Ask Polly: Why Do Women Obsess About Babies and Fertility?

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Photo: Gandee Vasan/Getty Images

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Hi, Polly,

I have a question about pregnancy jealousy. I work for a company in the fertility field. In the interest of getting to know our customer base, I’ve become very involved in what they call the TTC (trying to conceive) community online. And as a recently married early-30-something who is almost-but-not-quite-yet about to start trying for a baby of my own, talking to women who are struggling to conceive all day really freaks me out. All the cycle tracking, temperature taking, peeing on sticks, anxious waiting, jealousy when you see someone else’s pregnancy announcement on Facebook …

For these women, it seems like time spent trying to get pregnant becomes its own phase of life. They form a community of support, have all kinds of inside jokes and acronyms. But even though it’s part of my job to help these women, in the place where there should be empathy, part of me recoils.

I feel like I’ve entered a sad, jaded world that I might never have known about and somehow cursed myself. If I have a hard time getting pregnant when my husband and I start trying next year, I don’t know how I’ll handle it. I’m so tired of that conversation already, and I haven’t even taken my IUD out!

I was reading your last “Ask Polly” letter, “Why Am I So Upset at Someone Else’s Pregnancy,” and in that case, it seemed like the advice-asker really needed to process her mother’s death. But what about when it really is about pregnancy jealousy? You seem to suggest, in that article, that you started having kids late in life. Did you feel jealous of friends who got pregnant all those years before you did? Did it take you a long time to conceive? How did you deal with those emotions?

TTC Lurker

Dear TTC Lurker,

I always knew I wanted kids but I never had the slightest palpable desire to have a baby until my sister had her first kid when I was 32 years old. Even then, though, I wasn’t remotely jealous of friends who got pregnant or friends who had kids because I was ambivalent about what having kids would do to my life, and none of the shit they were doing looked that fun to me. It’s telling that what got under my skin was this one beautiful photo of my nephew: rosy cheeks, saucer eyes. Not an actual baby, but a china doll in a photograph.

And to be honest, it wasn’t the baby that mattered, but what the baby stood for. My sister had a solid career, a devoted husband, and a cute little house on a quiet street. Her life looked clean and pretty to me. At the time, I was a freelance writer, living alone in a noisy one-bedroom apartment with a bus stop out the front window, dating an unemployed man-child. I didn’t necessarily want a baby immediately, I just wanted to feel more settled and secure. I wanted to know that I wouldn’t be living outside a bus stop forever.

I solved this problem not by having a baby, but by buying a house, adopting a dog, and dumping the man-child. Three of the best decisions I ever made!

I’m telling you this because you don’t seem to recognize the difference between vaguely longing for a different life, or even wanting an actual baby in your life, and actively trying and failing to get pregnant. Was I jealous of people getting pregnant after I saw my nephew’s photo? No, because I wasn’t trying to get pregnant. Once I got engaged to my husband, I went off the pill and immediately got pregnant. But even then, I was honestly a little bit ambivalent about what was about to happen to my life, and I still didn’t like other people’s kids. Except for that one photo of my nephew, babies seemed like annoying aliens to me. I told my husband that if I happened to give birth to a puppy, I wouldn’t be the least bit disappointed.

So hooray for me, I’m so amazing and fertile and nothing can stop me, right? I’m the opposite of those poor women peeing on sticks, because I’m an evolutionary winner and I’m a natural Mommy and I also chose the proper path and everything comes easy for me, right?

Wrong. The second time I tried to get pregnant, at the age 38, it took almost a year. That’s not that long. That’s no big deal, totally expected and natural, particularly for someone in her late 30s. And when you’ve already had a baby, well, that’s a good sign. You have no reason to believe you won’t be able to pull it off again.

Even with all of these advantages, do you know how it felt to try and fail to get pregnant month after month? It fucking sucked. I’m telling you this not because this was some horribly dark passage in my life that I have a right to bitch about. I’m telling you because right now you seem to believe that this “sad, jaded” world you’ve been lurking in belongs to a subset of women who are simply choosing to obsess, to pee repeatedly on sticks, and to be the most boring people on the face of the planet because they’re narrow-minded, baby-obsessed losers. I know you’re trying not to see them this way. I know you get that they’re struggling to conceive, and that’s why they’re talking about it, and that’s not something that’s their personal fault.

I know you asked because you want to feel more empathy. An honorable goal! I want to help you and everyone else reading this to feel much more empathy for women who are trying to get pregnant. But trying to get pregnant and failing and trying again and again for a long time really isn’t a casual thing for most women. Trust me. Pregnancy is on your mind at all times, even when you’re not trying that hard. You tend to know what day of the month it is, and you know when you’re supposed to be having sex. After you think you’ve (maybe! Possibly!) made a human, you spend two long weeks actively monitoring your feelings, your body, everything, for signs that you’re pregnant. Do you know how easy it is to imagine that you’re pregnant when you’re trying to get pregnant? It’s very easy. Feeling emotional? Hungry? A little weak in the arms? Slightly off? You’re definitely pregnant!

So every goddamn month, you’re pretty sure that you’re pregnant. Even if you’re trying to be chill about it, your mind cannot resist doing the math: Your brand-new kid will be born in May, July, October. You write down a due date. Fantastic! Everything is going according to plan! You are a fertile lady who succeeds at everything she does and can control reality with her mind!

Then you get your period. You are an infertile old hag and a loser.

Now, imagine that in addition to marking days on your stupid calendar, you’re peeing on sticks to see when you might ovulate, but the tests are really fucking weird and hard to figure out, because the lines are always very faint and seem to say, “Maybe you’re about to ovulate or maybe you’ll never ovulate again?” Imagine trying and hoping and oops, naw, try again! Imagine putting off major plans or not traveling or trying not to lose any weight or trying not to exercise too much or a million other dumb things someone told you once. Imagine the immediate future and the distant future alike turning into this giant question mark that pervades your every thought. Imagine taking your tiny kernel of neuroticism and giving it a giant playground where it can take over everything good in your life.

And then imagine miscarrying, which is much more common than most people realize. I had a miscarriage, but I knew lots of people who’d had them so I was prepared. Mine was like getting a late, heavy period, and if I hadn’t taken a pregnancy test, I wouldn’t have known the difference. Mostly it made me feel more hopeful. And my doctor told me that a lot of people seem to get pregnant right after they miscarry. (You have to sit out a cycle in between.) This might be total bullshit for all I know, but I did get pregnant right after that.

But lots of other women miscarry weeks after they tell everyone they know that they’re pregnant. Many women have stories that you basically don’t want to hear. Imagine having a terrible, torturous journey through a many-months-long failed pregnancy, and then trying to get pregnant again after that. It would feel like actively choosing something that made you horribly depressed and almost crushed you. It might feel like boarding the Titanic for the second or third time.

Right around now, lots of women reading this are saying to themselves, “Well, that’s not how I would do it. I’m not going to try at all. I’m going to be very relaxed about this baby thing and probably I am just super-fertile and I’ll get my babies without any effort, because that’s how my mom says it was for her.” Or maybe they’re even saying, “If I don’t get pregnant without trying at all, I’ll just travel the world and consider it a blessing that it didn’t work out.” These are fine things to say to yourself. All you’re really saying is “I hope things will go well for me.” Or “The main thing I want to avoid is telling this tragic story of trying for something that I have no control over.” And, look, at one level, that’s fine! You certainly shouldn’t feel like you’re “cursing yourself” just by lurking in these forums.

But I want you to know this one thing, okay? A lot of the best things in life are things that you have to work really hard for, but you STILL have no control over them and have no guarantee of success. Finding someone to love can be like that, too. No one likes to work hard and still have no control over the outcome. No one likes to be invested emotionally and WHAM! “Sorry, too bad. Try again!”

This is not about being baby-obsessed or jealous of people with babies. These dimensions of the problem might stick out to you, as an outsider, but they’re just very small shit stains in a shit storm, trust me. I want you to imagine trying hard at something that’s physical, that’s emotional, that’s a woman thing (and therefore embarrassing and silly and bad, according to our stupid culture). I want you to imagine trying hard at something that seems to define what “quality” of woman you are, and even when you push those toxic notions out of your head because they’re batshit crazy, they return, over and over again. I want you to imagine trying hard at something that dictates the course of your future, that lingers in your emotions and your headspace, that fucks with your hormones, that fucks with your plans, that fucks with your marriage, that fucks with your ability to talk to other women, look at a calendar, go on social media, get to sleep at night, breathe. Imagine you are monitoring your feelings and physical sensations for signs you are pregnant at a time when you are trying very, very hard not to think about getting pregnant because you know it’s slowly making you lose your fucking mind.

Now imagine there is $30,000 on the line every goddamn time you try. I didn’t personally do IVF, but I have close friends who did, and for some of them, it was like being shot full of hormones, feeling your absolute worst, and then making an enormous, expensive bet ON YOUR BODY. Imagine how it feels to have that fall through, to wonder how you’re going to pay off that debt, to wonder how you can consider going into even more debt to try again. Imagine miscarrying a healthy baby because your placenta is abnormal and also possibly cancerous.

Sorry for the house of horrors, but I really need you to feel the hairs stand up on the back of your neck with this. I had it so easy. I dipped a tiny little toe into this pond, and I still cannot imagine the hell these women live in. They are not being obsessive and dorky. They are surviving hell.

When you’re in hell, you know the kinds of things people say to you? They tell you in very cheerful voices how fertile they are, how every time they fuck another beautiful healthy baby pops out. I spent a few months casually, inexpensively trying to get pregnant, I had one miscarriage — chemical pregnancy, really — and I never really felt that envious or traumatized, because I had it easy. But to this day, when I hear someone talk about how amazingly fertile she is, I want to say, “Look, that’s cool, but you can’t really take credit for it.” If you’re fertile and someone else is fertile, that’s just a happy conversation. But telling someone who’s trying to get pregnant that it was super-duper easy for you to get pregnant is like walking around a cancer ward saying, “Wow, that’s weird, it’s been SO EASY for me NOT to get cancer! I just eat lots of fucking kale, guys! Have you tried eating kale, you sick dummies?”

I know it’s a drag to listen to stories about ovulating and peeing and uterus stuff. But these women are just trying to solve a problem, plain and simple. Let’s stop hating ourselves and each other for what we are. Let’s try very hard to scrape our own misogyny out of our hearts and brains. Fertility is amazing, making a baby with your own body is an unreal magical power, feeding that baby with your body is some kind of sci-fi-fantasy level of madness. We can and should celebrate those things while also giving our love and support to those who are struggling to get there, and to those who don’t want any part of that scene, ever. Right now, it’s like we stigmatize each other for our choices, and also for things that are largely out of our control. Every woman is doing it wrong, all the fucking time, and we’re silly for even discussing any of it.

And (perhaps even more importantly) people in general stigmatize other people for investing in and caring about stuff that might not work out. You can’t care about something that isn’t, for sure, going to end in victory.

TTC Lurker, caring about your own unknown future, gathering information about it, and trying very hard to get what you want doesn’t curse you or make you sad and jaded. People who care too goddamn much about things they can’t control aren’t cursed or sad or jaded. Sometimes they wind up being the happiest, most grateful people around, because they stuck their necks out and worked incredibly hard for what they have. Likewise, people who get sick and try very hard to survive aren’t deluded motherfuckers fighting a valiant but doomed “battle.” We all have enormous challenges waiting for us. You should pray that you might approach your own enormous challenges with the patience and grace that many of those women are conjuring. They are not concerned with how boring or unsavory they might sound to outsiders. They’re just trying to make it through the next disappointment without losing hope.

You are not in control of what happens next. Knowing less about fertility issues won’t keep you safe from having them yourself. Likewise, fighting hard or not fighting at all, investing or divesting, hoping for magic or avoiding the whole picture: These things sometimes don’t make any difference. Don’t tell yourself that only obsessed women stay infertile and only dysfunctional people get cancer. Don’t pretend that winners win and losers lose and everything you manage to do is a reflection of what team you’ve been on, quite naturally, since birth. You are not in control.

Caring more than you can possibly stand, in spite of terrible odds, is a beautiful thing. I think these women can teach you an important lesson about investing fully in your life, about pouring your emotions into your marriage and your career, about engaging completely with the world instead of keeping yourself removed and safe. Keeping your distance will not keep you safe from anything. Pretending that you’re superior or naturally luckier than someone who’s suffering is the surest route to bitterness and disappointment.

You are not in control. Say it out loud. Anything could happen. You are one bad turn away from the saddest, most repetitive, biggest drag of a person you’ve ever met. Look closely at the ones who care too much about broken things that might never work out. Look closely at the foolishly optimistic dreamers. Their hearts are wide open, their eyes are wide open, and they have a lot to teach the rest of us about happiness.

We are all hurtling into the unknown. Let’s not pretend we’re too lucky or too cool to care how it turns out. Let’s not let other people tell us we should care less. Let’s care so much that it hurts. Let’s work as hard as we can for what we love, in spite of terrible odds, in spite of horrible conditions, in spite of feeling broken and inconsolable, in spite of everything.

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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