I’m a planner. Perhaps most of us in academia are. I planned on completing a Master’s, going on for my PhD at a new institution, finding a partner during that time, getting a job, and then starting a family shortly after that. I have a lot of friends who have/had similar plans. Life doesn’t always go according to your plans, unfortunately.
My partner and I started trying to conceive two years ago. Two years ago I was in my mid-thirties. Two years ago, I thought it would happen within a few months of trying, I would finish my PhD, have a baby, and we would move on to bigger and better things. Two years ago, I didn’t know that one in eight couples face infertility. Two years ago, I didn’t imagine that we would have to face aggressive and expensive fertility treatments without the ability to pay for them.
This is national infertility awareness week and I think it is important to get this conversation started by sharing my experience.
Infertility and academia
I was well aware of the research showing fertility and birth defect rates plotted against maternal age and age of the average PhD graduate because I was reminded of this at least once a year during my graduate program. Every chart shows a steeply descending fertility rate and sharply ascending rate of birth defects and miscarriages starting at age 35, with the average age PhD degree prominently marked at 36. Nothing like a good scare/depress-the-shit-out-of-you chart thrown in your face every time you start to get comfortable in academia. Needless to say, when I turned 35, I entered some sort of a mid-life panic mode. I felt like I was thrown off the fertility cliff and I was doomed. I still sometimes feel like it is my fault. I waited too long. I’m too stressed out. I should have done this, or shouldn’t have don’t that… Although this probably did not help matters, it’s not the cause of our fertility problems. This is just the hand we’ve been dealt. And it sucks.
I feel like a failure as a woman and as a professional. First, I feel like my body is defective. Women have evolved to get pregnant, yet I can’t without medical intervention. I feel weirdly less feminine, yet at the same time, by wanting to get pregnant so badly, I feel like I’m too feminine for academia. How do I let go of everything I’ve worked so hard for in order to pursue a family life? I’m not putting my career first right now, so I’m out of the club. Being at an R1 institution and having friends go on to R1 jobs has given me the impression that to be a good scientist or professor, you need to put your career first above anything else, certainly above anything in your personal life. The thing is, I’m not getting any younger and my odds for conceiving go down every year. Those are the facts. So, I need to do a little priority juggling right now to focus on attaining this coveted goal while not letting go of trying to get my career off the ground. It’s a tricky balance. I’m not going to lie: it is extremely difficult to try to finish my dissertation, when 1) I’m bored and frustrated with my project to begin with, 2) I see little point in finishing if I don’t plan to go down the professor path, and 3) now I see it as an obstacle that prevents me from being a parent. I’m hanging on by a thread here.
Which brings me to finances. I look at myself and ask, how did I get to be in my mid-late thirties and still make so little that I qualify for food stamps?? As a grad student, I still make slightly more than my partner and carry the medical insurance. (Not that insurance covers any part of infertility expenses in my state). Not including medication, in-vitro fertilization (which has the best odds) is at least $13,000 per cycle, which is a little less than what I make annually. Maybe throwing the towel in on the PhD in order to get a job with a stable income doesn’t seem so crazy now. Maybe then I would feel like I have some control over my life. Right now, I have no control. Not with finances, finishing the PhD, or our fertility.
I feel alone. Some of the grad students in my department have started having families (by the way, all of them are guys) and my closest friends are younger, so starting families is still a future goal for them. I feel like I can’t talk about infertility with anyone because it’s embarrassing and I don’t want the pity/ostracism that comes with it. Also, I think it makes people uncomfortable—like I’m diseased or something, or perhaps because sex is implied. I look around me and see so many people getting pregnant seemingly without trouble. However, I’m not the only one having trouble. One in eight couples face infertility, but rarely does anyone talk about it. This needs to change!
For those of you who might be struggling with infertility yourselves, I highly suggest checking out the many articles and links that are provided by RESOLVE.org, such as coping with the stress of infertility. Both my husband and I have found these resources particularly helpful. You might also find the video campaign “the truth about trying” helpful. Many women share their infertility experiences, which was at times hard to watch, but overwhelmingly helped me feel less alone. I’ve learned that many communities have support groups for couples facing infertility. Most importantly, you’re not alone. Ask for help.
- Don’t tell someone to just relax. This is a myth.
- Don’t minimize it. The couple has to cope with loss on a recurring monthly basis. It’s real grief; treat it that way.
- Don’t say that worse things could happen. Who are you to judge?
- Don’t gossip.
- Don’t stop inviting them to baby-themed events such as showers or birthdays. However, be understanding if they decline.
- Don’t be quick to push adoption. We need to first mourn the possibility of having biological children.
Finally, NEVER ask ANYONE when they will start a family. This is none of your damned business and no one needs to be reminded that the clock is ticking. Plus, for those of us struggling with infertility, it is truly salt in the wound.