by Amy Klein
Ballantine Books (2020); 432 pp.; $17.00 (Paperback)Buy Book
Amy Klein, just like her writing, is funny, authentic, and full of useful information. From 2013 to 2015, Klein was the wit and heart behind the taboo-busting New York Times Fertility Diary. Her work has also been featured in The Washington Post, The Forward, and Insider. In 2020, she published her first book, The Trying Game, which offers a wealth of information from the fertility trenches and is infused with (often hilarious) real talk. There’s Klein’s tongue-in-cheek fertility diet featuring only grains “eaten by twelfth-century poets.” There’s the moment in Klein’s fertility doctor’s office when she asked herself, “Should I have gotten a bikini wax?” and concluded, “Nah, if I don’t do it for my husband, the doctor can live with it.” There’s the note on how to deal with fertility-induced relationship stress where Klein asks, “If it doesn’t include drinking, pigging out, exercising, hot tubs, or sex, how can it be comforting?” (which is, let’s be honest, an excellent question.)
Klein spoke with profiles editor Brianna Avenia-Tapper over Zoom about baby envy, blaming ourselves for miscarriages, and Prince Harry. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Brianna Avenia-Tapper: What was the worst part of your fertility treatment?
Amy Klein: For me it wasn’t IVF; it was the repeat miscarriage treatment that was the worst because I had to be on very high doses of steroids. I told my doctor, “Oh my God, I want to kill my husband like once a day,” and the doc said, “Only once a day? That’s great!”
One of the things that I tell people is that this is only a finite period of your life. It’s going to end, hopefully with a baby, but you don’t have unlimited time and unlimited resources. It will have an endpoint. I read an interview once with Tyler Perry in The New Yorker. It said something like, “He lived in his car for twelve years.” Twelve years of your life is boiled down to one sentence in a profile! [News announcer voice] “Amy Klein went through four years of fertility treatment before she had her daughter”—that would be the line!—and then the article would be about something totally different. I don’t want to minimize anyone’s suffering, but it is finite and it gets smaller in hindsight. Infertility can define your life now, but it’s not going to define your life forever.
BAT: You wrote, “I had to tuck away my vision of how things are supposed to be, so I could get down to the business of making my dreams a reality.” That process, in any context, requires a lot of internal work. I have a friend who is trying to tuck away that vision right now. She recently found out she’ll have to hire a surrogate to carry her embryo. How do you deal with that sort of sudden change to your plans?
AK: The thing is that all fertility treatment starts with [tucking away your vision of how things are supposed to be]. You think getting pregnant is the easy part. You think it’s going to be one drunken night. At least if you’re straight. If you’re not straight, you know already that there are steps ahead that you might have to take. But either way, the road of infertility is paved with disappointments. It’s like you have to do IUI, or IVF, or maybe you need a surrogate, or maybe you need an egg donor, or before that you thought you were going to get ten eggs, but you are getting six. When you enter into this world, you’re like, “Okay, I’ll do IVF, but I’m going to have a baby, and carry the baby, and I’m going to have two kids and this is how it’s going to go.” But then you just have to keep adjusting your expectations. My partner, Solomon, was very good at keeping my eye on the big picture. I was very micro, and he was macro. I would get lost in how many eggs this person got, or how many cycles, or whatever, and his thing was like, “Let’s keep our eye on the big picture.” The big picture was the baby. How are we going to get the baby?
BAT: You have to keep your eye on the thing you really, truly want at the center of your dream. That’s one part of making it through?
AK: You also need to grieve for the parts you are losing. Your friend, she’s losing being pregnant. And that’s a big deal for a lot of people. I think that any person will say this, whether it comes to adoption or donor conception or surrogacy: once the baby’s in your house and you’re raising the baby, that baby is yours. It doesn’t matter how it got there. But along the way, you have to take time to grieve and honor your own feelings, and at the same time keep your eye on the big picture so you don’t get stuck and stop moving forward toward your goal. It has to be a combination.
BAT: Working with those two sometimes opposing ideas (the goal and the grieving) seems essential to so many of the hard things we do in life, as mothers and as people. I’m really curious about this idea of grieving the loss of pregnancy and birth specifically. What about carrying a pregnancy and giving birth was so attractive to you?
AK: I wasn’t one of those women who always knew she wanted to be a mom or always knew she wanted to have a baby. But I was pregnant so many times, and I liked being pregnant. Feeling that embryo growing inside of me was very magical, and the loss of that baby each time was different levels of disappointment. If I had never experienced pregnancy, I don’t know if I would have wanted it so badly. Also, carrying the pregnancy was important because I was using a donor egg, so it wasn’t my genetics. But there’s been research that shows that stem cells can pass through the mother to the baby, that carrying the pregnancy is essential to shaping the baby’s epigenetics, which is not your genes, but which genes get turned on and off like a light switch. So carrying a pregnancy can be very important.
BAT: For the future child?
AK: And for me. For women who use surrogates with their own eggs, that child has their genes. I was using a donor egg, so the baby wasn’t getting my genes, which made it more important to me that I carry the pregnancy. We’re all doing things that are not the way we pictured them, just like you having horrible pregnancies and births was not what you wanted. Welcome to motherhood, right?
BAT: It’s just one endless lesson in rolling with the punches. I think sometimes that lack of control is what provokes the “It’s all my fault” feeling you wrote about. That feeling came up a lot for me after my miscarriage, like, maybe I miscarried because I took that plane that time? How do you talk to yourself when you are having those feelings?
AK: My biggest pregnancy loss was at ten weeks. After I heard the heartbeat. I wasn’t in fertility treatment yet. It was totally unexpected. I was with an ob-gyn. I’ve now had four miscarriages, but that was the first that I knew about. Years later, I learned there was no way I would have carried a baby to term without immune treatment. But still I sometimes think about that miscarriage and say, ”Oh, I ate that old food and I got sick and that’s what caused it.” A high percentage of women think that miscarriages are their fault. I think it’s about desperately wanting it not to have happened. You’re in denial still, and you’re just wishing for things to have been different. Prince Harry said in an interview that for many years he did not believe his mother was actually dead. I think it’s really hard to realize that there’s nothing you could’ve done, so your mind is like, “What if I did this, what if I did that?” And, like Prince Harry, you just don’t want to accept that this is the case. You want to rewrite the scenario. All regret is about changing the outcome, not accepting what the outcome is.
BAT: I have another friend who was struggling to get pregnant while a woman she knew was twenty weeks along. My friend was angry and envious and she felt bad about those feelings, as though she wasn’t supposed to have them. I appreciated how open and honest you are with that emotional territory in your book. I think The Trying Game would have helped normalize the anger and envy for my friend.
AK: “Pregnancy Envy” was actually my first column in the New York Times. I didn’t pitch it as a column; I had sent in an essay and then they asked me to do a series. I was trying to get pregnant, and this woman I knew was pregnant, and she invited me to get a manicure with her so she could tell me. My husband said, “I’m happy for her,” and I said, “I’m not. Why should I be happy for her?” He said, “It doesn’t take anything away from you.” But it didn’t matter. This is a common theme I see often. “I’m not happy for my sister.” “I’m not happy for my best friend.”
I always say you gotta be phony in person and voodoo at home. I’m a very honest person, and when I was struggling with fertility, I couldn’t even get the words out: “I’m so happy for you.” So I’d say, “You must be so pleased,” or “I know you’ve been trying for a long time.” After a while, I stopped feeling bad about feeling bad about other people’s pregnancies. That’s what I want: for people to stop feeling bad about their emotions. I think you have to honor your own feelings. You don’t have to necessarily be happy for someone, but sometimes you have to act happy for someone. I think also when you get the happy news, you have to accept that not everybody is going to be happy for you. My sister was pregnant after my fourth miscarriage. She told me on the phone, which was good because I hated the in-person reveal. I said, ”That’s so great for you,” but then she started complaining to me about her symptoms and I’m thinking, I’m not so happy for you that I need to hear all this.
BAT: I’m curious if your position on envy goes beyond pregnancy. Say my friend gets a book deal, and I want to sell a book. Is it okay to be honest about my envy in that context? If it isn’t, what’s different about wanting a baby versus all the other things that we want?
AK: I think it depends on the relationship, like how honest you can be with someone. This is about allowing all women to have their feelings. The writing world is full of jealousy, but I belong to a wonderful writing group. We call it the Lucky Mothers Writing Group because at the time it was formed, everyone had a really lucky year. I had gotten an agent, someone else had gotten their book deal, and then their book was picked up for a movie deal. We all had young kids at the time. But of course, as time goes by, we’re all at different stages of our careers. In the literary world, you want to build a community of people who have been through the journey enough with you that they can be happy for you even if they’re sad for themselves, and then you can be happy for them too. So, like any person in my Lucky Mothers Writing Group, I want them to get a great deal and a great agent and I want to help them as much as possible. The long answer to your question about writers’ envy is that there’s a lot less of it in a ride-or-die group with people that you go through the ups and downs with.
BAT: You did a lot of interviews for The Trying Game, and drew on a massive body of research. Do you have tips for other writers also working with that breadth of material?
AK: Rely on your voice to carry the reader through. You’ll over-research and end up culling a lot of the research. The research should serve the story. It’s like a sex scene for fiction writers. How does the sex scene move the story forward? How does the research move the story forward?
BAT: I love that. Write research like you write a sex scene. What’s next for you?
AK: I am working on something about older motherhood. I think it’s going to be more memoir combined with cultural criticism. Like, why is George Clooney a saint for having children at 53, and I’m an old, selfish hag for having a baby at 45?