One woman’s story of her struggle to conceive
BY Jumana Al-Darwish
In solitude, I await my turn calmly. I am in a state of trance. I sit staring out of the blinds in my hospital room. There’s not much longer to go; in less than 20 minutes, the miracle of science will allow three embryos to be implanted in my womb. With hope, one will survive.
In earlier years, motherhood was merely a distant, hypothetical possibility. I focused on pursuing higher education, and then on establishing a career that my family and I could be proud of. Working hard was nearly innate, and motherhood something to be cherished at a later time, when it was right.
In the summer of 2005, I married my high school sweetheart, who shared my outlook on life. Curious as to what the world could offer us, we knew we didn’t want children early on. We wanted to travel, see the world, and experience other cultures. In the Middle East—indeed in many places—marriage is typically seen as a precursor towards starting a family. For some families, but not all, a union exists for one reason, and one reason only: to procreate. Couples who don’t take immediate steps to further their family’s bloodline can often contend with a bleak future as social pariahs.
We built the solid foundation of a family together, despite the relentless interrogation from our community about our plans to have children. As the years went by, the questions became increasingly invasive. At first, people simply asked when a little one would arrive. Now, we had to grapple with unsolicited advice to visit a doctor, to ensure everything was normal. We were undaunted, supporting each other through it all.
And after five years of marriage, we were ready for a baby. When I didn’t fall pregnant immediately, we did what most anxious couples do: we sought help. It wasn’t an easy decision, and we took it very quietly. That first, furtive check-up led to a second, and then another, and another. Finally, after a rollercoaster ride of misdiagnoses and shattered hopes, we were bluntly told that, to have a child, we would require intervention in the form of IVF.
To control one’s own fate is a human desire; it ebbs and spars with life’s natural order. My husband and I found ourselves at a loss, unable to steer our own course. The diagnosis challenged our deeply-held assumptions, leaving us exposed, raw and unsheltered. Infertility is a solitary condition, and its treatments are battles waged behind closed doors. Overnight, we went from romanticizing what it meant to have a child, and looking forward to sharing an exciting journey with our family, to grappling with the details of technical procedures planned, monitored, and designed by professionals. And these procedures are deeply stigmatized. Around the world, couples carve time out of their lives for routine check-ups, rounds of hormone injections, and countless tests, with no one around them any the wiser. It is no different in the Middle East. Here though, we contend with an entire ecology of shame.
The stigma of shame renders our society inert, as it underscores and shapes how our society is configured. Even as a social scientist, no theory or training could subvert the pain that settled and gnawed at me.
In October 2010, after months of medical preparation and several missteps, I underwent my first IVF, but was afraid to tell anyone, including my immediate family and closest friends. It was the shame: what impact would it have on us? With each insensitive question, the mortification intensified. The experience took a great deal out of me physically, but almost worse was the emotional toll exacted by the burden of the secret I carried. When the IVF resulted in the birth of my first daughter, some of this weight lifted. *
It took me four years to find my strength enough to try again. With some help, I had begun to accept my situation. There was nothing wrong with me just because my husband and I could not have children in the usual way. Watching my first daughter grow helped me mature too. I realized that the way I looked at myself was a cue for how others perceived me. It was up to me to acknowledge my shame—and to abandon it. I was lucky, in fact: I could conceive, with assistance.
During my second attempt at IVF, I held my head high, took photographs during my hospital visits. I didn’t hide the green icebox filled with hormone syringes. As I sought to normalize the many doctor’s appointments I had to navigate within my day-to-day schedule, I began to open up to friends and, to my relief, most people responded supportively.
The day after the three embryos were implanted, I was even able to endure the trauma of the emergency surgery- I had an ovarian torsion which required immediate care. The process was very painful, and I was left with a scar similar to that of a C-section, but I took it in my stride. I did not know whether the embryos would survive, but I no longer needed to keep my pain a secret.
*I know there are others who need the assurance of my experience. So many single women and couples out there endured this process alone, and they ought to know that they should be proud of taking control. Procreation is a first step, but what really matters is the ability to follow through on achieving your dreams, and to come to terms with the obstacles in your way.
There isn’t anything shameful about wanting to bring a life into the world, to nurture it with all the tools of nature and science. There isn’t anything shameful about IVF. No matter what, I am proud of each needle prick, surgical stitch, and bruise. These scars remind me of my strength, my story.