Bodies Trying to Conceive Feels a Little Bit Less Awful Than Not Trying
It isn’t my job to bear as much pain as I possibly can to prove that I am somehow worthy of becoming a mother. Why is it so hard to remember this?
I wake up before dawn on a Friday morning in November. Beside me on the floor, the dog stretches and then shakes, the warp and rattle of the plastic cone around his neck echoing through our dark apartment.
In the kitchen, he sits on the rug while I flick on the lights and write out the schedule for today’s drugs. He gazes eagerly up at me.
“Okay,” I say. “You ready?”
Roscoe has an ulcer on his cornea that refuses to heal, an apparently painful condition requiring an array of antibiotics and eye drops and painkillers administered several times each day. At first, giving the dog eye drops required a negotiation that was part-dance, part-wrestling match. Once he understood the routine—each dose was followed by a handful of freeze-dried salmon—the process quickly improved. Seven weeks in, he now asks for eye drops by sitting patiently on the corner of the kitchen rug. He turns his face up to the light. I gingerly lift his eyelid.
On the counter beside the dog’s many medications are boxes of syringes, needles, alcohol swabs, and instructions for the drugs I start taking the week after next for my first round of IVF. For a few days, our treatments will overlap. Each morning, I will give the dog three eye drops and my partner Mark will give me a shot in the belly.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Mark says from the bedroom doorway. “I want the dog to get better, but I worry how he’ll handle going back to a life where he doesn’t get salmon at regular intervals each day.”
Roscoe’s tail swishes across the hardwood as I unscrew the cap on the next bottle.
“I know,” I say. “We’ve created a monster.”
I shower and dress and pour coffee into a thermos. I’m late for my appointment at the fertility clinic. I kiss the dog and then Mark and then the dog again, remembering to swallow two Advil just as I am about to leave.
As I’m locking my bike up outside the clinic, my phone rings. It’s the receptionist, wondering if I’m coming. “Be right up!” I say as I speedwalk toward the elevator. I’ve been to this place more times than I can count over the past year, but still no one recognizes me when I walk in.
“I’m Mandy,” I remind the woman at the desk.
She examines her calendar.
“You just called me?” I wonder if she can hear the edge in my voice.
I chide myself for being so grumpy and distrustful every time I come to the clinic. Maybe if I had a better attitude, people would remember me. Roscoe is greeted with giant smiles every time we visit the vet. I suppose he is easy to love.
After a long moment, the receptionist nods. “Have a seat.”
I am here for a hysteroscopy, which means they are going to put a tiny camera into my uterus and look around. The consent form reminds me of the procedure’s risks, but after so many months of tests and paperwork, I sign it with no special attention. I was told there might be some cramping, hence the Advil I almost forgot.
Eventually a nurse directs me through the maze-like space of the clinic to a small changing room that faces a desk and some cubicles. Instead of a door, there’s a thin curtain between me and the hallway. “Take off everything from the waist down and put on this skirt,” she says, gesturing to a bundle of teal fabric lying on the chair. The curtain doesn’t close completely. As I pull off my jeans and then my underwear, I hear the nurses in the cubicles chatting about their weekend plans.
In the exam room, I am directed to a reclining chair with a plastic holster for each of my legs. The doctor arrives and snaps on her gloves. I lean back and stare at the ceiling. “This might be uncomfortable,” she says.
I nod. I am so used to having things pushed through my cervix that I think little of this warning. But when it comes, moments later, the pain washes over me like an ocean.
“Deep breaths,” a voice says, though I don’t know if it is the doctor or the nurse.
I hear myself breathing, but I am not aware of controlling it. I picture the long metal rod that was just on the tray beside me, now deep inside my body. Had it occurred to me that this was what they were going to do? All I can think is that I am certain that I have made a mistake. Even if these treatments eventually work, I can’t have a baby. If I can’t handle this single test, there’s no way I’ll survive childbirth.
The doctor looks at a large monitor as she moves the camera around inside me. I have no sense of how much time has passed, or what she is looking for, or why exactly this procedure is necessary in the first place. I am treading water, barely.
“Almost done,” someone says, just as I am ready to cancel everything, to choose a romantic, nomadic life as an artist-slash-vagabond, to become someone I can only become if I finally give up on having a child. But then it is over. My breath returns to me.
“Don’t get up yet,” the doctor warns, explaining that some people feel lightheaded after the procedure. I sit, waiting for dizziness that, thankfully, doesn’t arrive. I can’t decide if I am glad that I didn’t bother to Google this procedure, or devastated.
“Everything looks good,” she adds, giving me a perfunctory smile. It takes me a moment to realize she is expecting a response.
“That’s great,” I say, and attempt to smile back, because I am the kind of person who would smile at her guillotine operator.
The doctor and nurse stare placidly at me for a moment before I realize they are waiting for me to leave. I stand and wrap my weird skirt around my waist. Alone in the maze of hallways, I try to find my way back to my pants.
When I unlock the door to our apartment, Roscoe comes barreling up. He cries and wiggles and shoves his cone into my shins. He lets me kiss his forehead before sitting expectantly on the rug, ready for more eye drops. Here is someone who knows what he wants, I think. Someone who is willing to do what it takes to get it, even if there’s a little discomfort in the process.
But what does it really mean to want something? I think about this question all the time. Do I want to have a kid? How can I be sure? Today, wanting to have a baby means having a camera shoved into my uterus, an experience I definitely didn’t want, but which I thought would be okay until it actually happened.
Do I want to have a kid? How can I be sure?
If I am honest, though I want to be a parent, I don’t love the idea of having a baby. The whole process feels so fraught: pregnancy and birth and breastfeeding and sleepless nights. I have seen friends struggle with traumatic labors, lingering birth injuries, bleeding nipples. Pretty much any aspect of the miracle of birth has been painful and hard and distinctively unmiraculous for the people I know.
“I just can’t imagine bringing a person into the world right now,” a friend said over coffee recently. She is past her childbearing years and relieved not to have to think about it anymore. I understand what she means. I don’t know how to explain climate change to a four-year-old or how to admit to seeing the worst of humanity and still not doing enough to fix it.
Somehow, despite all of this, having a child feels hopeful. “What else will keep us from total nihilism?” I say to Mark. I know it sounds dramatic, but I don’t mean it as a rhetorical question.
When Mark and I talk about whether or not we should keep going with fertility treatments, we sometimes turn to the dog. “Imagine loving someone more than you love the dog,” I say.
“It’s not possible,” he replies, and cups Roscoe’s face in his hands. They gaze at each other with total, unselfconscious adoration.
It’s hard to conjure that same kind of love for a hypothetical human. I wonder if trying to get pregnant is really a way to accept that I will outlive this aging dog, who has been the steadiest companion of my adult life. I don’t think up baby names or linger at the window of the kids’ clothing shop down the street. I try not to imagine what our child would look like. Though I once glanced out the window of a café and I saw a little girl with wild white hair and dimples, and my brain said, maybe like that .
Whatever desire I have for a child is at least in part borne from how much I love Mark. Sometimes I think if I loved him just a little bit less, I could let this all go. But the months pass and I find myself sinking deeper into this impulse to disrupt our lives entirely with the presence of another human, someone the dog is sure to dislike and whom we absolutely cannot fit in our tiny apartment.
I try to convince myself that having a baby is not an especially profound thing to do. Deciding to get pregnant is like deciding to get really into the Beatles. It’s so ordinary as to be unremarkable. But what if we could love someone more than we love the dog?
In early November, we celebrated Roscoe’s ten-year adoptaversary. We bought him a small, heart-shaped cake made of peanut flour, which he ate in a single, voracious bite—like an anaconda swallowing a piglet—before we could even finish our off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
For ten years, he has waited to eat until I say the word “break,” in almost every instance leaving a small puddle of drool on the floor. But apparently the peanut cake with his name frosted across the top was too compelling. It’s true that he can’t read his own name, but he knew, from the moment I opened the box, that the cake was all his.
In the video I made, Mark sings while Roscoe licks his graying jowls, his tail switching back and forth like a high-speed windshield wiper. Off-screen, I can barely sing for laughing.
I text my friends to tell them that, despite all the time and money Mark and I have put into fertility treatments, I have been completely sidelined by the pain of having a camera shoved into my uterus. “I will not survive labor,” I type.
“Camera in uterus is the worst!” A friend writes back. “I remember thinking it was worse than giving birth!”
That seems impossible. But, out of curiosity, I Google, “hysteroscopy painful.”
“The procedure shouldn’t be painful,” the first website reads, adding: “Your doctor may order some type of sedative for you to take beforehand so you’ll be more relaxed.” And then: “For most purposes, the hysteroscopy can be done in your doctor’s office with just local or regional anesthesia.”
Sedatives? Anesthesia? I read a study of 254 hysteroscopy patients in which a majority ranked the pain as moderate to severe. Six patients found the pain intolerable and had to stop the procedure before it was completed. I think of those six people and, for a moment, feel proud. At least I got through it.
But what a fucked up thing to think. This isn’t a competition. It isn’t my job to bear as much pain as I possibly can to prove that I am somehow worthy of becoming a mother. It’s the clinic’s job to manage my pain, to make me feel cared for. Isn’t it? Why is it so hard to remember this?
The hysteroscopy situation is a perfect example of what makes fertility treatment so fundamentally destabilizing. There is no way of knowing, not really, if my experience falls within the range of “normal” pain. If this level of pain is normal, then why doesn’t the clinic offer more pain relief? Is there some meaningful medical reason for withholding it? Or is this another example of the well-documented phenomenon of medical professionals taking women’s pain less seriously than men’s?
Or is the problem that people like me assume pain is an inevitable part of treatment, so we never question it and the procedure continues as it always has? After all, if I hadn’t mentioned it to my friends, I never would’ve thought to look it up. Maybe this whole experience is my own fault: for not researching the procedure beforehand; for not asking more questions and insisting on anesthesia; for trusting the system to take care of me.
It takes me a while to understand that what I really want to know is this: Am I entitled to my pain? Is it reasonable to assume I am not cut out for labor or any of the other bodily trauma of becoming someone’s biological mother? Am I allowed to be angry and distrustful? To feel distinctly un-cared-for? Is this the way the system has to work?
Sometimes I think I will never get pregnant because I am too willful and suspicious. Because I resent how much this process demands of me and how little it demands of Mark. Because mothers are supposed to be gentle and hopeful and compliant. Or tough and resilient and uncomplaining. They are everything I am not.
I think of the dog, of how little I know about his pain, but also about how warm and affectionate the many vets and specialists and receptionists have been with him these past few weeks. They remember him from visit to visit and ply him with treats and affection.
The canine ophthalmologist has prescribed three types of painkillers: a morphine eye drop, an anti-inflammatory liquid that goes on his food, and a thrice-daily pill. She is careful with the dosage so Roscoe is comfortable, but not out-of-it. They give me a lengthy printout detailing his care and together we review it point by point.
I don’t need kangaroo jerky and coddling, but I do wonder why the dog’s experience is so different from mine. Is it because he can’t really express his discomfort, leaving the vet with the responsibility of anticipating it in advance? Is it because I am there in the exam room with him, hovering and protective and concerned? Is it that dogs, with all their relative helplessness, are simply easier to care about than grumpy, suspicious humans?
When we started this process two years ago, I thought the difficult thing about fertility treatments would be the wanting: You wanted a baby and there was simply no way of knowing if you were ever going to have one. But what I really want is to feel like a whole person—not a vessel, a womb, a walking pair of ovaries, a not-yet-mother. I want someone to say: By the way, how are you feeling? It’s the clinic’s job to manage my pain, to make me feel cared for. Isn’t it? Why is it so hard to remember this?
I am constantly aware of the fact that I am in a privileged position. Mark and I can afford these treatments—at least for now. We live in Canada, where the healthcare system, however flawed, is still better than those in so many other parts of the world. We’re in a city with easy access to multiple clinics. And I am alive right now, in this political and historical moment where I have some say over my reproductive life. I know that, as a cis straight white woman, I am likely to get better care than many others. But isn’t this even more reason to be angry—the fact that my reproductive healthcare is about as good as it gets?
We know that trans folks are regularly dehumanized by the healthcare system, that Black women have the highest maternal mortality rate in America, that Indigenous women have been sterilized without their consent and had their children funneled into the adoption system for generations, that women in many rural communities can’t access care at all thanks to extreme abortion legislation. There are so many good reasons to be angry.
And yet, somehow, it’s hard to feel entitled to these negative feelings. I have friends who have miscarried three, four, even five times. Others have dealt with unwanted pregnancies or major health complications. There is so much trauma in this process that it is easy to get stuck thinking that—instead of complaining about how poor reproductive healthcare is for everyone—I should simply be grateful my experience hasn’t been worse.
When I was twenty-eight and working overtime teaching university students how to write, I spent weeks obsessing over the pages of Petfinder.com . Between classes, I sat at my desk and scrolled through page after page of rescue dogs. Each photo was a future I could imagine for myself: with Gus or Zeus or Molly or Tucson snoring gently at my side while I graded endless stacks of papers.
For months, my then-boyfriend and I had considered the merits of various dog names, imagining this third family member into being. But when we finally moved into a dog-friendly house, he wasn’t sure he was ready. “You get a dog,” he said, “and I’ll help you with it.” Implicit in this arrangement was that I would pay for the dog’s expenses and, if we broke up, the dog would be mine. I wanted a boyfriend who had more faith in the future of our relationship, but I wanted a dog more.
As I scanned each photo—Otis, Buddy, Ginger, Zelda—I felt within myself some previously unnoticed capacity for love. I imagined that this was what maternal longing would feel like.
I emailed one of the rescues about a dog named Odin whose profile said his ears felt like velvet. “He’s the one,” I told my ex. But he wasn’t. I was crushed to find out, just a few days later, that he had already been adopted.
“But,” the woman from the rescue wrote, “we have four black labs coming up from Idaho this week. What do you think about this one?” Attached was a photo of a lab mix with glossy black fur. He started into the camera with eyes that were sharp and full of want.
Three days later, we were at the vet’s office. The dog had just been neutered and was groggy from the anesthesia. As he wobbled toward me, he peed all over the waiting room floor. I wondered what I had gotten into. The woman at the rescue gave me a week to decide if I wanted to keep the dog or not. When we got home, he drank three bowls of water and then climbed up onto the couch to lick our faces. The next day, I stopped to buy him a small piece of rawhide. When I delivered the treat, he danced it around the kitchen, emitting little cries of pleasure before settling on the linoleum to devour it.
Of course I would keep the dog. I wanted to spend every day with this creature for whom happiness arrived so readily and with such force. I named him Roscoe.
My boyfriend and I broke up less than a year later. Before I moved out, he told me that he’d always thought of my desire for a dog as a sign that something was missing in our relationship, that he wasn’t able to give me the kind of love I wanted.
I laughed. It was true that he wasn’t giving me the kind of love I wanted. But that wasn’t why I adopted a dog. That absolute, overwhelming desire had sprung up from some deeper, more instinctive impulse. I always thought I would feel that way again one day when I was ready to have a child. But it hasn’t happened like that. That I ever felt such certainty seems amazing to me now.
The philosopher LA Paul argues that you can’t possibly make a rational decision about whether or not to have a child. You simply don’t have the necessary information. The only way to know what it’s like to have a child, she says, is to have a child. In this way, becoming a parent is a distinctively transformative experience: It changes you in ways you cannot predict. And if you cannot know who your future self will be, you cannot reasonably assess what she will want or make choices that rationally represent what is best for the person you will become.
In this way, becoming a parent is a distinctively transformative experience: It changes you in ways you cannot predict.
I find some comfort in this idea. It feels good to let go of the responsibility for making the best choices for my future self. “In the end,” Paul writes, “the best response to this situation is to choose based on whether we want to discover who we’ll become.” Instead of asking yourself if you want to have a child, you can ask yourself if you want to have a transformative experience.
At this point, though, even this question feels irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if I want to have a transformative experience. I am already having one.
When he gets home from work, Mark looks at me and says, “I just want to make sure you really want to do this.” He means IVF.
He’s sitting on the couch and Roscoe has backed himself up between his legs, waiting to be petted.
“Because we don’t have to,” he says. He slides the cone over Roscoe’s head.
“I know,” I say.
Roscoe points his nose to the ground so Mark can scratch the back of his ears.
The question of what I want feels increasingly absurd as this process drags on. But people keep asking anyway, as if the question itself might make this process make sense.
Do you want to inject drugs into your abdomen each day? Do you want to risk more mood swings and painful bloating? Do you want to spend the last of the modest sum of money you inherited from the sale of your grandmother’s house when you were thirteen? Whatever tools one uses to calibrate wanting were lost to me months ago. I can only say that today, and probably tomorrow, trying to conceive feels a little bit less awful than not trying.
When I took Roscoe to the vet to talk about why his cornea refused to heal, the doctor explained that he’d scratched it somehow and, though it kept scabbing over, the problem was that the scab wouldn’t adhere to the other corneal cells. Instead, it kind of flapped around on the surface of his eye. To treat this, they needed to remove the top layer of eyeball tissue with a diamond tipped burr—while he was awake, but anaesthetized.
The procedure took four people: the ophthalmologist with her burr; two techs holding the dog and giving him treats; and me, rubbing his back, telling him it was going to be okay. It was over in minutes, but I remember every second of it.
When I explain the process to people, their faces inevitably clench up in horror. “They buzzed his eyeball while he was awake? And you watched ? I couldn’t do it.”
It surprises me that people are impressed by this, but I suppose if I didn’t have a dog I would be impressed too. The person I was before I adopted Roscoe couldn’t have done it either.
Maybe I don’t know what’s in my future, but I know what it looks like to love someone. It is always a transformative experience. If all goes as it should, I will outlive the dog and that will change me ways I cannot predict. I don’t know what my future self will want, but she and I will probably agree that love has always been worth it.