By Pauline Walfisch, LCSW, PMH-C
I resolved my infertility more than a decade ago. I no longer hold any sadness, anger, or resentment about the way my path to family building unfolded. The worry, fear, anxiety, and ruminations no longer plague me. I am content and happy in the family and life I have built. Today, I have the privilege to work with individuals and couples exploring family-building options and, at times, considering life childfree. I hear stories filled with hopes and dreams, fear and worry, ongoing traumatic stress, and often unmet expectations. Yet, my own scars are still there, and every now and then, I am reminded of my own experiences in unexpected ways... Like planting and growing a vegetable garden. I realized this summer as I was trying to build my first real vegetable garden that my scars from a journey 20 years ago through infertility were still there
So here is the story of infertility, not just my story, but the stories of many. Stories of the 1 in 8 who experience infertility. The story of infertility as told by a gardener (OK, maybe a wanna-be gardener). No translation included because… if you know… you know.
Last summer, my best friend invited me over to see her beautiful garden. She had added some new plants and was beaming with pride about how much they had grown in such a short time. She offered to let me smell the flowers and even let me pick some vegetables. She told me I could stop by any time and take what I wanted. Her vegetable garden was abundant, and her tomatoes were absolutely perfect.
It was sometime around Christmas that I decided I wanted to grow my own tomatoes. I sat with my best friend, and we talked about my idea and what I hoped for. I told her about my worry- what if I wasn't good at it? Was it the right time? Was I ready? She reassured me it was easy, and we sat and created plans to build my first container garden. I read everything I could find about growing a container garden. I researched all the best soil, the perfect conditions, and the right time to plant. I researched which plants go best together and what order I should plant them in, and I even tried to anticipate which way the shade would fall. When spring came, I laid out my beautiful garden and was so proud of the work I had done. I just knew that I would be successful, and I couldn’t wait to show everybody what I had grown. I posted pictures on social media #growingagarden. As the weeks went by, I went out every morning and dutifully checked my garden. I would stoop down, bend over, squat to look from different angles, searching for any signs of life. I looked for the tiniest of buds that might tell me a fruit would grow. Occasionally I would spot one forming, but the next day, it would quickly shrivel up and die away. My vines were beautiful. My leaves were green and large. I was great at growing leaves but not so great at growing an actual fruit or vegetable. My Facebook page was exploding with my friends posting their harvests. At first, I thought, well, they must have planted sooner than I did. Eventually, I took to the Internet and asked, “Why are my plants not growing?” I quickly learned that the plant has male flowers and female flowers, and they have to bloom at the same time so that a bee could pollinate (a.k.a. fertilize) the female flower. So, every morning I would go out and check and look for female flowers. I kept reading articles, watching videos on Youtube, and even faithfully consulted the TikTok masters. I learned that you could assist the plants with pollination, so I went outside with a Q-tip every morning, waiting to find a male flower and a female flower at the same time that I could help. I thought, “This is sort of like an IUI for my plants.” But it didn’t work. Again, I took to social media, I used humor, and posted, “I’m great at growing leaves, but not so much any fruit.” “Your garden is beautiful, give it time,” “be patient, it will happen,” “you are so funny, you’ll be fine,” and “you can always go buy them”. My kind and supportive neighbor replied that just next door, she had so many cucumbers and posted a picture of her perfect hanging cucumber. What was wrong with me? What was wrong with my garden? If this was just next door why couldn’t I grow a cucumber?
I FaceTimed my friend. I told her how I was trying to fertilize my plants, that there were so many initial signs of life, but they were shriveling up and dying away. I showed her all the examples. In some cases, they’d been eaten by birds, and I could see the teeth marks. She told me to stop trying so hard and let nature take its course. Ouch, that stung!!! That was a familiar feeling, and I would not be squashed. I couldn't trust nature; it had failed me so far, and I had to take things into my own hands. So, I continued my daily pursuit to fertilize my plants. I posted on a Long Island gardening group. “How do you fertilize a plant if the male and female flowers don’t ever bloom together?” The avid gardeners laughed at me. “Fertilize a plant?”. Surely I meant “pollinate,” they said. Still, there were no real answers. Eventually, I bought a net to keep the birds away; it turns out the net interfered with the development of some of the fruit, and a cucumber that had started to grow became deformed. If I cut it off the plant, I would lose that one, but I could send energy to other cucumbers that were growing. There was one cucumber that had been half eaten by a bird, I guess I missed it and left it on the vine. Turns out it closed itself up and continued to grow deformed fat and large. I went away for a couple of days, worried that I wouldn’t be able to check on my garden. When I came back, I found a giant cucumber and an enormous zucchini hidden that I hadn’t even known was growing. Could they be right? I had to stop trying so hard and let things happen on their own.
I eventually took down part of a tree to give my garden more sun. This must be it, the last weeks of summer, and it's probably too late for this garden. Even the pretty leaves are drying up and falling off. So off to the garden store, I go to find some fall vegetables and give it another try. Just … one…more… try…..
So you see, because of my own experience, I experienced gardening from such a different lens than my friend, who had never had to “try” to get pregnant. She would never know the agony of checking, watching, counting, measuring, researching, comparing, and waiting for the thing that you desperately want but have little control over.
Infertility can be consuming. It can suck you in and take over everything else. I am forever changed by my experience. I have lived through it, learned from it, and have found peace in helping others to resolve their infertility. There are many paths to resolving infertility. Through fertility treatments, assisted reproduction, adoption, surrogacy, and choosing (or accepting not by choice) to be child-free. Resolving your infertility happens in different ways.
This week is child-free awareness week. We see you! For all those gardeners with beautiful leaves but no zucchini - we see you!