*Author's note: I've struggled with this memoir for two weeks, particularly after Rachel Cusk's poor NYT book review. My goal was to write a honest review that couples my interpretation of the emotions from going through treatment, which Julia Leigh's story brought to the surface. So in addition to my words, I'm including music in this review. A soundtrack that I've been playing over and over as I've been reflecting on this story. This interpretation is my own with no direct ties to either Ms. Leigh or the musician featured here.*
Like many medical treatments, no one decides to pursue IVF without careful consideration. The expense is something that will stop most people from even considering this an option, but add in the emotional roller coaster, fueled by altering hormones, countless injections, a drain of finances and so much uncertainty make it appear as a very unattractive gamble. Yet for those living with infertility, the opportunity to have a child drives many to pursue this path to expand their family. The promise of resolving infertility (though not curing it) through pregnancy leads so many to take this gamble, risking financial ruin, stigma and especially heartbreak along the way. After all, it is biologically engrained in humans to reproduce. To not do so would be detrimental to the species.
Despite us living in an era of great medical advances, the myths and misunderstandings surrounding IVF remain. Many who have not experienced treatments or faced them as an option are flippant in their understanding of what this medical procedure entails. Though there are many stories of someone's friend's second cousin achieving pregnancy through fertility treatments, particularly IVF, these same people are unable to fill in all the details, like of the repeated losses/failed treatments, of the financial strain, the altered emotional state and physical toll caused by the fertility drug and especially the emotional trauma caused by the process. Worse yet are those who chose not to pursue treatments or end treatments after many failed rounds and find themselves not parenting. In an act of self-preservation, setting healthy boundaries and choosing to live a full life, they are often shunned, considered selfish and informed they are not parenting because "they didn't want it enough."
Equally foreign is the truth about IVF success. The reality that more often than not that these treatments fail. The statistics are often suppressed given that this is an industry that relies on selling hope. The hope of coming out the other side with the child you dreamed of expanding your family with. It is my firm belief that many who go into this business do so with the desire to help the patients involved; they want to bring that child into being. But when selling hope, there's money involved. And the truth is the good intentions often get skewed when there is money involved. And so the truth about fertility treatment success rates is often not evident so the way the statistics are performed is often not uniform and usually unclear.
Julia Leigh's memoir tackles all of these issues, with the author doing so by sharing her story. A story that starts out the way so many of us do. She falls in love, decides to expand her family and takes actions to do so. A similar start to the story of family building that many people around the world share. Unapologetically Ms. Leigh tells of her relationship with Paul, starting with their first meeting and love affair to their relationship over the years and then when they fall in love again. At this point, she is older, but she is also determined to nurture the new family she has while planning with Paul for bringing their child into the world. There are hints that time may be a factor, but there are other worries and obligations that Ms. Leigh is pursuing. Plus there is the added tales of those who successfully conceive well into their 40s. A hope of overcoming biological limitations.
It is when months of trying to conceive roll by that things begin to fall apart. Ms. Leigh details the arguments she and Paul face. A road that ultimately leads to them separating and divorcing. Promises made are not kept. And suddenly Ms. Leigh finds single and pursuing fertility treatments on her own. Combating the naysayers while pursuing the child already born in her heart.
It is with this decision that Ms. Leigh lays out in beautiful detail the conflict the average person living with infertility goes through with loved ones and family. Despite good intentions, pain is caused through lack of support and injections of judgement. All of it feeling of very intimate betrayal. Ms. Leigh guides her readers through each moment, bringing those who are open to the experience an up-close and personal view of how much these moments impacted her. Most similarly was finding the much needed support in unlikely sources. These shelters from the storm that was raging.
Ms. Leigh then goes on to share all the details on her journey through fertility treatments. From the beginning, there's a feeling of hope. The reproductive endocrinologists (REs) who she works closely with are driven to help her bring home her childling. In many moments, I found myself having flashes from my own treatment experience, with me also having a deep affection for the nurses who oversaw my care. There is also her injection regiment, where she details how she prepares and the worry of doing anything wrong, something many in the infertility community can relate with. But as Ms. Leigh goes on there's an underlying sense of ick that surfaces, from the offers of add-ons where the data of their benefit is unclear to the medical advice where they claim the decision is her own when clearly they are influencing her to the contract Ms. Leigh signs where it is disclosed that the doctors are financially benefitting from the treatments that administer. As Ms. Leigh shares the details in a way that illustrates the mindset of a fertility treatment patient, it's hard not to experience the confusion, uncertainty and lack of control caused by these mind wars.
In the end, Ms. Leigh decides to end the madness and reclaim her live. A decision that leads to grief for the loss of her childling. But also there is a reclaiming of control over the process. A claiming of limitations and setting of boundaries. Interestingly enough, while initially criticized for going this route alone, there is now pushing for her not to stop, revealing the trauma of not being allowed to properly grieve what was loss.
Ms. Leigh's book ends on a hopeful note; of choosing to love after things have fallen apart. Most impressively, she shares vignettes about her with her nieces and nephews. She shows her ability to love on the deepest of levels, especially during moments of pain. She counters all claims that those not parenting are unable to love on the deepest of levels. That this connection is not restricted solely to those who give birth.
Avalanche, in the end, is a love story in its truest form. A story of love that so many have experienced. Its the story of someone who sacrificed so much to bring her son/daughter into the world. One that anyone who is parenting or has ever desired to parent can relate with. The difference is that Ms. Leigh finds herself grieving the dead of this child. While others will go on to encounter milestone after milestone, she is burying her baby. That's not selfish and uncaring, but a love most dear. Evidence to refute all the myths and misconceptions surrounding those who are not parenting. That instead of being shallow and weak, these individuals are filled with strength, love and compassion. That they know how to love on levels and in ways that many fail to understand.
And maybe that's the lesson we're all meant to understand: that love comes in many forms. No better and no worse.