I was recently talking with another awesome blogger about the process of telling, or not telling, people about various parts of your fertility journey. How do you tell family? Friends? Work colleagues? How do you tell your boss?
To whom do you speak, how often and in what degree of detail? These are the questions we face all the time – as queer people, but also as people going through intense emotional, physical and time-consuming appointments and procedures. There are also the unwanted questions and comments that we all experience – which can be off-putting, infuriating, isolating, or create barriers in our future sharing. That will be for another day.
I think the way I handle fertility is reflective of how I handle my gayness in general. I had a pretty easy coming-out, so I've always felt like part of paying that forward is the responsibility to create space and visibility for others. If I was more precariously employed, or had less support in my life, this would drastically shift my approach – but since I feel empowered I find that this confidence transfers to other areas of my life. People often don't speak about fertility (sometimes with concerns for privacy, shame, pain, distress, awkwardness, and many other very good reasons), but since I can, I sometimes feel I should – to make it easier, more normalized, less like coming out, for people who have not had such positive experiences. Even the hard things, I talk about; because I cannot imagine going through three miscarriages with my wife and having to pretend 1) that I don't have a wife, 2) that I am not extremely impacted by these things, 3) that even if I seem fine right now, I might not be okay in 5 minutes, and there is a very good reason for it, 4) I am a human being who has an iceberg of unseen experiences, so if I share the tip of the iceberg it is just one example of the thousand things we all go through that others may not be aware of. Cut people some slack.
I'm always out, as a rule. But when it comes to our reproductive health, the fact that it happens below the waist, or that it can be about successes and losses, we aren't always as comfortable. This isn't new. Did you know that female teachers, not so far back in history, had to 'discreetly' disappear from their jobs in front of students once they started showing? As though the mere idea of their visible fertility might make students see them as sexual beings, or worse, make them ask questions about where babies come from. They would know 'something' had happened to them. It's weird that pregnancy is celebrated the world over (for a variety of reasons) but is also (for a variety of reasons) treated like it is somehow obscene.
Now, as queer folks, we have the added pleasure of getting a barrage of questions about HOW we conceived, as queer folk, when I'm sure straight people don't get asked: what position were you in when you got knocked up? Were the lights on or off? How much was the bottle of wine you drank before your 'procedure'? Did you use protection/was this the result of a condom malfunction? Maybe I'm being naive… but the things I get asked are SO much more invasive than the general questions I hear my straight friends being asked. It could simply be that people actually have a pretty good understanding of bodies and know that two vaginas won't magically make a baby appear.
All jokes aside, most people who know me KNOW that I'm almost always game to talk about anything, as long as the intention behind the question is positive. Even the awkward stuff.
So, how do I decide (or you) who to talk to about, in what detail?
My friends knew we wanted kids. We mused together how that might go. I used to think how EASY it would be to find a real live human to benevolently help us out with our 'fertility' problem, which is actually a penis problem. A sperm problem, specifically.
My family knew we wanted kids, and my mom helped me through my coping mechanism of claiming 'maybe I don't want to carry' because for a while it looked like Allia might have donor sperm available (in the way we wanted to pursue our family), but that my options were limited. I convinced myself I'd be okay, maybe didn't even want to carry, since it looked like I might not get to. Better to decide for myself, on my terms, than have the choice taken away.
My family cheered and cried with us through the past three years. Allia even, eventually, told her religious, unsupportive family, back in Jamaica, what she had gone through and and hugely relieved to receive the kind of sadness and recognition of loss that you would expect from your family. Her sister has always been wonderful, and her mom was really coming around. My family, especially my brother, sister-in-law, and my parents, have been our biggest cheering section.
Since we switched to me as the 'vessel' I have been updating my mom, sometimes daily, about follicles, levels, the crappiness of injection medication, etc. I even took out some of the MANY hormones I was reeling from on her when one of those days my darling Mum forgot to check in with me about our final egg count. I was so steamed at her. Obviously, all I wanted was more of the same amazing support.
I get that same support at work: I talk about our struggles openly all the time at work. Three of my colleagues in a work room of 7 women and one man are also doing fertility treatments and struggling with their own journeys. We touch bases all the time, nod knowingly at the bandaids on inner-arms, and late arrivals. We are sensitive to each other and, for those of you NOT living in the beautiful bubble of big-city Canada-land, every one of my coworkers and 60% of the 2000 students at my school know I'm a lesbian and it is a non-issue (always with staff, and 99.5% of the time with students). Our health coverage extends to my wife, even to past common law girlfriends. But there are added costs that aren't anticipated by traditionally heterosexual medical plans. More on that another day.
The Boss and Higher Ups: Last year, I told my department head (a man), and asked that he keep my plans in mind as soon as scheduling for this term started; we agreed that a later start this year- with my lunch in period 1 (8 am-9:30am) instead of midday, would let me attend doctor's appointments without impacting my kids and classes. This is more planning and fine-tuning to work out, but when the students suffer by having me absent or late, it is worth their effort to accommodate.
I told our Business Manager (a man in his 40s) as soon as I knew I might start fertility monitoring. Why? Because this is the guy who assigns last minute class coverages and supervision schedules. I wanted him on-side about potential late-starts. This business manager… is usually crusty people about asking for anything, but as soon as he heard it was for fertility he assumed the most helpful tone. With Period 1 off, I often get scheduled to cover unexpected absences or missing supply teachers. Him knowing I wasn't just getting coffee and rolling in late (which would never happen anyway) made him far more understanding. Fertility, he said, is beyond my control, totally legitimate and has full support, whereas someone 'preferring' to be able to come in later and not be assigned coverages if they have period one off is a terrible excuse.
Next, my Vice Principal: she is amazing and completely on board. I told her as soon as we started and she was equal parts thrilled for us and sympathetic to what we had already gone through. Compare this to my past VP who, in an effort to console after miscarriage 2 told me, I know someone who 'had 5 and now she has a beautiful baby,' and then 'you're lucky because if your wife can't give birth, you can always try." You all know what I'm talking about. The new VP stepped in immediately when it looked like my schedule might be shifted to a Period 1 University-bound class, which would create huge stress if I wasn't able to get to them every morning, consistently for our 7:45 school day start. She 'handled it,' no questions and it was the biggest relief. This is why talking about it has mattered. Trying to screen myself might have prevented people from helping me when I needed it most.
Human Resources: as teachers we have a union (yay!) and a certain number (9) of allowable sick days. I used 2 last year. None in my first 4 years. I get that some people scam the system, but we now have an 'Attendance Monitoring Program' where you get flagged for missing a certain number of days (not full days, but 'occurrences'), even if you haven't used up your allotted and allowed sick days. I hit the magic number, even though I was 'booking out' period 1 times, when I had no students to teach, during my own prep time, and arriving to teach period 2, right on time. I still have to sign out so that I'm not assigned a class coverage. Huge stress, time-suck, etc. But, now I get an email from some board office lady, telling me that I need to provide proof of my fertility status and that I'm under the care of a physician (which is handy because my attendance has documented evidence) – what sucks is that people who have had other forms of illness or loss might not. So HR gets to know about the inside of my body so they can 'support me' in not missing more work time, even though none of this has impacted my students – only my own time to prep. Can you tell I find this annoying?
I also tell students when it comes up.
"Do you and your wife want kids?
Will you adopt?
Maybe, but for now we are trying to have some on our own."
And I did share news of our first miscarriage with students because they are smart – they can tell when their teacher who is usually beaming and upbeat is 'not okay' and gets called down to the office and disappears for two days. I want them to have knowledge, not to be frightened, to know I'm sad, but I'll be okay. For the same reason that I would tell them my cat died and I'm sad about it, I tell them I've lost something and I might seem sad sometimes. What was important for me to tell them is that my sadness was temporary and that being there, teaching them, made me happy again. They are my recovery and happy place. They rose to the challenge.
For me, it's about authenticity. Honesty. Awareness. I humanize myself and share what real people go through, how people cope and what self-care looks like. It's okay to be sad and sometimes people need support. Honestly, it is remarkable how intuitive and thoughtful and real people can be if you let them have that opportunity. I don't tell people I don't want to tell and I set boundaries about what I'll entertain and won't. I generally welcome whatever questions people ask, because it takes bravery (or sometimes ignorance) to ask and curiosity is better than apathy.
How do these convos and subsequent ones go? I get tons of personal questions, but I'm pretty open to talking about it because then at least people are talking about queerness and recognizing that this is going on. Like most things I talk about, that others could shy away from (for good reason), I try to walk in like a boss and be open, own it and educate. I know I run the risk of encountering shitty responses, or ignorance, but I don't think women who WANT to be able to talk about it should have to keep this under wraps. It should be something we can explore and set our own boundaries around. I totally understand why people are hesitant to share, it's emotional, vulnerable and nobody's business, but it's also something people make so many generalizations about because so few people feel empowered to talk about it – which leads to some of us suffering in silence and not getting support when we need it 🙂
This is just where I'm at, personally, right now. Thanks to the community of bloggers who make these conversations possible and who honour their own journey. I heart you all.
What questions, conversations, struggles do you have, hear about, want to talk about?