In 2015, I was in a dark place. My husband and I had been trying to get pregnant for three years and with, age 40 looming on the horizon, every passing day marked a diminishing chance of success. After meeting with a reproductive endocrinologist, we began intrauterine inseminations (IUI), which, when you add up all the blood tests, oral hormones, injectable hormones, sperm samples and ultrasounds, was no walk in the park — especially when you consider that I underwent three IUIs altogether.
Thankfully, my third IUI took.
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Someone asked me not long ago who I had in my support network during this time, and it wound up being a pretty triggering question. Revisiting that period of my life, I realized I never unpacked the emotional turmoil I went through. Sure, there was my husband, but he was dealing with his own issues within this agonizing process. My mother, while compassionate, had her last child at age 32; the word “infertility” was never even a blip on her radar. The truth is, I was alone on this journey, maintaining an outwardly stoic attitude at friends’ baby showers while crying on the inside.
But in the time between my own infertility experience and now, the internet has exploded with podcasts, snarky Instagram feeds, blogs, fertility-grant organizations and fertility-mentor services, all giving voice to the previously silent.
Even though #infertility has over a million posts on Instagram, it wasn’t so long ago that one’s inability to get pregnant was a secret shame — and for many, still is. But now, with one in eight couples affected by infertility in the U.S., infertility-related content is a fully-fledged brand that helps people find a community of supportive individuals where they can share their stories – and maybe even find the humor in what seems like an interminable battle against one’s body. “Over the past four years, social media infertility communities have just boomed,” says Karen Jeffries, a school teacher based in White Plains, New York, and the creator of @hilariously_infertile. “You always think that you’re going through something alone, because no one talks about it, but if you find a whole group of tens of thousands of people who are talking about it, then you don’t feel like you’re alone.”
No one is denying that infertility is a heavy subject — but, at the same time, it’s clear that the world was crying out for an irreverent take on it by the time Jeffries — who has two daughters, one conceived via IUI, another through in-vitro fertilization (IVF) — wrote her book, Hilariously Infertile: One Woman’s Inappropriate Quest to Help Women Laugh Through Infertility. To get the word out about Hilariously Infertile, Jeffries, 38, started a corresponding social media platform in 2016. Her @hilariously_Infertile Instagram now boasts more than 72,000 followers, and its rapid growth helped Jeffries get her book published in 2018.
A good portion of @hilariously_infertile are memes about the raw, unvarnished reality that is infertility. “When I did get on social media, it was a lot of sadness, and hope and rainbows, and stuff like that,” says Jeffries of her brand’s tone. “Okay, that’s great, but there are also things that we can lighten up about.” Sure, progesterone suppositories don’t exactly scream “funny,” but within the context of an infertility community, those kinds of jokes can be ironically therapeutic. Jeffries credits celebrities, like Chrissy Teigen, Anne Hathaway and Michelle Obama for giving way to a more general openness on the topic, but her brand is proof positive that gallows humor works too: “People have spoken to me about how they were sad and crying and just so negative — and they found my content and reading my stuff has prompted them to be more open about it with their families and their loved ones.”
What’s important to Jeffries, regardless of the method, is that those dealing with infertility find a way to open up about their struggles. “What breaks my heart is knowing that there are these families who don’t know what’s going on in each other’s lives because they’re going through this and they don’t want to talk about it,” she says.
Another woman who is helping to break down these barriers is Ali Prato, 46, a journalist from Brooklyn, New York, and the host of Infertile AF – a podcast that literally has its guests providing candid, first-person stories about their infertility journey. The weekly show, which began in March 2019, already has over 66 episodes and 170,000 unique global downloads, and has welcomed familiar faces like Racing Wives star and infertility advocate Samantha Busch, and The Hills’ Whitney Port. “I think that we do a disservice when we hide in the shadows and don’t talk about this stuff,” says Prato, whose son was conceived in 2015 via IVF.
“Even though I had wonderful friends and family, I felt so alone,” says Prato of her own infertility story (her first child, a daughter, was conceived without issue; it was Prato’s experience with secondary infertility that was the impetus for Infertile AF). “Unless you’ve gone through it, you can’t exactly relate. I want everybody that’s going through this to be able to find somebody that they’re like, ‘Oh! [He or] she went through that too!’”
An ‘oasis in a desert’
It’s that tight sense of community that makes infertility-related content such an oasis in a desert of internet trolls. “Infertility, if that’s what you’re suffering from, it’s a disease – something is wrong with your body,” says Prato, who also runs Infertile AF’s Instagram (@infertileafstories), which as she says, has “snowballed” into its own support network. “I always call [the infertility community] the worst club with the best members,” she says. Jeffries echoes that sentiment: “It is a very positive community. Very seldom do I have to tell people in my comments to chill out. They don’t typically go after each other. So I don’t see a lot of the negative things that people hear about on social media.”
Brianna Rose Moody, a 22-year-old mother and endometriosis warrior from Christchurch, New Zealand, credits infertility-related content with “showing me what a massive community of women there is fighting every day to live positive lives regardless of this hell we have faced and continue to experience.” Moody, who communicated with SheKnows via her Instagram handle @breeandeli, says that “the biggest thing [infertility content] taught me was my strength. That my strength is like a flame, often burning small, but once life is breathed into it, it can roar.”
“The people who are willing to talk about it want help for themselves,” says Prato, “but also to help other people. Every single person I’ve interviewed has said to me, unprompted, ‘I hope this story will help somebody who’s listening.’ Everyone’s coming at it from a very genuine place.”
As if dealing with infertility wasn’t difficult enough, the coronavirus pandemic has made things far worse, especially for those who were forced to stop treatment prematurely, making these communities more crucial than ever. “Having infertility be placed into the elective surgery category of when things were shutting down,” observes Jeffries, “I understand why they did it – for the safety reasons. But at the same time, no one is ‘electing’ to be infertile. I know I didn’t ‘elect’ to have PCOS. Someone doesn’t ‘elect’ to have endometriosis. So that was a blow.”
“One of the worst parts about infertility is the waiting,” says Prato. “And the unknown. And the lack of control. Those three things are so hard, and on any given day, that sucks. Then add this pandemic in the midst of it? A lot of clinics have closed and halted cycles and haven’t taken on new patients, and it’s just adding insult to injury. The timing couldn’t be worse.”
While there is no shortage of infertility-related content to explore – Jeffries cites @pregnantish, @samanthabusch, @expectinganything and @robynbirkin as just a few of her favorite non-Hilariously Infertile Instagram handles – Prato’s latest project could mark a turning point in shattering the infertility stigma for good.
Prato and her business partner Blair Nelson –— who runs her own infertility-related brand, Fab Fertility — are the co-founders of Fertility Rally. Initially, it started out as a three-day event scheduled for October 23-25, 2020 in Brooklyn, featuring Jeffries and Busch, among others, as guest speakers. However, due to COVID-19, Nelson and Prato have been forced to put the planning on hold for the time being; Prato says they’re hoping it can still be a live event, but that remains to be seen.
The silver lining in all of this has been Prato and Nelson hit on a new idea for Fertility Rally while self-isolating: “We started doing these virtual happy hours,” explains Prato, “where we were like, ‘Let’s just do a fun support group!’” The success of these happy hours made them realize they were onto something, so Prato and Nelson created an all-inclusive community called the Fertility Rally membership —which launched June 1 and already has 80 members.
Think of it as the go-to place for all things infertility, where members can make new connections – Fertility Rally holds two-to-three virtual events a week – and obtain a vast array of resources. “We’re gonna have tons of curated information,” says Prato, including a video library that offers helpful tips like, for those undergoing IVF, “How to give yourself a shot in the stomach” or “Here’s what you need to know about your trigger shot.” There will be celebrity content and bonus podcasts as well. As Prato succinctly puts it: “No more Google rabbit hole.”
Members will also be able to use filters on the site to connect with other like-minded people. “You can type in ‘I want a Brooklyn mom who’s been through [infertility] and is on the other side, but still has PTSD,’” says Prato. “You can link up with people and form subgroups – or get together to have coffee.”
Thanks to women like Jeffries and Prato, there is no longer a reason for anyone to feel alone in their infertility struggle: “Nobody wants to be in this club,” says Prato, “but, there’s really good people here, and everybody’s willing to help each other out.”
“You’re stronger than your infertility,” assures Jeffries.
A version of this story was published June 2020.
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