and reminds me of how badly I wanted the life I have now. She reminds me to listen in the dark as my children breathe. She reminds me of how tenuous all of this is, our lives together on this earth. We are the products of a series of infinite chances, bound to each other by the near-impossibility of it all.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays can be found in The New York Times MotherlodeThe Washington PostThe Manifest-Station and in the forthcoming HerStories anthology, So Glad They Told Me. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

When Little Things Take Root

When Little Things Take Root

By Heal McKnight

WO Little Things Take Root ArtIt’s early summer 1990, and Shelley’s kneeling among the carrot tops, running her hands through the dirt while I watch from the kitchen window. She looks to me like another organic shape out there, surrounded by soil and new green leaves and small staked tomatoes. Later, when the plants grow higher, I don’t always know at first glance which one’s her. She’s brown all over, her curly hair red and brown and gold all at the same time. I think our vegetables grow because they want to see her better, because she slowly and daily becomes the color of their dirt and they’ve come to trust her.

I know the mechanics of it all, the planting, the watering, the weeding, because I do that, too. But Shelley’s the one who notices the incremental, minuscule changes: the first flowers on the thick itchy squash vine, the first yellow-green shoots of leek. She brings me the first bright cherry tomato and slices it in half. We eat it together, sweet and warm, a perfect red-orange dome on my tongue before I bite down. By late August there’s salsa, armloads of tomatoes and peppers and onions all ready at the same time. Shelley brings them inside to me and I start chopping, hustle everything together into a bright bowl, then let it salsafy. I get out the chips. It’s what we’ll eat before dinner, what’ll fill us up so much we don’t really need dinner. This is how it is.

Shelley wants to be pregnant—we talked about that before we started dating, when we were just friends, when she was with a man and it seemed like they’d marry. “I wonder what it’s like to feel somebody growing inside your body,” she’d said one morning at an old diner over breakfast. “I wonder what it’s like to feel that kind of connection. I wonder what it’s like to give birth, and then have all those years with somebody. I think I’d be really good at it.” She’s a zoologist. She knows the science of breeding and the gestation behaviors and little pink babies. It makes sense to her and it also still seems like magic, and that’s what drew me in. And a few months later, when we started kissing, the fact that we were both women did not change her dreams of a baby. “Why should it?” she said. “Love is love—and love with you feels so much more real and exciting to me.” And that’s what drew me in deeper.

I want to parent. But I don’t want to give birth. I imagine myself a very bad pregnant person, nine months of dreading what’s coming next, the stretching and tearing and bearing down. Pretty easy decision, we tell people later when they ask why Shelley was the birth mom, my knees clamping together even as we explain.

We’ve talked to other lesbian moms so we know about Teri, the nurse-practitioner downtown. She treats us as an infertile couple. “You’ve been having unprotected sex for years, right? Still not pregnant? That’s infertility.” Shelley’s insurance covers that.

“So,” Teri says, settling into the chair next to us. Her office is decorated with pictures of speed skaters and rock climbers and people’s babies, plus one enormous jade plant. “How long have you been together?”

“Two and a half years,” Shelley tells her. “And we were friends before that. Part of why we’re together is that we both wanted kids.”

“And because she cracks me up,” I say. “Because she paddles a canoe beautifully, and she does these hilarious impressions of rodents.” Teri laughs and makes a few notes. I wonder what she thinks of us. I wonder if we look like we’ll make good moms.

We’ve done these things to get ready, we tell her: bought a two-flat near a great elementary school. Renting out the apartment upstairs pays most of our mortgage, so our money has gone into repairs and improvements: insulation, siding, better windows, warm wood floors. Shelley’s had the same job for eleven years, using animal models to research cancer cells. She’s got great insurance and a boss who knows she wants to get pregnant. As of last month, her car’s paid off. It’s a four-door, much easier when it comes to carseat installation. Also, for the last year we’ve been providing child care for two neighbor kids—practicing. We’ve held Meg through long afternoons of teething, learned to make the mushy beige cereal she likes. We’ve taken dry clothes to her brother Michael’s kindergarten in the middle of the day, after he’s fallen in a puddle again—the same puddle, many days in a row. Thursday afternoons we have both kids, and we take them on small adventures, visiting barnfuls of cows or pounding nails into wood scraps or making our own frozen yogurt. Last week we went to a playground by the lake and took windy pictures of each other, Shelley wearing Meg in a backpack, Michael floppy and disorganized and laughing hysterically with his hair blowing all over. Thursdays are my favorite day.

These are the early years of the lesbian baby boom, when two-mom families aren’t impossible but still aren’t common. We’ve become practiced at reciting our Why We Are Doing This resumé, assembling it dozens of times in our own heads and together, asking quiet questions late at night: What are we after here? Is there something we’re trying to prove? Are we made of strong enough material to be parents at all, let alone lesbian parents? What are we asking of a child, born into a family that needs explaining, patiently, more than once? Is this really okay?

In Teri’s office, Shelley’s holding my hand tight. “Can’t think of anyone I’d rather do this with,” she’d told me in a cave of covers one unexpectedly chilly June night, and right then something new had begun growing between us. “We’re really sure of this,” she says to Teri. “We’re ready.”

“I wish other couples were this prepared.” Teri’s stacking up paperwork for us. “The list of donor sperm is on this sheet.” She starts drawing on it with a green Hi-Liter. “With anonymous donors you get basic information: race and ethnicity, occupation, blood type, height. Not much else. You can get anyone on this list, if you’re willing to wait a few weeks. But if you really want to do it in the next week or two, the ones I’m highlighting are in stock.” She hands us the sheet with thirteen choices beaming at us, thirteen bright green possibilities.

We leave the office laughing, my arm around Shelley’s shoulders so hard she has to walk a little sideways. We know it’ll be soon-Shelley’s charted her temperature every morning for months, and it peaks and drops on graph paper like a drawing of the same mountain range over and over and over. Teri sends us to the pharmacy for an ovulation test kit, but we know it will likely be Thursday. We know that one of those hi-lit guys is our guy. I think we know we’re on our way to making something beautiful.

I hadn’t wanted to be a mom until after I came out; before I accepted my own queerness I’d imagined myself always alone, somehow avoiding the uncomfortable fact that I loved women. But once I did come out, in the first month of college to a sweet girl who liked me back, something new sent out tentative roots and began unfurling tiny green leaves and buds. My heart grew sweeter with each passing season, a little awkward and embarrassed with each new flower, but I secretly loved the smell. I started leaning in toward other people’s babies, toward other people.

In the end, the story was that simple, that old, that familiar: we love each other. We like kids. We’re ready.


We’re looking at a little paper strip, trying to determine “twice as blue.” The ovulation indicator measures levels of lutenizing hormone, which Shelley describes to me as the hormonal trumpet blast that comes just before the egg’s released. When the strip turns twice as blue as it was the day before, we should fertilize. Yesterday’s test is a gentle blue, robin’s-egg. Today’s is slightly bluer than a bleached sky on a really hot day.

“Is that twice as blue?” Shelley’s looking over the top of her glasses. We’re sitting on the foot of the bed, the wrought iron one she’s had since third grade. She holds the test strip near the window, then under the reading lamp by my head.

“It’s darker under the lightbulb,” she says. “Definitely darker than yesterday. I don’t know.” She stacks the strips on the dresser and slides back under the comforter with me. Her hair, a wild explosion of corkscrews when I first met her, has been cut short. I put my arms around her. She scootches down, fits her face into the bay of my neck and shoulder. She reaches across me, hands me the strips. “What do you think?”

I’m a little intimidated, frankly. Today, I don’t feel quite ready. She’s 32 and stable. I turn 25 this month. I’m working a hippie job that pays hippie wages. I don’t have health insurance, or even a doctor—just the bald guy at the pharmacy by the train tracks. Articles about saving for retirement now mention people in my age bracket, and I am not contributing to a savvy investment account. I still dress like an adolescent boy, still skateboard, still want to take drum lessons someday. Today I don’t feel like parent material. I’m okay about trying now because it almost never happens the first time-fourth, fifth, sixth try is the average, Shelley tells me, because she’s researched the stats. And those stats are for straight people getting pregnant in more traditional ways, which they can practice several times each month. Somehow by the time I’m twenty-five and a half, I can imagine being ready. But not today. Because today I can’t even responsibly form an opinion on shades of blue.

“I don’t know,” I tell her. “Today’s is definitely more blue. What’s your chart say?”

“I think I’m ovulating today or tomorrow,” she says. That’s what the chart predicts. And she’s been practicing feeling it happen, trying to feel the little pop of an ovary firing an egg. “I can’t tell exactly,” she’s saying now. “But I know we’re close.”

She looks so serious when she talks, but even then she’s got those eyes: light gray, small and intense but looking at me so softly and holding on. “Should we just try today?” I ask. “Just to get that first try out of the way?” I hug her closer—I’m still scared but I feel a little squish of excitement, too. I think about how happy Michael sounds when he laughs, how much I love it when he draws Shelley with a crayon, and I know how quickly I could get all the way ready.

We’ve already chosen our donor—he’s white, German and French, has wavy brown hair. He probably doesn’t look that different from both of us. He’s an occupational therapist, which we hope means compassionate. He has a medium-size frame, which we hope means a nice size to push out of a birth canal.

“I’m free after lunch,” Shelley says. “I’m taking the afternoon off.”

“I can leave work,” I tell her. “I’d have to go back, but I can miss part of the afternoon.”

She calls for an appointment.

*   *   *

Insemination doesn’t take long. I hold Shelley’s hand, our palms sweating together, as Teri slides in the speculum. “I’m putting the sperm right by the cervix,” she says, “so it might be uncomfortable.” It’s uncomfortable for me-I feel my own body folding itself tighter, notice my own knees mash together harder as I see Shelley’s face squinch up for a minute. “And that,” Teri says, “is all there is to it. Lie on the table for ten minutes or so. Let ’em swim. We’ll do this tomorrow, too—same time.” She clicks off the overhead fluorescent on her way out, and the room goes all soft, sweet late-September light filtering in through the blinds, and we’re both a little teary. I lean down to kiss her. “I love you,” I tell her. She wipes her eyes and nods.

Within a day, she says she feels a quick grab happening in her body, a sudden cramp, a minor wave of nausea. She’s sure, though nobody she calls has ever heard of somebody feeling implantation. But this time empirical evidence doesn’t matter as much—she knows what she felt, and what changed on her face stays changed.

We can’t use the home pregnancy test for two weeks. We plunge into our jobs, the sports we play, anything not about babies because we don’t want to mess it up. It starts getting cold out, and like every year we avoid turning on the furnace—just layer blankets on the bed, bundle ourselves in sweatshirts, wear stocking caps inside. We rake leaves, put away the hammock, and I suspect we’re both imagining springtime, wondering what will be ripening then in Shelley’s belly. We clean out gutters, tidy up, batten down, and when it’s time Shelley pours her first morning pee into the little test tube and squirts in chemicals. Clear means no. Pink means yes.

“At least there’s no twice as clear,” Shelley says, as soon as she mixes. The test tube sits in its own little holder in the bathroom. We’re huddled together watching it, waiting, bundled up and plump in layers of sweatshirts. The oven timer goes off. The mixture is still clear.

“But I felt something happen,” she says. “I know I’m pregnant.” She sounds frustrated, the way she sounds when she’s puzzling over experiments at work. She peers at the tube. “Let’s give it more time,” she says. I turn on the coffeemaker. We wait.  After breakfast the tube is still clear. We pack lunches and finish getting dressed. I hug her for a long time at the door. “It almost never happens the first time,” I say, though I can feel her thinking in my arms. “We’ll just keep trying,” I say. I’m not sure yet how I’m feeling, but I’ll sort that out while I bike to work. I suspect I’m disappointed.

“I think the test is wrong,” she says, checking it again—still clear. I can see her trying to pick apart its science. We kiss each other quickly and ride off in different directions.

When I get home she’s already there, grinning hard. “Room temperature,” she almost shouts. “I thought about it right before lunch. These things work at room temperature, and our house this morning was fifty-eight degrees.” She raced home right away, picked up the test tube, held it in her warm hand—and it pinked up almost instantly, she says. “Then I went in for blood tests just to be sure.” She’s thrusting a pamphlet at me. “You Are Going To Be A Parent,” it says.

We’re laughing so hard we can’t tell whose is whose. “I can’t believe you didn’t call me,” I’m saying into her neck, laughing and tasting her hair and feeling her whole body buzzing inside her skin. “I would’ve gone with you. I would’ve loved that.” She was too excited to wait, she tells me. Drove to the doctor like a banshee, wanted to get the blood test and know absolutely, wanted to say something to me only after she had proof. I can imagine her driving home slower, more carefully, auditioning ways to tell me.

“I was glad for the pamphlet,” she says. “I couldn’t wait to show you that.”

I’m looking at it now in my shaky hand: purple copy paper. A smiling heterosexual couple on the front, gazing at a sweet bundle of baby. I rearrange things in my head until it’s two women, maybe Shelley and me, holding the little person who’s maybe half the size of a poppyseed today, or even smaller. I can’t stop hugging Shelley and whoever’s inside. I can’t stop knowing that from here everything gets bigger.

Heal McKnight lives with her family in Arcata, California. Her work appears in Brevity, poemmemoirstory, and Teaching English in the Two-Year College.

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