For Mother’s Day this year, I received, among other things, a handmade card from my 8-year-old. The front is an embarrassment of pink and red hearts. Inside, across from an illustration of the two of us hugging, is his message: “I love and appreciate you so much, Amma. Thank you for helping me fight through disastrous chaos every day of my life.”
His words reflect my firstborn exactly ― earnest, funny, sensitive, dramatic. The card is now pinned above my desk. Every glance at it makes my heart twang erratically.
The first year of my son’s life was in fact one form or other of disastrous chaos. I think he was 9 or 10 months old before I looked at him and experienced one of those “this is real love” moments.
I’m not ashamed to admit this now. I don’t believe it makes me any less of a good mother. But my road to acceptance was pockmarked and convoluted and began long before he was born.
Like most people who imagine their future selves as parents, I didn’t spare much thought for actually getting pregnant. I married my high school best friend at 22. Ignoring the gentle nudging questions about kids for the first five years was easy. We were busy making friends, trying the buzziest new restaurants, planning impromptu cross-country road trips.
I figured once we were ready, we’d knock a couple of kids out, no problem. In my mind, I’d be done by 30. One each: a boy and a girl. The perfect combo of rowdy and radiant. I could picture their mischievous dimpled smiles already.
What I hadn’t pictured was sitting in a paper gown at the fertility clinic at 32. Again. Suddenly, those years in our 20s when we’d blithely chosen not to think about children felt like idiocy.
Whenever I heard someone say, “We’re waiting a bit before doing the baby thing,” I wanted to shake them and scream, “Don’t repeat my mistakes!” The picture-perfect family I’d envisioned was becoming blurrier by the minute.
By the time our first child ultimately emerged, I was down two miscarriages, one dilation and curettage, one polyp removal surgery, six bottles of sugary homeopathic pills, two attempts at intrauterine insemination, two cycles of in vitro fertilization, five months of hormone injections, and countless rounds of mind-fuckery.
My body had been poked, prodded, tweaked and coaxed until it no longer felt like anything that belonged to me. My ovarian follicles had been primed and stimulated until my brain became numb.
Numbness was also how I recall receiving the news that our most recent round of IVF had been successful. Sure, I’d taken the blood tests, and OK, I could sort of make out a peanut-shaped blob on the ultrasound, but the possibility of another miscarriage loomed large. I wasn’t ready to celebrate yet.
Let’s take it one day at a time, I told my husband. Anything could happen. Ever-present at the back of my mind was also the hefty price tag attached to my pregnancy. We had sunk so much money into making this happen. What were the repercussions if it didn’t work ― again?
I floated through the next eight months in a permanent state of semi-denial. I resisted the urge to buy any tiny “awww”-inducing outfits. A baby shower sounded lovely, but maybe we could keep things muted? Who knew what disasters might still be right around the corner. No need to make a fuss.
Even when I was wheeled into the hospital maternity wing at 39 weeks, the doubts persisted. Things could still go wrong, right? I’d read the delivery room horror stories. Better not to get too attached.
But then, right after my husband triumphantly snipped the umbilical cord (looking exactly like he was the first to cross a marathon finish line), the doctor placed our softly mewling baby on my chest, and I finally, finally, exhaled. He was here. He was real. The ordeal was over.
The part that still stings, though, is that the emotion I most felt in that moment was nothing like love. It was a simple, overwhelming relief.
Early motherhood is a crazy ride, regardless of how you arrive. So maybe I can chalk up some of my naive ideas about it to plain ignorance. I’d done my best to prepare ― we’d read the parenting books and taken the doll-swaddling classes. A talented friend had created a mural of birch trees on one wall of the nursery. I’d spent days hand-painting a special rug for the room, contorting my bulging body into awkward positions as I taped off sections in a chevron pattern. The room we had created for our new baby was a comfortable, beautiful, cheerful space.
The infant we brought home to this nursery, on the other hand, confounded me. He cried endlessly. He was always hungry. He just wouldn’t sleep. He was like a pudgy, bleary-eyed, angry-at-the-world but somehow still incredibly attractive gremlin.
I wanted desperately to feel close to him; instead, I felt more exhausted and resentful by the day. Being around other mothers and their content newborns only made me feel like more of a failure in comparison.
People find it easy to accept that infertility, especially failed fertility treatment cycles, can cause depression in women. But the very last thing that occurred to me was that our child, so long-awaited and wished-for, could tip me into an emotional free fall.
I knew about postpartum depression, but in my mind, that wasn’t for people who had been through hell and back like I had. I decided to will the monsters away. After enduring the trials of IVF and miscarriage, pushing down yet another swirl of negativity felt like second nature. I’d sacrificed so much in pursuit of this baby. Caring for myself was no longer on the agenda. I’d left it behind somewhere between all those Follistim injections.
Responding to the pediatrician’s wellness questionnaire ― “Does mother feel sadness or have any negative thoughts?” ― was laughable. Of course I was depleted. Who wouldn’t be?
I can’t say for sure if what I experienced was postpartum depression. I certainly wasn’t the only one taken aback by the fact that our son had absolutely zero chill.
My mother, convinced his grumpiness was related to my milk supply, busied herself with concocting remedies to boost my production. But she couldn’t explain why he didn’t stop crying even as I pumped more milk, even as we supplemented with formula, even once we added solid foods to his diet.
He had no digestive issues we could discern. Our pediatrician made soothing sympathetic noises as our baby screamed at his 2-, 4-, 6-, and 9-month well visits. He put his hand on my knee, gave me the name of a sleep consultant, and suggested hiring help for at least a few hours each day.
All the advice was making my head swim, but by this point, I didn’t believe myself capable of independent thought as it related to babies or their making. I had spent the last several years nodding along as experts told me what was wrong with my reproductive system (which by the way, was nothing; our infertility had no explanation), asked me to lie back while they took a look or suggested yet another test, constantly teetering between patience and helplessness. My experience with motherhood so far felt like the latest in a long line of what I had come to expect.
And deep down, it was also what I had come to believe I deserved. My self-esteem had become so enmeshed with my uterine performance over the past decade that I had made our child an extension of my trauma.
I wish I could say I woke up one morning and found my way out, but there were no handy exit signs here. My son and I both had stuff to work through. He was figuring out how to exist in the world, and I needed to quiet the monsters in my head long enough to help us navigate the messy human experience together. Talking about our journey openly was the first step.
There are so many layers of guilt and shame that go with acknowledging infertility. Part of it was my Indian upbringing, which emphasized modesty and keeping your private life under wraps.
But I’d also lived in California long enough to realize I wasn’t hearing the women around me share their reproductive struggles either. Studies and statistics bear out that the majority of women with infertility suffer in silence. As long as I kept our family’s IVF experience locked away, it was going to take over and swallow me whole.
Speaking the words “Both our boys are IVF babies” out loud for the first time, my throat felt scratchy. I braced myself for judgment, or worse yet, sympathy. What I received were kind eyes, tender questions, and more often than I thought possible, community.
There they were ― my friends, family, neighbors and colleagues ― so many with stories like my own, just waiting for someone else to begin the conversation. Waiting for permission to stop holding their breaths, too.
The experience of infertility is painful and can feel interminably lonely. Getting a healthy baby at the end of it is nowhere close to a sure thing. I remind myself that we were lucky two times over, but it’s just as important to remember that the aftershocks of IVF don’t end in the delivery room.
For a long time, I took my child’s difficult infancy as a personal affront. Now I recognize he was struggling just like me.
When my son is older, we’ll talk about how we came to conceive him. I’m saving his Mother’s Day card for that day, so I can thank him for being born, for sticking with us, and for helping me fight disastrous chaos every day of my life.