People toss a lot of unsolicited advice your way when you’re trying to get pregnant. Advice like, “Try acupuncture.” Or “Don’t stress.” Or, my personal favorite, “You should hang upside down after sex.”
That last one isn’t the wisest suggestion, but it has been offered up to me twice. The idea is that if you do a quick post-coital handstand or, for the truly committed, strap your ankles to a chandelier or a ceiling fan and hang there like a bat for, say, 15 to 20 minutes, the sperm will flow freely through your cervix and eventually into one of your fallopian tubes, where it’ll then be primed to meet a perfect, healthy egg, tumble into your uterus, and eventually bust into the world in the form of a perfect, bouncing baby. You (hopefully) won’t hear this tip from licensed physicians, but you might hear it from a clueless friend, co-worker, or total stranger at some point, so get ready.
But even if you are inclined to hang bottom-up after sex, there are no guarantees. Like when your ice cream tumbles off the cone and splats to the pavement or when a politician you loathe wins the presidency, trying to get pregnant is a great reminder that the world doesn’t care about your agenda. Our bodies don’t always work the way we want them to, and that realization can be startling when you actually begin undergoing tests and learning about your own fertility. My own personal epic saga of trying to get pregnant is littered with different versions of this basic epiphany—the kinds of epiphanies that make you want to drink cheap whiskey instead of fine champagne.
Obviously, it’s much easier to brush off toppled ice cream or a stupid politician than it is to get over the fact that you have no control over what’s happening inside you. Sometimes, no matter how many times we have sex or perfectly time our ovulation or consume large portions of kale and folic acid and whatever else our fertility app tells us to put into our body, things just won’t work.
During my own months-long fertility odyssey, there actually have been moments when I contemplated hanging upside down or doing a quick yoga headstand to give things a boost. This might not have been such a problem had I not started trying to conceive at the geriatric age of 41, but everyone’s story is different, obviously. There are 26 year-olds who try Clomid and then have to go through multiple rounds of IVF and 43 year olds who magically get pregnant without resorting to hormones or headstands. My story certainly isn’t so uncommon in Los Angeles, judging from the abundance of 40-something moms pushing strollers of twins around Eagle Rock and Venice.
If these last few months have taught me anything, it’s that it is a lot harder to get pregnant than you think, and most women, by their 40s, have their own fertility saga to share, even if they didn’t end up conceiving—whether it’s a story of coming to the liberating realization that they actually don’t want children or a tale of struggling through hormone injections and unpleasant procedures and heartbreak until they decided to adopt.
Another epiphany during this journey has been that there are things they don’t teach you in sex ed, which, depending on where you grew up, might be the understatement of the century. In Texas, where I grew up, I don’t remember learning about the details of how babies are made. But that might just be because learning about Toxic Shock Syndrome sent me into a state of terror so consuming that everything that was said immediately afterwards was obliterated by a self-protective force field I’d created, one that repelled any further information for the remainder of the lesson, and sent it right over my head and around my ears into the ether. I do know this: Even if I’d heard every word and taken meticulous notes that I carried around with me into adulthood, I wouldn’t have known about the Luteal phase, or the dreaded hysterosalpinogram, or the OAR blood test. I wouldn’t have been a connoisseur of cervical mucus.
No, they don’t talk about “egg white” versus “school glue” cervical mucus in sex ed. And thank goodness for that. No human being should ever have to contemplate and analyze cervical mucus on a monthly basis unless they’re trying to get pregnant or their livelihood depends on it. But once you download that fertility app and start obsessively Googling “pregnancy symptoms” and “ovulation,” you will become intimately acquainted with the stuff. And as for that hysterosalpinogram? It’s a test you go through if you’ve been trying and not getting pregnant for a while where they insert dye through your cervix to check and see if your fallopian tubes are free and clear, or blocked. Some women (and doctors) may tell you that the procedure doesn’t hurt. I’ll tell you that those people have never had a hysterosalpinogram. It hurts. A lot.
Maybe some women do breeze through the procedure without any pain, and hallelujah for them. A friend who’d recently had it told me that I should be prepared because she had hours of cramping afterwards. I drove to the hospital as prepared as one can be to have something shot into their cervix, something that a random person online who called herself praying4babies described as “excruciating!!!!” As I lay on the table wearing nothing but a paper “gown,” legs akimbo, the nurse said, with a very concerning look, “Don’t worry, I’ll be right here next to you if you need me.” She was pressed against the table about two centimeters away from me, which I took as a bad sign, like she was forming a human shield with her body in case I started convulsing and flopped to the linoleum. Then the male radiologist chimed in with, “It’ll just feel like your period cramps,” which is something that no man, even a well-intentioned doctor, should ever say to a woman who is about to get probed.
The procedure was, in fact, painful and unpleasant, though not, as Praying4Babies, made me fear, “excruciating!!!!” I also found out that one of my tubes was, indeed, blocked, which could have amplified the pain. (When I was in junior high school I’d had surgery to remove an ovarian cyst, so I figured the scar tissue from that surgery was what led to the blocked tube.) I slid off the table and got dressed while silently cursing the blocked tube but also feeling thankful that one was clear and something was working in there. I stuck the jumbo XXL pad the nurse handed me into my underwear and drove home. As I drove, yet another epiphany bounded across my pain-fogged brain. And that epiphany was: The shit that women have to go through…
Women go through probes and tests and hormones and disappointment and shots and nausea and fear and fatigue and then, if you’re lucky—the agony and ecstasy of childbirth. But our partners, if we’re doing this with a partner, have some trials and tribulations along the way that we might not see due to the fact that we’re so consumed by our own worry and frustration and cervical mucus. If you’re a heterosexual couple and sex is part of the equation, which is the experience I can speak to, then you’ll start stressing about having sex during the magical six-day fertile window. And one or both of you, at some point, will feel like a robot programmed to reproduce, rather than a sexy flesh-and-blood human, no matter how many varieties of lacy lingerie you wear. “The look,” once so seductive, becomes a mask of panic, manufactured horniness, and desperation. A new form of crazy eyes.
The most helpful realization I’ve had these last few months has been the one about relinquishing control. Without some kind of divine or medical intervention, we simply can’t control what goes on inside our bodies. I haven’t delved into IUI or IVF yet, but it’s comforting that those options exist, though not so comforting to think about the cost, or the fact that the exorbitant price in the U.S. makes IVF impossible for many women.
Instead of convincing myself that every bodily function is a sure sign of pregnancy each month, I’ve started thinking of it not as an inevitability, but as a rare biological wonder that may or may not happen. Reading Meghan Daum’s book Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed was hugely comforting, and I’d recommend it for any woman who is struggling to conceive. It’s 16 essays by people who decided not to have kids, which, for me, turned out to be a book about 16 people who had no regrets.
The days of contemplating headstands and cursing the universe (and my body) for not cooperating are over. But however this shakes out, I do believe I’ll eventually figure out a way to get to that point of no regret—which is a freeing realization. It’s easy to forget that for every Facebook photo of an angelic infant, there are probably 20 more photos of parking lot tantrums, plates of mashed peas being flung to the floor, and epic bounce-house meltdowns. It’s easy to get caught up in the fantasy of it all, which is why, even though we’re aware of the reality, and the parking lot meltdowns and mashed peas flung to the floor and hysterosalpinograms, some of us just keep on trying.
Jane Horton is a pseudonym.
Illustration by Angelica Alzona