“This one is for your ovaries.”
Feet shuffle over to the other side of the table, and I feel a slight sting in the cartilage of my left ear.
“And this is for your uterus.”
I am lying half-dressed on a massage table, one heat lamp hovering over a cluster of needles on my abdomen and a second angled toward my feet. My bare toes are tucked inside hand-stitched fleece slippers. They have cats on them.
This is my third session of fertility acupuncture, and I’m struck by the easy confidence of the woman who just set a ticking egg timer and softly closed the door behind her. I try to close my eyes and relax–to let myself be lulled to sleep by the sounds of (yup) a pan flute–but instead I scan the room and gingerly scratch my belly.
Stuffed inside the floor-to-ceiling bookshelf is a mostly circumscribed collection of titles: The Fertility Diet, The Infertility Diet, It’s Your Hormones, Conquering Infertility, Taking Charge of Your Fertility, Budgeting for Infertility, Infertility Sucks!, and Julia Child’s My Life in France (little-known treatise on the reproductive process). A statue of the human body–comically rendered modest with the addition of a knotted scarf–is perched on a small side table, my mug of tea cooling next to it. I can just hear Lisa’s voice in the waiting room as she greets another client. She is busy, and I take this as a good sign: there are other women like me, women falling somewhere on the spectrum between “curious” and “desperate.” Women who want something that their bodies are mysteriously, woefully, perhaps wisely precluding. Women who, to hear many Western medicine practitioners tell it, might as well be burning dollar bills and rubbing mangoes on their eyebrows.
We have been trying to have a second baby. I have been diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (“PCOS”), a common endocrine system disorder among women of reproductive age. Nearly one-third of all infertility diagnoses are PCOS, and it has been dubbed the “silent killer” because of its seemingly unrelated range of symptoms and life-threatening health risks. My reproductive endocrinologist reports that I have irregular cycles, high glucose levels, and a characteristic pattern of immature ovarian follicles. Other women may exhibit hirsutism, male-pattern hair loss, acne, or obesity. All are at higher risk for Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart attacks, and endometrial cancer. It is incurable.
I share this information not to air my dirty laundry or solicit sympathy, but to reassure similarly-situated women that they aren’t alone. Sometimes the scariest part of struggle is its perceived exclusivity–and it’s even scarier when that singular struggle is couched in language you don’t understand. Until diagnosis, I didn’t know that even the most amorous heterosexual couples our age have only a 15-20% chance each month of getting pregnant. I couldn’t pick my cervix out of an anatomical lineup. And I imagined my fallopian tubes as a dual-piped pitching machine. I was basically asleep during that 50-minute middle school Health lecture–or, more likely, color-coding my worthless notes and admiring Vanessa Osman’s impossibly luxurious hair.
Putting a name to my problem has led me down a (surprisingly empowering) rabbit hole of research and self-discovery. Of course, I’m clearly not a doctor, so I can’t and won’t tell you what to do if you have PCOS or think you might have PCOS or can’t get pregnant or peg me a fool for giving acupuncture a try. But I will say this: infertility ain’t for sissies, and we’re only just getting started. We’ve read the books, bought the supplements, stocked the low-glycemic pantry, and earmarked our savings–yet my heart breaks for the friends and family members and strangers who have endured years of disappointment.
Because the desire for children often accompanies a longing for community, I’ve been in situations more than once where those “strangers” have quickly become anything but. While checking out some books one afternoon, the librarian shyly credited one of my selections with the birth of her now-seven-year-old daughter. By the end of our earnest yet awkward exchange, it was only the barrier of the circulation desk that prevented us from having a talk show moment. Even my Spanish tutor shared her journey with me–including recommendations for Peruvian herbs–and voiced her frustration that American culture uses the word “infertility” in the first place. Again, I was quietly thankful for the imposed aloofness of my web cam. My increasingly permeable personal boundaries can only take so much testing.
I know what many of you are thinking. “But you already have a kid!” (This is arguably one of those “8 things that will not support your friend with secondary infertility,” but listicle clickbait is so 2015.) You’re right. We have a child: a loving, intelligent, 100% perfect little snowflake. And we want another one. And whether it’s a Torchy’s taco or a baby, not getting want you want is hard.
I don’t mean to be flippant–babies are infinitely cooler than tacos. But the void carved by unmet desire is something we can all understand, whether you’re yearning for a first baby, a second baby, true love, or lunch. So go ahead: buy the Maca root powder. Aim for an acute case of Tinder thumb. Blow your tax refund on an overnight shipment of Austin’s best Tex-Mex. I’ll be applauding your proactive pursuit of joy while I rub mangoes on my eyebrows.