Great Expectations: Infertility, Disability, and Possibility

Sally Bishop Shigley

My Story

At a recent birthday gathering for a friend, a colleague asked everyone in the living room to describe her life in the 1990s. These women had travelled, written books, and started careers. Impressive stuff. When my turn came, I said the first thing that came to mind: ‘I was trying to get pregnant’. In 1990, I stopped using birth control. It was only a matter of time. I stopped drinking wine and started taking vitamins. In 1992, I sought medical help. My first foray into assisted reproductive technology (ART) was intrauterine insemination (IUI). My husband’s sperm was collected via a private room and a magazine and then treated to maximize motility and morphology: only well-shaped good swimmers allowed. Then the semen was injected into a catheter, an extra-long and flexible one because of my tipped uterus, which was inserted into my cervix. More efficient and uncomfortable than actual intercourse, but basically the same process. The first time (again the same as intercourse!) was fraught with a peculiar kind of energy: part anxiety that it would work, and part anxiety that it wouldn’t. As I lay on the table afterward, letting gravity do its job, I was preoccupied with details that would seem absurd later on: paint for the nursery, how many weeks I could take off work if I got pregnant that very day, the politics of whose family name would be the first versus middle name for our child. As we got in the car afterwards, I remember looking out over the valley just as the sun was starting to set and fretting that we wouldn’t be able to stop at the boutique baby store in the city to shop for furniture on the way home. Wood versus painted cribs, educational black and white mobiles versus stuffed lady bugs, gingham versus stripes. It all seemed so possible in a way that it never would

S.B. Shigley (*)

Weber State University, Ogden, Utah, USA e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017

G. Davis, T. Loughran (eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Infertility in History, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-52080-7_3

again. I was still dwelling in what Susan Sontag calls the ‘kingdom of the well’: a place in which the cause and effect of this most simple and basic of human processes was delayed, but still very much possible.1 The worry I experienced then was an anxiety of presence and detail: layettes and organic food and diaper bags, not the yawning story of exile and absence it would be later.

In 1995, I travelled 40 miles south to the university medical centre, which had a fertility clinic. I was tested and interviewed and started injecting and ingesting drugs: Lupron through the small subcutaneous needle to shut down my cycles so the reproductive endocrinologists could start them up on a schedule; Pergonal with the big intra-muscular needle to stimulate my ovaries to produce more eggs; oral antibiotics as the embryos were moved from petri dish to womb; viscous and irritating progesterone oil to help fertilized embryos to implant. I made the 80-mile round trip to the fertility centre with my bruised hips to have my follicles measured and my eggs counted. Many times. There were more eggs, but not enough. I needed to try harder, they joked. I tried a little harder. It didn’t work.

I had a brief and cruel surge of beta-Hcg that promised a pregnancy that never materialized. I was standing at my bathroom mirror combing my hair when I felt the hormones ebb. No drama, no tectonic shift, just a slow inexorable change in physiological weather. Then bleeding. Then enervation. I did another in vitro cycle with double the injectable drugs, this time without even false hope at the end. A long chat with the kindly doctor confirmed that while my infertility, like that of some of the 6.6% of infertile women in the USA, was and remains unexplained, he did not hold out much hope that I would ever carry a child to term.2 Donor eggs? Surrogacy? Adoption? I was too tired to think. I came home and tried a little harder at the university where I teach and tried to decide what to do.

I received tenure in 1998. Before that I earned a PhD and published a book and articles and spoke to the legislature and was nominated for teaching awards. I ran in races and won medals and travelled with my husband and built water features in my garden and baked really good wholegrain bread. And all these years later, what I remember is that it was the 1990s and I was in my 30s and I could not get pregnant. Infertility is classified as a disease by the medical community, a disability by the US government, and an inestimable loss by the women experiencing it. This chapter explores what infertility can mean for individual women and for a culture, and how those meanings are expressed in infertility literature and my own story. While I am acutely aware that infertility happens to men and other family members as well, my focus is on women. I am interested in how and why women tell stories about infertility and how their stories and mine correlate with literary, medical, and legal interpretations.

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