On Academic Infertility and Miscarried Hope
August 14, 2019 10:51 AM   Subscribe

Women’s bodies, you realize, are the true classical tradition: for millions of years, on macro and molecular levels, we’ve done intergenerational labor of preservation, replication and loss that dwarfs scribes’ transmission of a few hundred texts. You never treated your flesh like a temple, those summer afternoons you drank life and mimosas to the fullest; never thought of chromosomal decay all those nights in smoky pubs or long-haul flights. But all that time, you’d been a secret library, tending and discarding ancient ciphers just in case one zygotic codex — like the Veronese manuscript that rebirthed Catullus — might someday burst forth, be fruitful, and multiply.
Not Bringing Home a Baby by classicist Dr. Nandini Pandey.
posted by Kattullus (16 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
posted by what does it eat, light? at 11:13 AM on August 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

Oh wow. This packs an absolute wallop.

You’ll finally understand why Hecuba, why Antigone laid down their lives for bodies to mourn.
posted by joyceanmachine at 11:35 AM on August 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

That was horrible. Thanks?
posted by Lynsey at 11:50 AM on August 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

"They can’t tell you any of this, and I hope it goes otherwise for you. It’s been better for some and worse for many. But if you do meet with grief, all I know is to swaddle it in words you can hold and pin down, as Aristaeus wrestled Proteus for the fate of his bees. You might never make an old body bloom with new life or cut the locks of age. But whatever happens, you can share your story, witness mine, help us both feel less alone. After all, children and connection are born from the same mother: we all labor, like Vergil’s rower against the tide, to feel less adrift, less bereft of friends and stars, as our little suns set and the dance goes on."
posted by ChuraChura at 11:50 AM on August 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

(I read this just having seen a friend from grad school who got a sperm donor and is due in March and I'm wondering about whether I should do the same thing?)
posted by ChuraChura at 12:00 PM on August 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

"You’ve been walking around for weeks with a dead baby in your belly that your body wanted so badly it never told you something was wrong."

THIS. OMG, this. I miscarried at 10 weeks an embryo that had stopped developing at 5 weeks. This is EXACTLY how I felt. So exactly that tears sprung to my eyes with an almost audible pop. This is a beautiful, agonizing piece.
posted by Aquifer at 12:32 PM on August 14, 2019 [18 favorites]

I don't know what to say.
posted by freya_lamb at 3:04 PM on August 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Everyone is different, and statistics are just statistics, just patterns and likelihoods.

That said, out of 20 eggs, we had 17 that fertilized, 10 embryos that developed to Day 5, which is the age of biopsy/transfer, but only one which was genetically normal (46 chromosomes). This is what (often) happens when the maternal age is 40+, even with a very good ovarian reserve. And then we had an unexplained miscarriage at 12 weeks. We've tried again with another round of IVF: 24 eggs, 20 fertilized, five developed to Day 5 - and one that is genetically normal. I can't remember what the chances are of successful implantation and then development past 12 weeks - but it's not high.

For every person who says, don't worry, you have time, I know someone who got pregnant at 41 or 42 or 44: that person rolled a 10 on a D-10, or maybe they rolled the 20 on a D-20.


Our academic career structures are at odds with human biology. They (that mythical "they") tell you to "do the right thing", "don't be irresponsible", "don't have kids when you don't have the income to support them". (I was so proud of myself to have graduated high school and been married before I tried to have kids - which is not assumed in my family).

But, despite the fact that the careers are structured to only "begin" in your mid-30s (and g-d forbid you not go through as quickly as possible), they don't follow up with: "that may mean you will never have children."


My message to current graduate students: don't wait. I can't find the reference now, but years ago, I think I read the report of a study that found that women who had children during their PhD actually did a bit better in terms of getting tenure than women who had children while on the tenure track. It makes sense: PhD timelines are more forgiving, and by the time you are on the tenure track, your children are school-aged.

Of course, around the same time, I also recall reading that married men were more likely to get tenure than unmarried men, while married women were less likely to get tenure than unmarried women. So yeah, that sucks.
posted by jb at 3:09 PM on August 14, 2019 [18 favorites]

OK, well, where exactly was I supposed to get the money for the fertility treatments I would have always needed to have kids (even when I was 18), plus maternity care, childbirth, infant childcare, feeding and clothing and housing and doctoring a baby, when I was on a poverty-level grad student stipend and my husband was working retail?

I was already having a visceral angry reaction to knowing this heartfelt article was going to be used to scold women for selfishly or stupidly waiting too long to have kids. Kind of feels like that scolding has now arrived.

Look, people are making rational decisions to delay pregnancy. It’s not just “oh whoops, I forgot to have a baby, silly old me!” That doesn’t make it hurt any less when you want to have a baby and struggle with infertility. I’m currently trying to accept that it is unlikely ever to happen for me, and it fucking hurts, and I cry at night. But that doesn’t mean I was a stupid selfish shortsighted idiot for not getting pregnant at 21.
posted by snowmentality at 3:59 PM on August 14, 2019 [18 favorites]

Try having a stillbirth at full term...

Yet somehow, everyone's stories all sound so much worse...
posted by Windopaene at 5:37 PM on August 14, 2019 [6 favorites]

This was beautifully written and I thank you for posting it. I wish I could not relate to the author but I do. I struggled to get pregnant for years, then finally managed to get pregnant twice and the same disaster befell both, once at 20 weeks and once at 14. Infertility and pregnancy loss are a special hell, one that has consequences for the rest of your life, especially if, like me, you never do have a successful pregnancy.

It is very difficult to have gone through life as a high achiever and then suddenly be in a situation you have no control over. No matter how hard you work or how many “right things” you do, nothing can guarantee a successful pregnancy.
Just as fetal DNA still pitter-patters through your bloodstream, you now bear an indelible heartache that will modulate the joy of any future positive.
Much love to those struggling with this right now.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 6:18 PM on August 14, 2019 [15 favorites]

The author’s comment about having language to hold on to reminded me of Elizabeth McCracken’s excellent An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. While the specifics of my losses were different from McCracken’s, her portrayal of the grief that followed did indeed make me feel less alone, which was no small thing at the time. Mentioning it here just in case it might be helpful to others.
posted by TEA at 7:15 PM on August 14, 2019 [5 favorites]

They don’t tell you how quickly spring can turn into winter: how your heart starts to ache at the scent of a lilac, the baby ducks behind their mother, the vanishing futures that once seemed in your grasp.

posted by kimberussell at 7:21 PM on August 14, 2019 [6 favorites]

Much love to everyone.
posted by purpleclover at 7:24 PM on August 14, 2019 [6 favorites]

Dear Desert
posted by kliuless at 11:56 PM on August 14, 2019 [7 favorites]

hurdy gurdy girl: Comment flagged as fantastic.

Such a beautiful, heartbreaking piece.

While there are parts of academia I love(d), I hate hate hate how women are expect to sacrifice so much for it---debt for degrees or overwork for tenure or career over children/family. My time in academia has left me with enough debt that I'll never be able to adopt a child (and being trans, the biological route was taken off the table very early). It does not help that, at least in the United States, there's so little institutional support for women's reproductive choices at any age, so balancing a career and family is grade-A challenging.

Childlessness and perinatal loss are so damned hard because of the ambiguous nature of the loss, as well as their often invisible nature. Folks seem to be totally oblivious or willing to provide the kind of advice that makes them feel better, rather than sitting for a moment with us in our grief. Childless-not-by-choice activist and author Jody Day calls it "unrequited grief".

Anyway, so much to say on this topic. If you need some resources for making space for grief due to involuntary childlessness, here are a few books I've read that I've found helpful: I'm not sure involuntarily childless women ever "get over it", but rather do the work of grieving and make space in our hearts and identities for our losses. Love to anyone struggling with these issues.
posted by Excommunicated Cardinal at 9:58 AM on August 15, 2019 [7 favorites]

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