I've been reading a few infertility-related books lately, so I thought that I'd start giving a brief review/response to some of them in case readers are interested. I recently read Julia Leigh's Avalanche, a memoir of her experience going through IVF. You can find a thoughtful piece from the Guardian here. This piece is probably more of a personal response than a review, so read it accordingly.
For obvious reasons, I found it an emotional read. It's a strange book. Some parts are extremely personal - the story of her marriage collapsing, for example. Other sections feel very procedural; however, that's kind of the epitome of fertility treatment for me: You are going through what is potentially the most emotionally grueling experience of your life, and yet your body also feels like the clinical subject of a laboratory experiment. You weep on the subway and in the bathrooms at work, yet you calmly inject yourself twice a day as if measuring out Gonal-F dosages were just the way of things. In that way, I think Leigh really captured some of the absurd essence if infertility.
Leigh's lifestyle and character were so completely different from mine. I found it hard to relate to her impulsive and tumultuous marriage or some of her other choices. She had lovers and ex-lovers, even ones who were prepared to donate sperm for her. However, in some ways, I found her account refreshing. I've read too many infertility accounts that focused on the perfect, committed, loving couple facing the odds. You know, the ones who "deserve" to be parents, for whom everyone feels sad because "Any kid would feel lucky to have you as mom and dad." But who are those people? Not Gil and me. Okay, we rarely fight, and we are nothing like Julia and Paul, but infertility is grueling and tears apart even the most supportive of marriages. I liked seeing a real portrait of messy people in a heartbreaking situation.
I liked that Leigh conveyed the overwhelming amount of decisions that need to be made in infertility and the guilt that is associated with that: "If I don't do this test or that test or the embryo glue, will I always worry that THIS was the reason why I never had a child? I also liked that she questioned the odds she was given and asked for evidence.
Some of the critiques I've read of the book say that Leigh comes across as selfish and/or self-absorbed. Maybe so. It's easy to become obsessed and absorbed with the process when you're in it. Fertility treatment becomes your entire life. It's also easy to judge from the outside. I find that there is this pressure on those of us who are infertile to prove ourselves as deserving: of pity, of sympathy, of being parents. Regular people just get to have kids, but once you're infertile, you need to be a saint or else people shrug and imply that maybe your infertility is just the universe's way of saying you're not meant to be a parent. I've been interrogated about how many procedures we went through, and why we didn't do X, as though I don't get sympathy or grief until I've shown that I "tried hard enough", and only then will they be supportive. All that to say, maybe Leigh was selfish, but that didn't stop me from aching for her sad journey.
Would I recommend this book to others? Yes. In fact, I wish all my friends would read it, so that they could be better informed about the process and the odds. I've been told to "just do IVF", but I think Leigh's book shows both how difficult IVF is and how low the odds for success actually are. For my infertile sisters, I would say that this is a difficult book. I don't know if I could have related if I were still in the rose-coloured glasses stage when I was sure that I'd get pregnant eventually. Maybe it would have felt too disappointing. Now that I'm grieving what might have been, it's cathartic to know I'm not alone.
Some of my favourite quotes:
"I didn't want to tell people because I thought that unless they were involved in that world themselves they wouldn't want to listen. Or they would only half listen and so diminish my experience. Or they would ask questions that required explanations too complex for conversation. Or they would offer advice based on hearsay and a general theory of positivity. Or I would make them uncomfortable because of my proximity to the abyss. Hush, keep your voice down, don't mention it by name."
YES YES YES YES YES. This is my experience to a T.
"I'm an expert at make-believe. Our child was not unreal to me. It was not a real child but also it was not unreal. Maybe a better way to say it is that the unknown unconceived had been an inner presence. A desired and nurtured inner presence. Not real but a singular presence in which I had radical faith. A presence that could not be substituted or replaced."