By Michael C. Barr
“Hope, I’d learn, has the power to induce amnesia.”
I loved this line in Michael Barr’s book, Swimming in Circles: A Baby Chase Odyssey, as I think it captures so well what keeps us going on our journeys through infertility and loss.
I was excited when I heard that the author had offered to donate a copy of his book to Exhale for review. Ever since learning about it from a fellow blogger, I have been interested in reading Barr’s memoir about trying to build a family with his wife.
This infertility memoir is one of the first, that I am aware of, to be written from the male perspective, and that intrigued me. I know how differently men and women experience and process infertility, so to have the opportunity to get an “inside look” at a man’s view was something I found fascinating.
Barr uses a lot of humor to tell their story, which I found amusing, and imagine would appeal to a lot of male readers – my own husband included. I appreciated most of his attempts at comic relief in the midst of sharing his very personal, intense and emotional experience with infertility, even referencing “Beavis and Butthead” at one point, which is something my husband would totally do. To help them to cope with their plight, Barr and his wife shared many inside jokes, and I thought this was something many couples would be able to relate to.
I liked some of the seemingly random yet entertaining antidotes he shared, such as if he could choose three places where he would happily die, that the North Folk Brewery would be among those on his list. I also loved his thousands of reasons to “eat take out” or go out for a meal with his wife, especially during difficult and uncertain times.
Barr captures well, in Swimming in Circles, how all-consuming living with infertility can be. “Every part of your life is affected by something you have no control over,” he writes. Barr also talks about how dealing with infertility can often feel surreal. His vivid descriptions of their experience with doing In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) brought back a lot of memories for me, especially his accounts of preparing the medications (such as Follistim and Repronex) before administering the injections when they were “cycling.”
Barr addresses the feelings and emotions those struggling with infertility encounter and the hard questions we ask such as, “How is this our reality?” and “What the hell have we done to deserve this?” He talks about reflecting on his life and searching for the cause of their infertility. I think this is common to question what “we did” and to search for answers. I, and surely so many others who have faced infertility and used Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) to try to conceive and sustain a pregnancy, have entertained these same thoughts.
Barr shares about the common frustration many of us experience when comparing our own situations to those of friends and family who seem to be able to conceive with ease.
Barr seems to have written the story assuming that the reader does not already have knowledge about ART, and as someone who has undergone IVF, I found some of his explanations about what is involved to be unnecessary and take away from the story. That being said, I appreciate that for a couple, especially a man, who might be earlier on in their experience with fertility treatments, this could be very helpful and eye opening as to what to expect. This book seemed to me like it would appeal to men, more than women. However, I also appreciate Barr’s intention to write something that women can read to help them “better understand (their) husband(s) as they navigate the path of the pro-creation challenged.”
There was a fascinating chapter which included Barr’s experience getting to witness his wife’s egg retrieval (ER) from the viewpoint of their embryologist, complete with audio and visual access to what was going on. This is not typical, and I was curious about how the opportunity had come about. I wondered if other patients at their fertility clinic ever got to do this. Did they know he was writing a book? Was it because of his mother-in-law’s position as a receptionist at the clinic? Regardless of how it was possible, it was an incredible behind the scenes look at the IVF process and experience! It was so interesting to have that inside scoop. After reading Barr’s account of watching his wife converse with the doctor and nurse doing her ER, it made me wonder how common it really is for the patient to talk while under anesthesia - and if I ever did?!
Though I really liked this book overall, there were a few things I didn’t love and found curious. I was disappointed to see that in some cases, what I know to be accurate medical terminology was not always used in this story, including my biggest pet peeve – stating that an embryo had been “implanted” rather than “transferred.”
I was surprised that on a few occasions Barr relayed that their Reproductive Endocrinologist had essentially promised them he would get them a baby via ART and told them during various cycles that he was “confident” or “fairly certain” it would work. I may be cynical, but I honestly didn’t think doctors were allowed to say such things, as it breeds false hope.
I also thought trying with ART and pursuing adoption at the same time wasn’t allowed, as Barr shares that he and his wife attempted towards the end of their journey through infertility. I was aware of this because we considered doing the same thing and were told by both our fertility clinic, and an adoption agency, that such “multi-tasking” wasn’t an option for us or other couples trying to build their families.
Barr’s story seemed to end abruptly with an Epilogue that was surprising to me, and I didn’t see coming. Not that their experience was that out of the ordinary, but I was perplexed as to why he shared what I considered to be such an important part of their story in such a brief and condensed manner.
Overall I found Swimming in Circles to be a nostalgic, entertaining and worthwhile read. I am pleased to know it exists as a resource for men who are dealing with infertility, as well as for those who love and want to better understand them.
**Reprinted from Exhale’s Fall/Winter 2011 Issue
Kathy Benson is Exhale’s Contributing Editor. Kathy is a Domestic Engineer with three children (two here and one in Heaven) trying to live mindfully and find joy in the journey after dealing with secondary infertility and pregnancy loss for over five years. She blogs at Bereaved and Blessed and you can follow her on Twitter @BereavedBlessed