May 24, 2022

Infertility in A Minor


In March of this year, I started taking piano lessons again, after a fourteen-year break.

I started the first time when I was six years old, taking lessons from our neighbor next door. After failed attempts at soccer, Highland dancing, gymnastics, French horn, and clarinet, the piano was the only thing I liked well enough to keep going with it. I really started to love it when I joined my church’s worship team in junior high, confronting challenges every week as I had to learn new songs constantly. I became an expert sight reader and could “noodle” my way through any chord progression. Throughout high school, I practiced hard and accompanied my sisters as the three of us sang together. In the early 2000s, we looked like a scene from the 1950s, singing duets and trios every chance we got. And my piano was at the center of it all.

The last time I took lessons, I was a freshman in college, exploring new possible identities, including English Major—something that would take me into my current life as a book coach, editor, and writer. I loved playing the piano, but the pressure from my university piano professor was too much, and after a disastrous recital of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor, I decided the piano was something I would always love but only wanted to do for fun. And so, as I graduated and moved around, I let it go. I didn’t have room for a piano in my tiny apartments, rented rooms, and studios in California. And I never liked playing an electric keyboard, so for ten years I only played when I went home to visit my parents. I pursued my dream of a career in publishing, became a successful editor, and married my husband.

Then, four years ago, we started thinking about building our family. I sold my wedding dress for $500 and bought myself a piano again. I envisioned our family like my own—with a piano firmly at the center. I saw my future self playing my babies lullabies and all of us singing Christmas carols together as the kids grew older. There was something symbolic about trading my wedding dress for a piano that felt right: Why keep a memento in the closet to wither and decay, when I could buy something that would help us create new memories? I saw all my favorite melodies like stitching, weaving our family together, binding us close.

We moved to Chattanooga and began trying for kids. After a year of trying, we finally got pregnant—only to have our hearts broken at week 12 when we learned our baby’s heartbeat was gone. After two more early miscarriages and three failed IUIs, we started IVF treatments. Throughout this time, I only dabbled on the piano, deferring my dreams until that day when we finally got to bring a baby home.

When our second IVF transfer failed in November 2021, it shook us to the core. We decided to take a break from treatments for the holidays—and then extended that break a few more months, because why not. The shots, the hormones, the emotional rollercoaster; it’s all a lot. And I finally started asking myself: What if a baby never happens? What if all of this doesn’t work out? It was a dark winter, usually my favorite time of year, sitting with the thought that maybe this is all there is. This life, right now. Our big, empty house. My piano sitting patiently, waiting for me to come back.

This is what infertility does—it takes away the better, future dream version of you, and forces you to look at yourself square in the mirror, saying, This is all you get. This, right here, right now. You already are who you will be.

In truth, all of us face this same reality. But most of us get to distract ourselves with our kids growing up, living out vicarious dreams through them. Infertility takes that luxury away, smacking you in the face with the truth.

I often think of infertility like you’re standing on one side of a locked door, shouting, begging, pounding to be let through. You can hear everyone else, all of the mothers and fathers on the other side with their kids. You know it’s not all happy rainbows and Christmas carols, but a lot of it is. The problem is, this door does not budge. No matter how hard you try, you cannot pry it open. I sat on the ground in front of it, crying for months.

And when I was done, I finally looked around and got curious about the other doors that might actually be open to me. I started asking: Who will I be, if I don’t get to be who I always thought I would be?

For the first time, I realized I do have other options. Perhaps lullabies and Christmas carols by the fire aren’t my future—but there is Chopin. And Liszt. And Mozart.

I started taking lessons again in March 2022, and it was like breathing again. Nevermind that I’m 32, or that my teacher is younger than me, or that I couldn’t even get my scales right the first few weeks. Or that I was learning Hanon’s exercises for the first time, when most pianists master them in high school. I cleared out the dusty cobwebs in my mind and woke up my fingers to the movements I used to love so much. Pretty soon, I was practicing an hour or more per day again. My teacher asked me if I would play at her recital in May—and I optimistically said yes.

In April, we decided we were ready for our third IVF transfer. I started acupuncture, located conveniently around the corner from my piano lessons, and so I found a rhythm each week, doing something for IVF, and then something for me. I decided that IVF, as restrictive and all-encompassing as it is, wouldn’t completely rule my life this time around. I traveled home to California for my sister’s graduation and my mom’s retirement, carrying a bag of needles and drugs through security and even taking my shots in the airport bathroom when I needed to. Trust me, that’s a big accomplishment. At home, my sisters and I sang around the piano one night, just like we used to.

On May 11, back in Chattanooga, we transferred a little girl embryo, whom the embryologist said was absolutely perfect. She made it through the thaw and her cells were expanding and forming exactly as they should be. I did acupuncture before and after the transfer. I meditated, seeing our little embryo as a glowing orb, nestling into my uterus and filling it with light. I felt silly listening to the recorded meditations, but I did it anyway—because it couldn’t possibly hurt, and maybe it could help. For the next eleven days, preparing for the recital was a welcome distraction from waiting to find out if our baby had made it.

My teacher chose Chopin’s Nocturne No. 2 in E-flat Major for me, and I had already been practicing it for weeks. The melody is light, soft, tender. I love this song. And yet, as we got closer to finding out the results of our transfer—and the recital loomed large—I regretted agreeing to playing. Memories of my last recital, all those years ago, haunted me. I worried that if the news was bad, it would completely shatter my confidence. I would have to pull out of the recital.

Last Friday, a few days before the recital, I took my blood test, then went to acupuncture and my piano lesson. I had barely slept the night before. My teacher and I went to the recital room so I could practice on the piano there—and I played through Chopin’s Nocturne miserably. The piano’s keys were weighted heavier than I was used to, the damper pedal dramatically shifted the entire keyboard when I pressed it, and even the height of the music stand was different. It was one of my worst run throughs. “That’s it,” I thought, all of my fears confirmed. “If today gives me bad news, I can’t do this.”

When I got out of my lesson, I saw a text from the doctor’s office—the results were in. I had asked them not to send the results until the end of the day, so that I could get through everything else I needed to first. My heart jumped, thinking that maybe if they sent the results early despite my request—maybe it was good news? Still, Josh and I decided to wait until we were done with work, just in case.

Somehow, I made it through the rest of the day, leading a group coaching session, finishing up a book plan, and meeting with prospective clients. At 5:00, Josh and I met in the kitchen, logged into the fertility clinic’s portal, and opened our inbox. I couldn’t stand to look at the message. I made Josh read it first.

After a long second of unbearable waiting, he whispered, “No.”

“No? Are you serious?” I asked, looking for myself. There was no way. I thought for sure this time would be it. We did everything—acupuncture, meditation, healthy eating, little stress. I had seen that baby girl in my mind’s eye every day for the past 11 days. I felt her, I knew her. But no—there were the results. Not pregnant. She wasn’t there. Maybe she never was.

Everything in me deflated. I almost texted my piano teacher right then, but I have one rule for times of emotional distress: No sudden movements. No big decisions get made. I held off, and instead we went out to dinner, where I consumed a large glass of my favorite cabernet.

This is the other truth you can’t ignore when you’re going through infertility: Life keeps going on.

The next day, my parents arrived to visit, which helped ease the sadness. I still debated whether I should pull out of the recital, but I had already told my parents about it, and now it felt too late. I practiced more, putting aside my grief, reminding myself that I am more than just infertility.

And then Monday, the day of the recital. It poured rain all day, all of us stuck inside as my stomach churned. I could barely eat. I convinced myself this was a horrible mistake—what had I been thinking? I tried on at least three different outfits. My hair kept falling out of its updo. I snapped at Josh when he teased me. And yet, I knew that there was a part of me inside that still wanted to play at this recital. I needed to do it for me, to live into this part of my identity—this part of me that is unstoppable, the part that loves playing the piano no matter what happens in my life.

We went. The room was filled with parents and grandparents, younger siblings and friends. Josh and I blended in with the parents. I had thought that at 32, I would be in their shoes, attending my child’s piano recital, not my own. My teacher had placed me last in the program, which meant that for more than an hour we listened to renditions of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and “Old MacDonald” and then the easier Bachs and Beethovens, sisters and brothers taking turns performing, and even a father/son violin duo. As each child played, I remembered myself at that age. I have played each of those recitals before. And God bless my parents—they’ve been at every single one of them, too. Including this one, fourteen years later.

The young man before me finished his piece, and Josh squeezed my hand. As the applause died down, I walked up to the piano, set my music down, and adjusted myself on the bench. I had both feared and craved this moment for so long. I cleared my mind, and played. It wasn’t perfect, as you can see in the video below, but it was good enough. More importantly, it was exactly what I needed it to be: a declaration, to the world, to myself, that I am enough. This is all I am. I am already all I ever will be, and I am enough.

Infertility is its own melody. It is slow and sad—certainly in a minor key, with a looping rhythm that at its worst can feel slogging, languishing, largo. At times it feels smorzando, fading, dying away. But as any musician knows, it is in the holding back, the restraint, the discipline of softness, that you find true control and power. I remind myself that even minor songs often resolve in major keys, a technique known as the Picardy third. I’m finding my way there now, playing my melody with as much grace and articulation as I know how.

I looked at the other pianists there that day and I saw my past. I hope they looked at me and saw their future.

Because this, right here, right now, is a future worth having.