portion of the artwork for Tara Laskowski's fiction

The Etiquette of Infertility
Tara Laskowski

XVII. Navigating Children’s Birthday Parties

It is natural to hate everyone and everything, especially on these hormone supplements. There will be hats. Lots of silly hats. Pointed paper hats with flimsy elastic strings that tug unflatteringly against chins. Tempted to snap the string? Don’t. It’s painful.

Yes, perhaps it is ridiculous to spend $300 on a two-year-old’s birthday cake, but this is not for you to judge. You will say, “It’s the most beautiful chocolate Big Bird I’ve ever seen,” and then eat a large hunk from the middle.

When dealing with the other moms, breathe deep. If it helps, imagine a happy place—drift off to early morning fall, the smell of cinnamon and raked leaves, a hot cup of Earl Grey tea. Remember: The Grass Is Greener on the Other Side! While you are envying their solid, swift movements, their talent for breaking up temper tantrums and wiping spit, they will walk up behind you and squeeze your waist. They will say, “You are so tiny!” and you should smile and laugh and squeeze your fists.

VIII. Listening to Your Body

Pay attention to every cramp, twist, stomach pain, nausea, food craving, exhaustion. Attune to it like a safecracker, analyzing, listening, hoping for the right combination.

Chart temperatures on a graph more elaborate than the ones you find on GRE tests, measure the elasticity of body fluids, drink products with names like Fertilitea, read your own Tarot cards. Yes, you really are squatting on the bathroom floor with your fingers up there searching for the position of your uterus, and while you’re down there remind yourself to call someone about that cracked tile behind the toilet.

Count numbers, learn to add and subtract in your mind like you didn’t fail tenth grade algebra. Everything is a cycle—your body, the months, the years, spinning endlessly like the wheel of your bicycle hanging unused for seasons on the garage wall.

Collect coupons for pregnancy tests. Clip them out carefully, staying along the dotted lines, and sort them in with the other Drug Items in your little file folder. Buy enough pee sticks to keep the company in business, but when your husband starts to seem agitated, when he sighs in that way he does when he thinks you’ve gone on too long about something, begin to squirrel them away in places he would never look. Good examples of this are: buried inside your yarn basket, shoved in with the tampons, behind the boxes of fiber bars in the pantry.

From Glossary of Terms

P.P. Present (Paperwork Parent Present)—(circa 1990, Philadelphia, PA) Term coined by your freshman college roommate, Jessie, Chinese American, a tall, thin, dark-haired girl with a penchant for yoga pants and belly shirts, a girl who’d been adopted by a middle-class New Jersey couple that you always thought were nice but smelled like wet dog. The couple lavished expensive presents on Jessie and took her on fabulous vacations. Usage example: “Check out the Tiffany bracelet I got for passing that chem exam. Total P.P present.”

Hot Meat Injection—Term first heard coming from the mouth of boyfriend in college as a way to “turn you on” and “suggest amorous activity.” Usage example: “OK, baby, are you ready for a Hot Meat Injection?” The same boyfriend who, after you both woke from a night of particularly hard drinking, insisted you take three birth control pills just in case, even though it made you throw up and you still suspect that maybe that one act messed up everything forever.

Schadenfreude (German)—Pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others, such as feeling secretly relieved when you hear from your mother that your beautiful, rich cousin in Texas who is also trying to conceive may have an ovarian cyst.

People, Situations, and Phrases to Avoid

Acquaintance, two kids under the age of five. Stay-at-home mother. Pregnant again, and holds her belly in her hands like it’s a crystal ball. Always has some kind of sauce on her blouse. “When are you going to have kids? Join the misery!”

Hairdresser, every eight weeks for color and trim. In between anecdotes about the vacation to Hawaii and his flooded basement gives you “one more year of messing around” before you need to settle down and “start popping them out.” “You aren’t getting any younger,” he chokes, spraying your face with leave-in conditioner.

Concerned friend, uncontrollable gray roots, cold hands, happily married for 800 years. “Just relax! It will happen when you least expect it,” which is the same advice she gave you when you were the last one still single.

Online pregnancy forums, where women use terms like “baby dust,” “dh” (dear husband), and cute code names for their periods and believe that standing on your head right before ovulation increases your chances.

Your mother, regretting her decision to have an only child, making nightly phone calls, purchasing infant outfits in neutral colors when they are on sale: Just In Case. “Have you tried [insert fertility medical treatment here]?”

The motherfucking OB/GYN waiting room with all those bitches rubbing their bulging bodies while reading Fit Pregnancy.

Statistics and Factoids

11.8% of women ages 15–44 are infertile.

About 300 million to 500 million sperm come out in one ejaculation. This large number is needed to ensure conception: even under favorable conditions, only about 200 sperm actually reach the egg. (Those troopers!)

98% of women who are addicted to crack will get pregnant the first time they have unprotected sex. This percentage is slightly lower, but still prevalent, for drunk teenage girls, strict Catholics attempting the rhythm method, that woman Connie who used to bring coffee to all the staff meetings and went on maternity leave five months after she had her wedding, and anyone on welfare.

A study conducted at two university hospitals in Denmark concluded that psychological distress may indeed be a risk factor for infertility in some women. Or perhaps infertility is a risk factor for psychological distress? Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Does it matter? At some point the goddamn chicken got knocked up, unless you’re like Marjorie Hampton from ninth grade who wanted everyone to believe it was an Immaculate Conception and all those Friday nights behind the McDonald’s with Harvey Pilowski was just them talking.

Sperm can last 3 to 5 days inside a woman. Your husband has lived 7 years with you.

III. On Sex

For a healthy relationship, it is important to try to Have Fun. Remember your husband does not want to be reminded of your basal body temperature or progesterone level when he is kissing your stomach. Try varied poses to spice things up and keep it all from becoming a business transaction—scented oils, massages, feathers on sticks that look more like cat toys, dirty talk, role playing.

Be a Good Sport! Don’t stare at the ceiling wishing it was already over. Live in the Moment.

He’s still got football on Sundays, poker night, his love for Russian literature, and that easygoing, carefree laugh that used to coat you. He’s still got his active, strong, BILLIONS of healthy sperm that regenerate every goddamn day and that optimistic attitude that you once thought was a virtue.

Do not play the blame game. It’s important to be able to separate what is reality and what is caused simply by your thoughts. He is napping because he had a long day at work, not because he can’t stand the sight of your face. He ordered plane tickets for Colorado because it’s your birthday and not because he’s given up on the fact that you might be too far along to fly in September.

Think about another time, when you were young, when you and your husband were on your first date, cycling through back country of a state park when it started pouring rain and you ducked for cover under the awning of a wood shelter for the park rangers. Laughing like little kids. Remember he kissed raindrops off your forehead and he was still new, a mystery, a time before you knew he put ketchup in his chicken soup and is afraid of rabbits. You lost yourself in the moment, trembling on the wet ground, ripping open the condom with your teeth. You let him fill you. Overhead the thunder cracked and the rain pelted the awning like a drum beat. Later you would replay it all in your head, the torn condom, the praying, panicking, worrying while you waited for It, willing It to come, and then finally when It did come, that delirious love for life, the shots of tequila, you and he dancing late in a bar, relieved your mistake hadn’t cost you anything. But there in that moment that day, while the mud pooled around your back and your future husband hovered above you panting, thrusting, you let it all expand inside you, you let the rain patter all over your face and the cold wind goosebump your arms and you wondered, crazily, delightedly, what the odds were of getting struck by lightning.

Tara Laskowski’s Comments

This story is one in a series of “etiquette” stories I’m compiling into a collection—others include things/situations like adultery, dementia, obesity, homicide. I was particularly fascinated by the process of getting pregnant because it is such a process. Women who go through it for any extended period of time have to know what I’m talking about. It can be all-consuming and obsessive. My husband and I really didn’t try for very long before we had success, but it felt like freaking forever, and I really can’t imagine how women who try for years and years keep their sanity.

Now that we have a newborn in the house (Dashiell Elliott Laskowski Taylor was born on Dec. 23, 2011) I think I have to write another story about obsessions with infant pooping and eating.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 35 | Winter 2012