The irrational hope of an infertile woman

blooming green succubus

By Amy Gallo Ryan

If my Hope existed in the physical world it would look like a long sleeved 3-6 month onesie I picked up for $4.99 on clearance at the Gap.

We had been trying for less than a year when I bought the onesie for the soon-to-be-born daughter of a childhood friend, tossing it in my cart because it was sweet and cost five dollars. The lavender stars and round fish were adorably innocent but not too cutesy, and I liked that it was intended for a girl but a boy could get away with wearing it too. But then I found other treasures to give the little girl I was shopping for that day, so I kept the onesie, knowing another friend would welcome another baby soon enough.

Only when they did, I wouldn’t relinquish the onesie. I can’t remember how many times I pulled that onesie out of the shopping bag, held it at arms length, then returned it to the back of my closet. At first it was because picking out new baby gifts was more fun than giving one I already had, but as time passed, I started making excuses for keeping it. And somewhere along the way, I realized that this particular onesie couldn’t be a gift. It belonged to our baby.

There was not one remarkable thing about that onesie, no fine details or special significance that might inspire me to save it. Normally, I would be too superstitious to have ever consciously bought something for a baby that didn’t yet exist. But my hopeful mind had other plans, transforming that $5 piece of cotton into something more. While a parade of miniature rompers and t-shirts, dresses and sneakers cycled through those shopping bags over the next few years, the stars-and-fish onesie remained, deeply rooted with meaning. I couldn’t bear to part with it, to see another baby wear it. Hope told me to hang on.

My behavior was irrational—largely beyond my control. Hope was often like that for me.

No matter how many times I failed, there wasn’t a month that went by that Hope didn’t convince me I was pregnant. She probed at my heavy breasts; she called out my fatigue; she noted the metallic taste of pregnancy on my tongue. She counted forward nine months, again and again, tabulating birthdays. Would we have a Leo on our hands? A Sagittarius?

Hope informed my dentist and dermatologist about a possible upcoming pregnancy, should we need to skip X-rays or switch to gentler medication. Once, when buying a bridesmaids dress, Hope sent an email asking how they accounted for women whose pregnant bodies changed in the months before the wedding. She was unabashed in her optimism.

Hope had a direct line to my subconscious, too. She made me leave the walls in our guest room bare—don’t invest, she insisted knowingly, since it will be a nursery soon enough. Browsing through a furniture store near my office I came upon an overstuffed, impractically white couch that we didn’t need. When I disappeared into the cushions, Hope conjured an image of me lounging in that same spot, round belly puncturing the air above. It’s the perfect place to rest an achy, pregnant body, she whispered. We’ll take it, I said aloud.

Hope was persistent, indefatigable, resilient beyond reason. Within days or sometimes hours of an IVF cycle failing, Hope was not only reborn but renewed with full conviction, trumpeting the possibility of whatever we were about to try next. Change doctors! Transfer multiple embryos! Get genetic testing! It will work! Dutifully, I did whatever she told me. She was the thing giving me life, after all, so I did whatever it took to keep her going, too.

Eventually, though, my Hope ran out.

Our fifth IVF embryo transfer was, in the opinion of all involved, The One. For the first time we were using genetically-tested embryos—two of them—which both our current and previous doctors believed would be the thing to ultimately work for us. These hearty embryonic stars had every last chromosome intact and would step in to get the job done. They were our Sure Things. Due to various delays—switching clinics, sending the embryos to the lab for testing, recovering from two unexpected surgeries—we transferred them roughly six months after the idea was first proposed.

Which meant that for 180 days, give or take, with the urgency and desperation of IVF at a fever pitch, I waited. Waited as the holidays came and went, when the seasons changed, as we marked birthdays, attended funerals, resolved to get a dog.

And in that eternity, in the pauses between each ticking second, Hope stood at her pulpit and delivered her most masterful sermon yet, spreading her gospel, her light, so that she overtook me, soaring out from my heart to the tips of my fingernails, swirling through the curvature of my brain, cascading down through each leg until pooling at my toes. Every inch of me was illuminated with the static electricity of possibility. I believed! By the time we transferred those two embryos, Hope had become unrecognizable—she was masquerading as Truth.

This could work.
This should work.
This will work.

And then—it didn’t.

Those powerhouse embryos sputtered and flailed and disappeared, absorbed back into the galaxy of my body. Hope, that tenacious force—she was gone. Her twinkly vapor was suctioned out of me in a single, shocking gasp. She could not endure that final blow.

After we got the news, Tim and I sat down across from our doctor, our eyes dulled, our nerves sharp. We still didn’t have a diagnosis, no explanation for why IVF wasn’t working. Fighting what had turned out to be an unknown enemy was destroying us. What a waste this had all been.

Our doctor expressed genuine surprise and disappointment that this last cycle hadn’t worked. But he still believed we would get there. He told us he would be devastated if we gave up. And he had a plan. He wanted to biopsy my uterus and present our case to the other doctors in the practice. Don’t give up, he pleaded. What else is there?

His passion was evident. His hope meant something, even if I had no more of my own. It seemed unthinkable to continue like this—to choose pain again and again—but the alternative sounded worse.

So a few weeks later I walked back into the clinic to begin another IVF cycle—our sixth. Without Hope fizzing inside, I was weighed down. It was a sunny Saturday in the middle of May but I wore a turtleneck, pulling the neck up over my chin and the sleeves down over my knuckles as I slouched in the chair waiting for my blood work and ultrasound.

But—I was there. Breathing, surviving, trying. I was continuing on in spite of the losses. In the midst of my hopelessness, the realization felt decidedly hopeful.

Plus, there was this: Hope was gone, yes, but she left something behind. There was still a onesie in the back of my closet. I never did let it go.

Amy Gallo Ryan is a writer, former magazine editor, and mother of three young children, all conceived through IVF. She lives in Brooklyn, NY where she is working on a collection of essays on infertility.

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