The unspoken synonym
This piece is incredibly personal and painful, and was written last year in the depths of all the IVF madness. It could only be shared with permission from my brave, beautiful soon-to-be ex husband. Statistics show that relationships in which infertility plays a part are three times more likely to end in separation. I honestly believe that it wouldn’t be normal if the experience of infertility and IVF didn’t throw up significant challenges in a marriage. We share our story in hopes it will resonate with some of you. And to say that sometimes it’s okay to not be okay.
If I encourage you to share your stories, I have to be honest about mine.
My husband and I have had sex three times in the last year.
I lie in the dark. Duvet tucked in tight either side of me, my legs gently crossed, my arms folded over me like an envelope. He lies inches away, but really across the forest and the desert and the ocean, some distant terrain. At night, we are lost one from the other. I listen to his syncopated snorts and feel a gentle irritation travel through my skin.
“Will you hold me?” I force the words out, jagged edges that pierce with tiny humiliations.
No movement. We remain two land masses, not at war but not much like peace either.
And this is how it is, how it has been at first for months and now for years.
The assumption, in the rare moment I share this with a friend, is that it’s me; that the multiple assaults on my body have led me to lose desire. But no, it’s him who retreated away to safety, who very occasionally acts out attraction where there is none so we can both pretend sex isn’t a synonym for the mechanical act of reproduction.
Every night, my husband brings me a hot water bottle, tucks me under a blankie, brings me a warm drink. At the weekend, he drives me to Brighton to wander the lanes, mulling over antique emerald rings, homemade vanilla fudge and Starsky and Hutch tan jackets. Or he drives to East Croydon station after a 15 hour shift to swoop me up in the car and take me home, because he doesn’t like me to be cold.
I once believed that he is the reason all my other relationships failed. But every day my heart breaks a little more.
On Instagram, the women, anonymous voices from Orange County, Dubai, Berwick upon Tweed, Stockholm, they whisper to one another of their Hollywood happy endings, their husbands whose frivolous failings extend only to frustration that IVF gets in the way of their desires.
So this infertility has been a double assault on my womanhood: my body fails me in two essential aspects. I am neither desirable nor functional. I can neither seduce my own husband nor produce the child we both already love. My body is bruises and fat and disgust, where once it was curves and adventure and softness. Creation, sensuality, play, power… together, a mystic life force that now drains away with each cycle. When the fertility nurse slips up, tells us we can’t have sex for this cycle, and then corrects herself to say, “of course I mean unprotected sex, don’t look so worried!”, I look down, knowing I am not woman.
I am still in the eye of the storm, this journey has woven its horror and magic, its traumas and lessons, and I am dizzy as I am pushed involuntarily onward. I am not the same woman who walked in: I am needy, drenching myself in the most inappropriate of attention; I am courage, building my pathway onwards on the foundations of defeat; I am love, astonished and entwined with all our experiences; and I am sorrow, for the woman I will now never become. But whatever woman walks out at the end, I am forever changed.
With every needle, every unpayable bill, with each tear that falls and each inevitable disappointment, we both separately (together?) grow. We walked in, hand in hand, naïve, irresponsible and presumptuous. I imagine we will walk out, each burned, exhausted, wise and assured. Able to recite the other’s every fault and insecurity. Only time will tell if we walk out of this together.