Infertility is an insidious monster. It sneaks up on you, taking a bite here, a nibble there. It feeds on your life and on your relationships.
For a long time I didn’t recognize the monster. But one day I saw it in my reflection in the dresser mirror. There it was, staring back at me through the dullness in my eyes, the stress lines around my mouth, the droop of my cheeks. I hadn’t always looked like that.
My eye caught a photo on the dresser. My husband and I grinned from the silver frame. John’s arms were looped around my shoulders in a casual embrace. Behind us, the ornate doors of Notre Dame rose to the top of the picture. Paris. It had been beautiful that May. And we were two young lovers walking its streets hand in hand as we celebrated our first anniversary. We were so happy then. Innocent, in love, and looking forward to a future filled with the promise of giggling children and vacations that would take us to Disneyland instead of Paris. Those were the good days. I could see it in the shine of my eyes, hear it in the laughter that would spill from my lips a moment after the camera shutter clicked. I could remember how easily John and I use to laugh together, how he would tease me when I wanted to take just one more photo. I would chuckle and skip away from him to ask yet another stranger to snap our picture. But that was BI — Before Infertility — and those days were gone.
I sighed and traced my finger over the image of my face in the picture. I seemed so vibrant, so alive, so different from the way I felt now. I looked again into the mirror. Who was this woman?
Gone was the beautiful young wife my husband married. Instead, I felt like a baby-making machine that didn’t work. As a result our love life had become sterile and mechanical. The purpose of intimacy was no longer to share our love, but to produce a baby; not to enjoy each other, but to accomplish a goal. We scheduled our time together based on the reading of an ovulation predictor stick and according to the instructions given by our doctor. On the magic day when the stick read positive, I would call my husband and say, “Today’s the day,” and later that evening, whether we felt like it or not, we would do our “duty,” our thoughts focused on the baby we hoped to conceive. No more romance, no more spontaneity, no more passion.
Slowly I turned from the dresser mirror, walked downstairs, and pulled a photo album from beneath the coffee table. I sat on the couch and flipped through its pages. Photo after photo revealed the joy of our life together: John making a face at me from behind a glass of sparkling cider. Me grinning from the top of a tall boulder, where I had climbed during a summer hike. The two of us dancing at a friend’s wedding. A snapshot of me, hair rumpled, sipping a cup of coffee at the breakfast table.
As I looked at the pictures, I realized that it wasn’t only our love that had changed; our daily interaction was also affected by the infertility beast. Once I had been a normal, even-tempered woman. But the monster had nibbled away at me, leaving a person who constantly teetered on the brink of anger or tears. When John was late for our appointment at the infertility clinic, I accused him of not caring. When he tried to tease me like he used to, I called him callous. When he said it would be okay if we never had children, I burst into tears and refused to speak to him for days. In my sane moments, I knew he was doing his best to understand me. But somehow it just wasn’t enough.
As I sat there studying the difference between the woman in the photos and the one in the mirror, the thoughts I’d been fighting for months flooded through my mind. John should have married someone else. He could have had a family by now. How could he still love me? Did he regret saying “I do” so many years ago? Could we ever recapture the love we once had? Would we ever feel normal again?
It seemed like every week that passed, every month that proved I still wasn’t pregnant, the monster grew stronger. Every day it consumed a little more of the love between John and me. Somehow we had forgotten each other in this pain-filled journey through infertility. We’d forgotten how to really see each other, to rejoice in what we loved about the other. Instead, we had become so focused on the goal of having a baby that we were blind to everything else.
We needed a change. I needed a change. Somewhere inside, an attractive, fun-loving woman was hiding. I just had to find a way to let her out again.
A week later, when the ovulation stick read positive, I was determined to make things different. That night I dressed in my best black velvet gown, did up my hair, carefully put on my makeup, and wore the special sapphire earrings my husband had given me three years before. I bought a bottle of wild new perfume and dabbed it on my wrists and behind my ears. Then I looked in the mirror and smiled. It was a forced smile at first, but at least it was a start, a beginning to recapturing the woman of fun and romance that I’d once been.
As the first stars started to peek from the evening sky, I set up our back patio table with a tablecloth, candlesticks, and our best china. My husband’s favorite meal was bubbling in the oven and light music drifted from the stereo in the family room when John arrived home. I still remember the look of surprise on his face. I lifted my chin and offered the smile I had practiced earlier. “Because I love you, and I love us,” I replied. “Tonight we’re celebrating each other.”
John raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure you’re my wife?”
I grinned and pointed to the camera I’d placed on the table. “How many pictures do I have to take to convince you?”
He laughed. “Oh, only a hundred or so.”
I picked up the camera and snapped his picture. “Now go up and change your clothes and hurry back. It’s a date night.”
“Whatever you say.” He jogged upstairs to our bedroom while I finished preparing the meal.
As we sat down to homemade lasagna and glasses of sparkling cider, I realized something. I felt attractive again. I felt alive. And I noticed how handsome my husband was, more so than the day we were married.
For the next hour we talked and laughed and reminisced about our favorite memories as a couple. Then when we’d finished our meal, John stood and extended a hand toward me. “Care to dance, m’lady?”
I nodded and placed my hand in his. There, under the moonlight, we danced with my cheek on his shoulder and his mouth near my ear.
“We’re going to make it through all this, you know,” he whispered.
And for that moment, I believed him. Beneath the stars, with my husband’s arms around me, the monster of infertility grew weaker, until I thought we might be able to survive the pain, disappointment, and sorrow — if only we could remember to love each other.
After that night, we planned a special date night whenever the ovulation stick read positive. The next month John brought me roses and took me to my favorite restaurant. The following month we snuggled in front of the fireplace and roasted marshmallows over the glowing coals. They were simple things, but they reminded us to listen to each other and to care. These dates soon became times we cherished, as we focused on appreciating each other, on listening to one another, and on hearing the other’s heart. In doing so, they took the pressure away from performance, away from the goal of producing a baby, and instead gave us time to pay special attention to our relationship.
To my surprise, after a few months we began to find it easier to enjoy each other during the “regular” times, like doing yard work together or washing the cars or folding clothes. Soon, we found ourselves planning more trips together. With the expense of infertility treatments, we didn’t have the money for vacations to Paris anymore, but we could take a walk on the beach, or see a funny movie, or take a drive to the country to watch the sunset. On Saturday afternoons we started to enjoy picnics in the park like we had in our college days before we were married — anything to help us remember how to laugh again, to remind us why we fell in love.
I’ll admit the pressure of trying to have a baby still haunts us, and sometimes I feel the monster still nibbling at my heart. But now I know that at least once a month John and I will tell each other how much we love the other, and we’ll take time to laugh together like we used to. And for that one day the monster will be held at bay. For that moment, at least, I know I’ll be able to remember the woman God made me to be, the woman who once smiled into a camera in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
From Empty Womb, Aching Heart by Marlo Schalesky, Copyright © 2001.
Used by permission of Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group, Copyright © 2001. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.
Read more at BakerBooks.com.