Wellington poet Kate Camp tried IVF after discovering she had endometriosis. Her story is not the one you’re used to hearing.
This is the final section of the essay Why Are There So Many Songs About Rainbows, from Camp’s forthcoming memoir You Probably Think This Song Is About You.
I had a good feeling about it. But then, I usually have a good feeling about everything, and a lot of bad shit happens anyway.
All these years later I can’t remember how we got the news, just that it had failed, that those microscopic specks of hope were just … nothing. You can’t even call them biowaste – they’re just cells that go nowhere, like your body is doing all the day long, creating cells and then letting them die and sloughing them off.
Just a note: never say to someone who is struggling to get pregnant, Have you thought about adoption? Yes they fucking have. It’s really not that easy. Not surprisingly, most babies given up for adoption have young parents, and they want their baby to go to a young couple who live on a farm and have horses and a trampoline, not a couple of sad old people living in the city. I knew people who’d done international adoption: a guy I worked with had twin girls from China, a friend’s sister had adopted a Romanian orphan who was violent and disturbed. I knew I wouldn’t adopt. And I knew why. It was because I didn’t want it badly enough. I didn’t want to run down every option, to travel overseas, get a surrogate, find a foster child. I didn’t want to keep doing this. I just wanted to stop.
There are two scenes in my mind of when the process ended. I can’t remember what order they came in. Paul and I are sitting at our kitchen table. It’s round, but has fold-down sides, so that it can fit into the corner, and it’s made of heavy parquet wood with a heavy pedestal base. I always hated that table. And I say to Paul something like, I think I want to stop trying. And he says he thinks the same. We’re both crying. And I say, or I think, I just can’t live with the hope anymore. Because hope has become such a burden by now. It’s crushing me.
The other scene is at Fertility Associates. When I was having a smear test one time, I told the nurse that I was doing fertility treatment there. Oh, she said, the doctor there is so handsome, how can you handle it? The doctor is handsome, and he’s kind, and he’s a good communicator, he gives you lots of information, and he doesn’t talk down to you, he doesn’t sugar-coat things. At the last meeting he’s having with us, he’s going to be giving us bad news – maybe it’s about not being able to get any viable sperm from Paul, or maybe it’s about our fertilised eggs crapping out, one by one, like soap bubbles popping. I’m in the waiting room reading a home magazine – it’s probably Your Home, which is hipper than House and Garden, and in it there’s an artwork of cut-out felt letters sewn onto a white linen cloth, all different colours of letters and it says WHY ARE THERE SO MANY SONGS ABOUT RAINBOWS. And, in what I can only describe as a small breakdown of the social contract, I tear out that page from the magazine, because I decide I want to buy an artwork like that. We used to sing “The Rainbow Connection” at school, and Kermit sang it on The Muppet Show of course, and I loved the persona of Kermit when he sang, the pathos, and those skinny arms on sticks. I buy the artwork, order it from Australia, even though it’s expensive, and I have it expensively framed, and every time I walk past it, for years, I get that song stuck in my head and I find myself mentally singing, at some random point of the day, What’s so amazing that keeps us star gazing, and I realise it’s been running round and round in my head since the morning. That doesn’t happen anymore but for years it did. Anyway, the day I see that artwork is the day of our last visit to Fertility Associates.
No one knows we’ve stopped trying. Well, people know of course, my mum and my sister know, and my dad, and my friend, and my grandparents. They all feel sorry for us. Enjoy life, my grandma got into the habit of saying to me in the last decade of her life, as an imperative, whenever I would say goodbye to her. Enjoy life. She says it now.
Most people who do IVF don’t get pregnant, but you don’t hear about that much. Every story you hear is about how awful it was, how difficult, how the embryos died and the sperm wasn’t viable and the relationship was strained and then, and then, it happened, and here they are, with their miracle baby, their miracle family. I never understood the true meaning of love until I had children. It’s something people say all the time. And I always think Yeah, fuck you too. I mean, I’m sure it’s true, but it always makes me feel bitter. I think it’s because it strikes at the real heart of my fear, my grief about not having children, that there will always be some part of life – the most important, most meaningful part – that I can never experience.
For a long time, I don’t like being around babies, except for the ones I know well. I hear about people getting pregnant and it’s upsetting, and I hate the fact that people know that – they know that I won’t want to hear it, they are protecting me, hiding the news from me, because they know I’m damaged, because I tried and failed. People mention the school holidays, and I feel stupid, because I never know when the school holidays are, am never thinking about them.
I don’t like going to places where there are too many parents, because it’s a community, a world, that I’m not part of and never will be. But when my nephew starts at a new school I go to his assembly, and I sit with the mothers and the fathers and the grandmas, and at one point I move to get a better view. I’m standing at the back, and he is anxiously looking for me in the crowd, and when he sees me he beams out a huge smile. Then they start, the little kids, and they’re singing If you ever find yourself stuck in the middle of the sea, I’ll sail the world to find you, and I’m trying so hard not to cry, because how pathetic would that be, to be not a parent crying, not a mother, but a childless aunt, like something out of a Victorian novel, crying as a class of other people’s children sing You can count on me like one two three I’ll be there.
People assume I have kids. It happens fairly often, and when I say I don’t they go into a whole routine of how strange it is, that they would never just assume that, but there was something that gave them the impression that I did, maybe it’s something I’ve said, or they’ve seen a kid’s drawing at my desk or Oh how weird I don’t know why I thought that … And if I like them, I rescue them. I’ll say something like Maybe you’ve seen me with my niece and nephew. But most of the time I just let them flounder. They’ve assumed I’ve got kids because they do, because most people do. Or maybe they assume I’ve got kids because I seem like someone who understands the true meaning of love, and they’re flustered to discover I don’t.
Hey, I think I’ve earned the right to make that joke.
People who have kids think they know what it’s like not to have kids, because they were childless once. But they don’t know. It’s different, once you know for sure, once you know you’ll never be anyone’s mother, anyone’s grandmother, anyone’s ancestor. At the most basic level, reproducing the species is the purpose of life. After my emotional grief and the sense of failure had faded, I began to experience not having children as a philosophical question. I was already an atheist, and this was like another void, another absence that threatened to suck the meaning out of life. What is the point of me, if I am not part of this primal human chain?
There isn’t an answer to that of course. Or there is an answer, which is that there’s no point to anything, no point to anyone. Our whole existence as a planet is just a highly improbable, unexpectable accident. It doesn’t mean anything. It just is.
Years go by, friends struggle, relationships and families get damaged and break up. Hey, people with kids are unhappy too, I realise. So many of them are grieving for something. They have children, but there are still things missing in their lives, holes they can’t fill, failures that only they know about. And I start to notice the things I do have, especially the silences, the long, solid silences that can last for hours, the spaciousness of the days as I live them, from the orange light coming in through the pines at dawn, to the nights as we lie in our dark grey room, listening to moreporks and the tinny voice of podcasts under our pillows. I can hear your one. Those are the things we have. Instead of children, we have space and time. And I try not to take them for granted. And now, when I see a baby, it doesn’t hurt my feelings, and I’m older now so no one says cluck cluck or anything else like that, and I’m not thinking, how pathetic, a childless woman who wants to hold a baby. I just pick it up and smell it, or wave at it, or squeeze its fat little arm. And then I walk away, without it.