Infertility, Stigma, and Reading

Content note: Infertility portrayed in very problematic ways – possibly not the post to read if you’re in a tough place right now.

It’s old news now, but a month or so ago I read the Slate article that has been making the rounds in the infertility community – for good reason, it’s an excellent article hitting up a wide variety of issues and reasons infertility is particularly tricky when it comes to the workplace.  It also gets into how, despite more openness and acceptance for infertility, there’s still a very long way to go.

Since my own experiences with infertility/miscarriage, I’ve definitely noticed storylines or even short bits in books/films/TV relating to adoption/loss/infertility (ALI) far more than I did before.  While infertility is becoming more realistically depicted at times, I’m still somewhat surprised at how often I run across a particular trope that I strongly dislike: that women struggling with infertility/loss are scary.

Perhaps it’s because this came up in two books I read recently: The Alice Network (Kate Quinn) and Daughters of the Lake (Wendy Webb).

The Alice Network is largely about the female spy network that operated during WWI in France, interspersed with a young woman searching for her lost cousin in the wake of her brother’s suicide post WWII.  All the trigger warnings apply on this book both from the ALI perspective (unplanned pregnancies, abortion, loss) and generally (war, torture, Nazis, rape, etc.).  There’s a short bit, however, for a side character that includes infertility.

[Very minor spoiler ahead]

Spy trainer Captain Cameron went to jail because his wife decided to commit insurance fraud to provide for a child she couldn’t conceive.  Her infertility causes her to go to desperate, not entirely sane, lengths.  She conceives and recovers her mind.

[End spoiler]

Honestly, despite how much I was immersed in the rest of the story, this part almost made me put it down because it infuriated me so much.

Shortly thereafter, I picked up Wendy Webb’s Daughters of the Lake, a gothic suspense novel, on sale at some point and finally got around to reading it.  It’s definitely a ghost story, but in a mildly shivery sort of way that I enjoyed (I then promptly picked up a couple of her other books from the library and those descend into terrifying outright horror stories – this one I found much milder).

The novel had a baby/baby loss subplot, however.  Again, the theme of women deranged by loss and not having a child came up toward the end of the book.

Even setting aside artistic license and drama in novels, this Dear Prudence letter headlined “Help!  Sometimes I Worry That My Infertile Friend Wants to Kidnap My Baby” (I would not click over if you’re in a fragile place because yes, this accurately sums up the substance of the letter).  Prudie calls the letter writer’s comment to the friend unkind and gives the letter writer a thorough tongue lashing, but the letter itself definitely displays a truly alarming attitude toward those struggling with infertility.

I am so tired of women struggling to conceive or dealing with loss being portrayed as dangerous or harmful.  Infertility made me feel a lot of emotions.  Sad.  Angry.  Conflicted.  Anxious.  Frustrated.  Jealous.  Certainly these and many more, but while it’s true that I chose not to attend baby showers, disliked pregnancy announcements for the most part, and had to unfollow streams with lots of new baby/child pictures at times, I never wanted to harm anyone.  I never wanted to take anyone’s baby.  I never lost touch with reality.  I never wished that difficulty or sadness would befall anyone.  I’m not going to say that no one was ever disappointed in my reactions or that a few people insisted that I should be visibly overjoyed for pregnant women, but I tried – hard – to be kind and keep my feelings to myself in public.  Mostly because it wasn’t other people’s fault and I knew they weren’t having babies at me.  I just wished it was my turn and that conceiving had been easier (and – not going to lie – highly resented the amount of money we were shelling out for IVF).

This is why I write about infertility, in the hopes that reality will help to dispel some of the more pernicious bits of stigma surrounding this condition.  But it doesn’t help when a scene giving a picture so much to the contrary are popping up in a novel as widely read as The Alice Network.

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Reading: The Merry Spinster

Fairy tales have long fascinated me.  I grew up with Tatterhood: Feminist Folktales From Around the World and The Maid of the North (both compiled by Ethel Johnson Phelps) as well as a Hans Christian Andersen collection.  Growing up in the Appalachian Mountains, we had no TV and the internet wasn’t around yet, so I loved those stories.  I read them often and was completely shocked when I saw the Disney version of The Little Mermaid – I can very vividly remember telling my mother that the ending was wrong (the ending of the movie and the original story diverge pretty wildly).  More recently, I’ve been fascinated by how much fairy tales incorporate experiences of infertility and loss.

So when I read a review of (Daniel) Mallory Ortberg’s* The Merry Spinster: Tales of Every Day Horror, I knew this was a book I had to get my hands on.  I was a little apprehensive about the “horror” part as I’m not at all into scary stories, but having enjoyed Ortberg’s writing in the past, I was curious about the twists he might put on the fairy tales he incorporated into his short stories.

Besides, let’s face it, fairy tales are horrifying in the originals.  The Grimm Cinderella has parts of feet being cut off to fit in shoes and eyes being pecked out.  I figured I could probably handle Ortberg’s renditions, which turned out to be as gruesome as any Grimm story in places.  Blood runs freely throughout the book.

Like most short story collections, there are a few misses in The Merry Spinster.  I really did not get The Wedding Party despite having read it several times.  Some of the stories just didn’t pick up Ortberg’s usual wit or really pull me in.

The hits of the collection, however, made the book absolutely worth it.

Fear Not: An Incident Log is one of my favorite stories from this year.  Ortberg replays the incidents from the biblical book of Genesis from the viewpoint of an angel and the result is biting and also very funny.  Written like a dry technical support log, the angel starts off explaining why such appearances always begin with “fear not”: because “…appearing before [humans] without some form of reassurance is liable to result in total system overload, followed shortly by shutdown.”  Despite the humor, it’s also beautiful and profound in places and I don’t think I’ll ever read or hear the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel quite the same way again.  Ortberg’s background as a PK (pastors’ kid – both his mother and father) is on full display in this story, and I wasn’t expecting the humor or tenderness that Ortberg gives the original text in his retelling.

The horror promised in the title is on full display in The Rabbit, Ortberg’s retelling of The Velveteen Rabbit.  The quest to become “real” takes on a whole new meaning in this imagining.  An early conversation between the rabbit and the well-loved Skin Horse immediately tips into a creeping awfulness: “’Whose skin do you have?’ the Rabbit had asked him, and the Skin Horse had shivered to hear the excitement in his voice.”  Ortberg’s description of the rabbit’s voice as “… a crawling black thing across the floor…” is hideously evocative.

Cast Your Bread Upon the Waters explores a different – but no less terrifying – horror.  Examining the ways in which the character uses certain passages and beliefs to justify and even encourage the unspeakable acts at the culmination of the story feels timely and relevant as a reminder and a caution.

Finally, The Six Boy-Coffins holds not only a well-done recasting of the original Grimm tale The Six Swans but also an incisive discussion of power and consent.  The line “She was beginning to learn the danger of silence, and that someone who wishes to hear a yes will not go out of his way to listen for a no” feels particularly resonant in the #metoo era.  The ending packs the rarest quality in this volume: the sense of justice done.

Ortberg is very fluid with genders throughout the stories, and in fact, was in the process of exploring the beginning of his transition from female to male at the time of writing.  Daughters may be referred to with male pronouns or have traditionally male names and husbands and wives may choose which role they want, regardless of sex.  Initially a bit confusing, it took me a story or two to get used to this particular quality, but overall, it enhanced the stories and makes playing with the tropes of fairy tales sharper.

As a rating, I’d give it 4/5 stars.  It’s definitely a book that appeals to a particularly dark sense of humor and a tolerance for fairy tale type violence/gore is a must.

*Author is listed on the book as Mallory Ortberg, but he has transitioned and taken the name of Daniel Mallory Ortberg

Reading: “Crazy Rich Asians”

I finally got to the top of the hold list at the library for Crazy Rich Asians.  With all the hype from the movie coming out this summer and the gorgeous trailers and movie posters, I knew I definitely wanted to read the book.

It’s a comedy of romance, manners, and people from somewhat mismatched backgrounds coming together.  There are the obligatory parties, snubbings, and displays of wealth and power with the tension set up by the expectations of society and family.  I found a good bit of it fun and the gorgeous clothes and settings a lovely change from my own currently dreary, grey, wintery surroundings.

That being said, I have to confess that I…didn’t really like the romantic interest/hero, Nicholas Young.  I’m not really spoiling anything to say that the plot pivots on the fact that Nick is handsome, incredibly rich, but has made a life for himself in New York where he has distanced himself from his family wealth and glamour to present himself as a regular college professor.  I mean, he’s handsome (cool) and down to earth (also good), but he’s been in a relationship with his girlfriend for two years and still has not revealed his full identity.

In the Jane Austen novels I’ve read (or heck, even in similarly wealthy/escapist shows like Downton Abbey), one of the qualities I appreciate is that generally, everyone knows The Rules.  Society is fairly rigid and people know when they’re social climbing, the rules surrounding manners and expectations, and how social interactions work.  I mean, Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility) knows that Edward Ferrars is out of her social range.  Charlotte Lucas (Pride and Prejudice) makes a very calculating decision surrounding the realities for women to marry the awful Mr. Collins.  There are definitely many surprises and tensions deriving from social mores, but while the players may not be evenly matched, everyone is governed by rules that are widely understood.

That’s where Crazy Rich Asians departs from Austen and company, because one of the major plot movers is the fact that Nicholas Young asks Rachel (and let me stress this again, after two years of romance) to go on a ten-week vacation to Singapore for the wedding of Nick’s good friend without telling her much of anything about his family or wealth.  In other words, a major time commitment for Rachel that implies the possibility of an even greater romantic attachment, with a huge piece of information withheld.

Basically, Nick sets the woman he purports to love up for some really severe cruelty at the hands of his some of his family and friends when Rachel inadvertently trips over all the social mores, norms, and gives various impressions that Nick’s family (predictably) interpret uncharitably.  While some of this may have been unavoidable, not giving Rachel at least some basic pointers on his social group feels unconscionable to me.  Oh, sure, Nick’s presented as ambivalent and somewhat troubled by his own wealth and social standing, but it didn’t code to me as “down to earth” when it came to bringing home the girlfriend.  It felt immature and selfish to throw his girlfriend into a pit of some not-very-nice people and social situations that would be challenging for even the most well-versed.

Rating this book, I’d give it a 2.5 stars out of 5.  The escapism and wealth-gawking part is really beautifully done.  The romance, though, didn’t gel for me.  It says something, though, that I’m curious enough to see some of the big conflicts resolved to be on the wait list for the sequel.

Meditations on Moving

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One of the few authors I’ll spring for straight up (instead of waiting at the library or until I find it on sale) is Louise Penny.  I’ve written a few (okay, okay, probably more than a few) times about how much I love Penny’s mystery novels here.  She’s one of the authors writing today that I really want to meet, though I’ll admit that I’m a little terrified that if I did, in fact, meet her, I’d just fan-girl all over the place and embarrass myself.

In any case, Penny’s latest, Kingdom of the Blind came out last week and I’ve spent the last few days reading.  Yet again, I’m struck by Penny’s ability to get to the heart of life, living, and human emotions.  One of my favorite parts of the books are the author’s note at the end, where Penny writes so evocatively about her own life and struggles.  For a number of years, Penny’s husband Michael suffered from dementia and died in 2016.  Penny has also been open about being a recovering alcoholic and the incredible loneliness, anger, and sadness she felt for so long as well as many wonderful things she values in her life now.

“A funny thing happened on my way to not writing this book,” Penny notes, “I started writing.”

“How could I go on when half of me was missing?  I could barely get out of bed.” She continues.  “But then, a few months later, I found myself sitting at the long pine dining table where I always wrote.  Laptop open.”

I relate to that in such a big way.  While I’ve never lost a spouse, I have lost loved ones, as well as other, less tangible bits and pieces along the way.

It’s hard, losing, whatever that loss comprises.  Especially at this time of the year, when everything seems suffused with traditions and the place at the table seems all the more empty than usual.  When it’s impossible not to remember and the commercials and pictures and expectations are designed to evoke emotions that often I’d rather leave in the background or unexamined.

Sometimes living, moving, feels a bit like a betrayal.  With an ache that has the sharpness of a gunshot echoing from 2015 and holes that rend the threads to keep weaving it all together, it feels impossible to tie the knots and work to keep creating.  To set the empty place and also hold the feast.

That’s been a struggle for me lately, even though my grief isn’t new.  I’ve reached that sort of half-mourning stage, where the sadness doesn’t seep into every moment or corner, but comes out at both expected and unexpected times with a startling strength.

I’m grateful to Penny for not denying the darkness, but also for the joy she takes in how moving forward encompasses her loss: “Far from leaving Michael behind, he became even more infused in the books.  All the things we had together came together in Three Pines.  Love, companionship, friendship.  His integrity.  His courage.  Laughter.”

In so many ways, that’s what I’m seeking.  Not to leave behind, but to hold the love and live.

This post is a part of Microblog Mondays.  If you want to read more, please head over to Stirrup Queens!  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting.  

Everyday Miracles

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Despite the many shortcomings of modern medicine (and there are obviously plenty, alas), I still find myself drawn in by so many things that are routine in many healthcare facilities.  I can’t help but be slightly awed every time I see antibiotics work in clearing up an infection.  I’m struck by the fact that brain surgery and cardiac valve replacements are everyday procedures in plenty of hospitals.  Even something as run-of-the mill as x-rays or ultrasounds where the bones or organs can be visualized to direct treatment is amazing in its own way.

My Facebook feed this weekend was full of nursing memes and videos that ranged from the somber to the humorous.  National Nurses’ Day (in the United States) was on May 6, and as many friends and colleagues celebrated, I thought about an article I had come across last month on NPR.  The article features another sort of everyday miracle: waking up after a general anesthetic.

I was totally fascinated by Dr. Shafer’s perspective on the profound moment as a person wakes up after a procedure and her awareness of the awe-inspiring trust the patients place in her and other health care professionals to help them get safely through surgery – or, by extension, any health care experience.  Having worked as a nurse in both recovery (post anesthesia care) and neuro/trauma ICU over the last several years, I couldn’t help but think that Dr. Shafer has captured the essence of the humanity and beauty of the “ordinary” events in modern nursing and medicine.

Want to read more Microblog Monday posts?  Please check out Stirrup Queens’ blog.  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting.  

Returning Home

Big time spoilers for The Lord of the Rings – especially the ending – ahead.  

It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings.  There aren’t too many things in my life that have stayed constant since age 14, but these books continue to inspire, motivate, and comfort me.  As I’ve grown, aged, and lived, the meanings have changed, the understandings deepened, but every time I pick them up, I find something new.  When I first read the books, I was thrilled by the exciting adventure, the battles, and, oh yeah, Aragorn.  These days, it’s a different part that I keep turning to read.

One of the things I love about The Lord of the Rings now is the ending.  The movie version leaves out part of the original ending, and I understand that choice at some level.  The original ending is messy, hard, and complicated in a way that’s difficult to translate to the screen.

For those who aren’t familiar with the book ending, it looks initially like a very traditional storybook ending wrap-up.  Then the movie and book part ways: there is evil waiting in the Shire for the returning hobbits.  They have to fight yet another battle to get the Shire back – their home is ugly and changed by that evil.  The book and the movie return to sync when Frodo departs Middle Earth.

When I initially read The Return of the King, the scouring of the Shire irritated me a bit.  It seemed…unnecessary.  The major task was fulfilled, the ring destroyed, the epic showdown at the gates of Mordor fought, and the hobbits returned home triumphantly.  Then Tolkien throws in this seemingly discordant sadness and destruction.  It’s no wonder Peter Jackson left it out of the movie.  It feels unfair that after everything the hobbits have done and the horror they’ve been through they don’t come home to a hero’s welcome, that there’s still more to do.  This isn’t a Harry Potter ending.

Now, though, I get it.  Tolkien has captured the reality of life after being touched by struggle and tragedy, in whatever form that comes to particular people.  You don’t walk through Mordor and remain untouched.  Even once the main event is over and evil seemingly vanquished or at least survived, it’s coming home to find more work to do and reminder after reminder sitting in your front yard.

We walked through Mordor the days my daughter nearly died.  We walked through Mordor when my brother so inexplicably left us.  The days when nothing made sense.

I hoped when we finally came back, naively, it would still be mostly the same.  I knew better.  But I hoped.

Instead, it’s been the weariness of battling back what those journeys took from us.

It’s no longer the epic battles of life and death.  It’s the bitterness at the bottom of the glass, the sh*ttier stuff, but battles that are no less for their smallness.  It’s fighting those unwelcome triggers and reclaiming home.

It’s knowing when to lay down the swords and begin the peaceful work of planting and bringing green life back to damaged land.  It’s showing mercy.  In some ways, this is almost harder.  It requires vulnerability, patience, honesty, kindness, and diligence.  Qualities that some days are tough to muster.

Tolkien doesn’t give Frodo a beautiful happy ending in his beloved Shire.  The wounds simply go too deep.  I take a lot of heart, though, from Sam’s ending.  Sam, who also bore the Ring, touched evil, who also walked through Mordor.  Sam, who “planted saplings in all the places where specially beautiful or beloved trees had been destroyed and he put a grain of the precious dust in the soil at the root of each.  He went up and down the Shire in this labour…”  Sam, who receives these words at the last, painful farewell: “Do not be too sad, Sam.  You cannot be always torn in two.  You will have to be one and whole, for many years.  You have so much to enjoy and to be, and to do.”

That is an ending – or perhaps another beginning – worth all of the work.

The Almost Ending

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Over the last year or so, I’ve found myself curiously obsessed with the endings of stories. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about the ending of Deep Down Dark, and even before that, I critiqued the ending of the Harry Potter series. I’ve started a couple of drafts considering the endings of the Hunger Games series and also The Lord of the Rings, and that’s not counting the drafts I’ve started in my head about the endings of other novels or memoirs.

I spent a good deal of college reading, critiquing, and deconstructing literature. Rarely, however, did my essays involve a heavy focus on the endings. Instead, I was generally more interested in various bits of symbolism, feminist critique, or delving into specific characters. I began to wonder where I’d developed this newfound fascination with how and at what point authors choose to end their stories.

After some consideration, the best reason I can come up with as to why I’m examining the endings of stories so closely these days is because I’m convinced that if my life were contained to a novel or memoir, it would start with trying to conceive and probably end with E’s birth or perhaps when she came home for real from the NICU. I’m at a natural sort of ending point for the journey. I’d like for that to be the case: write “the end”, thank all the lovely people in my life, and close the book.

It’s the neat, tidy ending to complete the infertility story arc.

But it’s not an honest one.

It leaves out the fact that infertility still affects me. It leaves out the wholly-predictable resurgence of my old nemeses depression and anxiety as the dust surrounding my pregnancy and my daughter’s prematurity starts to settle. It leaves out the tension-filled question of what we do with our two frozen embryos and whether or not it’s advisable to even seriously consider another pregnancy at some future point. It leaves out a body that still has issues from PCOS that need addressed. It leaves out so many things, some of them more serious, some just small wisps of half-formed thoughts.

The idea that I’m still somewhere lost in the plot driven by infertility and PCOS scares the h*ll out of me. Some part of me thinks I can remedy this by essentially writing “the end, the end, the END!”, shoving the book on the shelf, walking away, and pretending it’s the decorous ending I described above.

Yet, almost in spite of myself some days, I keep writing.

Clearly, the story isn’t over.

If you want to read more Microblog Mondays posts, head over to Stirrup Queens.  Thanks to Mel for originating the idea and hosting.