Great Aunt Margaret whispered it to me once on a summer afternoon in her apartment. She was in her early nineties by then, and had been more of a grandma to us than our “real” ones. She and Uncle Milo always hugged us, told us they loved us, kept toys at their home for us to play with, cooked turkeys, baked persimmon pudding.
“You know,” she says sipping her tea, “we tried. We tried for years,” she shrugs, “But doctors didn’t know all the stuff they do now.”
I can barely pull my eyes up to make contact with hers. I always wanted to know why she didn’t have kids, given her joy at spending time with us and with the neighborhood kids. I’d asked around the family but nobody seemed to know. Nobody had ever talked about it with her.
“Of course the problems must’ve been from his side of the family, not ours” she chuckles and I see the familiar twinkle in her eyes return.
Her confession came a decade before I hit the fertility market, but her soft words stuck with me. I was sad for my Great Aunt Margaret who had been so generous to her (grand) nephews and nieces, but couldn’t have a baby, and hadn’t adopted. I was sad that it was such a secret, something others gossiped about.
I came to understand just how profoundly silence can shape the process of trying to get pregnant. When I was facing cycle after cycle with no signs of a baby, I was living a double life: a confident writer/professor for the public, a stressed out, anxious woman in private. I was living for the next insemination, the next blood test, carefully keeping my despair to myself.
Since the publication of my memoir How to Get a Girl Pregnant, chronicling my struggles (and adventures) in fertility, women have been approaching me with their own stories. They tell me quietly, off in the corner of a room, about the boyfriend who’s not ready to start trying, or the way they feel holding a negative pregnancy test, or the miscarriage at work. The words are prefaced with “Nobody knows about this.” And I understand and reassure them that I will hold their secrets in confidence. I am honoured by their trust in me, and amazed by the possibilities of the relationship of writing/reading. It’s the reason I wrote the book. I wanted to shake the loneliness of my own quest, to connect with other people, to name the experiences and put those words out into the universe. I wanted to replace the stereotypes of (in)fertility as some type of clinical, sterile experience, with a real woman’s body, full of sex, desire, vulnerability and humour.
As a dyke I am well-versed in sexual secrets. I’ve seen every kind of closet, and the hurt and shame that often fill them. I’m suspicious of silence, and have always been hell-bent on busting it open. The doctors may or may not be able to help us get pregnant these days, but at least, if even only through the written/web page, we can be there for each other.
Karleen Pendleton Jiménez is the screenwriter of the award-winner film Tomboy, and the author for the children’s book Are You a Boy or a Girl?, a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. She is a professor of education at Trent University. Raised in LA, having lived in Berkeley and San Diego, she now makes her home in Toronto.