Breaking the Spell of Silence
Why We Need More Writing About Infertility
In fairy tales, the heroine must always suffer in silence. She must never speak of her pain, or her only chance to break the curse will be lost. It’s a common trope in fairy tales: in “Donkey Skin,” the scullery girl in the eponymous skin can’t speak of her royal origins; in “The Wild Swans,” the dispossessed princess can’t speak at all until she has sewed each of the flaxen shirts that will turn her brothers from swans back to princes - even if it means her death as a witch. Why is silence always the spell? Fairy tales, long ago, were told as a warning, as a lesson, and this lesson is still clear: if you are a person who wants to bear children, you must also bear your suffering alone. Whether you’ve suffered through a mysterious absence, or through heartbreaking miscarriages or stillbirths, or through an abortion after a pregnancy was no longer viable - you must weave your next chapter without saying a word. And now, horribly, cruelly, in places like Texas - and no doubt, soon, elsewhere - you could even be legally punished for breaking the silence about your own loss.
When I was diagnosed with infertility - assigned a mystery instead of a prognosis - I thought of the fairy tales I’d read as a child, the woman who longs for but cannot have a baby. I looked to stories as guideposts, as always. When I was small, I had wondered what on earth was stopping her; why did Thumbelina’s mother need a tiny child so badly, and why did Sleeping Beauty’s queen spend so many years just wishing for a baby? Why didn’t they quit longing and pop out some kids? Later, I understood the biology behind the tales, but not the odds. These were just tales, and by that time, I was more worried about having a baby when I didn’t want one than reversing the curse. I worried about how I would pay for an abortion if I needed one, how I would keep it from my parents. I couldn’t have possibly understood how Rapunzel’s mother would feel, after going through childbirth...only to learn that her husband had promised her baby to the witch next door. I played that witch in a school production of Into the Woods, but I was say too young to understand the concept of desperate longing; at least, not the kind of longing that would drive you to bargain a baby out of a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, a slipper as pure as gold.
Years later, I sat in the hard white chair in the fertility clinic every morning, watching fluid leave my veins, watching it rush red into clear plastic tubes. I thought of the mother in “The Juniper Tree,” spilling her own red blood onto the white snow, her wish granted at the cost of her life. At thirty-six, I was one of the youngest women in the clinic, and I felt lucky to have the means to take out loans, to be there at all. I had, at this point, been trying to have a baby for many years, and like the women in the fairy tales, I had longed. Like many of the men in the fairy tales, my husband had longed. By now, it seemed sometimes that we were wholly made of our longing, that it set us apart, made us special in our suffering, like saints. Like fairy tale parents. Some days, I half expected a tiny girl to alight on my window sill. Some days, I expected to wait by the window until my hair turned white and I died of sadness. But I only waited by the window; I never opened my mouth to say a word.
I feared the fairy tale mother’s death in childbirth, too. Even at thirty-six I was deemed a “geriatric” mother, thank you modern medicine, and the odds of a medical problem increased the older you were. And I feared, too, the possibility that a child would not be viable, that I would have to choose an to end something I’d longed for. But still I longed, and so instead of rapunzel I ate vitamins; instead of spells I had shots full of hormones. And like the fairy tale women before me, I suffered in silence, terrified a single word would ruin my chances. I feared that mine was not a fairy tale, not a complete tale at all, that my longing would go on forever. I wrote about many things, but never this. I ate my own silence and starved.
And so I perched on the edge of life; the daily shots, my version of flaxen shirts, nestled together in a cardboard box I picked up every month for thousands of credit card dollars I did not have. Everything I owned was spent on wishes, and I worried that I was exactly what the fairy tales had warned me about. My heart as red as blood, my heart as cold as snow. I was alone with my husband, frozen in time. I looked instead for books about my sorrow, for articles, for poems, for stories, but I could find none. I found poorly written posts on public message boards, but nothing well-crafted, nothing funny, nothing good or universal like a fairy tale could be.
When I first saw my daughter, she was the tiniest possibility in the world, an embryo one minute old. After IVF implantation, the doctor hands you a digital image, a photograph of the embryo inside you. Thumbelina, a tiny creature that I hoped would grow into a full-sized girl. Like Thumbelina’s mother, I didn’t feel cheated; I simply felt that my longing had been fulfilled, that I was as lucky as a fairy tale mother could be. I hoped the tale would still go the way I wanted it to.
After all, infertility is a maddening story, because it refuses so many fairy tale conventions. You can see three doctors, you can perform three tasks, you can learn the secret name of your longing, but none of these things will ensure a baby at the end of the story. There is no magic flower, no witch or goddess or fairy godmother, no spell or plant or potion to guarantee a child. There is only you, and your partner if you have one, and your sadness and the science you will wield like a magic sword, swinging wildly at hope after hope after hope. Sometimes it takes years, and you sit with your curse in your mouth, afraid that frogs or toads will hop out if you try to speak. Often, there is no baby, no ending to the tale at all.
I know now why the women so often suffered in silence, why the fairy tales painted their silence as virtue. I tried, sometimes, to tell a friend or a loved one about my longing. And when I did, there was often dismissal, or anger, or shame. There was often the idea that I’d failed as a feminist, that my longings were the wrong ones. There was often the idea that it was wrong to want so nakedly, so openly - that it was embarrassing for the listener. Often, the women who long in the fairy tales are portrayed this way, too. They are unnatural, refusing to give up on what nature cannot easily give them. They have too much passion, too much pain. A misogynistic culture does not want to hear that women cannot or will not do the thing they are meant to do, and of course it is always the woman’s fault. Being childless is always the woman’s failure, always her fault, and always her burden to bear alone, whether or not it is her choice. This, of course, is part of the larger issue at work in anti-abortion laws, including the kind of law that would make it borderline illegal to have a miscarriage. The point is always to punish someone for having a uterus, for daring to be a person who wants - sex, love, children, a childless life, or a painfree life. It does not matter what the want is; the point is to punish a woman for taking control of her body. The point is what so many fairy tale narratives warns us about: men - and women, too - will take any opportunity to punish a woman for being a woman, or anyone with a uterus for having a uterus.
So I am breaking the habit of my long silence, of only whispered conversations and DMs. I have tried to write this essay so many times before, have tried to write it in stories and in poems and in songs, and I have never had the courage to actually put it out there into the world. I have now heard so many abortion stories, from people so much braver than me - and I think we also need stories of infertility, stories of miscarriage, stories of pregnancy loss, stories of being childless by choice and also not by choice - I think we need all of these stories right now, to tell America that women - and not just women, but anyone with a uterus - should have choices, but that we do not always have control over what our body will do. And to leave us the fuck alone to deal with that as best we can with that, in the ways that we can - or maybe even to help us, with abortion access and women’s health research and health care and better birth control and sex education, instead of punishing us for being alive in these bodies.
So I am opening my mouth and I hope that instead of snakes and frogs, roses and kindness will come tumbling out. I have seen the beginnings of a smallish wave, brave people who are opening up about their own infertility. And I am tired of the backlash they face, the same horror of their naked want, of their abundance of feeling, of their longing. I am tired of people keeping women silent about their loss. The CDC says that an estimated 6.1 million people in the U.S. have trouble getting or staying pregnant. There should be a place in the story for us, too. There should be a way to stop the spell of silence. What if all the women who’ve had abortions and miscarriages and lost pregnancies or who have never had them - what if we all told our stories about the body? I picture a fairy tale ending, then. I picture that wave, a massive wave of unbearable feeling, of sorrow and joy and grief and tenderness and regret and gladness and pain and pleasure - I picture it building, cresting, and finally crashing over all the lawmakers and all the would-be judges, so wide and wild that when they finally emerge, they will have grown a heart made of salt, a heart made of tears. And this heart will allow for no cruelty, no sadism; with a heart of tears, they must finally show kindness, or drown.