The Baroness of Barrenness

***** Content warning: infertility *****

Infertility sucks. Obviously, the emotions are infinitely more nuanced than that, but that’s the gist of it. Many people struggle with infertility; an estimated 10-15% of married couples are infertile. Infertility testing is invasive, and treatments are expensive. The stress of the process is intense; relationships have been known to crumble under the weight of it. In a lot of cases, the desperately wanted child never arrives.

My personal journey began in 2005, when I finally married for the first time at the age of “well into my thirties”. Knowing we had already gotten a late start, but wanting to enjoy being together without any pressure, we didn’t really try but we didn’t really not try (as my hubby used to tell people, “We’re having fun practicing”). Our situation was exacerbated by my father-in-law’s illness and death, about a year and a half into our marriage. My husband’s grief was profound, and baby-making fell to the back burner. Once we got back to trying, it quickly became apparent that it probably wasn’t going to happen. Then, at the age of forty, I started having increasingly painful and more frequent periods. My primary care provider ordered an ultrasound. The diagnosis? Fibroids AND endometriosis.

I’d always wanted kids. There was no question in my mind. I hadn’t imagined the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to have them. And even though I was forty and still not pregnant, I was somehow thoroughly unprepared for the news that I needed to have a hysterectomy. The specialist I’d gone to see after my ultrasound, who would eventually perform the surgery, didn’t know my situation, and when I burst into tears, she asked me, “Why are you crying?” I felt a complicated myriad of emotions that I couldn’t really explain. I thought I’d already made my peace with it, but the news was like a door slamming in my face. My choices had been taken away from me. I had become a member of a club to which I hadn’t requested enrollment.

In the months and years following my surgery, I continued to feel this complex stew of emotions; a pinch of anger, a dash of guilt, heaps and heaps of heartache. The anguish seemed bottomless, and triggers were often unexpected. I was at the salon one day, and the woman in the chair next to me was talking about her grandkids and I welled up; I had spent so much time mourning the fact that I didn’t get to have kids that I had completely overlooked the fact that I wouldn’t get to have grandkids. I envied people who easily became pregnant, then felt remorseful for my envy.

Infertility stories in pop culture, especially when done well, became one of the easiest ways to trigger my grief. A couple of the entries on this list made me cry violent, irrepressible tears. But there’s also some comfort to be found in knowing that other people can identify with how you’re feeling; that’s a benefit to being a member of the club. I don’t know how many of these stories represented the real lives of their creators, but I thank them for making me feel seen.

  • “Symphony of Illumination” – How I Met Your Mother

From the beginning of the series, Robin is pretty adamant that she doesn’t want kids. When her period is late, she takes a pregnancy test and it’s positive (Barney would have been the dad); however, a follow-up visit to the doctor reveals that not only is she not pregnant, but she’ll never be able to get pregnant. Watching Robin run through the gamut of complicated emotions (about a year after my hysterectomy) was gut-wrenching for me; I was wholly unprepared for it, which made it even worse. Stoic-to-a-fault Robin decides not to share the news with her friends, but Ted knows something is wrong and, since Ted never does anything halfway, he attempts to cheer Robin up with a Christmas light show set to AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell”. Does it work? Results are mixed. Robin is baffled by how upset she is to lose something she thought she never wanted, but she appreciates Ted’s gesture. By the time Robin says “If you want to know the truth of it, I’m glad you guys aren’t real” to the kids she’s been narrating her story to, I’m sobbing uncontrollably. Cobie Smulders’ performance in this standout episode is exceptional, and it breaks my heart every time.

  • Monica and Chandler – Friends

Unlike Robin’s infertility story, which only lasted for one episode of HIMYM, Monica and Chandler’s baby journey lasted multiple seasons, culminating in the birth of their adoptive twins Erica and Jack in the series finale. It all begins in “The One Where Rachel Has a Baby”, the season eight finale; the gang are waiting at the hospital for the arrival of Emma, and Monica and Chandler decide they’re ready to start trying. Immediately. So they have sex in the janitor’s closet. And Monica’s dad accidentally walks in on them. Serious question: do things like this happen in real life, or just in sitcoms? I mean, I can’t imagine having sex in a janitor’s closet, but that doesn’t mean it never happens. I digress.

In season nine, Monica and Chandler are trying in earnest; Monica is tracking her ovulation cycle and scheduling sex, in true Monica fashion. After about a year of trying, they decide to go for fertility testing, and learn they both have fertility issues. After a brief flirtation with surrogacy (and a super awkward dinner with Chandler’s co-worker, played by John Stamos), they decide to adopt. They are chosen by Erica, a pregnant teen in Ohio played by the darling Anna Faris. Erica is sweet and lovely, but let’s just say…naïve. She’s not sure which of two men fathered her baby, but it turns out, the way she had sex with the second man, well…you can’t get pregnant doing it.

Of course, this being a long-running, beloved sitcom, Erica goes into labor in the series finale, and Monica and Chandler are in for one last hilarious shocker – Erica was pregnant with twins and no one had told them.

Since the series ended with the babies coming home, we didn’t get to watch Monica and Chandler, in Rachel’s words, “attempt to handle this”. It could’ve been fun. By the way, I just figured out that the twins would be 17 and Emma would be 19, and now I feel really fucking old.

What made Monica’s story all the more poignant was that her portrayer, Courteney Cox, was struggling with infertility issues of her own before finally getting pregnant with daughter Coco while filming the final season of the show. Monica’s heartbreak comes from a visceral place, and Cox’s performance is by turns heartbreaking and hilarious. It really is a shame that she is the only one of the six primary cast members who was never nominated for an Emmy or Golden Globe for her performance; I guess she just made it look too easy.

Friends ended the year before I got married, so my own infertility journey occurred several years later. Now when I rewatch the show, this storyline obviously impacts me differently than when it first aired. I always empathized with their plight; now, I feel every ounce of their pain.

  • Vanessa Loring – Juno

Juno is the title character, but Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) is the character I identify with most. Her desire for a baby has consumed her, and when she meets expectant teenage mom Juno (Elliot Page), the time for her to have a child has arrived. Unfortunately, Vanessa’s husband Mark, played by Jason Bateman, is suddenly getting cold feet; he hasn’t accomplished his dream of becoming a rock star (he writes commercial jingles) and isn’t at all sure he’s ready to be a father. The Loring marriage disintegrates in front of Juno’s eyes, but Vanessa makes up her mind to raise the baby on her own. As the movie ends, Cat Power’s exquisite cover of “Sea of Love” plays, Vanessa holds her son for the first time and all seems right with the world.

  • Carl and Ellie – Up

Those evil bastards at Pixar sure know how to make an adult cry like a baby – Toy Story 3, Finding Nemo and Inside Out, just to name a few – but nothing prepared me for the opening sequence of Up. The wordless montage, set to Michael Giacchino’s phenomenal, Oscar-winning score, is known as “Married Life”, and it tells the love story of Carl and Ellie, who meet as children, fall in love, get married and excitedly await the arrival of their first child. But in a devastating turn of events, Ellie and Carl learn that there will be no baby. I saw Up shortly before I had my hysterectomy, and it gutted me. My heart still aches for Ellie every time I watch this gorgeous, heart-wrenching sequence.

  • Celia Foote – The Help

The Help is super problematic – the white savior trope is strong with this one, and even Viola Davis has said she wishes she hadn’t done the film. But Celia’s storyline is so poignant, and Jessica Chastain’s performance so moving, that I can almost forgive the film its sins. Celia is new in town, and not like the other women – she grew up dirt poor in Sugar Ditch, Mississippi, and dresses in skin-tight, revealing clothes, much to the chagrin of the Jackson society ladies she so wants to impress (it doesn’t help that her husband Johnny was the high school sweetheart of the film’s grotesquely racist antagonist, Hilly Holbrook). Celia has hired Minnie to cook and clean for her in secret so that Johnny won’t know she lacks those particular domestic skills, but she’s hiding an even bigger secret – she and Johnny got married because she was pregnant, and she lost the baby a month later. Johnny doesn’t know that she’s had three more miscarriages. When we see Celia burying her fetus in a shoebox and planting a rose bush over it – and then the other two rose bushes – it’s a stark visual reminder of Celia’s anguish.

  • H.I. “Hi” and Edwina (Ed) McDunnough – Raising Arizona

Hi (Nicolas Cage) is an ex-con, and Ed (Holly Hunter) is a former cop. They fall in love and get married, and though they desperately want a baby, Ed’s infertile and they can’t adopt because of Hi’s criminal record. So, they hatch a plan to kidnap one of the “Arizona quints”, the sons of furniture magnate Nathan Arizona, figuring the Arizonas will still have their hands full with four kids. Since this is a Coen brothers film, things quickly spiral out of control; Hi’s boss deduces that their baby is the missing Arizona child and attempts to blackmail him, and Hi’s friends Gale and Evelle (the brilliant John Goodman and William Forsythe) kidnap the baby themselves to keep him safe (they promptly leave him behind at the bank they’ve just robbed). In the end, Hi and Ed decide to return the baby to the Arizonas, and though Nathan discovers them in the act, he sympathizes with their situation and decides not to turn them over to the authorities.

True story: I recently watched Raising Arizona for the first time in many years (and the first time since my hysterectomy) and though I empathized deeply with Hi and Ed, I was also extremely high on cannabis tincture and let me tell you – if you haven’t watched this absurdly hilarious movie while incredibly high, I definitely recommend it.

This brings me to my last point: one of the benefits of not having children is that you can spend a Saturday high while watching Coen brothers movies. Silver linings, people. Silver linings.

Actually, one more thing: if you know someone who doesn’t have kids, please don’t ask them when they’re going to have them. Maybe they don’t plan to, or they haven’t gotten around to it yet, but maybe they aren’t able to. Maybe they’ve tried and tried, and failed to get pregnant. Perhaps they’ve had a miscarriage, or two, or more. No matter how you slice it, it can be a difficult – or even painful – question to answer. Trust me, I speak from experience. And if you know someone struggling with infertility and you’re not sure how to help, just be there for them. You can’t fix it, or take their pain away, but they don’t expect you to. Just listen, and hug, and ask them what they need. And if you’re experiencing infertility – I see you, I feel you and I am so very sorry.

4 thoughts on “The Baroness of Barrenness

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