It's infertility, which will strike one in eight American couples. Why are so many of us hiding this struggle from our friends and family?
SELF investigates the roots of women's silence— and why our reluctance to talk keeps us from getting the health care we deserve.
Lisa scans the room for an empty seat. Save for the disembodied voices of unseen nurses summoning patients into exam rooms, the place is excruciatingly quiet. The clouds outside the floor-to-ceiling windows cast a pallor onto the walls, the furniture and the faces of some 40 women waiting at the Perelman Cohen Center for Reproductive Medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City. Everyone is here for the same reason: She can't get pregnant without a doctor's help. Yet with so much in common, no one speaks or even acknowledges one another. The women sit at least one empty chair apart, reading the newspaper, tapping on their BlackBerries, staring at their shoes. The few who are accompanied by husbands—they don't talk, either.
"You can cut the tension with a knife," says Lisa, a 33-year-old health-policy analyst who is here for her fourth cycle of in vitro fertilization (IVF). Lisa finds a love seat with room for her and her oversize red leather purse and plops down into it. It's 8 A.M., but already she's exhausted. And she's scared, hoping for joy but preparing for heartbreak. It's a feeling she's grown accustomed to in more than two years of trying to have a baby with her husband, Jack. Her big brown eyes are on the verge of tears. "I never imagined it would come to this," she says.
After three failed IVFs in their hometown of Washington, D.C., Lisa and Jack have taken a leave from their jobs, moved to New York for two weeks and are spending roughly $20,000 for another chance to conceive. No one close to the couple knows they're here—not Jack's family in the Midwest and not Lisa's parents, who live in an outlying suburb. They're paying $1,600 to sublet a studio apartment rather than tell family what they are doing. The only people who know are members of their support group back in Washington, strangers a few months ago and now the few people they feel can understand their struggle. They share this experience with SELF under an agreement to print only their middle names. "We have so much invested that we can't handle other people being emotionally invested," Lisa says. "We can't deal with other people being upset if it doesn't work when we are already so upset ourselves."
Doctors have diagnosed Lisa with "unexplained infertility," which accounts for approximately 20 percent of all infertility diagnoses. Even after her first IVF failed last year, she and Jack had remained optimistic their second try would give them a family. Lisa was still young, and both she and Jack appeared to be in perfect health. For Lisa, each procedure had a 60 percent chance of success, according to statistics from Shady Grove Fertility Center in Washington, D.C., where Lisa was being treated. She was at work when the nurse called with the news that barely any of her eggs had become fertilized. Lisa phoned Jack, and together but apart, they each closed their office door and sobbed. That night, they huddled together in their bed, lights off, ringing phone ignored. "We were in a very dark place," Jack remembers. They began avoiding friends, canceling plans and not making new ones.