Fertility is not a competitive sport

By Stephanie Sprenger

How many times have you been pregnant?

Swallowing hard, I write the number six and set the clipboard down on the waiting room chair. By all accounts the form is a benign one, but for me that seemingly simple question was anything but. I take a deep breath and move on to the inevitable next question.

How many live births have you had?

Two, I write.

The discrepancy in these numbers will always be part of my complex reproductive history. Along with three extremely early miscarriages (technically categorized as “chemical pregnancies”) and one bewildering ectopic pregnancy, I carry bitterness, anxiety, and shame embedded in my memories of conception and pregnancy.

Even though we had only been trying to get pregnant for a few months, I had begrudgingly become a “TTC” nerd. That’s “trying to conceive” for all of you “we’re not trying, but we’re not not trying!” folks. Against my better judgment, I succumbed to the gung-ho, Type A method of conception, which involved a basal thermometer, unsavory daily explorations of my cervical fluids (I’ll never hear the term “egg whites” the same way, as long as I live), an app that deemed itself my “Friend,” and obsessive participation in message boards dotted with abbreviations that read like Martian to the uninitiated.

The “two-week-wait” (2ww) and silent calculations of however many “days past ovulation” (DPO) I was became my constant mental companions as soon as we began trying. I had looked down on these fertility-preoccupied women on the message boards, dismissing them as pathetic, women who couldn’t simply live their lives while trying to conceive. And then, after my first miscarriage, I understood what it was like to be consumed by the countdown until you could start trying again, how devastating it was to watch your basal temperature plummet, a signal that reeked of failure.

The ironic thing was, I got pregnant nearly every time I tried. The occasional unsuccessful month was like a badge of shame, however, and what was worse were the post-loss months when I wasn’t allowed to try. I still faithfully took my temperature during those off-cycles, as though doing recon work for my next pregnancy counted as something productive.

“All we had to do was look at each other and we got pregnant!” I cringed every time I heard this cheerful announcement, predictably followed by a chorus of giggling young moms. I felt almost indignant, as though I too should be included in this uber-fertile echelon, as I had technically conceived easily—it was what happened next that was complicated. Fertility was prestigious, after all; didn’t ease with conception signify that a mother was destined to be a natural? For a woman of child-bearing age, being labeled “fertile” was even better than having a high metabolism or great legs.

When exactly, I wondered, did fertility become a competitive sport? As if it’s not bad enough trying to attain the desired numbers of ounces of breast milk pumped, the coveted early-potty-training toddler, and the highly sought after newborn-who-sleeps-through-the-night, now mothers either pat themselves on the back for quick, successful conceptions or lament their bad luck with the rest of the infertile, pregnancy-challenged outcasts?

Or perhaps this perceived competition was all in my head, as I had deemed myself one of the losers. Perfectionism had always been the genetic monkey on my back, and I had found one more way to allow it to insidiously creep into my world. I was ashamed of my pregnancy losses. I felt I had been kicked out of some type of invisible, elite club full of women with impeccably functioning wombs.

I had hoped to demurely blush when confessing that we’d gotten pregnant on our first try, or better yet, shake my head with feigned irritation while announcing that I had just purchased a mega-box of tampons! Not being a fertility whiz really pissed me off.

Some of my friends with uncomplicated pregnancy journeys have told me they were shamed for publicly celebrating their quick and easy conceptions. Several were chastised for not considering the feelings of those who had experienced infertility or loss, urging the easy-conceivers to be more humble and grateful. In spite of my own struggles, I don’t feel that reaction is entirely justified. It’s misguided to imply that those who did not struggle to conceive are ungrateful. Who among us can realistically live in a state of suspended thankfulness for all of the things that have not gone wrong in our lives?

Personally, I was able to compartmentalize the bitterness I experienced after pregnancy loss and difficulty conceiving. Sure, I looked down at my feet whenever I saw a ripe pregnant belly heading my way at the grocery store, and I even allowed myself the silent and completely unwarranted “Smug bitch.” But then I moved on with my life.

But some women are not so lucky and seem to be consumed by jealousy and pain. And though I would never expect those for whom conception was a breeze to bask in constant gratitude and awareness of the hypothetical challenges of others, I would, however, urge sensitivity. Starting with the ban of this condescending gem, and those like it, from their vernacular: “We just looked at each other, and got pregnant!” While it may be a purely innocent exclamation, nobody actually wins when we make fertility a competition.

Stephanie Sprenger is a freelance writer, editor, music therapist, and mother of two girls. She is co-editor of The HerStories Project—a writing and publishing community for women—and is co-producer of the Listen To Your Mother Boulder show. 

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