Infertility is to parenthood what insatiable hunger is to feasting. It is being stuck out in the rain, stomach tied in knots, with your nose pressed desperately to the glass as the casual and comfortable diners seated inside wipe the crumbs off the corners of their mouths and raise one silent finger to ask for an aperitif or maybe just the check. Those, both men and women, who have struggled with fertility, know full well that they continue to live in the shadow of those who have successfully (and often effortlessly) brought a child into this world. It is a shadow colored by feelings of guilt, resentment, desire, and utter bewilderment.
For those that have never had the opportunity to be parents, there exist numerous outlets and avenues of support, along with adoption (if you can afford it and deal with the frustration), and a myriad of medical interventions awaiting the swipe of your health insurance card (if it is covered). However, for a small minority within the minority of infertile adults wishing to have a child (or children), there is the least understood subgroup parents coping with secondary infertility.
The definition of secondary infertility is a couple who has successfully had children in the past, but when attempting to have more children, they are incapable of achieving pregnancy after one year of unprotected sex. Considering the relative success of previous pregnancies, this most always comes as a shock to the wanting parents. Most cases of secondary infertility stem from the female half of the equation. The culprit is usually aging eggs. Women are born with a finite number of eggs, which can suffer chromosomal damage over time. A defective egg is less likely to be fertilized, and therefore less likely to become a viable pregnancy. But obviously men factor into the secondary infertility equation as well. Everything from diabetes to prostate infections can greatly impact male fertility (while sperm production never stops, men do experience a drop off in fertility around age 50). Either way you look at it, it is a profound disappointment for both prospective parents.
However, this profound disappointment, at least in secondary infertility, is often met with confusion and sometimes indifference from the outside world. In many people’s minds, if you already have a child (or children) a diagnosis of secondary infertility is just another opportunity to appreciate what you have. “At least you have a healthy and beautiful daughter,” is something you are likely to hear from a friend or acquaintance who is trying to be encouraging, but more or less misses the point. The desire to have a child (or another child) for many is not one that can be rationalized away. It is primal desire that is pitilessly lashed by a series of negative pregnancy tests, failed stabs at bolstering fertility, and possible miscarriages. It is a rollercoaster ride, which don’t get me wrong, rollercoasters are enormously fun when they last three minutes and have a clear entry and exit point.
The whole infertility discussion is somewhat of a rarity in parenting forums, as most readers and contributors are a little caught up in trying to be better parents and people. But in my mind, the specter of infertility is the inverse proposition of parenthood (or is that the contrapositive?) and they are unquestionably interconnected. I would like to invite all (parents, parents struggling with infertility, and wishful parents struggling with infertility) to offer your thoughts on the subject of infertility and especially secondary infertility. Should parents with children be content with what they have and interpret infertility as a sign (from whomever) that it is time to quit while you are ahead? To what end should people go to have a child? Is it OK if this desire is not always governed by rational thought? Why is the desire to have a child (or children) such an intense and enduring one?
Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.