Tomorrow, I turn 39.
I never gave a second thought to turning 30, save the small detail of wanting—and not being thrown—a surprise party. But I didn’t worry about decline, or finding myself on the precipice of middle age. I was the valedictorian of my class; I knew exactly where I was going, and the world was my oyster.
Despite my evidence to the contrary, when I’d left my first graduate school program after my masters’for a job at my alma mater, life, according to the 20-something-year-old me, was a linear affair. You do well in school, you to go a good college, you go to grad school, you get a job, you find the right guy to marry, you buy a house, you have babies. Your 30s are for coasting, for settling into familiar patterns,for ladder-climbing, perhaps.
Except despite landing the promising career and finding a wonderful partner and having a picture perfect pregnancy with my first child, I spent the first part of my thirties losing pregnancies, and eventually being diagnosed with unexplained secondary infertility.
The first was early, just six weeks. My son was two. I’d made an appointment for my first prenatal visit, and the day before the appointment, I saw the pink stain. I tried to believe that it wasn’t happening. They took blood, and confirmed that my hCG levels were dropping. I bled, and I mourned the loss of my baby, its potential. I felt sick; I could no longer trust my body to carry a child to term.
A year later, again. This time, much later: I was just about to begin my second trimester. I had passed the milestone of my first loss, and thought that perhaps this time I would be safe. I was developing a baby bump. But at twelve weeks, there was the too-familiar stain. No, no. Not again. Please. I talked myself into believing that it was nothing. That I was imagining things. I called my OB, and they said I should come in that day to see the baby, to see that everything was all right. They seemed so confident that I believed them. Until I saw the ultrasound technician, searching. Measuring. Too quietly. I’m sorry, she said, finally, I’m just not finding a heartbeat.
I wept, and then I felt hollow. Empty. A shell full of nothing.
I began to wonder if I didn’t want these babies badly enough. If they knew this, and left my inhospitable body. I began to think about what could have gone wrong: not enough thyroid hormone. A mistake at Starbucks, when a barista might have given me caffeinated coffee. A piece of chocolate cake. Too much exercise. Overheating. A hot shower. Stress. Negativity. I knew, intellectually, that it was not my fault. That didn’t seem to matter to my superego.
After another year, my OB/GYN informed me that I was now officially high risk, that my losses and my age and the length of time it was taking us to conceive meant that I was infertile. I couldn’t understand; how was this possible, when I’d given birth to a healthy child? They handed me a slip of paper with “INFERTILITY” handwritten in big block letters across the top, with the names of several clinics. There was no explanation for my loss, for my empty body. I felt marked. I was a failed woman: I could not create or support life. And the fact that I had a healthy son didn’t change how that label, and those losses, made me feel.
There’s nothing like an infertility diagnosis to make you question everything you know about yourself, about the world, about your faith. Even for those of us who never intended to have children are defined, in some small way, by the functions of our lady parts. By the ebb and flow, the cycles that visit us throughout adolescence and adulthood. Suddenly, you are defective. You can no longer trust your body to do what it’s designed to do. Worse, maybe it will extinguish the very life that it is intended to nurture into being. Maybe life is more absurd than you thought it was. Maybe it has no meaning at all.
I began to blog. I rediscovered my love of writing, and found a community of supportive women, many of whom I now consider my closest friends. I discovered that I was not alone, that one in every eight women are infertile. After another year of trying for another child, my daughter was conceived, and—a stubborn, determined creature from the beginning—she made it to term. I lived on the edge of fear for nine months, waiting for the other shoe to drop. I was prepared for more loss. But she came. Her birth was a gift, and though infertility has irrevocably changed me, so, I felt in a new and more palpable way,was my experience of loss.
Except. After my daughter was born, after twelve years of service at my place of employment, after winning accolades and building a program that was completely mine, I got a new boss. Who decided that he didn’t like intelligent females. One my one, my responsibilities were taken from me while I was on leave. Until the job I would be returning to would, effectively, be a demotion. It was a clear case of discrimination, and I was not the only one who was affected. But despite my subtle appeals to supervisors, it was clear that nothing would change. Watching everything I’d worked for be taken from me made me made me question my talents, my skills, my friendships. And yet, that loss made me realize, too, that if I was going to raise my daughter with any sense of self-respect, I needed to have some for myself.
From out of those ashes, I developed the strength, and integrity, and sense of self-worth, to stand up and walk out the door, and step into the unknown.
In her poem “A Summer Day” Mary Oliver writes, “tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?” It’s a question we ask ourselves not just in our teens when we are choosing a college major, or in our twenties when we’re “settling down,” but every day. And there is nothing wrong with being in your thirties, still looking for the answer, as long as we appreciate the wildness, the preciousness of that gift, even as we wander. My experience with infertility and loss, and my experience with discrimination at work, and the birth of my daughter, and my journey through the everyday, continues to teach this to me.
Now, on the eve of my 40s, I find myself without certain direction. I’m still unemployed, home raising my daughter, meeting the bus when my son comes home from school. But even if I’m not sure where I’m going, I know my true north; my 30s gave me the foundation to endure change, and the flexibility and resilience to adapt to uncertainty. And I wouldn’t trade those birthday gifts for anything.
Justine is a writer, yogini, mother, wife, baker, infertility and pregnancy loss survivor, local food guru, and seeker of balance, blogging at http://ahalfbakedlife.blogspot.com.