A few months ago, I organized an event for a group called Borne, a wonderful charity out of the UK that works to understand and prevent preterm birth. I’d done smaller fundraisers for them throughout the past year, but January’s event was to be the biggest yet, involving a certain British actor being tossed into an outdoor, unheated pool. To make it happen, I had to find a venue that would allow these hijinks, set up and promote a fundraising page, and coordinate schedules with three very busy actors (and their parents, in the case of one, who is nine years old). I should also mention that this event was to take place London, and I live in St. Paul, Minnesota. But with a little help from my friend Sophie, who does everything comms, marketing, and fundraising for Borne, I managed to accomplish all of this in just under one week.
Sunday, January 20th dawned bright and beautiful over Camden. The nice people at Parliament Hill Lido did not turn us away, as I had feared. Everyone arrived safely and on time and the guys even wore matching shirts. Most importantly, thanks to the generosity of a host of lovely people on Twitter, we raised over $1,300 for a very important cause. By any measure, the event was a fabulous success. So why did I have such a hard time taking any credit for it? Every time someone tried to offer praise, I shrugged it off, demurred, minimized my role. It was nothing. Couldn’t have done it without all of you. You’re the real stars of this show.
“I was such a wreck all week anticipating every little thing that might go wrong and trying to prevent it,” I said to my friend Mei Li, who is Borne’s COO. “I could never be an event planner, I’m terrible at this.”
She told me I’m a natural at fundraising and started calling me Borne’s US Ambassador. Sophie was a bit more blunt.
“That’s exactly what event planners do!” she said. “Girl, we need to work on your self-esteem.”
Back at the flat we’d rented for the weekend, I received an email from my friend Al, the very good sport who’d allowed us to push him in the pool. “You’ve accomplished something amazing today,” he wrote. “Don’t be dismissive of that.”
I appreciated their kindness, but I have to admit, it left me feeling a bit embarrassed. Am I that friend? The one who needs constant reassurance and cheer-leading? How pathetic. As I lay in bed that night reflecting on the amazing day we’d had, I began to think that maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that three different people had all told me in no uncertain terms that I need to stop selling myself short. Maybe the Universe was trying to tell me something. In Sophie’s words,
Girl, we need to work on your self-esteem!
What has this got to do with infertility, you might be wondering. In the days that followed, I took a long, hard look at myself. Why did I always do this? Why did I have such a hard time taking credit for my accomplishments and accepting praise? I think part of it has to be cultural. In the Midwest we’re raised to be self-effacing, humble to a fault. Don’t make a scene and NEVER do anything that could be construed as boasting about yourself. But all of that aside, what explained my creeping suspicion that attention and praise make me uncomfortable because on some deep level, I don’t think I’m worthy of it? It didn’t take long to find the answer.
What had I been fighting for over five years, month after heartbreaking month, that reminded me every 28 days that I had failed, yet again, at fulfilling humanity’s most basic biological imperative? What was that insidious voice in the back of my head that whispered to me as I watched countless friends, colleagues, relatives become pregnant and have children, this is for them, not for you… What has drawn a veil between me and the life I’ve always wanted, a curtain that only grows thicker and heavier with each birthday, another year and still, no baby? After so long living this way, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that perhaps I don’t deserve it. Perhaps I shouldn’t even hope, because it’s never going to happen. It’s just not meant to be.
This was the narrative I’d let take over our story, at least subconsciously, and that weekend in London woke me up and breathed a new conviction into me: I don’t want to live this way. I want to break out of that dead-end story. I want to radiate light, not snuff it out. So I went back to therapy.
During our first session, I was explaining how this experience helped me to see for the first time that infertility has really done a number on my self-esteem, that things were so bad I couldn’t even accept a compliment. My therapist made a face like 1950’s Doc Brown when Future Marty is telling him about the 1.21 gigawatts. Her eyes got real wide and she nodded slowly as she said:
“It’s about being receptive. You’ve been closing yourself off to receive.”
Her prescription was nothing short of a total shift in perception. Pay attention to the story I’m telling myself about my infertility, and radically change it. Instead of dwelling on the heartache and letting it catch me in a dizzying vortex of doubt and fear, I was to cultivate a mindset of abundance and prosperity. I was to visualize everything I want most – the bump, the baby clothes, the wailing little creature herself – and commit to somehow making it all manifest with the power of positive thinking.
This attitude might sound dubious to a general audience but it is widespread within the infertility community. In my experience going to a support group, I think I’ve heard it all. Holistic treatments, like acupuncture and ayurveda, are de rigueur. Fertility yoga, devotional meditation, reiki, hypnosis – these are all seen as legitimate supplements (for some, alternatives) to Western medicine. One woman is adamant about something called epigenetics, which, to my best understanding, has something to do with influencing DNA from outside the gene to heal the body. Another regularly consulted a psychic during her last-hope IVF cycle. We are frequently encouraged to visualize ourselves pregnant, even go so far as to write affirmations like “A healthy baby is growing inside me” on post-it notes and stick them to the bathroom mirror.
This has been the one aspect of the infertility world that I’ve resisted the most. In general, I’m what some might call a person of little faith; it just doesn’t come easily to me, and infertility has only made it harder to believe in what I can’t see or hear or hold in my hands. All of this positive thinking stuff has always struck me as a bunch of pseudoscientific, waste-of-money, false-hope, new age bullshit. It also seems like a new way to blame myself every time I get my period: I guess I just didn’t think positively enough this month.
But I know the real reason I’ve been holding out, or closing myself off to receive, as my therapist would say. It’s because all of that requires a strength of belief that I’m just too scared to really look at head-on. After years of disappointment, I’ve become protective of my heart, wary of building my hopes too high. The higher the climb, the harder the fall. And to be honest, I don’t know how many more falls I can withstand.
Then again, I’ve always been one to hedge my bets. Medically speaking, I know we’re doing everything we can to conceive. We’re committed to this road for as far as our insurance money and bit of savings will take us. So even though I have no way of knowing whether visualizing my womb as a soft, warm den of solace and protection for any zygote that may stumble upon its path will actually help us get pregnant – it probably couldn’t hurt.
It takes a lot of courage, keeping this much hope inside of you, knowing that there will certainly be days when it will betray you and damn near break your heart. The fear and doubt are strong at times, but I’ve finally realized something: I’m stronger. I have the power to stop listening to that old story and write a new one. I haven’t called a psychic or sent dried urine samples to some dude in California (for real, one woman in my group did this), but I’m trying, in my own circumspect way, to open myself to receive. Yoga and meditation have been an important part of my life for years, but now they’re dedicated completely to conceiving our baby. Every time I reach my arms up to the sky for a sun salutation, I visualize a little baby floating down into my outstretched hands. Every morning sitting in lotus pose, hands on my belly, I repeat a silent mantra on each breath: We’re ready for you. Come home.
This mindset shift has been the most difficult part of the infertility journey so far. As we embark on our first cycle of IUI this month, it sometimes occurs to me that stoking the fire of hope like this might lead to an even worse let-down if it doesn’t work. It’s true that after all this time, it’s perhaps unlikely that we’ll be able to conceive. But then I think back to that gorgeous sunny morning in London, when I somehow managed to bring some of my favorite actors together, wearing t-shirts I designed, to take part in a charity event that I organized. That was pretty unlikely too. But I made it happen because I believed I could. Why should having a baby be any different?
To see full coverage of the event, including a video, click here (and if you enjoy it, please consider making a donation to Borne).