Future Generations

Proudly (yes, proudly!) passing on our infertility experience

“This possibility was never mentioned” my husband would often mutter in the days and months after we lost our children. Shaking his head, he would go on to point out that the fact some of us do not get to have children is nowhere in our collective human conversation. Instead, both of our childhoods, despite their drastic differences nationally, socio economically, and educationally (He’s from El Salvador) were strewn with the same verbal presumptions: “one day when you have kids”, “you can show your kids some day” and “I wonder what your kids will be like” to name a few. Notably missing: a nod to the not as unlikely as you’d think possibility this having kids thing might not get to be.

Fast forward to modern-day, and, unlike many other social issues in the past few decades (see homosexuality and the transgender population for starters), acceptance of and enlightenment towards infertility seems to have budged little.

Not even one year ago I stood a few feet back from the pool’s edge at one of my nephew’s swim meets about six months after we lost our children. I was already completely free of doubt that I was present in a families with children minefield when one of the parent facilitators exuberantly called out “You’re gonna have a kid like THAT one day!” I think it was in reference to my nephew, who happens to be a strong swimmer, and I’m not sure who she said it to as I was already in the process of recoiling. (Luckily, I was in the presence of an empathetic sister-in-law who turned around and muttered “I’m sure THAT’S just what you wanted to hear”).

I wasn’t nuts about the idea that having a kid who wins is preferable to having one who doesn’t. Anyone who has tried and tried to have children but can’t knows this doesn’t matter one iota. Furthermore, I dare say we infertiles without children are particularly beholden to the important value of knowing how to handle not winning. But more than any of that what I clearly noted in her language was the blatant presumption that the act of having a child was anyone’s for the taking.

Needless to say I and millions of other men and women around the globe can assure you it isn’t.

It’s a strange presumption, and infertility an odd omission from human conversation. Especially when you consider the numbers. One in six people of child bearing age deal with infertility, one in eight seek medical treatment. Though clearer statistics need to be disclosed, I did run across one that claimed almost one third of ART patients do not come out of treatment with a biological child (if anyone has a reliable and current stat on this I’d love to hear it!). One in every four pregnancies ends in a miscarriage, one in every 160 births is a still.

That some people have to try really hard to have children and that some don’t get to have them at all would be a necessary, and thoroughly HUMANE amendment to our conversations with young people. After all, infertility, miscarriages, and stillbirths are hardly new. They have existed forever, and exist in the animal kingdom too. I once asked my husband if all of the female cows on his childhood farm got pregnant. He reported no, and when I broke down the numbers the stat actually worked out to one in eight of their cows were infertile. Now how funny is that?? Nature is generous with its variations and flaws, and reproductive medicine will not be able to reconcile this for a long long time, if ever.

My trip to Maryland a few weeks ago ended up being via car due to the Amtrak crash the day before my departure. At one point, my nine year old nephew spotted the “infertile on board” sign on my back windshield and stood scrutinizing it for a moment. His parents have given him a general knowledge of our situation, so I wondered what he was thinking. “Why does it say that?” he asked.

“Well, I wanted to have a sign on my car that reflected my life situation. And the situation of people like me.” I explained. “Many people drive around with baby on board signs on the backs of their cars, and that’s ok, they have every right to do that. But I have the right to have a sign that fits my life on my car too, so, I got one made.”

“Oh, you had that special made? That’s cool!” he said, and scampered inside. A few days prior I had gone over to his house after Resolve’s Advocacy Day. “Were you in DC for yoga, or infertility?” his Mom asked casually, right in the presence of my nephew. “Infertility, I actually lobbied congress” I just as casually replied.

As I’m a mere one year and almost 4 months into grieving the loss of our children, I ponder back and forth on many infertility related issues. What are the issues the entire community has in common? In what ways must I stick with my child free not by choice tribe? In what ways is it productive to venture out? Will advocating for legislation only increase reproductive medicine’s business volume, or will it end up providing channels through which much needed over site and accountability can finally be created?

But the one thing I do not have to ponder is my participation in forging a change in our human conversation. That my nephew will have infertility and childlessness woven into his world view brings me a level of satisfaction I have not felt in a long time. He will not be held hostage to the unfounded and archaic stigma still connected to the word infertility. He will know that infertility and not getting to have children are things that, unfortunately, happen in life, and can happen to anyone. And he will likely be that much more empathetic to those in the IF community who cross his path, and even towards himself should it happen to him. I give his parents most of the credit for this, but I realize I play a role too.

I used to cringe on the rare occasion my nephew brought up our infertility. I was always afraid my pain, existing on levels that were too much for a young child, would burst forth in a way he would find scary. And I was so sad we were not succeeding in giving him cousins, as we were the only source that potentially could have done that. But I now look forward to him bringing it up. We may not have provided him with cousins, but perhaps, just perhaps, our experience will be able to deliver him something else valuable. Different, yes, but valuable just the same.

Take Notice, Human Race!!
Take Notice, Human Race!!

18 thoughts on “Future Generations

  • I LOVE your infertile on board placard! I might need to make one for myself (I’m feeling a little facetious this morning)….. I think it’s great that you’re so open and honest with your nephew/family about infertility. I’m not. They know (thanks to my mom’s big mouth and complete disregard for confidentiality) but I don’t talk openly with them about it. I haven’t managed to find my advocacy voice either, but I know I will someday.

    I do suppose that it’s good that we’re not cows. Because on the farm if a cow can’t have babies they don’t have a purpose and are sent to the butcher since they’re costing money and not making any. So at least we infertile humans don’t live in fear of the slaughterhouse since we were unable to produce progeny.

    • I think a lot depends on the type of relationship and family dynamics. Sharing is a great thing when it works, but sharing with some people is a futile energy drain. And not always a good idea in our more fragile grief spells, either.

      You always make me laugh, Kinsey! And you know I pushed the cow conversation for all it was worth – implying the infertile cows on my husband’s farm didn’t “believe” and didn’t have their spirits properly aligned with the universe. He used to take them to Honduras to graze (they lived close to the border) so I suggested the infertile cows were the ones he had failed to take and thus they had needed a vacation, THAT’S why they weren’t getting pregnant. I guess the social slaughter house we IFers get sent to is better (slightly) that the real thing…..but we just always look on the bright side, now don’t we!!

      • Your husband’s experience growing up on a farm sounds like so much fun! I grew up on a farm too, but we certainly didn’t take our cows on international vacations. That’s definitely the reason that those cows didn’t get pregnant. Or the fact that he didn’t get them drunk. Or they didn’t have enough quality time with the bull. Or maybe they just didn’t want it bad enough.

        Now I want prime rib. But I’m not sure I’ll ever eat beef again without thinking about the poor souls of infertile cows. And now I am off the topic of your post….

      • NOW we’re talking! I’m so glad you are coming around to comprehend the truth and refined nuance of human reproduction. I think we’re almost smart enough to converse with non-infertiles now. Dare to dream.

        PS I too, am often off the topic of my posts.

  • I applaud you are being brave enough to put your situation out there for the public. I still feel shame about my infertility and my nephew who is now 15 has never asked. But his parents are not as ‘enlightened’ about life as your nephew’s parents are.

    • Thanks for your comment, Sherry. It’s commendable you are aware of what you feel – as many of us have experienced, shame can be a sneaky little bitch! I sometimes battle it when I’m putting myself out there and have to turn into the infertile version of the little engine that could…..”I think I can I think I can” gets replaced with “I haven’t done anything wrong I haven’t done anything wrong….” Good grief.

  • This is such a well written and thoughtful piece. I think you make do many great points including the fact that at no time are we brought up to even consider the possibility of not being able to have children, and that it seems to be universal. Also, I love that you share with those around you, even children because they will have a unique understanding which will definitely help them be a more compassionate individual as they age and have friends who may experience infertility struggles.

    • Thanks, MPB! That young people have a special openness and flexibility which translates well to IF issues is a new revelation for me. My very real and necessary need for emotional self protection has ebbed a bit lately so I’ve been able to step out of the haze and share more. It’s never easy though, as we all know.

  • It’s such a good thing, this being open with infertility, because it helps the world evolve to a different place as it helps us heal. Even I find myself making the assumption that everyone else will have children, just because it’s so commonplace in our society. This should change, for the infertile, the single, the childfree by choice and the childfree not by choice.

    • Thanks for mentioning that collective (the infertile, the single, the child free by choice and not by choice), Dipitie. And yes, it’s very easy to assume everyone else around us has or will have children. Our world is rampant with such implications, to the degree it totally does not reflect reality. If I’m being open about my infertility and child free not by choice life within a group of people, I need to incessantly remind myself I’m likely not the only one in the group……even though I am the only one speaking about it.

  • I am very envious of brave people such as yourself who can be open. I just don’t know how yet. Can I ask, at what age was your nephew told? I have two nephews, 5 and 7 who have no idea, and reading this makes me think they might be better having a bit of understanding.

    • Hi Rhona – Speaking out has been a real issue for me. It’s a personal compulsion I don’t totally understand, but there are so many times throughout this insane journey where I was too fragile, too vulnerable, too unprepared to open up. So, pulling back can be very important too. And it seems how to open up varies greatly depending on the situation. It requires a lot of trial and error, and sometimes the willingness to risk relationships for the sake of truth. What never ceases to amaze me is how complex the internal process is, and how much work it takes.

      Regarding my family, I had been open with them from the beginning. We had many rocky passages as I was trying to convey to them how hard this is through my impatient angst and they were going through the learning and accepting process. It was difficult. My husband and I did a lot of treatments in a short period of time so my knowledge of what went on around me is sketchy. My nephew may have been told we were trying to have a baby and then that it wasn’t working. He did know about some of our IVF’s, most took place when he was 7 years old, which I recall were explained to him as “a procedure to help get me pregnant”. I suppose every parent would have a different approach to such a thing, as well as different comfort levels. Conveying these things in a way that is clear but doesn’t get too explicit or instill fear takes thought and effort, but on the level of inclusiveness and reality it’s important.

  • Such a thoughtful post. I admire your courage with the sign. I’m four years or so in dealing with this reality. It does become easier with time but I am constantly amazed by those who don’t know the possibility of this struggle. I have co workers marrying and talking of starting a family and I want to bite my tongue each time it comes up. So many think it is just a given. There was a Huffington Post article over the last week or so that talked about what to say and not say to a “childless woman”. I tried to find the link to share but couldn’t. It was a decent article that covered the range of those of who are child free by choice and those of us who are not. We certainly need more discussion around this issue.

    • Thanks for your comment, Steph. In the name of full disclosure, my sign is maybe 2 parts courage, 1 part attitude problem:-)

      Thanks for mentioning the Huff Post piece, my chiropractor brought it to my attention as well. Considering the percentage of the population that deals with infertility, as well as the percentage of the US female population over 45 years old that does not parent (almost 20%), the construct of our language has to change. I’m hopeful it will, but the current state of things can be mind boggling. Good luck with your workplace conversations – that’s often a tough one.

  • I saw this when you first posted, knew I would need to concentrate to read and think about it, and so I’m back now after an intensive month of blogging and caring for an aging mother with Alzheimer’s.

    Let me say this is wonderful. I love the way you have phrased it – that “infertility is an omission from the human conversation.” You’ve made me think about how I talk about my own infertility with family. It’s not a part of my family’s conversation, though I mention the fact I don’t have kids quite often. I have started to talk more openly with my adult nieces, and I’m open about not having a child with my littlest niece and that’s why she gets all the cuddles from me. Thank you for reminding me to talk about it quite openly as she does get to the age where she understands. Because she has a genetic, ultimately terminal illness, with a life expectancy in her mid-30s. The whole issue of having children and leaving a legacy is going to be even more pointed for her than for me, I suspect.

    • Hi Mali! So sorry to hear about your mom’s condition. She’s lucky to have you but I can only imagine how challenging taking care of her must be on some levels.

      When I started to make infertility part of my family conversation, I wasn’t entirely popular as I’m sure you can probably guess. But some people listened, and my sister in law laid some nice ground work so I can address it easily with my nephew when it comes up.

      Your niece’s life situation is thought provoking – I don’t think I’m capable of putting myself in her shoes but I am confident in saying that she too is very lucky to have you.

  • This is probably the #1 thing that drives me nuts – the assumption that everyone can AND wants to have children. As I’m not entering my mid-30s, I’m getting more of the “when you have a child” comments from people who don’t know me very well. I just say bluntly that I can’t have kids. I want people to think before they speak.

    I think is great and wonderful to know that children like your nephew exist and will be part of making our future world a better, more tolerant, and understanding place.

    • Agreed – that’s the number one thing I think needs to change if I really had to choose (it’s unrealistic to narrow it down to just one!!), the presumption that anyone who wants to can just automatically reproduce. So good to hear when people like you give those who assume the harsh truth!!

      I don’t have tons of experience, but so far I find young people to be way more open and less judgmental towards the subject of infertility.

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