It was once a word with power, before hokey top hats and scarves stuffed up sleeves: write it on papyrus eleven times, dropping the final letter on each line. Whatever evil has befallen you will diminish with the word.
On screen our names are not our own: Hope82, Wannabemama. Yet these handles grasp our true selves, as our longing has become our identities. We are anonymous but naked as the animals we are, driven by our most primitive instincts.
We are TTC: trying to conceive. I log in when I should be working, to share with strangers how badly I want a child. And to read how badly they do, too. To read that they are also infected by that single force, which supplants work, relationships, the dinner plate, the steering wheel.
We share the minute details of our efforts, cycle days and basal body temperatures, everything written in a kind of shorthand, as if we have something else to do besides wait, and wait. BFN for “big fat negative” on a home pregnancy test; “DH” for “dear husband”; 2WW for “two week wait,” that agonizing time between ovulation and finding out if you are, finally, pregnant. Together these abbreviations become a dialect of their own. A kind of spell. To take the comfort here I have to learn the tongue, to be one of them I have to use it.
The source of power is not in the meaning of the words but in their utterance. In antiquity, vowels representing planets and consonants representing elements were combined to make voces magicae, nonsense syllables rhymed and metred, sometimes mixed with real words.
The earliest reference to “abracadabra” appears in a text by Serenus Sammonicus, physician to the Roman emperor Caracalla. To treat colds and fevers, Sammonicus prescribed wearing an amulet bearing abracadabra in its diminishing form for ten days. On the morning of the eleventh day, the patient was to rise before dawn and throw the amulet in a river.
I came to the site looking for a community of women, and reassurance that I am not alone. Nobody else can understand that you can grieve for something you never had. Nobody else knows that a Nerf dart can pierce the skin, the fear of running boots with flashing lights, the assault of onesies on a rack paired with little hats. That a child, small as a loaf of bread, could deliver blows while sleeping in her stroller.
I had always known I wanted to be a mother. But I’m a feminist; I don’t believe that women are defined by motherhood, that we need to reproduce to be fulfilled, to be complete. So I was not prepared for the click of my biology, for my want to become need, as physical as thirst. My body has betrayed me twice: by not performing this basic function, and by registering this failure not in my intelligent mind, but in my throat, my gut, my tissues.
In the thread for women over thirty who have been trying long-term, Sunshine has been here the longest. She’s had a miscarriage already. I like her handle—its quiet hopefulness in the midst of all the loss and uncertainty. So I am happy for her when she comes on to share that she has finally conceived again. This is what I need, the happy-ending story of someone like me. She has just taken a little longer; maybe I am just taking a little longer.
It’s nice to be happy for Sunshine. I avoid the real women I know who are pregnant. Six of them, right now. Before I was “trying” I had heard of this, how infertile women could be consumed by envy—sneering at strangers, turning on their loved ones—and with my rational, stable mind I had judged them. Now I am one of them. When I see pregnant women I am curt, quietly excusing myself to go to a bathroom I don’t need, unable to summon a smile or friendly chitchat. It isn’t really envy. Their joy is a kind of violence.
I want them to be insensitive to me, cruel, even, so that I will have an excuse for the anger I feel.
I want these mothers to know my pain.
It’s nice to be happy for Sunshine.
I congratulate Sunshine with as much sincerity as I could have for a stranger. Another woman shares a little emoji with a broom and pointy hat: she is not pregnant this month, her “witch” has come.
Alfalfa, nettle leaf. Vitamin B6. Green tea and pineapple core. Bhramari breath, feet up the wall, maca root and pomegranates. Drink water lukewarm, menstrual cups to hold the sperm in. Visualize the seed, the egg, see your baby. Have you tried? Worked for me. Made the difference. Couldn’t hurt.
Charms often used homeopathic compounds—invented words that contained the name of the disease the spell sought to cure. Their elusive meanings were proof of their power, the supremacy of the one who wielded them.
Hocus Pocus is said to have started as a corruption of the Latin sacramental phrase, Hoc est enim meum, “this is my body,” used by jugglers to add gravitas to their illusions.
Abracadabra may derive from Hebrew, evra k’divra—I create as I speak. It may be biblical Aramaic, avra gavra—I will create man.
I want understanding, commiseration. Wannabemama says my luteal phase, the time between ovulation and the start of menstruation, is too short. And maybe I want that too—maybe on some level I believe that these faceless avatars might give me the answers I haven’t found in my doctor’s office, that this community of women could share a collective wisdom and find the secret potion.
Any given month, a woman who ovulates normally is fertile for less than 24 hours. In that short window one mobile sperm must survive the acid of the vagina, grope towards the egg and burrow in. One hundred million sperm start that journey, and only about a hundred make it even close to the egg. That’s if the man’s sperm is healthy. If the egg is fertilized, it must find a spot in the uterus’s lining to implant, free of cysts or scars, while hormones prompt the lining to grow thick for the zygote to nestle in. Conception seems like a kind of magic, an unlikely, hopeful wish.
Up to 16% of heterosexual couples experience infertility, depending on how the term is defined. Research suggests that these rates are increasing, possibly due to women delaying childbearing for higher education or to establish a career. As I have done.
Hope82 might be ovulating, and goes into graphic detail about the consistency of her cervical mucous (CM). Though she offers the warning, it is not too much information (TMI). This is the substance we are all obsessed with, another gauge for when we are most fertile. Stretchy and clear like egg whites, we pull it, analyze it, judge it.
Yet in the next sentence she calls her period “AF” for “Aunt Flo,” and sex “BD” for “bed dancing.” I don’t want euphemisms. I don’t want to dress my excretions in little bows, giggle at my sex, put sparkles on my pain. I can’t offer someone “baby dust,” the fairy emoji. I don’t want to be made into the child I am missing.
Yet I keep coming back to the site, with its rocking bed emojis and the women whose pets are “fur babies.” It’s a way of taking my infertility out of my self, making it a thing to read and say and do, instead of a state of being.
The sidebars rotate ads for books and teas, acupuncture to rid yourself of toxins, hypnosis programs to remove your deep psychological barriers. I am tempted to click even through my skepticism, my offence. Could it be that my body is toxic, that I need to just “take charge” of my fertility, that my sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are misaligned, that I have a mental clog, that I really don’t want it enough?
Sunshine lost the pregnancy. She just posted—she had been spotting, her doctor has now confirmed it. She reached out to us across cyberspace, grieving—not just the loss of this child but what seems like the loss of her motherhood. I am heartbroken for her. And I am terrified; as I could see in her my own future good fortune, I can see in her my own future losses. I muddle together a response, something awkward and inadequate, but sincere. We are strangers, but I’m here.
A few hours later I am back, scrolling quickly through the posts, looking for the comfort of a shared grief. The other women have offered her emoji hugs, little hearts and perfect blue teardrops. They’ve said oh no, they’ve said I’m sorry. And on the same line they’ve said that they are on day 3 of their 2WW, and felt a little twinge; they’ve posted pictures of their temperature charts, they’ve said that they are ovulating so tonight’s the night for some BD.
I log off, I close my computer. This is not a place for comfort. This is narcissism dressed up like a community. In our quest to become mothers we have lost ourselves as caregivers. In our focus on our biology we have forgotten our humanity.
Maybe I was naïve to think we could find care on a computer. This is how the site is built, with clickbait and cartoon avatars, dancing storks and flashing hearts, shaping how we write, and connect. Everything telling us that women lack the maturity and intelligence to discuss our own reproduction and infertility frankly, critically. Everything telling us that we are to blame, but the fixes are quick, and for sale. This is sleight of hand, flashes of silk to make us lose sight of what’s real.
I open my computer again, this time to a blank document, and I begin to write. The words I am creating are not a child, they do not satisfy my longing, or even bring me back to the world. But they are beginning to ease the grip of pseudoscience and superstition, that constant worry and hope that my infertility is in my power to change. They are the words I have been yearning to read, the long ones, the phrases, the ones that fill my mouth with flavours sharp and familiar. The ones I know to be true. A new incantation: this is beyond our control. I’m here, I hear you. I know you.
The origin of the word “spell,” in both senses, is Germanic—a tale, a story, a history. Here is my tale, that its power over me may diminish with each letter. Here is my story, that it may be read, and recognized. Here is my history, that it may heal.
© Jennifer Bowering Delisle
[This piece was selected by Valerie Waterhouse. Read Jennifer’s interview]