I don’t feel unique when I say that there was a time when the infertility started to shatter my confidence; like safety glass, I was broken, but retained my basic shape. I felt a deep, bone-weakening shock. Never had I imagined that it would be difficult for me to get pregnant. The longer we spent with no success, the more bewildered I felt. When it dawned on me that this trial would last the rest of our lives, the world locked into a state of perpetual wrongness. The continuous parade of doctors and disappointment seemed the most prominent additions to the new life. I felt resourceless against this new world—as vulnerable as shell-less turtle. As I often do when I’m feeling deep distress, I asked Trent for comfort and advice.
While praying together, Trent got the impression that I had been prepared for this trial. We were intended to endure this time of difficulty together. That idea took a moment for me to absorb. Me? Him? All my years growing up, I assumed my husband and I would be so fertile it would be difficult for me to keep from getting pregnant. All my teenage years I hoped I could marry young, so I could begin my family young. None of that seemed like preparation to me. And what about Trent? Trent spent his teenage years in conscientious preparation to become a wonderful husband and father. At as young as eighteen, he let people know how much he looked forward to starting a family. How had he, who spent even his teenage years focusing all his soul toward becoming a father, been prepared to wait years for children?
Despite my initial doubt, a feeling of warmth started just behind my breastbone, a sensation I have always associated with confirmation of truth. The confirmation came without any sort of outside influence. There were no evident signs that Trent and I were meant to go through this ordeal. Despite my reservations, some deep intuition told me he was right.
It has taken years for me to start to see the moments that lead up to where we are now. As the years have rolled forward, I find myself peeling the time backward to before we knew about our infertility. I can see in us the seeds of what made us strong enough to handle this situation. I can see the habits that gave us a wellspring of fortitude.
Trent and I met when we were eighteen years old. Looking back at old pictures of the two of us, I see two newborn adults. Our cheeks still held the glowing curves of childhood. Our postures held that inward-facing-ness that comes from just having stepped into the real world.
Our friendship, in many ways, held a childlike and innocent quality. In fact, our close relationship began with stories and jokes bandied over plastic lunch trays. One of the classes we took together ended just before lunch. Since we both had a break, Trent and I started going to one of the on-campus eateries together. We talked about books and the high school activities we missed. We went to college classes before and after lunch, but this was a cafeteria romance nonetheless.
As the semester continued, I found myself wanting to stand closer to him when we walked. I tried to find more excuses to be with him. I looked for him in the cafeteria at breakfast and dinner, as well as at lunch. Our cafeteria relationship extended to walks on campus, study groups, picnics with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and (yes, really) sing-along sessions held in a chilly tunnel on Sunday nights.
Eighteen is such a young age to be anything; it’s especially young to be in love. Just three months into our friendship and budding romance, Trent volunteered to go to Argentina for a two-year religious mission. During the mission, Trent would not be able to call me, and he would have very limited access to computers. His main form of communication would be by letter.
At the time, I thought of this as a tragedy. I was eighteen, and in love. Trent would be going away for years, and it would be difficult for me to stay in contact with him. Trent left for Argentina when he was nineteen years old. When he came home, we would be twenty-one.
Twenty-one is a long time away from eighteen. If I were to pile up little markers of important life decisions made, I believe the biggest piles would be over the years eighteen, nineteen, twenty, and twenty-one. When I met Trent at age eighteen, the two of us were infant adults. When Trent returned at age twenty-one, we were mostly established selves. Instead of being the apocalypse for romance we feared, Trent’s mission turned into a time of growing up that we recorded in our letters. Our letters back and forth kept us informed about the changes in each other. They also helped us to form a strong friendship that has been crucial to overcoming infertility.
It’s strange to think that such a normal part of everyday life would become so crucial in our struggle. When I look back on those days, I remember running to find those letters. Every day, I would check the mailbox, sometimes up to five times a day. The letters contained no romance. Instead, we encouraged each other in our endeavors and comforted each other in our trials.
When I lost my grandfather, a nineteen-year-old Trent wrote to comfort me in my grief. When Trent wrote about his difficulties learning a foreign language mostly by immersion, I expressed my faith in his abilities. When I failed to get into the audition choir on campus, Trent expressed his faith in my voice. When Trent wrote about freezing winters and long, icy walks, I reminded him of our own long walks together in the snow. I also advised him not to fall with his hands in his pockets. When he wrote back about falling down an icy hill with his hands in his pockets, I sent him Christmas treats to nurse his bruised pride.
As we both worked our way into the real world on two separate continents, we became familiar with each other’s goals and desires. We learned what caused the other frustration. We also learned what helped the other to rally.
From Trent’s letters, I learned that he was laser focused, a loyal friend, and that he put the needs of others before his own. He started most of his letters talking about the people he taught and served. He shared stories about learning to catch chickens for one family and making home repairs for another. Trent never wrote about being tired, and if he wrote about frustration, it was his frustration about the limits of what he could give.
As I wrote what encouragement I could, Trent wrote to me: “Your faith and confidence in me are what help me most.”
From my letters, Trent learned about my firm faith in both the religion we shared and in the goodness of people, and that we shared similar priorities. I wrote to ask about what it was like in a new country, I told him about the quirks of my teachers, and about the summers I spent working as a caregiver.
As Trent wrote me, he learned I needed reciprocal communication. After a long spell without receiving letters, I let him know: “I need a response that lets me know, without a doubt, that you are receiving my letters.”
As we learned more about each other, I adjusted my writing style to make sure Trent got the support he needed, and Trent did the same for me. I made sure to fill my letters with assurances of my confidence in his abilities. He made sure that I got consistent, personal letters with responses that showed he had received and read my letters.
In our minds, we were just building our friendship. We weren’t preparing for any great event in our lives. We didn’t even know that, in a few short years, we would be married. We also didn’t know we would be married and infertile. Now, I can clearly see that we were establishing patterns that have helped us support each other during this difficult time.
Our reactions to each other’s emotional needs have reached an instinctual level. When I see that Trent is discouraged, I remind him of my confidence in him. I retell stories of the times he has made crucial and correct decisions. I remind him about what he has been able to accomplish for our family. Most of all, I remind him that I know he will be a good father and that he is already a good husband.
Without rational thought, I know he needs me to tell him that he is worthy to have children, even if he doesn’t have them yet. He needs to be reminded that his hard work and study will bring about a career that will support our family. He needs to know that I see how wonderful he is to his nieces and nephews. He needs to know that I feel safer and happier because he is with me.
When Trent sees that I am discouraged, he sits me down and just has me talk to him. I explain what I’m feeling, what worries me, and what makes me afraid. He listens and lets me know he understands what I am saying. He asks clarifying questions and offers advice (unless I tell him to just listen). Sometimes, I just list back the things the doctor has told us—to make sure I understood everything.
Without rational thought, Trent knows I need my worries to be acknowledged. He knows that if I feel like I’m unnoticed or unheard, I feel cheated, aloof, and unimportant. He understands that sometimes I need an audience in order for me to compose my thoughts. He knows I need to know my feelings are intelligible or else I feel alone.
I imagine that everyone going through infertility treatment experiences a moment of complete shock. It’s like getting hit by an ocean wave: you can’t tell which way is up, you can’t breathe, and you are powerless to come up for air. You must wait until the wave is done with you. In that moment, I’m sure it seems impossible that there is any way that you were prepared for what lies ahead. I was sure that Trent and I hadn’t been. But through this trial, I‘ve learned what I believe to be a universal truth: it isn’t just the blind that are blindsided. Preparation doesn’t always insulate against shock. What preparation does is allow navigation to a better state of being. Look back, and I’m sure we can all find experiences that prepared us for what we’re going through.
For us, the years of friendship before our marriage prepared us as a couple. I see our preparation as vital to successfully navigating our fertility crisis. There was a time before infertility. Trent and I already existed as whole individuals with strengths and weaknesses long before this all began. We existed as a united front as well. Our tragedy has changed the means by which we have children. It did not take away our accumulated fortitude. I’m not sure why we were intended to endure this together. I assume I’ll learn more about the reason in the same way I discovered that Trent and I were indeed prepared for this trial: through time and reflection. In the meantime, I can draw comfort from the fact that I was not sent into this struggle without resources.
This article is an excerpt from Emily Harris Adam's For Those With Empty Arms.