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What my garden taught me about infertility

If it really doesn’t work out, just try again next season

Nothing's growing, but I keep trying. (iStock)
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My friends all come to me for gardening advice because I’ve taken more classes than their combined none. They ask me when it’s safe to plant, if they’ll need a trellis, how often to add compost. I keep it simple: soil, sun and water. I think this really speaks to people and has even helped them to grow some very successful harvests.

These friends never seem to notice that my own garden is an anemic, stunted and profligate landscape of embarrassment. Nearly every plant, save the herbs — and what jerk can't grow herbs? — is locked in a state of maddening potential.

In the summer, I look out the window at my tomatoes, and I see two green orbs that are the same size they were two weeks before. I see leaves that started climbing but thought the better of it and are now just dead, yellowing weight next to blossoms that themselves turned yellow, then fell off. I see a squash plant that grew big leaves and flowers and a promising little green sprout, which abruptly halted its development and is likewise withering.

Everything starts — and then just stops. Is it a lack of sun? Too much? Is the soil quality poor? Is the pot too small? Why can't I get them to thrive?

I talk to my friends on the East Coast, and they share stories of tomatoes gone wild and cucumbers that just “took off,” even though my growing season here in California started six weeks before theirs did, with virtually no danger of frost and ample sunlight. Almost unattended do their crops grow! It seems to come naturally to other people, this cultivating life thing. It doesn’t come naturally to me.

There’s another realm, too, in which I don’t have anything to show for my efforts: producing offspring. Pregnancy, like gardening, feels like an insoluble mystery. For a woman or a man who is infertile, it’s hardly ever just one thing that’s gone wrong. There is a vast universe of things we do not know about why a woman with no known fertility challenges doesn’t get pregnant, cycle after cycle after cycle. Sun, soil, water: What else is there to say?

Going from infertility to fertility has almost nothing to do with sex. That sounds ridiculous, but check a fertility message board, and you’ll see what I mean. The questions are about virtually anything else: How big were your follicles, what was your progesterone level, when did you inject the HCG, did you see the double line on your 40th ovulation test, did you see spotting, how many mg of L and did you start on CD 2, 3 or 5, did you cramp after the egg retrieval?

Five myths about infertility

You can take a class or read a book on reproduction, but I find that with every such action to increase your odds of getting pregnant, there’s a precipitous decline in the benefits of that knowledge. Knowing more might make you want to try harder, but trying harder seems to have, at best, a prayerful relationship with the probability of having a baby. You can’t educate yourself out of the problem.

That bothers me. It bothers me in exactly the same way that taking another gardening class or reading about thrips on the Master Gardener website does. Maybe you will be empowered by tweaking the ratio of nitrogen to phosphorous or by introducing lady bugs to eat the aphids, but this is a level of commitment most didn’t sign up for. It should come naturally, and if it doesn’t, well, maybe you need to take up some other pastime.

I want to just plant the seed and let it do its thing. I want to just have well-timed sex, see a double line and move on. Soil, sun, water.

Anguish is in the details. I went through a few fertility cycles in which I took a medication and then had an ultrasound to check the growth of follicles, which is an indicator of whether and when you’re going to ovulate. Once, I had to return for a second ultrasound in the same month, because it was unclear which follicle was “dominant,” or likely to release an egg. The nurse practitioner then told me nothing had changed between the first and second visits: The follicles had just “kind of pooped out.”

That was that for the cycle. No amount of sperm will make a bit of difference if there's no egg to fertilize. I just had to wait.

Here are things that I believe: Everyone is worthy of companionship, of being loved, of loving others, of caring and being cared for. No one is obligated to reproduce, to create a family or to otherwise arrange themselves in relationships that resemble one. No one is made more relevant or more meaningful in this world just because they had a baby.

But it’s a more difficult philosophical exercise to identify why, then, it’s so bothersome to not be able to do these things if we so choose. Why don’t things thrive with me? I don’t think it’s the lack of choice itself that wreaks havoc with a person’s psyche in the fog of infertility. I think it’s something else. I think it’s a confluence of factors social, cultural, psychological, gendered and biological. I think it must be different for everyone.

I eventually became upset and angry at my garden. I tried to stop caring, but I can’t not care. I always get very excited when I see those little monocots and dicots poking out of the soil. But I’ve stopped counting how many times they just “poop out.” I expect it. I hate them for it. Why can’t they just do this one thing for me?

My friends and family are pregnant, having babies, getting pregnant again, talking nonstop about their kids, their child care, their eating patterns, the ups and downs of their lives. I think, Please, please just grow some fruits. When I wake up tomorrow, I want to see that you're doubled in size. But I know I won’t, because things don't thrive with me.

I look in the mirror, and I am growing older. I’m looking rather droopy, pallid and spent myself. I’ve nothing to show for my efforts after almost five years of trying. I have no advice to give, no joyous commentary to make about childbearing or child rearing — and none of my friends need it. They only want to know when I think they should sow their fava beans.

Whenever you want, within reason, I tell them. Your choice is not really a choice when you’re gardening. It will probably work out for you; it’ll probably sprout, even if it’s a bit small or leggy. If it really doesn’t work out, just try again next season. Honestly, I’d try not to think about it too much.