Guilty Pleasures and Difficult Memories

I’ll come right out and admit it: I read Carolyn Hax every single day. Before her, there were Ann Landers and her twin sister Dear Abby. Of course, Dear Abby still exists, but the pen name has passed to a new generation. It’s just not the same. I’m sorry, but there it is.

The result is that Carolyn Hax is now my everyday guilty pleasure. Her target demographic, I am told, is women under 30. I happen to be male and over 60. It matters not a whit. I’m not female, but I was once under 30. And I have interacted with women nearly every day of my life.

As a reader, I like Carolyn’s just-short-of-bitchy tone. I like how opinionated she is (especially since she is so often opinionated in the same ways I am). I like that snarky little smile in the photo that accompanies her column. I like how smart (and smartass) she is.

It’s pretty likely we wouldn’t get along very well in real life, what with trying to work the same turf in every conversation and all. But no problem. We aren’t on each other’s Christmas card lists.

This week Carolyn has turned her column over to pinch-hitting readers, and today’s first letter–on the subject of infertility–stopped me cold. Marge and I don’t dwell on it these days, but in the early years of our marriage infertility defined us. Elizabeth, our only child, was born a few days after our twelfth anniversary. She was (and is) a miracle in our lives.

Our “fertility workup” (as the doctors called it) went on for nearly eight years. The emotions that build up during such a time are intense, and their power is cumulative. In the future I may decide to tell some of the stories from those years, but my point today is that it is not only women who suffer over infertility.

Nor does it matter whose “fault” the infertility is, except to the extent that male fertility is vastly more simple than its female counterpart. With men, the little guys are alive and swimming, or they are not. The “workup” doesn’t involve much or take very long. You may not like the answer you get, but at least you have your answer quickly. Female fertility, by contrast, is a hall of mirrors hidden in a labyrinth.

Near the end of our “workup,” we learned that Marge’s sister was pregnant. We were happy for her and her husband, but we wept for ourselves. The tears came again and again, and they were always tears of grief for the children who never were.

For Marge and me, of course, the end of the workup was a successful pregnancy. Other couples are not so lucky and must learn to embrace the stark alternatives, adoption or childlessness. Our workup ended in 1979, but even now, when I talk to anyone who knows what it is, I am never far from tears and the memory of tears.

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