My body. All things considered, it’s not bad. It’s tall, reasonably proportioned, and curves in more or less the right places (although a little more than less in some places.) Over the years it’s been good me. We’ve climbed mountains, run marathons, and even done triathlons together. We’re not exactly Olympic material, but we always crossed the finish line together, and we had fun.
So, naturally, when I embarked into the realm of motherhood, I expected my body to come right along with me. After all, reproduction is something it’s designed to do. At the most basic level, it’s supposed to give forth new life, so that our species can continue. The human race depends on it. So, imagine my surprise when, at 38 years old, my doctor informed me that I had been naturally selected out of the gene pool.
“You only have one producing follicle on each ovary,” the doctor said.
He took out a Post-It and sketched my ovary with its single follicle and then highlighted the problem by adding the six to ten additional follicles he would normally expect to see. I watched dumbly, trying to comprehend this news and figure out if he was really talking about my body.
“Your chances of becoming pregnant with IVF would be about 25 percent,” he said. “Using donor eggs would give you about a 50 percent success rate.”
And that was that. Even as I stared at the sketch and tried to piece together the fragmented morsels of information, I understood that, in his quiet matter-of-fact way, the doctor was telling me that I would never have a biological child of my own, and that my body wasn’t invincible after all.
I knew he was telling the truth, but it didn’t make any sense to me. My body was healthy. Before trying to get pregnant and making doctor visits a part of my weekly routine, I was the kind of person who got mildly sick once a year. I had a minor issue with my thyroid, but that was under control, and really I was a specimen of good health.
Except there was something wrong with me. My body was broken, in a very big and important way, and even though it could complete a half-mile ocean swim, a 24-mile bike ride, and a 10K run—and still walk three blocks for a taco afterwards—it couldn’t produce a baby. I would have traded one for the other right then and there, but it wasn’t an option.
When the initial numbness wore off, I tried to get angry. I tried to provoke myself into a fury by typing barren and infertile into my computer’s thesaurus tool and following through on the different meanings to see where they led. Barren generated desolate, bleak, austere, and inhospitable. Infertile turned up unfruitful and unproductive, which in turn led to idle, wasteful, futile, and pointless. It summed up exactly how I felt, but it didn’t fuel my anger; it just made me feel worse.
My breasts—once shapely, tender, and feminine—were suddenly useless appendages. They had been designed to provide nourishment for my offspring, but there would be no offspring to nourish, and so they became merely interesting accessories. As my next period approached, my breasts swelled to what felt like twice their normal size and ached from somewhere deep inside my body, reminding me again that they were now superfluous. Period equals not pregnant equals no babies equals no good use for my breasts.
And no good use for me.
In the survival of the fittest, nature had seen a weakness in me and opted to shut down my production line. I was inadequate, faulty, a lesser human being. I was not a real woman or a valuable part of the human race, if I could not contribute to its future. My body had let me down.
My Pity Party was a grand affair and everyone was invited, but thankfully, it didn’t last long and one of my guests brought what turned out to be the perfect gift - a list of famous women who also never had children. It included Marilyn Monroe, Ginger Rogers, and Coco Chanel—all fabulous in the body department, but a little more research turned up an even more impressive list. Alongside Rosa Parks, Amelia Earhart, and Oprah Winfrey, I found tennis superstar, Billy Jean King, and Grete Waitz—the two-time New York Marathon winner, Olympian, World Champion, and former world record holder. And let’s not forget Gertrude Ederle, who in 1926 became the first woman to swim the English Channel. None of these women had children, but their bodies had certainly not let them down.
So, my body and I went for a long walk together and talked the whole mess over. I expressed how disappointed I was that it hadn’t come through for me, and it retaliated by reminding me that I hadn’t always been the most careful owner. We walked and talked, and eventually we reached an agreement.
Like any good partnership, our relationship will take work. I have promised to take my job as body owner more seriously and take responsibility for providing good nutrition and regular exercise. In return it has promised to do the best it can with everything I ask of it. It knows that I am not perfect and that some days I will feed it chocolate and pizza; and I am willing to forgive its imperfections and be grateful for all it can do. Somehow, together, my body and I will fall in love with one another again.
Lisa Manterfield is the creator of LifeWithoutBaby.com, an online forum that gives a voice to women without children. She is the author of I’m Taking My Eggs and Going Home: How One Woman Dared to Say No to Motherhood.