The first time I stumbled across infertility humor, I was mortified – for about two seconds. Then I couldn’t stop laughing.
I was reading an essay by Wendy Miller on FreshYarn.com, where she poked fun of – I’m afraid to say it aloud, so I’ll whisper – miscarriage. All three of them. Another essay on the site, this one by Dani Klein Modisett, described the pain of an acupuncture needle that a Chinese guy stuck in her foot to help her conceive. As I held my ribs in fits of giggles at Modisett’s description of her messed up Chi, I realized how good it felt to laugh.
Infertility is brutal. For four years I visited doctors, blood labs, mind/body practitioners and even a psychiatrist. They gave me pills, shots, disgusting goopy herbs and plenty of advice to fix my own messed up Chi. We had countless conversations about my uterus – depressing ones. I never once cracked a smile. Later I wondered: What if I’d discovered Miller and Modisett’s stories sooner? Could I have been laughing all along? At least a little?
“The definition of comedy is tragedy plus time, so it’s hard to laugh when you’re in the thick of infertility,” said Modisett, whose anthology, Afterbirth: Stories You Won’t Read in Parenting Magazines, shares more humor tales, including a story from a woman who gorges on a gingerbread house after reading a news article on diet and fertility. Still, Modisett is naturally drawn to dark humor, and said she wouldn’t have survived in-vitro fertilization treatments without it.
Miller said the same thing about her recurring miscarriages – or, for that matter, any of life’s big dilemmas. “I turn to humor for the simple reason that it’s more fun to laugh than cry.” When her grandmother died, she tried to soothe her own mother with jokes: “I know you’re upset, but I think it’s important we focus on the positive. We never have to eat Gramma’s brisket again.” Now, 17 years later, Miller’s mom has no idea who sent flowers and who sent fruit baskets, but she still thanks her daughter for making her laugh during a difficult time. “It may seem out of place during a crisis, but laughter, as always, is the best medicine.” During her miscarriages, Miller focused on the absurdity of her situation. “I started counting how many people saw my vagina in a one week period. A lot.”
Likewise, Modisett, who attended a support group through RESOLVE, a national infertility association, said she shared how she used to be terrified of needles but reached the point where she could eat an apple salad at a restaurant, swing by its bathroom and give herself hormone injections without blinking. “I’m glad I never got into heroin,” she told her support group. “Clearly I could have been good at it.” The members welcomed her comic relief. “Everyone was trying hard to be polite,” she recalled. “But infertility is not a polite experience. The feelings involved are so big – to a cartoon-like degree – and once you honor them, you can gain perspective and find the humor.”
Jane Castanias, a RESOLVE support group leader in Washington, D.C., agrees. She said humor helped her in three ways after her donor egg procedure failed. First, she noticed she would tend to lose control of her emotions during baby-focused activities, such as the bris of her best friend’s twin sons (Castanias had started trying to get pregnant before her friend). During those moments, she would silently recite a routine from Ron White’s Blue Collar Comedy Tour. “It’s irreverent to think about a drunk guy being thrown out of a bar during a religious occasion,” she said.
She also found humor to be a positive form of venting. When she led support groups that spiraled into the gloomy, self-destructive mode of my-life-is-awful-and-I’m-a-failure, she would ask each person to share the stupidest thing someone had said to her about her infertility. It lightened the mood.
Finally, Castanias would use humor as an ice-breaker if she wanted to discuss infertility with a friend or family member. “Bringing up infertility in a conversation is like telling people you’re sick or dying – it’s awkward.” She would make a crack first, so people wouldn’t freak out. Her favorite joke? Q: How many infertility patients does it take to screw in a light bulb? A: Screw in a light bulb:hmm do you think that would work?
If that didn’t make you laugh, don’t fret. I had to read it six times before I got it. The good news is there are many types of humor – dry, dark, silly, smart, crass and offbeat, to name a few – and Modisett suggests experimenting. “It’s like ethnic food. Sample different varieties until you find what you like.”
Personally, I’ve always admired clever cartoons, so I began scrolling The New Yorker‘s online cartoon bank. The medical and fertility-specific topics touched my funny bone. Before long, I expanded my search. I now have an entire infertility cartoon collection. I pinned a couple on the bulletin board above my desk, but I also appreciate my doctor’s method: He sticks them on the ceiling above his exam table. One of my favorites (on my bulletin board): A picture of a clown on the phone asking, “What’s the next best medicine?”
Kate Marosek, an infertility therapist, says infertility is such a life-altering diagnosis that it can easily consume people. “Women become obsessed with their cycles, periods and the drugs they’re taking. Most do get mildly depressed,” she said. If you are depressed, it’s not that you won’t get pregnant – women get pregnant in war zones – but according to Marosek, how women manage their lives day-to-day can help minimize the emotional toll. To prevent infertility from taking over, Marosek recommends limiting conversations on the topic with your partner to two times per week. “Discuss where you are with your cycle. Cry and let your hair down. Then, outside of those times, make sure to date and have fun. Laughter weaves into that.”