No amount of Spanx or tailoring would alter the fact that at age 43, all dressed-up in a hotel room for my 25th high school reunion, I looked slightly pregnant. It struck me as a strange irony. After years of struggling to conceive, after a round of IVF and a grueling twin pregnancy, I now appeared to be perpetually in the final stage of the first trimester -- not huge, like I'd been with twins, but "showing."
As I pondered my middle age outline in the mirror, I decided to take steps. I shed my black slacks, kicked off the chunky heels, and put on my comfy jeans and flip-flops. I'd spend the weekend dressed as myself. Then, I gave up on the full-length mirror and found a better, broader one, across the room, with softer lighting. This is what middle age should be about: finding a kinder mirror.
Five years earlier, I'd skipped my 20th high school reunion, precisely because I couldn't find this peace with myself and who I was in that moment. Three years of infertility had ground me down. I pictured a get together as an endless confrontation with iPhone photos of sticky-faced babies. I dreaded how people would ramble about their progeny, but even more so, I cringed at the thought of the inevitable question, "Are you having kids?"
In this imagined scenario, I had neither humor nor alcohol at my disposal -- infertility had restricted my access to both. I'd either have to lie outright, saying no, we weren't interested in children, or lie halfway, chirping that we were "trying," while acting as if I felt okay. This second option seemed even more distasteful than the first. I've always been one to suddenly cry, and why fly across the country to be upset about infertility when I could do so in the privacy of my own home?
In that swirl of all-consuming distress, I ended up missing something I might have otherwise enjoyed. I knew it even then, but felt helplessly stuck.
About a year later, after birthing my hard-won twins, I began to write about the long slog of high-tech conception. For me the experience lingered even into motherhood, and still does. Two women from my high school emailed me to say they'd read my stories and knew exactly what I meant. Suddenly, after decades of no contact, we were pouring out shared infertility tales. Somehow, these women brought me back into the fold, offering me the reflection that helped move me forward.
So, for the next big reunion, fortified by cozy clothes, I headed out into a weekend of watermelon margaritas, Thai food, eighties dance music, and a long trek to and from the all-night diner where the wide-awake and inebriated can get a grilled cheese and a side-blob of mayo at 3:00 a.m. I caught up with old friends, and made new friends among people I had known, but hadn't known well.
Through each evening and afternoon, more than a dozen people, men and women both, confided in me their own odysseys through infertility -- their many IVFs, their hopes for more children, and the status of their embryos on ice. I heard their diagnoses, their lack of diagnoses, and what they'd done or still planned to do. I listened to their aches and aspirations.
In fact, maybe because I've chosen to write about my own angstful time in the mill of modern medical babymaking, I heard more about people's fertility ordeals -- past, present and future -- than I did about my peers' other children. I felt immensely humbled. I am grateful to receive these confidences, and hold them as tenderly as I would an actual infant. I know how saddening it is to feel that you are the only one walking around with that hurt, the way it seems everyone else is simply planning a September birth and so having wild sex nine months prior, while you are shooting up hormones and racking up debt.
"You will appreciate your kids that much more," I told one dad, who'd finally had a baby after many years.
I realized part of what's so fulfilling about old friends is the closeness that comes from truly witnessing one another's lives over time. It's not the curated moments shared on Facebook that build up bonds, but the way that people go on loving you in the midst of sorrows and silences in between.
By the end of the official class gathering, after several plastic cups of pinot noir and to the backdrop of a blast of Tone Loc and MC Hammer, one of the women who'd helped draw me back to my hometown took me aside.
"Promise you'll write something about this reunion," she asked me.
"I promise," I said, then babbled back about how happy I felt to be reconnected. Tears burbled up in my eyes, and I swiped at them with my wrists.
"I know you're crying because you're happy, but it looks pretty bad," she said, half teasing, giving me a hug. This friend happens to be an FBI agent, and probably doesn't have as much experience with public weeping as I do.
"Yeah," I said, laughing too, though I really didn't care. Even now, years into motherhood, I'm aware of how infertility has changed me. It's not just my midsection that's been altered.
I felt deeply "seen," but even more importantly, I see. It's not enough to find that kinder mirror. I could be that kinder mirror.