I balance the prefilled syringe on my bathroom counter and rub the spot of my soft lower abdomen with an alcohol wipe. I pinch myself with my left hand, and I slowly insert the one-and-a-half-inch needle into my stomach with my right. It goes in seamlessly now, through the purple bruise that seeps into my flab like a tattoo. I don’t cry like I did the first few times. I’ve done three rounds before, so I no longer cry over the things I do before brushing my teeth.
I saw an image the other day that said any woman who goes through IVF is a warrior. Because I’m in this community of infertility now, I see these things even when I’m not looking for them. I imagine this image must have been created by a supportive partner because it’s something you say in solidarity when you feel helpless. It could have also been made by a woman who had a successful IVF cycle because in the depths of my fourth cycle, I don’t have the energy to refer to myself with such bravado. I, too, would use this term to describe a person who takes on a difficult fight, someone who does not give up in the face of adversity. But now that this word is used to describe someone like me, I realize it’s a term that eases the pain and discomfort for other people rather than the individual it’s describing. We always talk about the person who is fighting as a warrior, but if they lose, they often become something else, a noun with adjectives and verbs connected to them: “a kind soul” or “the person who never gave up.” Is the woman who chooses to give up on IVF still a warrior? Is the woman who fails still a warrior? I don’t feel like a warrior because I don’t have a greater purpose; I have a selfish one. My battle is not brave. I enter defeated and continue because I’m too scared to give up. I just want my body to do the thing adults always warned me about, the thing I was so careful not to have happen when I first had sex at nineteen.
Now my body feels old, even though I’m thirty-one. I’m told I have the egg reserve of a woman ten years older than me. And now I’m ten pounds heavier from these hormones I keep mainlining into myself. I have bruises on my stomach because despite my options to use my thighs, I keep choosing my stomach. This is the part that’s supposed to grow, so to stick it with daily injections is an immature type of punishment that actually makes sense to me. I wish I could unlearn all these words: Subcutaneous. Follicles. Ovarian Reserve. Cell division. Today I have an ultrasound to measure the growth of my follicles where I’ll stare at the ceiling in a darkened room, while the image of the inside of my ovaries projects on the screen in front of me. I’ll listen to the click, click of the ultrasound technician measuring the width of the very few follicles I have—one on my left ovary, two on my right. Bruises stain the creases of my elbows, places my blood is drawn, places the nurse sticks three times because “the veins are too used up to find a good spot,” she says. I smile at her, but I hate her. Just like I hate the young mother with her newborn baby who won’t stop crying in the waiting room.
In the past, whenever I had my blood drawn, I didn’t want to see the needle go into my flesh, so I’d stare straight ahead at the island photo that had been ripped out of a calendar and hung on the partition in front of me until I felt the nurse undo the tourniquet. Now, this blood draw is just a series of things that happen. The needle pricks my arm. The needle intrudes, needing no consent to enter. I watch every step of the process, thinking of all the un-successes I have had after this moment. Last time, Dr. Walker called to tell me the cells did not divide how she wanted them to, that none of the four eggs she retrieved were viable. I recall the woman next to us at my second egg retrieval; the one who exaggerated the effects of the anesthesia, as if she were hoping her husband had recorded her in order to post the hilarity on Facebook like the little boy who went viral after getting nitrous oxide at the dentist. I remember her shouting in an embellished slurred voice that she had sixteen eggs and she was a rock star. She was the warrior with her sixteen, compared to my four. Each time I go through this, I think about the fact that women are born with all the eggs they’ll ever have. When four of them get used up, I wonder how many are left, and if I am fully depleting my chances. Even so, in this backroom lab, I keep returning to watch the blood trickle out of my arm and into the little tube, and I cover the battle wounds with long sleeves so people don’t think I’m something else. Each morning and each night, I pierce this body with hopes that I no longer feel a goddamn thing.
My infertility, especially to friends with more than one child, is a topic as taboo as drug addiction. I recognize their looks of sadness, their wishes that things would turn around for me, their guilt that they have multiple offspring and cannot pass one to me, their relief when I change the topic to something they know how to respond to. Behind my “thank you,” I cringe at their platitudes. These words they say to make themselves more comfortable: One day this will all be just a funny story. It will happen for you; everything always works out. You’re so strong. Keep trying. And I do keep trying, but it’s not because I feel any hope in the attempt. I just don’t know how to exist in a reality where I’m not a mother. I try not to silently condemn my friends. Instead, I learn to remain silent in order to spare them discomfort. And soon this silence that spares everyone else’s discomfort despite the depth of my own becomes an aura of indignation, envy, self-pity—all those gross feelings—because the people who I know are just trying to be comforting cannot understand the insensitivity of wrapping up more than a year of hardship into a neatly packaged phrase that they will never know to be true. They tell me I’m a warrior, and my response is silence because I cannot describe my resentment for my body that has betrayed me, and I cannot stand the person I am becoming.
A few times, I’ve injected myself off the tampon disposal box in a bathroom stall of a restaurant, excusing myself from conversation with our couple friends (who have a child) in order to stick to the strict schedule. While I set up my drug vials atop the bin, imagining the expense if I accidently knocked them off the small surface area, my mind flashes back to my college anthropology professor. He was a crunchy man who often shared stories of the days he lived in Tanzania. He told us public bathrooms are proof of America’s misogyny because we have separate trash bins for women to dispose of their very natural waste; we’re so disgusted by menstruation that we have to hide away the evidence in private stalls. He said that in many African countries he’d been to, women deliver their babies from a squatting position, feet planted on the floor, strength and gravity on their side. Yet, in America, he mused, we make women lie down, their feet treading on air, the opposite direction of a baby’s entrance to the world. At the time, I found him engaging and thought-provoking, although a bit dramatic. It’s funny the times you think of things you’re not sure you’ll remember when they’re happening. I think of my quirky professor as I squat near a public toilet in the ready position for delivering a baby that just won’t grow inside of me. I think of him while I stare at this dirty little box, throwing my empty vials, syringe, needle, and alcohol wipes into it, and I know his words have some kind of truth. My unnatural waste mixes in with some other woman’s natural waste, hiding away the evidence of shame in a private stall.
A few weeks later, when a friend tells me she is pregnant, I wait until I get home to cry in my own bathroom, feeling such shame that I’m so selfish, and hoping my friend heard genuine happiness in my congratulations. This space is dark and needs some tidying, unlike the fluorescently lit, pristine doctor’s office I’ve entered many times before to listen to news I’d already heard on the phone. As I listen to the drip of the shower head, I convince myself that I can hear my baby disappearing, but I know it’s really me who’s disappearing. If I tell myself this baby is gone again, and perhaps never existed, then I can continue falsely believing that this will soften the reality later when a doctor speaks these very words out loud, in that too brightly lit room. Perhaps it won’t be so difficult to hold back the sob that will be clinging to my tonsils despite already having knowledge of the news I’m about to hear. I know I’m not a warrior, yet I still have this strange instinct that I must try to behave like one, even though this masculine image of a soldier that I picture is a really ridiculous role model for an infertile woman whose only goal is to be a mother.
Still, I start again. Right before bed, I line my counter with the sodium chloride vial and the Menopur powder vial, straightening them so they’re lined next to each other. I wipe the tops with an alcohol pad. I no longer watch the instructional videos; this is routine, like peeing before bed. I insert the syringe and watch the powder dissolve into the clear liquid. I avoid looking at myself in the mirror, afraid I’m so empty that no reflection will be staring back at me. I twist off the Q-Cap and twist on the one-and-a-half-inch needle. I flick it and watch the bubbles rise to the edge, popping. This is my favorite part, an intermission before the main act. And then, I stick the needle into the flab of my stomach pinched between my left fingertips; the stomach that isn’t growing in the way I want it to. I dispose of my needles in my own little container, a red hazardous waste box that contains all the stuff that makes people uncomfortable.
And I wait. Again.
Kathleen Kelly is a mother of three living in the Boston area with her husband and their children. She teaches high school English, a course on social justice, and professional development for educators on equity. Her flash fiction was recently published in In Parentheses magazine. Along with reading and writing, Kate enjoys adventures with her family, libraries, the outdoors, history, good TV, trying new foods, and exploring new hobbies with hopes they’ll stick. She is forever grateful for science and acknowledges the privilege to have had the access to healthcare that allowed her multiple IVF chances. Even though many women may share the experience of infertility, their emotions, successes, and failures are unique.