If Not for Honey and Chili


by Norma Armon

When the stork didwoman+dreaming+of+babyn’t bring me the sister I yearned for, I announced to the world I would find a way to make sure to bring children to everyone who wanted them. And when I was old enough to know what reproductive specialists did, I knewexactly what I would be when I grew up. But sometimes, as the head physician at the infertility clinic, when I watch dejected patients slump down upon hearing the most recent negative results, I wish I’d chosen another way to earn a living.

I share their disappointment, and know I’ll need to find a way to provide the amount of encouragement and hand-holding they’ll need before deciding to take another step in a calvary of continual doctor’s appointments, costly prescriptions and painful injections, ultrasounds and minor surgical tweaks. My primary role is that of chief-dispenser-of-hope and my most successful tool over the years has been the example of Nadine and Jonothan, long-time husband and wife volunteers at the clinic.

Jon helps clients become realistic about the multiple steps involved in their quest for a baby and describes the embarrassment and discomfort they may have to live through – whether they eventually succeed or not. Nadine helps our clients clarify their reasons for wanting children. She knows all about that, having tried for over ten years to become pregnant, before having her first child. While Nadine went through fertility treatments, she satisfied her yearning for offspring as a kindergarten teacher, caring for other people’s children and continuing to hanker after her own.

A born teacher and caregiver since childhood, Nadine was the “sandwich child” who’s road to family acknowledgement in a highly intellectual, competitive household had been to become the nurturer of younger siblings and cousins. She grew up to become an early childhood development specialist and originally volunteered at the clinic to research would-be parent’s attitudes on the healthy development of their babies.

Nadine’s mother, the well-known writer Nanna, was instrumental in the establishment of the fertility clinic, being one of the principal donors.  She is a favorite of mine, and I have spent countless hours, as I help her ready her home for another fundraiser for the clinic, listening to her stories of family lore come alive with the color and precision of her language while she makes sure the decorations and the food are as artistic, precise and carefully selected as the words in her novels. It was on one of those occasions that Nanna told me, under strict confidence, that Nadine had been impregnated once, but it was the wrong time and the wrong partner, so she terminated the pregnancy. Then, once she married Jonothon, they tried for years to have a baby.

“My daughter suffered in teeth-gritting, lip-pursing, sorrowful silence, the indignities, pain and disappointment that fecundity treatments volley upon infertile couples. During her years of barrenness, Nadine believed it was punishment for the abortion before her marriage,” Nanna said. She looked up from the flower arrangements to see my response.  I was all ears, hoping she would tell me more.

Nanna described the half-serious competition with her sisters – including a long-established wager – about who would end up with the greatest number of grandchildren. Nanna’s children had produced only one child each so when her youngest sister announced both of her daughters were having twins, she knew she had to do something to help Nadine become pregnant.

“I was about to lose my bet,” Nanna continued, “and I don’t forfeit bets easily. So I decided to take the project on, scouring the medical literature, reading advice columns, joining support groups and contacting my cronies…. I must have collected every remedy to overcome infertility known to mankind.

A Persian friend of hers recounted an anecdote of her distant cousin, Mariah, who consulted a shaman to help save her marriage: her beloved husband’s family was demanding he divorce her because she hadn’t produced an heir.

The shaman summarily asks, “Do you serve your husband spicy food before you come together? Do you seduce your husbands’ seed with sweets so they make a home in your womb?”

The woman doesn’t respond and hangs her head.

“Have you strayed so far from the wisdom of the sages that you don’t know of this?  Go home, offer your husband a dish in a sauce made with chili pepper, introduce honey into your womb and then lie with him.”

A year after this encounter, Mariah gave birth to triplets. “I must have looked askance at that,” Nanna said, “because my friend swore the anecdote was true and offered to introduce me to Mariah.”

Nanna incorporated the anecdote into her best-selling book about arranged marriages. As she developed the book’s plot she thought of passing on this prescription to her daughter; it seemed innocuous and Nadine had tried everything else without success. Yet Nanna agonized about how to broach the subject to her daughter. She didn’t want to be thought a meddling mama or to be laughed at for recommending superstitious hogwash. It was a bit out-of-character for this modern educated woman to recommend anything without being asked, and certainly to suggest anti-scientific remedies.

“Still, one never knows…” Nanna said. “The doctors hadn’t found any physical impediment to Nadine and Jon becoming pregnant. I thought following the shaman’s instructions might be just the placebo to unlock Nadine’s mysterious psychological blocks.”

Nanna decided to break her rule never to show work in progress before publication, and brought the story to Nadine and Jon.  “I allegedly sought Jon’s feedback to flesh out the character of the husband in the novel,” Nanna explained. “To get his opinion on how a male would response to such circumstances. Nadine must have read the draft of the book as well,”

In the support sessions Jon leads at the clinic, he recommends that couples develop non-verbal hints of the moment in the cycle considered optimal for successful impregnation. “It’ll make both of you feel less embarrassed about sex on the clock. For example, my wife didn’t flirt or send coy looks my way to announce the time was ripe for baby making. I was simply served some delectable concoction in a hot chili sauce.”

And I’ve overheard a red-faced Nadine advise the women to insert a tampon smeared with honey before intercourse. If any of them question the value of doing that, Nadine murmurs, “Oh, it’s just an old wives’ tale which can’t hurt.”

And when the clients shamefacedly consult me, asking for a medical opinion that might debunk such perplexing advice, I concur, answering, “No, it can’t do any harm.”

If Nadine happens to be about, I smile and add, “But then, who knows, it might just work,” with a knowing wink at my mother.

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