Infertility and growth in the year of cancelled plans

I can’t write about my own experience without recognizing how difficult this year has been for everyone. The death, destruction, and economic hardship that has come from covid — 19, in addition to the brutal killings of black people across the country, and the ongoing racial injustice and systematic oppression so many people of color experience on a daily basis has been nothing short of horrifying. I am incredibly privileged to have a partner and dog whom I adore and to still be employed. Though I’m grateful for these things, this has personally been one of the hardest years of my life.

January 2020

I found out I was pregnant on the first Friday of 2020. My husband, Jason, and I were overflowing with joy, and shocked that it only took us five months of trying. Jason made a baby-themed playlist for my first trimester and we immediately started planning for a nursery.

When we went to our first prenatal appointment, the doctor couldn’t find an embryo or a heartbeat. The grief I felt was crushing. My heart had shattered, and I wasn’t able to take the time to put it back together.

I took exactly one day off of work when I miscarried, and we left for our pre-planned trip to Santa Fe the next day. We tried to enjoy our trip by distracting ourselves with all the things we planned, including visiting the Georgia O’Keefe museum. O’Keefe’s paintings have long been compared to female anatomy, and my interpretation was no exception. When I saw the large scale original of “Black Iris III,” I stopped and studied it. I gazed into the indigos, charcoals, and maroons, and saw nothing but my painfully empty uterus.

It was therapeutic to sink into my feelings and stare at my personification of the flowers, even if it meant weeping openly and in public.

In the gift shop, I stretched my personification to something more hopeful. I purchased a print of a ram’s skull juxtaposed by a flower, that (to me) represented death and new life. I framed it and put it in my bedroom, determined to create hope from the loss I felt.

“Black Iris III, 1926” and “Ram’s Head, Blue Morning Glory, 1938” by Georgia O’Keeffe

When the pandemic arrived and lock down started, we had just started officially trying again. (No one tells you that a miscarriage can take over 2 months to resolve, which feels like eternity when all you want to do is become pregnant again.)

At first I thought sheltering in place might be a good excuse to stay inside. I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to endure my morning train ride commute while inundated with morning sickness when I inevitably got pregnant again. I wondered if I could keep pregnancy a secret longer because my coworkers wouldn’t be able to tell over zoom. I thought about how we’d announce in this strange time when I got pregnant again. I wondered if I’d post something cheeky like: “our favorite quarantine project” or “at least one good thing came out of 2020”.

But the pandemic wasn’t over within a few months, and pregnancy didn’t happen in that timeline either.

I attempted to use my tried and true recipe of replacing my feelings with action. I put in extra hours at work. I planned and completed a major backyard renovation. I sewed masks, did puzzles, scanned family slides, and of course joined in the bread making bandwagon. But the project milestones I’d arbitrarily created for myself one by one faded away, and my feelings lingered.

Every month, the two week wait after ovulation was excruciating. No nascent twinge, scent, or feeling went unchecked and I was constantly looking for some tangible sign of pregnancy. Every month, my period promptly arrived, and every month I cursed my female body for its cruel cyclical joke.

I reverted to my second recipe for replacing my feelings, buying things. I went to the only store that was still open that wasn’t for getting groceries and toilet paper : the plant nursery. I purchased all kinds of plants. Some indoor, some outdoor, some seedlings and some full grown.

I decided that growing plants would be proof that I could grow something, if not a human being. Each month, I’d vow this would be the last month I could garden because I’d get pregnant the following month (pregnant people aren’t supposed to garden because of the risk of toxoplasmosis). Each month, when my annoyingly reliable period came, I’d plant something new. I tethered my infertility to my garden. When seedlings perished, it was proof that I wouldn’t ever become a mother. When seedlings grew, it was proof that I would get pregnant again.

Planting a bed of ranunculus

In August, after my dad’s third emergency hospital stay this year (Not covid), Jason and I traveled home to see family. While we were gone, I thought about my plants every day. I wondered how they were doing and asked our friends for photos when they graciously came over to check on the house. I had a nagging feeling that my irrigation system would fail or disease would prosper in our absence. When we came back home in September, I was astounded with the fruits of my labor. My hopes had come true, and ALL my flowers were in bloom!

Roses! Verbena! Geranium! Hydrangea!

Even the stubby Meyer lemon I’d held captive in a container in the front had many (!!) very tiny lemons. One lone pepper seedling survived and grew a whole red pepper. I was vindicated and hopeful. The garden was proof that I could grow something (even lots of somethings), if not a human.

“Apricot drift” and “At last” rose bushes

My plants and flowers brought me joy and confidence. I spent more time outside than I had in the last three years combined. Instead of replacing my feelings with action, I worked through them in my garden. I dug, weeded, and planted while processing each new cycle of disappointment and heartbreak. I worked on being grateful for the beauty I had created instead of being sad about the baby human I couldn’t create.

“John F. Kennedy” hybrid tea rose and Peruvian lily

In October, I worked up the courage to seek fertility treatment. After years of managing my Endometriosis, one failed pregnancy, and countless attempts, it simultaneously felt like my last resort and the light at the end of the tunnel. There is an extra dose of vindictive cruelty when your period comes after a fertility treatment. The high of believing it will work is only obstructed by the reality that it didn’t. Again. Even with drugs.

As rare as it is to publicly talk about pregnancy loss, it’s even more uncommon to hear stories of infertility. I think everyone is just waiting for the good news, because the bad is just too painful to talk about. It makes me wonder how many other women are suffering quietly, waiting, and hoping for the capability we expected to be issued to us from birth.

In a sea of cancelled plans and disappointment, I still look forward to working in my garden. I dead-head the spent blooms and watch the new growth emerge each week while I process my fertility setbacks. Just like gardening, fertility takes time and a fair amount of luck. As I near the end of 2020, I have more hope than ever for a successful fertility cycle. But more importantly, I am better prepared to process the grief I feel when my hope is thwarted.

I did not grow a human this year, but I did grow.

Product designer, gardener, home renovator. Lover of dark chocolate, puppies, and red wine