The woods were riddled with them. Gods, slowly whittled out of their temples and shrines, their mark on the world bleached by countless rotations of the sun. Their names slipped out of mouths and into pages if they were lucky, into obscurity if they weren’t. Many vanished altogether, but the ones that didn’t retreated to the woods, demoted to mythology. It’s a long fall, the one from prayers to stories. Amongst the trees, fragments of faith, long orphaned, found new land to call home.
She sunk her pale bones into the soil, and turned her eyes towards the sun. Time was kept at bay here. She could sense it on the outskirts, circling, prying, a rat seeking ingress through the smallest gap. Occasionally it would break through - a song carried in a pocket, metal and fuel overhead, words in a tongue so estranged from its roots that it was new and ugly and unintelligible to the ear - but mostly time kept its distance and left the old gods to fade in peace. The language of the leaves hadn’t changed. She was grateful for that. The wind rustled lullabies from them, and for brief moments, sometimes years, She could dream. They were comforting, her dreams. They tasted of blood and ash, of soaring and crushing, tearing and mending. Waking caused grief as sharp as briar.
Sometimes She caught glimpses of the others. Odd shapes at the back of her sight, a sensation pressing on her like the weight of a storm, but the old ones didn’t like to share, not even in their dotage. Not worshippers, and not space. It suited her. She loomed tall, ivy tethered, fingers weaving the branches above, trying to stir old dead magic from the skies but time even began to trespass in the rain; it tasted like burnt hair and the lurid toys that children would sometimes leave in the woods.
They were frequent visitors, humans. They wandered through the trees, oblivious to the company they kept. Perhaps a splinter of understanding remained. Their voices became hushed in the forest, their steps more thoughtful; they seemed at least partially aware that the world was more brittle here, and liable to break. Perhaps they could sense the old gods’ breath on them as they passed, feel the lidless eyes that watched. Some days they came so close that She could smell them, taste the scent of them on the air, and She would twist her bones so the branches above her murmured with appetite
And they would shudder, and turn back.
This was her now. This was the shape She filled. She was a small warning that snaked up your spine like a tongue. The feeling of being watched. She was the instinctive muffle of your voice in her presence. Her name, once howled in grief, wielded in rage, carved into stone and flesh and trees alike, was now a story for round the fire; a whisper you weren’t sure you heard.
Furious, She would watch them walk away, teeth sharp in her mouth.
She screamed, and it sounded like the breeze.
Part One: The Weary Traveller
If the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then trying to overcome infertility is knowingly walking into lunacy. You sign a Sisyphean pact, with the intent to eventually roll the boulder all the way to the top of the hill.
It's hard to pinpoint the moment “seeing what happens” becomes “trying to conceive” becomes infertility. In truth, the journey often starts before you're even aware of it: The childhood books reacquired, and added to the bookshelf under the guise of nostalgia. Toys bought for Do You Remember, but also perhaps with a hint of One Day. The room in the new house that could be, could be an office, but also, maybe, perhaps... By the time the conscious thought arrives, you're startled to see the nest is already half made.
For some people, that's where it all ends, and begins. The nest, once constructed, is filled, and life enters a new stage. As simple as that. For others though, for us, for me, the journey unfurls through months, seasons, years, coiling back on itself, un-walking steps previously taken. Eventually, the detritus of a life you don't have walks out the door, given away, the twigs you gathered now splinters to be removed. Toys carried out in the happy hands of other people's babies, dreams re-purposed as gifts. The nest is de-constructed, and an unwelcome sadness, cuckoo-like and hungry, occupies the space left behind. Tendrils of sorrow snake their way out of that space, and into places they do not belong. These are obstacles the rest of the world navigate without ever realising. The question from a friendly stranger: “Do you have kids? No? Do you want them?”. The birthday party where you're the only one who's not a parent. The final stretch of Ikea, full of bright colours and soft toys, an enforced dash, eyes down, through The Room Of The Child You Want But Do Not Have. Your happiness for others is tethered to the same location you store your grief, and it's sometimes impossible to grasp one without brushing your fingers against the other. Pregnancy announcements are a race to express your delight before the ensuing tears roar to the surface. Say the words before your throat constricts. Find isolation before you crumble. Do not ruin their moment. Be discreet. Smile, retreat. Reform. Social media becomes a mine field. Friends who would never dream of sliding a note across the table to you to announce that their existence only found meaning through motherhood, will plaster that same cloying message across your news feed; their joy honed to such a sharp point that to handle it unexpectedly is to court injury. Adverts on Spotify broadcast baby laughter through headphones, ambushing you as you wander through the street. Pampers adverts creep into your Twitter timeline, sponsored barbs amongst distractions. Infertility in the time of the internet.
“You mustn't give up hope.”
People think that hope is a golden rope that prevents you from drowning. It is not. It is a piece of chalk that erodes as you use it. It is a letter to your future you write every month on the blackboard, and then have to scrub clean away. The more chalk you use, the less remains, so you end up guarding it jealously, clutching what little you have in your fingers, snapping at those that encourage its reckless use. Six years into my infertility journey, I was sent for a laparoscopy to flush my tubes and rule out endometriosis, and afterwards my consultant, my friends, and my family all regaled me with stories of people that conceived not long after having the procedure. I kept saying “We'll see, we'll see...”, swatting aside people's optimism like so many flies, but despite it all the note I wrote inside the walls of me said, in larger letters: Maybe This Time.
I cried for eight hours when the slate was, once again, wiped clean.
If the doctors tell us we can never have children, I say, we'll tear up the rule book. We'll sell the house. Run away. Live like nomads. Drink from shells. Wear too much tie-dye and get matching tattoos.
He responds with a smile that's hard to read.
What does that face mean, I ask?
“It's just sad. I never thought that's what they'd say. I always thought there'd be a solution.”
Sometimes there is a solution. Sometimes there's the finality of a full stop, the realisation that there is no more road. Sometimes there are no answers at all, leaving you stranded somewhere between Grief and Acceptance, wearily marching onwards under the banner of Maybe. The future you're aiming for is constantly only one month away: the carrot at the end of the stick. This is what people don't tend to understand. Infertility is exhausting. Repetitive. Tedious. It's trudging past the same landmark you've seen countless times already, and somehow finding the energy to continue further down the path. Here's what I learnt: it's okay to stop for a while, or to stop all together. To rest. To rage. To pack hope away in a box and be furious, be sad, to stay put and build walls to keep the world out for a while, or to knock them down and let the whole world see you standing there, blotchy-eyed, miserable, snagged on a part of your life that was just meant to be the beginning. Infertility became easier for me when it was no longer my private little hellscape to rattle around inside, but a journey other people knew I was on. It left a door ajar. Outside of the filtered images and refined sugar sweetness of public social media, people would open their lives up to me. Show me matching scars. We'd trade notes, travellers in hostile lands, marking each other's maps with places of interest and sanctuaries, and areas we dare not tread.
Part Two: New And Perilous Lands
A week before we were due to see a fertility specialist, after seven years of trying, I discovered I was pregnant. There's a photo in my phone of me, hair mussed, morning sleepiness still clinging to me, wielding the positive test, eyes wide with delight. Lopsided smile. Sunlight streaming through the window.
Another photo eleven days later shows me in a hospital bed, pale as the sheets behind me.
My memories from this period are stilted. Broken fragments carried loose in a bag.
I'd been bleeding on and off, and this can be normal, I told myself. This can be normal, this can be normal, over and over, a mantra as a buoyancy aid, this can be normal, until it reached a point where I knew it couldn't.
A mistake at the doctor's surgery meant we sat in the waiting room for over an hour, watching people come and go, our hands intertwined, reluctantly meeting eye contact with thin polite smiles. Holding it together so as to not make others uncomfortable...
A different waiting room in a hospital, filled with colourful magazines and pregnant women. The person nearest us was there with a friend, happy, laughing together, our silence large and awful beside them. My mind latches on to unimportant details. Her long, manicured nails. A diamanté phone in her hand. The sound of her nails tapping on it...
Covering my face with my arm as the scan failed to find a pregnancy, as if closing my eyes could block out the words being said...
Having to wade back out into that same waiting room, past the round bellies and soft chatter, grief soaked and small and hollow. Intruders, dragging visible loss in our wake, waves of it lapping at the feet of people we passed as they recoiled instinctively away...
A phone call from the nurse later that day. My blood test results had come back. A pregnancy hormone reading of 3,500. And there it was, that little piece of chalk, writing hope and relief and joy inside me. I was pregnant. Still pregnant. The nurse hearing all that in my voice, and having to slowly, deliberately, dismantle it...
My husband phoning my parents, explaining that I was being admitted for surgery on an ectopic pregnancy...
The cold white tiles of the toilets on the ward, the place where I cried at night, wrapped around a pregnancy that couldn't last. Trying to sob quietly so as not to disturb anyone who was sleeping. The junior doctor showing me photos from the surgery, images of unfamilar flesh architecture, surrounded by lakes of blood. A wound that grew angry and strange, infection seething at the pink skin around it...
New scars acquired.
A week later, I am venturing out with my family for the first time since the operation. In the high-street of town, my phone chirrups for attention. It's a midwife, calling to arrange a time to discuss my pregnancy. The one I no longer have...
In the busy street, I shatter.
This is the journey of infertility. Back to the beginning. A moment to steel yourself, then setting off again. Since I'd cancelled the meeting with the fertility clinic, I slid back to the very lowest rung of the ladder, and had to rejoin the waiting list. Another six months added to the path. Un-walking all those steps past familiar landmarks.
Sisyphus, staring up at the hill.
Here we go again.
Part Three: Going Off The Beaten Track
There's a happy ending. At the time of writing this, my daughter is three years old. Three months after my ectopic pregnancy, we started trying again. I fell pregnant immediately. She's three years old, and healthy, and kind, and so perfectly weird, and I'm happy and lucky and blessed, but here's something I didn't expect.
All that grief still exists.
If you were to cut me open, and examine what's inside like rings of a tree, you'd see those seven years as clear as anything, a darker halo around the centre of me. They didn't vanish, just because I finally got my child. I thought they would. I genuinely did. Like a fairytale curse that had been lifted.
Instead, those years echoed into my pregnancy, and beyond. It felt like building a dream house at the edge of a cliff, and then every night lying in bed, anxiously listening to the floorboards creaking, wondering if you were about to plunge into the ocean. I only wore white for months, so I'd know as soon as I started bleeding. I didn't tell anyone about the pregnancy until we were 20 weeks in, so I wouldn't have to walk back those words and undo that happiness for other people. A huge, parasitic “IF” gorged itself between me and my growing baby, taking the place of “when”. If you get to the next scan. If you're born. If we get to take you home.
On the labour ward, 42 weeks pregnant, gulping down gas and air, that IF still loomed, and didn't start to fade until she was in my arms.
Sometimes even now, three years old, sat by her bedside when she's feverish, watching her breaths, it still lingers between us and the future. Especially this year, with all its chaos and disruption and death in the news. Sometimes I still feel like I'm waiting for the ground to fall beneath me.
It's a long journey, infertility, and it turns out it's one you don't ever really get to stop walking, even if (like me) you finally get to change paths. At a festival last summer, with the sun shining and my daughter dancing near by, I had my fortune read. A lady with gentle eyes took my hand, stared at it, smiled, and mentioned children. Plural. Old scars ached like they sensed bad weather, and that piece of chalk stirred again.
In the lovely summer heat, surrounded by my family and music and greenery and sky, I shatter.