It was a little after October when I told my mom we were trying to get pregnant. October is my favorite time of year. I have an intense, if not inexplicably deep love for all things Halloween – pumpkins and Charlie Brown music, apple cider, and the color orange. I throw a Halloween party each year and in the months (yes, months) preceding, my house is filled with party planning – half made decorations strewn on the dinning room table, craft supplies in giant bags in the library, tubs of decorations carried down from the attic to line the wall in our dinning room. Mom has always loved this endeavor, oohing and ahhing over each picture texted to her when another project is finished. So it was with particular timing that she decided to do a solo visit and drove out to see us.
MJ and I had made our decision several months earlier and were keeping it mum – which if you know me and my family is something of a miracle. I still hadn’t intended to tell her that month. I had, like a giddy fool, already envisioned all the magical ways I would tell them, when there was actually something to tell, but I hadn’t intended it to be then, that visit, so early. The arrival of my period left me little choice.
For nearly four years I had a long break from my menstrual cycle, which as a feminist I’m slightly embarrassed to admit, was actually fantastic and in no way upsetting. In retrospect I worry a lot about chemicals, and hormone imbalances and disruptions and, yes, the wasting of time, but for those years my decision was fueled primarily by competing health concerns, namely, a severe stage 4 case of endometriosis that the depo provera at least left in check long enough that I could function day to day. In fact, despite what conservatives would claim, I can assure you that for the majority of that time, my use of the depo shot each month was entirely for health care and not in the least for actual birth control, since that would require me to actually have sex.
MJ and I met three years into the blissful time were no money was spent on pads, tampons, or special wash to clean panties that had not survived despite the rigorous combination of said pads and tampons. And it was a year and some months later, already moved in together, always together in fact, and very much settled and committed to each other, that we decided over vegetable fried rice and kimchee dumplings to try and start a family.
That October, the very day my mother arrived, after eight months of waiting and no more shots, my period finally returned. I had not had the foresight to re-stock with period fighting essentials. And so as I stood bleeding into a wad of tissue paper stuffed in a doomed pair of underwear I explained to my mom why we had to go to the store before we went out to lunch to get some tampons, and then of course, why exactly I was having a period in the first place.
My mom cried. That’s very like her. I once told a friend a story about one of the many jokes my brother played on my mom that made her cry and said friend was shocked that my brother was so persuasive in the joke. Both MJ and I had to shake our heads. It is pretty easy to make her cry. Sometimes you don’t have to do anything at all. In this instance I only had to bleed.
My parents love MJ. My mother in particular thinks he walks on water and can do no wrong. Having long ago come to terms with the reality that she will never get to plan my wedding (I have never really wanted one, and if I did would not let her plan it), and having already been broken in by my brother to the idea of children out of wedlock, I suspected my mother’s joy had more to do with the idea that MJ would be permanently attached to our family than the prospect of more grand-kids. But a part of me also thought she might be excited by the idea of me being a mom. That maybe there is something special in a mother watching her daughter become a mother – some circle of life feeling. Or maybe even she thought I’d be good at it. I never asked cause I didn’t want to make a big deal of it, and I didn’t want to make her cry again.
That first month we didn’t conceive but I was actually happy when my period showed up as I had read that some women coming off Depo did not always cycle regularly at first. I excitedly told MJ, “Guess what. We get to try again!” The next month I was less enthusiastic to need more tampons. In addition to the disappointment, I was just now remembering why I had not missed my period all those years.
My mom kept track on her own at first. At least as best she could. Having had both of her kids by the age of twenty-two after receiving a Catholic education, she was not all that familiar with basic biological facts like how to figure out your cycle, and the lifespan of an egg. Two conversations I found immensely entertaining. She would call and ask the day of my cycle and what was happening. She’d note when my period was due and call that day. She’d ask a lot about signs and how I was feeling. It got painful after awhile. By the time a year had passed I had already begun to try and ignore the long wait of the lutueal phase. I had begun to ignore bodily signs and wait only for the days to pass after my period was to start. Time was the only factor I considered, and after a year of spending hundreds on pregnancy tests I took and failed, I had decided to only call the doctor if I was at least two weeks late. It has still never happened. And her constant questions only made things harder.
I’ve never been very good at figuring out how to communicate with my mother. She is vibrant and out-going, has no real shame or censor, and believes all good things come from long, detailed conversations. I am dull and introverted. I have tons of shame for all kinds of things, and censor pretty much everything. I believe all bad things come from saying too much, and have taken Don Corleone’s advice to “never speak outside of the family” so seriously that I’ve extended it to inside the family as well. (There’s a reason this blog is anonymous.) I was never very girly in a way she clearly was and wished I could be. I don’t like to talk about things in detail and can shut down pretty quickly when someone pushes me. It was always hard for me to relate to my mom. I long suspected she could being doing a better of job of relating to me since I am, after all, exactly like my father, and she’d been married to him way before I came along. But that was unfair, and I started to realize that when it came down to something so basically female as this, our different attitudes towards life began to clash even more.
My mom is a fixer by nature. She has never heard of a problem or situation she didn’t have some advice for, and this has always greatly annoyed me. When it was becoming increasingly apparent that I was not going to get pregnant easily or anytime soon, we hit our first communicate hurdle. Mom could not fix me and she ran out of productive things to say. I could not be fixed and I began to resent what advice she still gave. MJ has told me, and I suppose many would agree, that I do not take judgment well, or, frankly at all. This is true. My mom’s advice, so pointless to me in the face of the reality of my situation, smacked of judgment and upset me greatly. But at the same time I failed to consider how upset she must have been, how helpless she felt unable to make things better for her only daughter, and how trying to still fix it was all she knew to do. We were angry, sad ships passing in the night and then turning around to pass each other again the next day.
In the first year I wrote in my mom’s Mother Day cards, “hopefully next year we can celebrate this together!” But after the second year I stopped. Mom used to ask every month and get antsy waiting to see if my period started, but after a year or so, she stopped keeping track. There is only so much you can take as an infertile couple, and I guess there is also only so much the people around you can take too.
After a year or so my body really began to revolt. The endometriosis returned leading to surgeries, and then the IC was diagnosed. I spent more and more time in bed under a heating pad, sucking down pain pills and trying to just get through the day. I had to go on FMLA and when that ran out I blew through my vacation and sick time until I had to take leave without pay on the days I was in too much pain to get to work. All the while, months past with no luck and no real changes.
My mom began to resent my cycle. She would track where I was only to be able to track the most painful days. She would drop not subtle hints about more surgery, about removing the other ovary, about not trying anymore. I didn’t take it well. I felt betrayed and unsupported. She could not find a good way to convey that she was worried about my health and wanted me better. I could not see past my own anger and sadness to see she was just being a mom.
Now it is three years, two surgeries, and numerous failed efforts to conceive later and my mother and I have never returned to any type of even footing. When October came around this year, I opted not to throw the Halloween party, feeling too run-down from my unstable health and too poor from the effect of so much unpaid leave. My mother applauded the decision. No arts and crafts were done, no marathon cooking sessions, no hours spent putting together a costume. I did not bother to bring down the boxes of decorations from the attic. I did not decorate the house, even just for MJ and I, though Halloween remains our favorite holiday. We did not even get a single pumpkin to carve. And I never drank any cider, because in truth, the sweet, sugary drink causes my IC to flare up. The holiday, the whole season of Fall felt hollow to me, like something was missing. There were no texts to send my mom this year, no fun conversation about the Halloween party.
My parents and I speak at least every other day, mostly every day. It’s an involved family. My parents visit often, and not so subtly suggest I visit more. If I go more than two days without calling my father will get on the phone and pretend he doesn’t know who I am. My mom will get on the phone and ask if I am made at her, and if it’s been more than three days, her voice will crack and tremble a little as if she were about to cry. But in these conversations now, we don’t discuss my infertility much.
This month my period came the same day I went shipping for a friend’s baby shower. I found the timing particularly cruel and did not handle it well. When I reluctantly answered the phone that night to speak to my mom I tried to explain why I was upset and why it was a bad day, but she didn’t seem to understand. She kept asking questions and suggesting there must be more than that to be upset. She was not trying to be insensitive, but it occurred to me that after three years she assumes I must feel differently. I must be used to it, or have developed coping skills, or, at the least a sense of humor. Maybe I should have, but I haven’t. I hung up later thinking again that there is only so much the people around you can take.
I think my mom has infertility fatigue. Maybe it is a defense mechanism for a mom who does not want to see her child in pain. Maybe she has quite literally in three years run out of things to say. Maybe she has already accepted that this is never going to happen and she can”t understand why I haven’t, or she’s just patiently waiting for me to catch up. Whatever the reason, she is tired of it. I do not blame her. I can see the same look on the faces of friends who have been confidants for the past three years. I can see it on MJ’s face at times too. It is that exhausted look, that look that begs to change the subject, that look of pity mixed with frustration. I imagine they are all wondering when I am going to get a clue. I imagine they are all wondering when I will finally move on. I imagine they are all wondering when I will just be quiet. I imagine a lot of things because I am completely projecting.
But not on the fatigue. I think that is true. I think there is only so much you can say to someone in my position. There is only so much you can relate to, or hear over and over. There are only so many remarks you can make in return, or ways to say “sorry,” or methods for expressing compassion. It is a lot to ask of another person to carry such a heavy burden of your own sadness and frustration. It is a lot to ask someone to be there for you through such a difficult thing as infertility. I am starting only now to realize this. I hope I can do better because of it.
It is hardest with my mother, who, as a mother, I unfairly expect her to understand me. My parents are incredibly loving people, always putting my brother and I first. I know without asking that they would do anything, endure anything, forgo anything for their kids. I think to myself in frustration, how can my mom not realize I would do the same just for the chance to have a child. I would suffer whatever pain there is, have whatever surgeries I need, all just to become a mother. But of course she cannot accept this because she is in fact my mother and as such, she cannot bear me going through any of this. It is the same love she has taught me to have that makes it hard for her to understand the things I do in trying to conceive. And it is that same love that makes it hard for me to understand her.
I wish I could go back to that first October and capture the image of my mother’s face, back when it was full of hope and excitement, back when she thought MJ and I would get pregnant and have kids and live happily ever after. It was a good moment, a great face. I regret what the past three years have done to her, and what face she must have now on the other end of the phone as I cry about pain and infertility and sadness. I regret the two ships we’ve boarded and how they drift further apart, the gulf of my infertility pushing as back and forth, closer then farther, nearing and then passing. I fear what future waves and turbulence will do to us.
My mother tells me over the phone that her and my father are going to come visit MJ and I on Valentine’s Day weekend. At first I am annoyed that it wouldn’t occur to them it’s maybe a weekend for MJ and I. Never being terribly romantic people, I am sure neither considered that we might have had valentine’s day plans. But as time passes and February nears, I start to look forward to it. I don’t know where I’ll be in my cycle or if I’ll be in a lot of pain and no fun or upset and no fun, but I decide to forget about all of it while they are here. I decide to make seeing them, and talking to them not about me for once, and absolutely not about my infertility. In this way, maybe my boat can near her’s again.