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Learning—and Confessing—That Our Unexplained Infertility Was All My Fault

When we transferred genetically tested embryos for the first time, it felt like the fertility equivalent of playing with a stacked deck. It was our fifth IVF embryo transfer, but our doctor was so convinced we would be successful that he initiated near-daily conversations about how many embryos we should transfer. Given that I was only 33, and these were genetically tested, his strong recommendation was that we put in one. He told us this again and again, as though his conscience was burdened by some sort of medical prescience. If we transferred two, he said, our odds of conceiving twins were extremely high. For good measure, he often reminded us of the low (but real) odds that one embryo could split in two on its own, in which case we’d have triplets.

Tim and I wanted to be sensible, so we hemmed and hawed. We would be transferring in early April, having not done so since the previous December, and there was no pretending that span had been anything other than agonizing, not to mention all the months and cycles that had come before. We considered the emotional repercussions of another failure—it was our fifth transfer, after all—compared with the risks and enormity of having twins. “I think if we’re honest with ourselves,” Tim blurted one night over dinner, “logic says one but our hearts say two.” Yes, I agreed. That was exactly right.

So that was where our minds were in the weeks leading up to the transfer—one embryo or two, a single baby or twins.

 The blood test fell on a Saturday, so we waited for the call together, my fingers strangling my phone. The screen lit up. I launched off the couch. Would it be one baby or two? “Hello? This is Amy.”

A voice came through on the other end: It was neither. A nurse was sorry to tell me that my hcG was only 27; it was a chemical pregnancy. It was over.

Tim had leapt up after me, and stood, watching and listening expectantly. He was told the news through the crumple of my face, the catch in my throat. We hugged, I sobbed. For the first time I could feel in a deep, guttural way that this really might not happen for us. I was not capable of doing this indefinitely. There was only so much we could take.

 

As we attempted to make sense of our lives, my mind was swimming with worms, snarling around, fertilizing the darkest matter in my brain. We were not going to have our own biological children; I would never be a mom, at least not in the way I had always imagined. Worse, I could now see that all of it was my fault. Those genetically tested embryos had provided a new clarity: it wasn’t a glitch in either of our genes that was responsible for all our failed cycles. Those embryos were fully capable of becoming babies. The onus lay squarely on my body. Whatever happened between the transfer and the pregnancy test, whatever caused those embryos to cease into nothingness, that was on me.

It was one thing to be the breaker of my own heart. That I could find a way to live with. What was unbearable—un-survivable—was bringing this upon Tim. I knew how badly he wanted to have kids, just as I knew how his love—patient, golden, constant—would make their childhoods magical. I could see him on the sidelines at soccer, helping our kids learn the game, underscoring the importance of trying hard; singing made-up songs in silly voices; them admiring him, him teaching them what really mattered. I thought about how he would shine in that role. How he was made for it. And I thought about how I was the reason he wouldn’t get to have the life he deserved. It wasn’t my choice, but that didn’t stop it from being my fault.

The realization was excruciating. Feeling disappointment had brought me to the brink; being a disappointment was pushing me past it. As I sat in my Monday therapy appointment and pulled tissue after tissue out of the box explaining my realization to Kristin, she listened, then replied. “Have you thought about telling Tim all of this?”

I had not. Nor had I imagined she would suggest such a thing.

Could I really acknowledge my greatest shortcoming, my ultimate failure? Once I called attention to this ghastly truth about the person he married, then what? What would he think? Would he still want this life with me? In one sense I wasn’t revealing anything at all. He was painfully aware that we hadn’t been able to have a baby. But for me to own it in this way, to accept accountability, to put words to the disappointment he must feel while acknowledging that I was the source of it—that was downright world-shattering.

I wasn’t sure I was capable of getting the words out of my mouth, but once Kristin had suggested it, I knew I didn’t have a choice: I had to tell him.   

The moment came over Memorial Day weekend. Our sixth round of IVF was underway, but we had another week or so until the transfer, so we headed upstate to a tiny ramshackle cottage in the woods. We did very little over those few days—cooked dinner on the grill, sat by the glowing gas fireplace in the evenings. One of my most distinctive memories, strangely, is of standing in the crumbling bathroom pressing slime-filled whitening trays against my teeth. I had put it off month after month, not wanting to slather my mouth in chemicals when I was trying to grow a healthy baby a foot-and-a-half away. But now? Why the fuck not. There was no embryo inside me yet, and realistically, it looked extremely unlikely this was ever going to work anyway.

Later that afternoon, Tim and I were having a beer on the back deck. We could hear the trickle of water easing over rocks and sticks from the creek down below, but beyond that the air was empty, daring me to speak. Flies were swirling through slanted sunlight, and with my stomach twisted, my gums on fire, I inhaled deeply and started talking.

I told Tim I was sorry that I wasn’t able to make him a father; that I was sorry for letting him down. I told him how deeply it weighed on me, how gravely I felt it, to be disappointing him like this. I told him he should be a father, he had every right to be, and how exceptionally well it would suit him. We married knowing we both wanted a family together, and I realized this was not the life he signed up for. There was also something I didn’t say, my voice couldn’t quite get there: That if he wanted to try to pursue that life with someone else, he should do it. Being a father was what he wanted, what he deserved. He should have it. I was too scared to say that part out loud, but I tried to say all the words around it, to hint at an out in case he needed one.

When I was finished, the sound of the creek returned. It was still there. I was still there. I felt myself in a kind of kinetic mid-air suspension, like a car that seems to be floating just after it’s rocketed off a cliff. After a pause, Tim, who had been staring at me, started talking. He had no idea I felt such a burden of responsibility, he said. But it was not my fault, not at all. He did not feel let down by me; this was our problem, we were in it together.

It was everything I could have hoped to hear. Reassuring, supportive, loving. I was grateful; I felt relief. As I came down from the high of heavy words released, we sat there in shaded silence on the porch, afternoon sun drenching the yard. I don’t think we ever hugged; it wasn’t like that. He might have grabbed my hand, we might have locked eyes, soundlessly acknowledged my exposed vulnerability, our shared sorrow. I might have tried to pull my face into the approximation of a smile, but the closed mouth-kind, lips stitched together, as I did in most pictures from around this time. Burning white teeth inside that no one ever got to see.

Amy Gallo Ryan is a Brooklyn-based journalist. Follow her on IG at @amygalloryan

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