Sisterhood Blog

Talking Infertility With Strangers

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

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In her post “Why Infertility Breeds Silence,” my fellow Sisterhood blogger Elissa Strauss writes about the silence surrounding conception and infertility in her group of friends in the child-bearing stage of life. She observes that it:

feels as though we lack a vocabulary for how to discuss these things and as a result conversations are often awkward. I wish I would hear more first-person accounts about trying to conceive from friends. I want to hear about the pain and frustration and the fun and joy. I understand that for some trying to get pregnant is something they feel should be kept private, and I respect that, but sometimes privacy hurts more than it helps.

Having conceived and given birth to three kids, and suffering some all-too-common early miscarriages along the way, I would question Elissa’s assertion about privacy sometimes hurting more than it helps when it comes to the business of procreation. Granted, I live in Israel, where women have the opposite problem: Every woman’s uterus seems to be the whole country’s business and people don’t seem to stop talking about having babies.

In their uninhibited way, Israelis have no problem asking a member of their family, one of their friends or stranger sitting next to them on a bus, “Nu, so are you going to start having children already?” If you confess to being married for more than a year before having children, you will often be advised as to the preferred infertility clinics and courses of treatment. So the very ability to stay silent about it is something of a luxury.

Having other people know that you are ‘trying’ is often difficult. The thing is, once the cat is out of the bag, you can’t take it back, and no one ever forgets. It starts to dominate every encounter: There is the unspoken question at every encounter and during every phone call, month after month after month. Even when a friend is discreet enough not to openly ask “So, any luck this month?” you feel the question in their searching look.

And yet, Elissa is right that it needs to be talked about. Trying to conceive a child is a big event, it is important, and it can dominate your thoughts. Especially if you are experiencing infertility or miscarriage, you need to express your strong emotions. But, having been there, I know that when you are having trouble conceiving, you don’t necessarily want to talk about it with your dear friend who may be pregnant or have a baby herself or who, having not yet tried, is blissfully unaware of the difficulties. Such conversations, even with the most sympathetic friend can hurt too much. You want to talk about it with women who are going through the same thing — even if they are total strangers.

We live in a magical age when this is possible. I first started trying to get pregnant a whopping 18 years ago, when the Internet was still in its infancy, when it was essentially used for email, and the web had not yet transformed the world.

From the very beginning, the earliest Internet forums included those for women who were TTC (trying to conceive) and specifically, were dealing with infertility and miscarriage, to share information, but mostly, to commiserate with women who were going through the exact same experience. I went on the TTC forums, later graduating to a forum for women who got pregnant and were due in the same month: September 1996.

Our support group, which evolved into a Yahoo Group, went through the difficulties of raising infants and toddlers together, into childhood. Amazingly, we are still together today, offering each other a shoulder when it comes to the challenges of parenting teenagers (most of us are nostalgic for the problems of breastfeeding and diaper rash; they were much easier to solve!) These women live all over the United States; two are in Australia and several in Europe. At first, some of us carefully maintained our anonymity, but as the years passed, we all gave up our full identities. I’ve now met many of them face-to-face, but our real intimacies were exchanged in the middle of the night on our computers. I know things about them and their children that my closest real-life friends haven’t shared with me. It’s simply easier to pour out your heart, and allow yourself to be vulnerable with someone who you know you’ll never bump into at the supermarket.

Today, the web offers not only a host of websites for women who are trying to conceive and dealing with infertility, but a spectrum of blogs, where women, often without identifying themselves by name, chronicle their personal journey and often build a community of fellow travelers in their comments. They are written by every type of woman: a quick Google search came up with this profound one authored by an Orthodox woman named Rivka. who described her pain so vividly it brought tears to my eyes:

This journey through infertility has been sheer hell. I would not wish this on anyone. I do not want this for myself and other couples. As much as I love my husband, I wish we could have children to complete our family. I would love to raise Jewish children, to teach our 3 year old daughter to light Shabbos candles. I would love to see her hug my husband, and hear her say, “Tatti I love you.” I would love to see my husband teach our son how to recite Birchas HaMazon. I dream of seeing our son walking to shul with my husband. I dream of making challah with my babies and watching them get flour all over themselves. I dream of buying frilly socks and black patent leather shoes for my baby girl. I dream of hearing baby laughs. I dream of having a noisy house full of the chatter of children, and a peaceful evening with my husband. I dream of seeing my husband look with fascination at our baby and not somebody else’s baby.

These are probably words that ‘Rivka’ (it is most likely not her real name) can’t say out loud to even her closest friends, especially in her community. In public, she is probably one of the silent infertile. To hear her words — you have to turn on your computer.

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