Brave Tuesday Story: My Struggle with Infertility
Each week's Brave Tuesday Story draws from a member of our community. Today we are honored to feature Rachel McElroy's pursuit of vulnerability in the face of grief and the unknowable.
“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”
That quote came from Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly: How Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. It’s a book I’m currently reading in an effort to become better at being vulnerable. This past year and a half, I’ve learned that I’m pretty bad at it.
I’m a person that is careful. This has been very useful for me. I’m not quick to anger, and I don’t fall on my face often. I do take risks, but only if a risk can still be defined as a calculated adventure that is considered over a series of weeks or months. It can’t? Oh okay. I don’t take risks.
Since 2014, I’ve been on a long struggle that includes an infinite number of emotional and physical risks, and I’ve been hesitant to make myself truly vulnerable and tell anyone about it. When I have told people, I’ve almost instantly regretted it. Honestly, if I could go back and untell every single person, I probably would.
My perpetually brave friend Stephie Grob Plante suggested that sharing my struggle on I Keep Dancing might be helpful because it’s a community for people who are facing grief and hardship. More than that, it’s a place where people are trying to “keep dancing” through adversity. Stephie has helped me realize that part of dancing is being vulnerable, and that in vulnerability there is a tremendous opportunity for strength and joy. The truth is, there’s very little about my struggle that has made me feel like dancing.
My struggle is infertility.
Infertility is defined as the inability to get pregnant after one year of unprotected sex. As soon as you hit that one year mark, you’re a member of a very exclusive totally bummer club. For me, it’s been about a year and a half. Eighty-five percent of couples trying to get pregnant will conceive within one year. If you’re not in that 85%, you’re a member of my club.
Infertility isn’t an obstacle you can overcome until you get pregnant. That wouldn’t be worth stating except most obstacles can be conquered with a formula for success. Typically some combination of training and time will help you reach a goal. This is not that kind of obstacle. So it’s hard to talk about.
It’s difficult to spot us 15 percenters out in the world. Often we’re that happy couple that travels a lot, or is endlessly dedicated to our jobs. When you see us, you think that maybe we’re waiting to have kids until we’ve seen the world and built our careers. What you’re not seeing is how desperately we’re trying to distract ourselves from a feeling of hopelessness that is just below the surface. What seems on the outside like conscious waiting is more like strained patience.
When you’re trying to become pregnant, you have to do just that: try. And when it doesn’t work? It’s hard to not feel that you’ve failed. Especially when the success of the 85% seems so close. The more you struggle and watch couples successfully get pregnant and have children, the more you feel left behind.
Each month that passes as we try feels like the death of a small wish I made for myself. A wish to be pregnant in time for my anniversary, in time for Christmas, in time for Valentine’s Day, in time for my friend’s wedding. And after each wish dies, I grieve. And the nature of this grieving is such that it is done in private. Because it happens a lot.
What I’m dealing with is officially called “Unexplained Infertility.” As mysterious as it sounds, this diagnosis encompasses up to 30% of all cases of infertility. Somehow, when it comes to the inability to conceive, it’s totally acceptable to pair the word “unexplained” with “diagnosis.” It’s like sending a person to prison with a sentence of “unexplained murder.”
The unexplained quality of my condition is the very reason that I was hesitant to share my story. I have no idea where the narrative is going and how I might get to my happy ending. The story seems to change constantly, and at the same time be endlessly tedious. Sharing all of this feels like a pretty significant risk.
The adversity I’ve faced through my infertility has forced me to be vulnerable because, after each setback, I have to try again and open myself up to the painful emotion that makes me human: hope. Each month my first inclination is to feel sadness and anger. Hope is so much harder.
I’d like to say I’m going to, if nothing else, at least win the battle to be vulnerable, but I don’t think it will be a finite victory. I’m sure I’ll drop my defenses only to build them up again after the next setback. But I think sharing this story will help me face my shame. And the less shame I have, the more room I have to chase my instinct for hope. And the more hopeful I am, the more I feel like dancing.
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