In an essay for Harper's Magazine, the former Girls star said she's coming to terms with the fact that becoming a mother is going to be different than she imagined.

By Faith Brar
November 17, 2020
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Credit: Bruce Glikas/WireImage/Getty Images

Lena Dunham is opening up about how she learned she'll never have a biological child of her own. In a raw, vulnerable essay penned for Harper's Magazine, she detailed her unsuccessful experience with in vitro fertilization (IVF) and how it impacted her emotionally.

Dunham started the essay by recounting her difficult decision to undergo a hysterectomy at 31 years old. "The moment I lost my fertility I started searching for a baby," she wrote. "After almost two decades of chronic pain caused by endometriosis and its little-studied ravages, I had my uterus, my cervix, and one of my ovaries removed. Before then, motherhood had seemed likely but not urgent, as inevitable as growing out of jean shorts, but in the days after my surgery, I became keenly obsessed with it." (Related: Halsey Opens Up About How Endometriosis Surgeries Affected Her Body)

Soon after undergoing her hysterectomy, Dunham said she considered adoption. However, around the same time, she wrote, she was also coming to terms with her addiction to benzodiazepines (a group of drugs primarily used to treat anxiety) and knew she had to prioritize her own health before bringing a baby into the picture. "And so I went to rehab," she wrote, "where I earnestly committed to becoming a woman worthy of the most f*ck-you baby shower in American history."

After rehab, Dunham said she started searching for online community support groups for women who aren't able to conceive naturally. That's when she came across IVF.

At first, the 34-year-old actor admitted that she didn't even know IVF was an option for her, considering her health background. "It turned out that after everything I'd been through — the chemical menopause, surgeries by the dozen, the carelessness of drug addiction — my one remaining ovary was still producing eggs," she wrote in her essay. "If we successfully harvested them, they might be fertilized with donor sperm and carried to term by a surrogate."

Unfortunately, though, Dunham said she ultimately learned that her eggs weren't viable for fertilization. In her essay, she recalled her doctor's exact words when he delivered the news: "'We were unable to fertilize any of the eggs. As you know, we had six. Five did not take. The one that did seems to have chromosomal issues and ultimately... ' He trailed off as I tried to picture it — the dark room, the glowing dish, the sperm meeting my dusty eggs so violently that they combusted. It was hard to understand that they were gone."

Dunham is one of roughly 6 million women in the U.S. who struggle with infertility, according to the U.S. Office on Women's Health. Thanks to assisted reproductive technologies (ART) like IVF, these women have a chance at having a biological child, but the success rate depends on several factors. When you take into consideration things like age, the infertility diagnosis, the number of embryos transferred, history of previous births, and miscarriages, there ends up being anywhere between a 10-40 percent chance of delivering a healthy baby after undergoing IVF treatment, according to a 2017 report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). That's not including the number of IVF rounds it may take for someone to actually conceive, not to mention the high cost of infertility treatments in general. (Related: What Ob-Gyns Wish Women Knew About Their Fertility)

Dealing with infertility is hard on an emotional level, too. Studies have shown that the tumultuous experience can lead to feelings of shame, guilt, and low self-esteem — something Dunham experienced firsthand. In her Harper's Magazine essay, she said she wondered whether her unsuccessful IVF experience meant she was "getting what [she] deserved." (Chrissy Teigen and Anna Victoria have been candid about the emotional difficulties of IVF, too.)

"I remembered the reaction of an ex-friend, many years ago, when I told her that sometimes I worried that my endometriosis was a curse meant to tell me I didn't deserve a child," Dunham continued. "She nearly spat. 'Nobody deserves a child.'"

Dunham clearly learned a lot throughout this experience. But one of her biggest lessons, she shared in her essay, involved letting go of control. "There is a lot you can correct in life — you can end a relationship, get sober, get serious, say sorry," she wrote. "But you can't force the universe to give you a baby that your body has told you all along was an impossibility." (Related: What Molly Sims Wants Women to Know About the Decision to Freeze Their Eggs)

As tough as that realization has been, Dunham is sharing her story now in solidarity with the millions of other "IVF warriors" who've undergone the ups and downs of the experience. "I wrote this piece for the many women who have been failed by both medical science and their own biology, who have been further failed by society's inability to imagine another role for them," Dunham wrote in an Instagram post. "I also wrote this for the people who dismissed their pain. And I wrote this for the strangers online — some of whom I communicated with, most of whom I did not — who showed me, over and over again, that I was far from alone."

Concluding her Instagram post, Dunham said she hopes her essay "starts a few conversations, asks more questions than it answers, and reminds us that there are so many ways to be a mother, and even more ways to be a woman."

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