Good Bread

One of my absolute favorite things in life is excellent bread.  I have a particular affinity for the chewy, crusty, open-structured artisan loaves that have proliferated in recent years – to the point where they’re easily available in most grocery stores.  Over the last few years, I often asked Arthur to grab one on his lunch to bring home for dinner that night.

Obviously, the pandemic changed that.

I’ve been baking since I was small, but artisan loaves have always eluded me.  Commercial bakeries have steam-injected ovens that help immensely with the crust texture and while I’ve tried most of the suggestions for home bakers (ice cubes to the bottom of the oven, small pan of water, throwing water onto a hot baking sheet underneath the bread), I’ve never gotten the combination of chewy/crunchy that comes so easily from the grocery store.

Since dropping by the grocery store isn’t the usual quick stop now and when I’ve tried to order artisan loaves the store hasn’t had any, I decided to tackle the project.  Armed with baker’s tools amassed over nearly fifteen years of adult life and cooking and fortifying myself with some of the bread episodes from The Great British Baking Show, I pulled out the flour, yeast, salt, and water that was supposed to turn into excellence.

I started with French baguettes following this recipe.  While my rise times were slightly longer than the recipe indicated, a cast-iron skillet preheated in the oven with boiling water poured over to create the steam was a revelation.  I don’t know how, exactly, it’s different than the other methods of making steam, but it worked better than anything I’ve tried before.  I suspect it has something to do with the way the skillet holds and diffuses the heat in the oven.  Leaving the baguettes in the cooling oven with the door cracked a couple of inches also helped the crust texture – much better than putting them on a rack on the counter.  I cut the number of loaves to two (I like a slightly thicker loaf) and while it’s not quite commercial bakery perfection, it’s also pretty darned good.

Ciabatta for sandwiches came yesterday (recipe here).  With my trusty stand mixer to knead the incredibly wet dough and a baking stone, I was amazed at how easy this particular bread turned out.  It also was every bit as good as anything I buy in the store, making me wonder why I’ve been paying $2.50 – $3.50 a loaf for years.  The crust was perfect, the open texture fully present.

The irony, of course, is now I have no dinner parties to plan, no people to host, and no small groups for places like church to throw open the doors.  Bread feels like it should be baked for people.

There’s a lot of clashing think-pieces generated by the pandemic and quarantine: chance to learn a new skill!  Collective trauma!  Optimize your life!  It’s okay to not be productive!  We can figure this out!  We’re all sitting in the corner with no attention span!  Learning to bake these loaves seems to fall under all of the above for me.  It feels like the kind of thing that I could post to social media as proof that I am doing great under quarantine, but that belies the quiet desperation and anxiety that’s somewhat soothed by shaping dough, the crash that comes after the picture of the pretty loaves: what’s next?

I don’t know.  Nobody knows.

It reminds me a bit of when I was pregnant with the pregnancy that turned out to be ectopic, that rollercoaster of hope dashing into unpleasant realities.  Desperately clinging to any good sign, cognizant of the many bad ones, hoping for the best, all with an underlying suspicion that this is not going to turn out well.  One of the qualities of trauma that the TV shows tend to elide is the long stretches of waiting and boredom and worry.  The bad news is preceded by hours, days, weeks of build-up.  It’s sitting with a book in my hands, unable to focus more than a few minutes, counting the time before the next lab result, the next ultrasound, when the doctor arrives, the phone call (then) or the next news report, the next zoom gathering, the next phone call (now).  Trying to find ways to fill the time.  It could be better.  It could be worse.

I miss people.  It’s a weird thing for an introvert to admit.  I miss running into acquaintances at the zoo or the grocery and chatting, small talk that I usually feel awkward making and used to dread a bit but now feels like a lifeline.  I miss my parents visiting, miss hosting two of my SILs for dinner periodically, miss visiting with BIL/SIL and niece and nephew, having my MIL and FIL come over.  I miss choir and church and the collective responses: Peace be with you!  And also with you.  And also with you.  And also with you.  The absolution, the communion, and then the other communion of doughnuts and institutional coffee and talk.

Perfecting recipes feels like faith.  Faith that someday there will be dinner parties and small groups and people to bake for again.

At least there’s good bread to eat while I wait.

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The ciabatta loaves.

A Slow Burn

One of my more visceral memories from childhood comes from when I had chickenpox.  Age-wise, I’m among the oldest Millenials and I got it before the vaccine was widely given.  Mostly, what I remember is the incredible itching.  I had gotten a full-blown case, spots everywhere with fever, but no major complications.  “Don’t scratch,” my dad told me.

“But it ITCHES!” I wailed.

“You don’t want to get infections and scars, especially on your face.”

“I DON’T CARE IF I GET SCARS!”

“You will when you’re 16.”

As I grew up, though, I read more about diseases like polio (author Peg Kehret’s Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio is a well-written, YA-level account) and mumps and measles.  I shivered at the horrific accounts of the Spanish Flu and did high school reports on the Black Plague.  I was glad that I never had to experience them, and even as my belief that medical science could conquer almost anything faded quickly, I felt fairly secure.  I rejoiced when the girls got their chickenpox vaccines, that they wouldn’t have to know even a week’s itchy misery, let alone the more serious complications.

~*~

After E got home from the NICU, we were under quarantine for a year.  I was allowed to take her to medical appointments and occasional shopping expeditions (where I kept her covered in her car seat and sanitized virtually everything we touched).  Arthur went to work and did everything he could to stay away from illness, as did I.  I had an elaborate routine post-shift of changing at work, washing any exposed skin from my shift, my scrubs sealed in bags and washed separately with the washer bleached afterwards.  E and I didn’t go to church, and after his second job ended in the early fall (before cold/flu season), Arthur didn’t either.  We didn’t go to gatherings (with the exception of my brother’s memorial service, where the worry E would catch something added to the general awfulness of the situation).  I used to take E for walks in the fresh air when it was nice, social-distancing ourselves by at least 3 feet from other people before the term entered the lexicon.  We had hand sanitizer stationed all around the house and my hands were often dry and cracked from washing.

All this to say, these precautions aren’t totally new to me.  The fear isn’t new.  The isolation isn’t new.

It’s a deep breath and the slow burn of anxiety as we wait in ways I never thought we’d have to do again.

~*~

In my house, we are all low-risk as possible for the serious complications and doing everything we can to be responsible citizens to prevent the virus spreading/complying with social distancing.  I know the virus can be severe in younger people as well and we are not by any means taking that potential lightly.  Strangely, I’m less anxious about working in health care than I would have thought – but, then, I’ve known since long before going to nursing school that communicable diseases were a risk I had to assume if I chose this field.  Obviously will be following all guidance closely and extremely careful complying with all personal protective equipment/isolation requirements (as always).

I am definitely worried about my parents, friends, my last surviving grandparent, all the elderly/immunocompromised and what happens next.  Reading about Italy’s current situation is almost overwhelming in its awfulness and the decisions that I suspect we will shortly face in many other places.

I know that experts have long modeled and predicted pandemic scenarios, but in day-to-day life, it’s felt easy to rest secure.  There are so many things to worry about just in a normal course of existence.  This one really didn’t make the cut in my head.

Yet here we are.  I gave blood on Monday – one tangible thing I could do as someone who’s eligible, currently healthy, and has a blood type in high demand.  Now we take the precautions recommended by the experts, comply with public health recommendations, check in with people by internet/phone, and wait.

Waiting, as I think we all have experienced in various ways, is far tougher than most people give it credit.

Ready, Set…

Last week, I called the RE’s office about a few assorted matters since the FET visits and meds should start fairly shortly (within the next week or so).  First up was my flu shot.  Due to my job, it’s not so much a question of if I’ll get exposed to influenza, it’s a matter of when.  As I’d read over the medication instructions again, it occurred to me that the steroids – designed to weaken the immune system to provide a better chance at implantation for the embryo – might cause my body not to form much of an immune response to the vaccination.

Based on my period-tracking app (which is fairly accurate for me), my cycle is set to commence this weekend, which also concerned me.  Weekends are the worst time to have to start things or call medical offices in general, not to mention I work on the weekends.  I wanted to make sure everything was squared away and I knew who to call and what to expect.

Turned out to be a good thing I checked in.  Dr. E confirmed that the flu shot did need to be obtained before I started the steroids and hopefully in enough time to give my immune system the time to build the antibodies.  That meant the day before leaving on a major trip I was calling pharmacies to see where I could get one.  The one that had vaccine was the one not in my insurance network, so I paid about $41 for something I usually get for free.  Add it onto my running infertility tab, I guess.  Better than getting sick later – if this cycle works, I’m on the steroids until I’m 8 weeks along, which puts me into December, aka flu season, based on the best information I have (the dark part of my mind is grumbling that this is ridiculously optimistic, why would I think this cycle is going to work at all?).

It also transpired that the local office isn’t staffed with a nurse on the weekends currently, just a lab tech and ultrasound tech, so start cycle visits have to go to the main office (around 2 hours away) on Saturday/Sunday.  “I can’t do that,” I said.  The nurse – who knows me well and was at the office through 2013-2014 when I was doing the majority of my cycles and IVF – said that since I know the protocol, can do my injections, and understand when to call if something gets strange, she could do my start cycle visit the week before my period is projected to start and then she’d leave word with the office that I could be seen locally for the ultrasound + blood work.

I’m not sure if I’m comforted by the fact that I knew to call in and check the finer details (because there’s always something) or a little unnerved that I’ve spent this much time doing ART.

Anyway, I had my start cycle visit Tuesday.  That went well, I nailed down the details of exactly which office to call at any point in the weekend if my period starts, and we mapped out as much of the cycle as possible based on my app.  At this point, it’s just a waiting game.

Luck

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Ever since I called my RE’s office to set up the series of appointments to lead up to the final transfer, it’s been on my mind a lot.

Like, a lot.  As in a truly ridiculous amount.

I think a big part of it is the unknown aspect to the thing.  I’m truly privileged in the infertility world with my kids and can be happy whatever way life takes me, but the not-knowing part bothers me.  The other part that tends to get under my skin is that – other than showing up and taking medications as ordered – I have no real control over the outcome.

On the spectrum between the laid-back people and the iron-fisted control people, I am definitely a control freak.  Some of this stems from anxiety (as in the diagnosed type).  My brain has a not-so-marvelous tendency towards getting stuck and panic attacks.  I like predictability, stability, and known quantities – and privilege has allowed me some insulation from the unpredictability of life in other areas.  This, I suspect, is why infertility in general has messed with my sense of self so much.

Earlier this week, I ran across an article about socioeconomic privilege entitled The Radical Moral Implications of Luck in Human Life: Acknowledging the role of luck is the secular equivalent of a religious awakening.  Author David Roberts states: “It’s not difficult to see why many people take offense when reminded of their luck, especially those who have received the most. Allowing for luck can dent our self-conception. It can diminish our sense of control. It opens up all kinds of uncomfortable questions about obligations to other, less fortunate people.”

Infertility is nothing if not one giant game of luck.  Diagnoses, lack of diagnoses, economic status to pursue treatment or adoption, one partner or both, what doctors/labs one has access to, the quality/growth of embryos, whether or not those embryos implant, miscarriages, emotional resources – none of these are really factors individuals have control over.  Heck, when pursuing treatment, I know I don’t even have control over when I have to be at the clinic during cycles.

Acknowledging how little control I really have over my life circumstances – and how much good luck has played a role – is a bit unnerving.  Roberts points out in his article that “I get why people bridle at this point. They want credit for their achievements and for their better qualities. As Varney said, it can be insulting to be told that one’s success is in large part a lucky roll of the dice.”

It feels like – given the sums of money, emotion, and time that are in play during treatment – the outcome should be more predictable.  That anyone who rolls the dice (or wants to roll the dice) at anything related to infertility should be rewarded commensurately.

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

Coffee-Mug Philosophy

In my offline life, I’m in the process of some new stuff at my job that changes my workflow and sort of upends my established routines there.  It’s fine, positive even, and it’s something expected/planned but it’s amazing how much energy goes into change and re-configuring my habits.

The other day, these words fell out of my mouth: “It will be fine!  All this upheaval and hard stuff is going to make us stronger, right?”

Ironic, because I really hate that particular cliché.

~*~

I heard it quite a bit throughout the infertility journey: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  I heard it when Arthur went through job losses.  I heard it in NICU.  I’m grateful no one said it too me after my brother died because suicide pretty much flies in the face of that kind of gritty positivity.  But that statement has hovered in the background of most of the big, tough moments of my life.

I think – as with most “sound bite” or “meme-ready” sorts of statements – the reality is much more complex.  I also think sometimes it’s employed as a quick conversation ender or a way to escape big feelings.

There are hard experiences that I feel have made me stronger, mostly those that are designed to break down before building up.  Nursing school sucked.  It was terribly long hours often (getting up at 4:15 am to drive two hours to a clinical site, being there for 8-10 hours, then going home), the studying was a full-time job, and I have never forgotten my first semester lab where everyone cried at least once except for the two students who had been in the military.  It was also truly worth it and the toughness was incredibly important when I got into real world and took my first assignment on a general medical-surgical/telemetry floor.

Some of the job losses for Arthur fall into this category as well.  It was sort of a surprise to me that after Arthur’s first job loss, the sky didn’t fall and we figured things out.  We were really privileged in many ways, but the experience helped me better hone savings plans and recognize that while it was 100% not optimal, it was survivable.

But as far as some of the infertility experiences go?  Being told there was no heartbeat?  Sitting in a hospital bed being told that I was ruptured and going to lose our very wanted baby?  Waiting in NICU for test results to come back to see if E had NEC?  Losing my brother?  No.

That sh*t broke me to the very core.

I mean, there’s a way in which all these experiences have given me a lot of perspective.  Going through all that reminds me on the days where all the little ridiculous stuff is piling up and it’s frustrating that I’ve survived so much worse.  That I will make it through that day.  I’m much better now at differentiating my small life stuff from what constitutes my bigger life stuff and reacting accordingly.  It’s also made me more able to take some forms of tension or frustration in stride, because, well, I can manage.  In that sense, the adage is correct.  Perspective is valuable in life, absolutely.

What the saying doesn’t reflect, however, is that there are some really ugly broken, jagged edges that are still in the process of being smoothed.  It doesn’t reflect the big ways in which these events changed the course, not always for the better.

I started out in elder care as a nursing assistant when I was 19 years old.  I loved it.  I always envisioned myself as a hospice nurse eventually.  I did some clinical time with hospice and felt confirmed in that calling.  Even when I started in the “real world”, I took assignments that would give me experience.

Then infertility hit and I was just so sad.  Conflicted.  Too many emotions running rampant to step back and be in a high-emotion field like hospice.  I put the dream on hold, mentally, and moved forward with a different path hoping to eventually move back that direction.  Then all the losses happened, NICU happened, and my brother died.

Now, I work in an area where I come in contact with the “hard stuff”, but in far more limited doses than a field like hospice.  It’s a good balance, I’m good at it, and I’m happy.

But I still mourn, a bit, that I had to admit that infertility, miscarriage, prematurity, and suicide loss limited me.  Maybe someday, but it will be years and a lot of therapy if hospice is ever back in my path.  I won’t do it unless I know my stuff is fully handled and integrated.

Empathy is another sort of mixed bag in life after everything.  On the one hand, I know these experiences have made me more empathetic in many ways.  I definitely can identify with people’s struggles and have a better ability to be present in those moments.

But it’s also made it far easier – especially when I’m tired, stressed, overwhelmed, or overstimulated – to fall into a pain Olympics sort of mentality or get really jealous.  I don’t think this is true for everyone by any means, but it’s definitely an issue for me.  I’m ashamed to admit that even while I was very happy for my BIL and SIL when they got pregnant, I was positively green with envy that they had gotten pregnant with twins on their first fertility treatment.  It threw me back mentally into every f*cking failed cycle and miscarrying twins on that first hopeful IVF.  I was happy for them but absolutely overwhelmed also at how sad and angry I was for my own losses.  This resolved with time and things are fine in that set of relationships at this point, but it’s not a great quality and one I’m on close guard against.

All the grief has also exposed the fault lines in some relationships and the Awful Things People Say.  After my brother died, it’s been a revelation how much stigma suicide really carries and also how uncomfortable some people are with grief and strong emotions.  Those secondary losses were really unexpected and the reshuffling of boundaries has been painful.

The fall-out also shows up with everything related to pregnancy or conception.  I’m afraid to embrace the idea of this final embryo transfer – even when I know, no matter how things fall out, I will be okay – because the whole thing activates all the panic responses and pushes me back to thinking on all the other memories.  When I was pregnant with M, my OB wound up allowing me to have appointments weekly through the first trimester, until both the risk of pregnancy loss had gone down and I could pick up the heartbeat on my home fetal doppler.  I was having panic attacks I couldn’t get under control, despite knowing I would manage no matter what the outcome.  It was awful and I’m really grateful that my OB was so kind.

And perhaps that’s one other little silver lining to the tough stuff: I’ve had the opportunity to see people step up to the plate as well.  People who have gone above and beyond and helped so much.  It gives me faith in humanity, in the idea that there is goodness out there.  It helps me better identify where I can be that goodness for others.

All this to say: it’s a mixed bag.  What doesn’t kill me has made me stronger and weaker…and panic attacks…and exposed my limitations along with my less than awesome qualities…and brought out some of my good ones.  But I guess that doesn’t fit as nicely on a coffee mug.

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.

An Update and News

Content note: pregnancy.  If you’re not in a place for that or it’s triggering, please take care of yourself first and skip this one.  

Back in June, I went to see Dr. E for my saline infusion sonogram (SIS) to check my uterus for scarring.  He pronounced my uterus free of issues and also noted that my ovaries looked much better than usual.  I knew I’d been getting positives on the OPKs for a few months as well but had mostly discounted them.  Despite trying to manage my expectations, we’d been trying just in case something shook loose.

One July Friday night, I went to work and shortly into my shift, made a mental note to add “buy new bras” to my list for Monday.  My chest felt like invisible flames were dancing over it, a phenomenon that went on most of the night.  At around four in the morning, it finally hit me.   I’d only felt like that once before.  I counted the days off in my head.  The timing was right.  No way, I thought.

I’m an inveterate POAS addict, however, so I got home the next morning, did my thing, and then stared in shock as the lines popped up positive almost immediately.

On Monday, I called the RE’s office to do the blood tests to confirm.  Either 13 or 14 dpo (depending on the method of counting), my beta hcg came back at 180, a huge number for me.  My previous betas were 30 (11dp3dt with twins that I miscarried one at a time), 22 (10dp5dt with an ectopic pregnancy), and 63.4 (10dp5dt with my daughter).  I held my breath to the next beta forty-eight hours later, which had shot up to 530.

In the next few weeks, I had a spotting scare that revealed a 6w4d baby with a heartbeat and a tiny bit of bleeding in my uterus.  Waited.  Had a bright red bleed a week and a half later that sent me into a panic but the ultrasound showed a subchorionic hematoma (SCH) of about 1.8 cm that was pronounced “small” and not a major concern.  Given that the SCH that most likely caused me to PPROM at 21 weeks with my daughter started at 2 cm, I was less than reassured.

Despite the worry, the bleeding didn’t come back and the SCH shrank. My OB kindly works with my anxiety and checks in weekly to make sure there’s a heartbeat still.  I see the perinatologist (high risk OB) in a couple of weeks due to my history of preterm birth.  I’ll be 13 weeks on Monday, and just starting to believe that there might actually be a second baby in March.  I’m beyond excited at that thought in many ways but also know all too well that there’s no such thing as a ‘safe zone’ when it comes to pregnancy.  At the moment, though, the pregnancy appears to be progressing the way it should.

Truthfully, I haven’t known what to say here, hence the long delay in posting.  The whole thing didn’t seem quite real at first and then felt tentative with the bleeding.  I know well that feeling of hearing pregnancy announcements and the last thing I want to do is cause any one caught in the many difficult spaces of infertility pain.  I know all too well that ache.

I’ve always been honest in this space, though, and it’s time to come forward with this news.

So, for whatever it’s worth, here I am…nerves, happiness, survivor’s guilt, and all.