There are bats in the attic. From my office, where I spend most of my waking hours, I can hear them. They live just above my head. Chittering. A screech, a crinkle. I know the babies are up there, just above the far eastern corner of the ceiling, hairless and pink.
And then one appeared dead on the ground, below the vent where they enter the attic, wings dried and folded in like a sleeping vampire. Soft little body. Don’t let the dogs eat it, I told my husband, it might have rabies. He’s a good husband, the kind who will quickly deal with a thing like a dead bat or stick long needles into my stomach when he needs to. The bat’s colony in the attic is so large that the neighbors have started to gather in chairs at twilight, to watch the great migration.
My husband, J, had climbed into the attic the year before and found, spread all over the floorboards, piles of bones. Birds, not bats, dozens and dozens of skeletons with thin twig-like bones, hollow, and rounded skulls with beaks, big ones and tiny ones, too. They must’ve been trapped inside before we moved into the house and slowly died up there. So in the past, the attic was filled with birds. And now, above us all the time, bats.
Dark shadows flit past the window at dusk, a swoosh and then arc south, always south. Is there some natural instinct taking them on the same tour each night, to the same trees, hoping for flies rising above the branches, for mosquitoes further toward the creek?
A house isn’t haunted because of its bats. It’s all the unanswered longing inside.
I am trying to understand this question—what is natural? The idea has become increasingly confusing.
Consider, for example, “natural flavoring” in the grapefruit seltzers I can’t stop drinking. The grapefruit flavor does not come from a grapefruit. There are no fruit factories, squeezing the sweet citrusy nectar and mixing it with carbonated water to produce the grapefruit taste, although that is what the term “natural flavor” first suggests to me. Instead, natural flavors are compounds extracted from plant or animal sources, like vegetables, herbs, or roots, that are then processed, fermented or distilled in some way. So, nature plus humans. But the FDA hasn’t actually defined the term “natural flavor,” so companies can use it to refer to pretty much anything *originally *derived from a plant or animal way back when. And natural flavors can also include a variety of chemical additives, like preservatives.
My body will not naturally get pregnant.
Let me tell you about conception sex. It is derived from the natural act, sex, as in humans engaging their genitals in various configurations for pleasure or emotional bonding or power or kink or whatever, but it is processed, fermented and distilled in some way. So, nature plus humans. But if sexual desire, as lauded psychologist Esther Perel describes it, comes from surprise, from withholding, from distance, then the coupling required for this long-term attempt at child creation is its antithesis. Yes of course we’ve tried to make it feel spontaneous-ish, but the whole point is that it isn’t.
There’s one line of thinking that goes: since human beings are part of nature, everything they invent or create is natural.
But in the West, we mostly define nature in opposition to humans. We understand it as it’s used in nature preservation—meaning, the wild spaces we undertake to protect from ourselves. But the idea of nature beyond that, nature in and of itself, is elusive. A nd for good reason. It has meant different, sometimes conflicting things through history and in different parts of the world. In contemporary Western culture, nature usually suggests without human interference. But at this point, humans have done so much to the world, altered landscapes and manufactured chemicals and overrun habitats, that it might be impossible to identify what has escaped our influence.
I am 37. Now, and when I was 36, and 35, and 34, I have been trying to get pregnant. Before 34, I was trying not to get pregnant. For reasons I’m trying to work out, something deep in my body, something basic and ancient, is devastated by my inability to get pregnant naturally.
One of the primary problems, the doctor has told me, is my endometriosis. Endometriosis is a chronic, common disease that causes tissue that should grow inside a uterus to grow in other places in the body. One in ten women has it, though most will never know. I didn’t know until five years ago. I’d suffered from serious pain for years, enough that I’d gone to the doctor multiple times, knowing something was very wrong inside me. But, despite the astonishing commonness of endometriosis, no doctor ever suggested it as a cause. Instead, they blamed scar tissue from a surgery I had at 21 for cancer.
For ten days a month, knives rhythmically stab the lower left side of my abdomen. The pain causes me to hold my breath, to pinch myself on the legs or hands until my fingernails break skin, to lie awake at night for hours, curled into a ball and soaking my pillow with tears and snot, to widen my eyes into full moons, to swallow handfuls of ibuprofen.
There is only one intervention, a surgery wherein a doctor opens you up and scrapes the disease off all your organs. My doctor scraped the unwanted tissues off the outside of my uterus, and also my ovaries, and my intestines and everywhere else they’d grown, which was basically everywhere. They connected my organs like a spider web of human tissue and blood, binding my insides into a single mass.
There was enough tucked in places the surgeon couldn’t get to that the pain didn’t change after surgery, nor has my ability to get pregnant. Nobody knows where the disease comes from, or why some women get it. Nobody really understands why it keeps women from becoming pregnant, other than it keeps the body inflamed. Inflammation is a sign of trouble. That’s true wherever you look in the natural world. Also true: endometriosis wasn’t common in earlier generations, before we humans did so much to muck things up. Before all the pesticides and chemicals and plastics and who knows what else started causing our bodies to grow where they shouldn’t.
Or maybe endometriosis was around in earlier generations, but it didn’t cause as much trouble because women had babies far earlier. Endometriosis worsens over time, so when more women were popping out kids in their teens and twenties, it might not have affected their chance of getting pregnant. Which raises a whole other question about natural fertility. As our culture has shifted to giving women more opportunities for education and careers and travel, after the advent and global dissemination of birth control, women have begun having babies later in life, and fewer of them. Which, when it comes down to it, is technically unnatural. And for which I’m also so, so grateful.
Consider heart transplants. Infusions. Synthetic organs. Vaccinations. The collective human advancements in science and technology that interrupt nature’s course. Many of the people I love would be long dead if not for advanced medicine. Why, then, does this question of natural fertility dog me? The biological drums beat out their desires, but why can’t I think past them? We surpass our instincts all the time. Don’t fight or fuck whoever we want. Use our brains. Except this, for me. I’m stuck.
I pee on ovulation tests. I track my cycle on an app. Track my mucus, my temperature, have planned sex again and again, a year passes, then two, I stop eating dairy, gluten, sugar, quit alcohol, add vitamins, add black beans, get the surgery. Three years pass and nothing works.
I tell very few people in my life about my infertility. I’m embarrassed. I feel broken. I fear the dumb things they will say. And also, because raised on the Aristotelian three-act structure, I believe I will struggle and struggle and face the final, biggest struggle, and then succeed—a baby!
That’s how these infertility stories end. With a baby. It’s like the marriage plot, a big wedding scene at the end to reassure us that things work out, as in the novels of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Brontë sisters, as in just about every romantic comedy—You’ve Got Mail, The Wedding Singer, Mamma Mia, Runaway Bride. Love prevails with the promise of domestic bliss, and we exit with a story to hold onto against the onslaught of the unknown.
I tell few people about my infertility because a woman’s body is fraught territory, still. Because I’m afraid I’ll be blamed for what’s happening. I was too focused on my career, overly ambitious, and waited too long. Pushed the natural window of fertility. Because I drank too much. Because I did some drugs in my twenties. Because I’m too melancholy. Because I had a chance already and blew it. There are still so many people who don’t believe I should be able to make choices about what happens inside my body.
I also tell few because it can feel selfish to worry about what happens inside my body when we’re living through a global pandemic, as fires burn and floods drown and mass shootings slaughter. We’ve had an insurrection in the U.S., and wars around the world, and a massively important social justice movement for Black lives. Also because so many people don’t get to choose what happens to their bodies, like the women who’ve undergone forced sterilizations at the border. And because the Supreme Court took away women’s access to healthcare. A nd because same-sex couples, solo parents, and a wide spectrum of others in non-traditional arrangements plan their family-making outside the male-female partnership from the beginning.
One option for those who cannot conceive is, of course, in vitro fertilization. IVF.
The beginning of IVF is simple enough. Lots of lab work, the popping of pills. We waited six months to start so I could get on J’s insurance, which would pay for about half of one round. Our portion: $10k. Which is absolutely fucking wild. Wild that for the first time in either of our lives, we had that money, and wild to think how many people wouldn’t have that option.
I watched the needle slide into my arm and the blood come out so many times that the phlebotomist and I shared inside jokes. I lay back on an exam table and put my feet in stirrups, I opened my knees wide, always needing the left knee wider to allow a good view of the right side with the ultrasound stick. I checked my levels, the doctor checked my levels, the nurses checked my levels.
J gave me shots in the stomach four times a day: Gonal-F, low-dose hCG, micro-dose Lupron. He gave me shots in the butt with the HCG trigger, with progesterone in oil. I swallowed estrogen and a drug for women with breast cancer, aspirin and antibiotics and prenatal vitamins and a drug to stop me from menstruating, then one to start me up again.
But quickly things didn’t go as planned. My body didn’t respond to the drugs. Hormones didn’t spike. My body couldn’t get it together and so the single eight-week IVF cycle extended into a fifth month. More drugs, more measurements, more disappointment. The nurse spoke slowly when she had bad news. She wished us happy New Year’s, and near Valentine’s Day left Hershey’s Kisses on the exam table. She asked about our Easter plans, then wondered whether we’d take that camping trip we’d planned for Memorial Day. The avuncular doctor patted my knee, naked and spread wide in stirrups, when he was proud of my uterus. This was very rare.
Infertility is a particular kind of loneliness.
Some in the family said I was getting old and surely I’d considered freezing my eggs, and hadn’t we better get this show on the road? And so we didn’t tell many people, just a few. And the loneliness grew. And the hormones compounded.
There’s a lung disease that bats can give their human housemates. We should get rid of them. But I don’t want to. I love hearing them from my office, watching them swoop over the yard at night. I love my proximity to their wildness, to nature. To their little bat babies.
Endometriosis is not an issue anyone in my family or even close friends know how to talk about, even when I’m lying in the hospital, about to go under the knife, even when, unbidden, sobbing into the phone, I say I’m being stabbed, I feel stabbing pain ten days a month. Even when I say to them, hysterical, that I can’t live my life like this.
Hysteria came to English in the early 1600s from the Latin hystericus, or “of the womb,” which in turn came from the Greek hysterikos, meaning either “of the womb” or “suffering in the womb.” Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, one of the most commonly diagnosed disorders was female hysteria. Problems of the womb.
Hippocrates and Plato spoke of the womb, which they said wandered the female body like a lost dog, causing a wide array of mental and physical ailments. The physician Aeataeus supported this theory. The naughty uterus was usually coaxed back into position by placing good smells near the vagina and bad smells near the nose and mouth, and then causing the woman to sneeze.
Another friend tells me: it is possible your perfumes have altered your hormones and kept you infertile. Ditto your scented lotions. Coconut. Honeysuckle. A thick jasmine, greasy, from Hawaii, for special occasions. And shampoos. Messed with your estrogen. Also scented candles. Likewise any fragrances from anything at all, laundry detergent, dish soap, dryer sheets, reed diffusers, incense, sachets, carpet deodorizers, trash can liners, bathroom air fresheners, cat litter neutralizers, they’ve tricked your hormones into ruining your body.
You have plastic in your home? Sunscreen? Antibacterial soap? Non-organic textiles? They all give off endocrine disrupters, which change a body’s hormone production and cause reproductive abnormalities.
You eat a lot of tofu? Too much estrogen.
You eat a lot of beans? Those can suck out estrogen.
There’s a link between endometriosis and women with my body type, tall and lean.
There is a link between endometriosis and women who grew up eating a balanced diet with lots of vegetables. Because of the pesticides used on the vegetables, the idea goes.
The IVF clinic is called PREG. Lining the office walls, on every website, plastering each informational pamphlet we get—smiling baby photos. The Anne Geddes–style baby folded into a crocheted cabbage, wearing a purple leaf as hat. A friend said: Our babies are floating around us, little souls who’ve chosen us and are waiting until we’re ready for them to join us. You have to let the little baby soul know you’re ready. Maybe that’s the problem. It just doesn’t yet know you’re ready.
I don’t know if my mom had trouble conceiving, because she is dead. I don’t know if she ached for a child, or when, or how much. I’m not sure where her pain lived or grew, because when I was 26, eleven years ago, she had a massive stroke that took away her language and movement. And then she died. So I can neither mother, or experience being mothered any more.
The constant companion: pain. Being off birth control made it so much worse. I got a little electrocution machine called a Tens unit with two patches that I placed on my abdomen before turning on the electricity. It zapped my nerves so they couldn’t send pain signals to my brain. To get relief, I had to turn it up so high I could feel the buzz in my teeth. But I couldn’t use it whenever I might possibly be pregnant, which was fifty percent of the time. Of course pain is a natural warning system meant to keep us safe, but pain without purpose is both baffling and extraordinarily frustrating. Unless there’s a purpose to this pain. In which case, what in the hell is it?
From my desk right now, the bats above my head are squeaking, chittering. Waking up for their evening outing. Female bats practice spermatogenesis, storing sperm in their reproductive tracts through the winter. They feed the sperm, keep them healthy, and then allow them to inseminate when it’s close to spring. A recent study posited that they store the sperm from various males separately, and then choose which to inseminate themselves with, depending on the traits they want their offspring to have. A cold winter? Perhaps the sperm of a leaner mate, who won’t need quite as much food to survive. Warm air, a waft of plump bugs tumbling in? Use the sperm from a heartier male. Nature’s systems working their extraordinary magic.
Have you considered adoption?
Are you thinking about adoption?
Have you looked into adoption?
Isn’t your brother adopted—have you guys talked about adoption?
The questions are well-intentioned, I know they are. People want to help, want to fix the problem. And I wonder how much of a fucking idiot people think I am. Yes, thank you, I haven’t been able to get pregnant for three years and have never considered adoption.
We’ve considered adoption. We’ve talked about it. Of course we have.
And it’s very appealing, and also complicated. I have two brothers—one a half-brother, one adopted, and I love them completely, both equally, and do not believe family bonds are only created through blood ties. But the truth is that what I desire so badly that thinking about it makes me ache, and shake, and nearly throw up, is to see my dead mother in my child. I want her back, just a little bit. Just the eyes, maybe. Just in the way my biological child might love to draw.
The photograph is four-by-six, with a sticker that shows my name, my social security number, and my medical record ID. It was handed to me while I was inside a cold room—sixty degrees, the nurse said, as she wrapped half of me in a warmed blanket, the other half in a hospital gown. My feet in socks they made sure I was wearing. I was already up in the stirrups, my lower half naked, when the embryologist walked in and handed me the photograph. You have a great-looking embryo, she said.
Two hours before, we’d started the drive from our house in Asheville, the third time down to this specialty clinic in Greenville, once when they put me under and sliced me open to cut out the endometriosis, the second when they put me under and stuck a needle up my vagina, into my ovaries, and sucked out my eggs, and now this third time, when I stayed awake and they stuck a catheter into my uterus and dropped off the embryo.
Just one embryo survived, the embryologist says. Usually we have more to work with if the first doesn’t take, but we have just this one. She doesn’t need to remind me of the odds against us at each stage, how unlikely it is for the procedure to work. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2019 there were 330,773 assisted-reproductive-technology cycles (the predominant one being IVF), which resulted in 77,998 live births. That’s about twenty-four percent. And so far I wasn’t in the category of bodies that had responded well.
The four-by-six photograph is of the embryo, five days’ worth of accumulated cells. I put the photo on our dining room table. Then I moved it to my office. It sat on my printer, facing me at my desk. But that was too much. It went into my bedside drawer.
It wasn’t anything. It was a clump of cells.
I think about my dear friend Katie, made by two radical lesbians in San Francisco in 1983, well before IVF, when they got their gay friend to ejaculate into a turkey baster, and squirted it up Patty. T hat’s the story of it anyway, though I’ve always wondered if it was a literal turkey baster, and whether they reused it for future Thanksgivings. Even if that’s not the exact history, I’d like it to be, because being made with kitchen appliances by radical feminist lesbians in San Francisco is exactly what I wish I was part of, not this medical march through office after office covered in photographs of newborns with huge bows tied around their heads like ridiculous cartoon mice.
There were two weeks to wait now.
This was almost the ending. It took, or it didn’t.
We’d have a child, or we wouldn’t.
I couldn’t look at the photograph much, because it was the most tenuous precious terrifying holy clump of not-yet-human, of cells to which I didn’t want to say, Hi, little one, won’t you come join us, because I couldn’t, because the consequences of it then not joining felt too big.
The slats leading into the attic stay open for now. I haven’t had the heart to call the bat exterminator.
And the shots are back, into the butt each morning. We alternate sides, left, right, left, right, a constellation of red dots that build into a Milky Way on each cheek. Every morning I take a pack of cauliflower gnocchi from Trader Joe’s out of the freezer to ice my ass beforehand. The needle is very thick, two and a half inches long. What I can feel right now, because I’m sore from the frequency with which I am getting the shots, is the metal deep inside my muscle. I feel it in there. I can feel it. Metal in my body. T hat is not natural.
I pull my pants down below my butt, lie facedown on the bed. J draws up .5 ml of progesterone in oil.
I think about a friend who was told, by the Italian man she was dating, she needed to pay more attention to her tarzanelli. My what? she said. Tarzanelli—you know, little clumps of poop that stick to your butt hair, and swing like mini Tarzans.
I don’t have them, thank god, or at least my husband is smart enough not to mention it.
There are pigeons roosting under the eaves. Yes, there are bats in the attic, where there were once birds, and now also pigeons under the eaves. Nature taking over. Our house is ninety-five years old. The neighbors tell us that for as long as they’ve lived here, thirteen years on one side, seven on the other, a pigeon couple has lived between our three houses. Probably generations of pigeon couples, moving their nests after a chimney is patched or soffit closed. I can see them now, out the window, walking the steep roof of a neighbor’s house, tucking themselves into acute angles as they look for a nesting spot. They are searching because yesterday evening, when I stepped out onto the deck, my husband pointed down to a small pile of sticks on the ground below and said, Look. They’d been dropping sticks as they built their nest over the last few weeks, but this pile was much bigger.
They’re not native, he said. They’re pests. I know everyone agrees. I knew we needed to move the nest. I imagined scooping the eggs into my palm, laying them gently in a shoebox lined with ripped newspaper and hair pulled from my hairbrush. I thought about putting a hot light on them, hatching them myself. I would raise those birds and then set them free. I’d done it with duck eggs when I was eight. I became their duck mother, and they followed me in a little line around the backyard, curving right when I curved right, flapping into the kiddie pool when I stepped in.
That they would follow me in a duck line was natural—instinct. That the pigeons returned to their nesting grounds—our three roofs—to lay their eggs, also natural. Yet I was not a duck, leading the baby ducks around—I was an eight-year-old human. And the pigeons are not roosting in trees or other natural landscapes—they make their homes in the crooks of human’s houses. They’ve adapted. Humans haven’t given them much choice, if they’re to survive.
No, look closer, my husband said, pointing to the ground. I took care of it. A floor down, on the grass, to the side of the sticks, were two small broken eggs.
I cried and cried, alone in my office. Holding the shells in my hands. I won’t let him see me crying over those broken eggs. This is my body, my lonely road.
Here is where I’m supposed to write a Happy Ending. Because every single piece of writing I’ve found about infertility ends with a baby. So where is the baby? Did it work or didn’t it? Is there a baby?
Is there a baby.
I don’t know. I just feel, for now, some rumbling in my stomach from time to time, though it’s possible that’s because I ate pistachio ice cream last night and I’ve been off the dairy.
Is it natural if one is in there, or is my body’s natural state to be without? All around, life lunges forward in its inevitable circle of mating and birth and growth and aging and death—this is what nature does.
And though I am ashamed that this most basic animal function of my body, the ability to reproduce, is broken, I wouldn’t in a million, billion years think the same of a friend who was infertile. There are so many ways to make a good life, to mother, to give love. I’m limited in my thinking only when it comes to myself.
And yet, lately, when I quiet the chorus of my own dark parade of pity and punishment, I think: What is natural anymore anyway? Fuck nature.
The ducklings followed me all summer. We put different colored bands onto their ankles so we could tell them apart. My favorite was the one who, on the night they all hatched, struggled for hours to break out of his shell. Eventually he got too tired and stopped. He couldn’t seem to get free. We used tweezers to help peel off the remaining shell. We thought he’d die. But the next morning he was up cheeping with the rest of the ducks. I named him Webster. I liked to hold my two small hands together and carry him around in my palms.
Only a few photographs of that summer exist, and they were taken at dusk, so they’re very hard to make out. Dim blue light. Trees in the background, the glint of water from the kiddie pool. And the dark silhouette of a child, me, running across the grass, five small shadows racing along after her.
Tessa Fontaine is the author of The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), a New York Times Editors’ Choice and finalist for the Utah Book Award, named best book of the year by, among others, Southern Living and The New York Post. Her writing has appeared in Outside, The New York Times Book Review, AGNI, Glamour, The Believer, and elsewhere. She has a novel forthcoming from FSG in 2024. Fontaine founded Salt Lake City’s Writers in the Schools program and has taught at prisons, universities, and community literary organizations. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina. (updated 4/2023)