Let’s Hang Out! The Child Free Not By Choice Social Conundrum

A Week in the Life of an Infertility Survivor Pt3

One of the greatest losses stemming from infertility and childlessness for me is the hefty strain it has put on socializing and forming relationships with people.  It is, in my opinion, one of the least understood and most underrated challenges of not only childlessness, but of one’s changed perspective having survived trauma and loss.

The phone rings in my car, somewhere on the New Jersey turnpike, interrupting my pop music reverie.  Perhaps it was Rachel Platten’s Fight Song, or Adele’s Hello, or Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk, I don’t quite remember.  In the midst of anticipating a quiet Thursday evening at home organizing myself and gearing up for my yoga teacher training weekend, I was reminded by my husband that we had a party to attend at one of his restaurants.

Damn.  I try to pace myself socially these days.  I now find a lot of interactions with people dissatisfying to say the least.  Years of having intense life altering experiences that are not acknowledged in the mainstream has definitely made its impact.  Furthermore, I’ve found this “me being different from the majority of my peers” thing is the least acknowledged aspect of what I and others like me go through.  It’s a conundrum that I don’t think can truly be appreciated unless someone has been there themselves.  Plus, people seem to be uncomfortable with difference and will often resent you for pointing it out.  It does after all require one to work.  And FEEL.

And so, not wanting to miss this particular party, I found myself at one of our bars chit chatting with “the normals” (such a useful term coined by one of my readers, isn’t it?) a mere twelve hours or so after waking up with my nephew a few states away.

My husband and I then found ourselves hitting it off, I mean really hitting it off, with a couple who have frequented our restaurants for years.  She’s from the same country as my husband which is great for him, they are foodies like us and she automatically responded to my adventurous and open minded spirit when it comes to food – an authentic part of me if there ever was one.  I’ve yet to find a cuisine I don’t enjoy or a type of music I can’t dance to, I always say.

They are also very active, have a life outside of their children, and we enjoyed feisty banter and sarcasm we all seemed to have in common.  According to my husband they, or at least she, has been told by him that we tried to have children but couldn’t.

I then found myself as lost in the moment as I ever can be these days when screeeeeeech………the subject of her upcoming 40th birthday arose.  I had nothing to contribute to the discussion on psychological changes middle age brings as the trajectory of mine has been so assaulted by infertility and the loss of our children.  Nothing that could be contributed at a noisy bar anyway.  And then as to what she was going to do that day – “I’ll see what the kids want to do, it’s all about them, you know?” she said, oblivious from within the haloed glow of parenthood.  A flood of sadness engulfed my heart. “Mmmm” I responded as I internally recalled that my 40th birthday occurred three weeks after our fifth failed IUI.

“I sure DON’T know,” I thought as I seized my avocado and shrimp tower, thankfully excusing myself to eat after my long drive.  Like I said, a noisy bar is not the time.  A quieter dinner for four is a much better platform for my reality…..

“We should make plans,” we all agreed, having expressed an interest in enjoying Peruvian cuisine together.  My heart sank as another part of me cheered.  They are interesting and just too much fun to not give it a try, but yet so much risk is involved.

It will not be some easy breezy social night out, although it might appear that way, or feel that way for some involved.  Even completely lacking in charm and finesse old me has found ways to deliver my truths with some – hark – smoothness.  It will likely be an evening of fun, spirited chatter and even connection, yes.  But it will also be an evening likely involving educating and explaining what should be obvious, all while having no control over whether our losses will receive the appreciation and consideration they deserve or not.  Add to this that the position we are in was not our choice and that we worked harder than most humans do to not be in it.  Sounds like fun, huh?

Yes, I venture to say “Let’s Hang Out” is a most loaded proposition for the child free not by choice infertility survivor.  And it’s not one I’m ungrateful for.  A comedic irony in my life as of late is that amid grief’s thrashing journey, healing from trauma and acclimating to the absence of my children, people somehow find me desirable.  They WANT to hang out.  Quite honestly, this has taken me by surprise.  Not because I don’t feel worthy, but more so because with all I’ve had to field in past years, I forget.  I forget that I’m a fun, interesting person worth knowing.  People who want to hang out have served the purpose of REMINDING me of this – and whether I’ve actually hung out or not I know who each and every one of them are.  Those who have unknowingly helped me to remember ME occupy a very soft and gratuitous spot in my heart.

“They do nah know what dey are getting into” (They do not know what they are getting into) my husband stated concisely in regards to this subject matter, no doubt referencing my honesty and unwillingness to be dragged around by society’s prescribed flow.

If people are going to get to know me, it’s quite possible that at some point (sooner rather than later as I’m a pretty straight shooter) some challenges will be faced.  For starters, in one way or another I will come up against what is expected of me, culturally, as a female.  Though mostly subconscious, it is more often than not expected by the privileged majority that I will take an interest in and talk about parenthood no matter what my life is about, regardless of what related losses and heartache I may be in the midst of grappling with.  It’s also safe to say it’s expected that infertility and childlessness will not be a part of the conversation, however I often don’t hesitate to contribute my perspective.  I certainly can and do talk about PLENTY of other things, but yet do not feel obligated to omit something that has rocked my world and affected every corner of my being.  And when things go well and people are open to this, I often find myself entangled in the awkward conundrum of my sharing being answered with tales of parenting living children instead of a sane and appropriate acknowledgement of my losses and our differences.  In other words, I never once thought to answer my friend’s sharing of anything regarding her husband’s death with accounts of my marriage with my LIVING husband.  “Gee shucks, that sucks about the autopsy report.  Did I tell you Julio and I went to Vegas?”  No.  Just…no.

Then there’s the “confusion” surrounding the status of our loss in the first place.  Childlessness is assumed a choice about 95% of the time (thanks in part to all of the adoption myths and misinformation out there) when more often than not it isn’t.  Rounds of IVF are practically perceived as spa treatments for affluent women who “waited too long” instead of the legitimate potentially trauma and loss inducing medical procedures they really are.  So not only do you have to announce the loss of your children you’re also in the horrid position of having to explain and justify that it actually IS one AND that your response to it is completely and unequivocally normal.  There now.  Are we having fun yet?

The toll of childlessness, and especially involuntary childlessness, not being part of the human conversation is no doubt a heavy one.  When one opens up and exposes such a truth, one risks quite a bit.  You are risking rejection and minimization.  You are creating an opening for people to pounce with their need to fix the un-fixable.  You are providing ground on which to be further misunderstood.  And why does any of this matter?  Being minimized, misunderstood and spoken “at” are unequivocal impediments to the healing process.  That’s right.  Not only do they not help, they are harmful actions to those in the throes of grieving and healing.  Abidance, acknowledgement and non judgement never harm, and quite often, they spur the healing process.  And with people you almost never know what you are going to get.  Those of us who have been in the trenches of grieving and healing know bloody damn well the herculean efforts it has taken us to move forward and we are intelligent – very intelligent – when it comes to assessing risk and protecting ourselves.

If I were dining with someone who had lost a spouse, for example, or someone who had recently lost the use of their legs, I wouldn’t need a sermon know that these things are life altering first of all.  I wouldn’t minimize them by telling them that at least they could date now (please see insidious “at least you can travel now” response to someone who has lost their children) any sooner than I’d try to reassure a paraplegic that having two working legs is actually very stressful (please see moronic “you can have mine” response from someone with kids to someone who couldn’t have any) and is not all it’s cracked up to be.  I’d let them take the lead in conversation and would be sensitive to topics involving things such as oh say living spouses and triathlons.  I’d expect and accept that their experience just might have acquired them a world view different from mine.  And I’d make the effort to ask and listen more and talk less because isn’t that what you’re supposed to do when someone shares an experience grossly different from yours?  And I’d also be keeping my need to fix in check and SHUTTING THE HELL UP when the urge arose, knowing the desire to fix comes from my own discomfort and has nothing to do with their plight whatsofuckingever.  Most of all, I’d enjoy and thrive on the challenge, accepting the imperfections of my efforts knowing that in the end I’d only be richer for having entertained someone else’s pain.

But hey that’s just me.

At the same time I’m not willing to limit myself much socially as I know, I’m SURE there are diamonds in the rough lurking out there.  I’ve run across a few child free by choice people with whom I do not click, either because they no not empathize, are just generally emotionally averse, or think I should be “over it.”  And we have friends with children (notably older children, which is easier) who have stood by and supported us, who respect our plight and have built up a trust with us over time.  So presence vs. absence of children is by far not the only issue.

Oh and check out this wrench – my deepened relationship to myself – the inevitable by – product I believe of navigating one’s way through trauma and loss, especially those of which society offers little support or acknowledgement.  Who else ya gonna lean on????  It’s not unusual that during moments of socialization I find myself craving my home, my solitude, my keyboard cupped in my crossed legs faithfully clicking away, and my yoga mat, my space of physical, emotional and energetic play and inquiry.  While the external world has become a source of disappointment and angst as I continue to find my footing and my new place in it, my internal world has grown into a place that often reeks of vibrancy.  There just isn’t much motivation to leave it.  Except for the fact that socializing has taken on a different kind of importance now that we’re childless.

If I were someone who was interested in spending time with people for the purpose of having a distraction to pass the time, all of this would be less of an issue.  My truth is that I’m interested in spending time with people with whom I connect on one level or another.  Another truth is that, at least for now, I more than likely will not be connecting with people with living children on the subject of parenthood, an experience where connection is all too often assumed and presumed.  Our source of connection will just simply have to come from somewhere else.

And yet, I’ve come to the realization I need to express my truth in order to feel whole, and, while I don’t need to talk about it all of the time, I don’t feel at ease in the presence of those who do not fully accept my reality.  And as for those who might minimize my losses, I simply choose to not hold space with such people.  Being in my reality facilitates wholeness, conforming to other people’s expectations does not.

One thing I do know for sure is to stay away from what I now refer to as “answer gluttons” when it comes to this subject matter.  Since I’ve been recovering I’ve become aware of the many in this world who still think that everything in life can be corrected by a change of action, perception or attitude when in fact often times it can’t.  Some things are just hard.  Some situations are simply barrier laden.  When socializing, we involuntarily childless infertility survivors come upon scads of misperceptions and misinformation in a world that has yet to acknowledge and validate our place in it.  None of this is our fault or of our making, all we can do is our different “bests”.  My best involves telling my truths and letting the chips fall, as that is when I feel most whole, in spite of the pain other people’s responses can invoke.  I’m curious, what’s yours?

27 thoughts on “Let’s Hang Out! The Child Free Not By Choice Social Conundrum

  • I’m so glad to read this and feel less alone, less ridiculous, less crazy. My best these days is survival -getting out of bed in the morning, showering, wearing pants, going to work, eating actual meals (instead of rice pudding and tortilla chips for lunch), allowing myself to cry and grieve, and sleeping when the day is done. My best is not giving in to the sadness, guilt, loneliness, and hopelessness I feel as my health robs me of my dreams. I know I will have new dreams, but I don’t see them yet. And it’s lonely when people don’t understand. To them, what’s the big deal? I told one friends that not only have I found out I really won’t be able to have my own biological child and will very likely be headed into surgical menopause, she complained to me about having to clean moss of her roof. ??! Our friends with kids stop inviting us as their social lives change to revolve around other families. Our other friends wonder what my problem is. And then there’s the suggestions you mention that all this could be changed if only I had the right attitude. Argh. At least those of is who have lived this can understand and be there to support each other. Hugs and applause to you on this post!

    • Thanks so much for this candid and all too familiar account. It’s practically a replica of what I went through for the first almost two years after our last treatment. I know the time frame differs from individual to individual. And who is to say I won’t circle back to it for a spell – grief and healing are so non linear.

      First of all I applaud you for showering – I always said I was proud of myself for not losing my hygiene on top of losing my children – even if no one else was. Working is an even bigger deal and definitely congrats on the pant wearing. My friend who was widowed a few years ago actually forgot her pants when she left her apartment one day in the wake of her husband’s death, you can find her post on it on her blog, http://www.ripthelifeiknew.com under “my most popular blog posts”.

      I’m so with you on the dreams. In my experience you can’t look forward to what you can’t envision, and envisioning a new life isn’t possible for a spell when you’re in the thick of grieving the one you wanted. And when most people don’t understand that you can’t force it, well……grrrr. It’s a tough space so please be kind to yourself. It does pass, painstakingly, but this truth provided me with little comfort when I was there.

  • Great post. A few months back on a FB chat with a group of friends a friend asked “Is drinking a beer while watching your kid mean you’re drinking alone?” . My response was I don’t know nor will I ever know. He quickly back tracked and apologized. I felt awful for snapping like that but felt it had to be said so it was recognized as to how things like that can be triggering for me.

    • Good for you and him, Greg! Thanks for sharing. Real friends will want to consider how we feel when they speak, but in my experience they need prompting and practice that can only come from us speaking our truths. Not what we wanted to be focusing on in life, I know.

  • Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. There is hope that there are others like me at these parties after all! Those are the times when I feel the most isolated, despite being surrounded by people. Sometimes it even feels like I leave my body and go outside myself and watch from afar as the conversation unravels before me as a means of protecting my heart. I wish we could just find each other for comfort at times like these. In person. At the same parties.

    • Yes – you leaving your body in social situations – my half here half not here feeling – I know, Cara! And also feeling very alone while flanked by tons of people, I know that well too. I share your wish. If we start opening our mouths more maybe we’ll all find each other more often in these situations. I also think we need to plan our own party – just not sure where yet.

  • Such perfect writing! Thank you so much for giving a voice to the pain and social isolation of being childless. Your writing gives me so much strength with the knowledge that at least someone understands !! Thank you

  • Whoa. I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything that so perfectly captures my feelings and thoughts on this subject. Socializing, friendships, making new friends and society in general is hazardous territory for me these days. I’ve never been able to articulate it, but this post makes me want to try. Thank you for helping kickstart my thoughts on this topic. 🙂

    • “Hazardous territory” – Uh huh!! I wish you well on your trying and hope you find your writing process most therapeutic. I found this aspect of our experience difficult to write about, but then I say that about everything. I’m starting to sound like a broken record! But really, I did find the lack of answers in this social debacle perplexing on a level. So as of now, it is what it is. Thanks so much for commenting.

  • Yes, yes, yes. I too have had the experience of conversing with a normal and really hitting it off, only to find out that their reproductive systems worked as intended. And I’ve had the same exact conundrum as you!

  • Wow! Powerful! I especially liked the, “at least you can date now” response to the widow. It seems so obvious the things that shouldn’t be said, but when it comes to infertility, people so often lose their ability to behave empathetically.

    • Thank you. I know, as much as we all try to analyze the lack of empathy for our plight, and I agree with a lot of the theories out there, including yours that you’ve mentioned, there’s still something puzzling about it. I try to leave space for the other person’s reality and I try to remember that people forget……but the socializing thing is still an uphill effort.

  • Simply, thank you. Thank you for your post and all the responses above too. You are all speaking my language. In addition, I felt the restraint in not overly describing the extent of what I have to call in summary, the insidious abuse.

    • Ha ha – I never get credit for restraint, so thank you for that! Being in the presence of having your language spoken is a luxurious relief, isn’t it? Now if only we all got to experience it more often…..

  • Yes! Thank you for articulating this strange conundrum of finally trying to move on and come out of our infertility-induced protective social space, only to be astounded that we are suddenly aliens in the everyday world. We are no longer moms-in-waiting, not infertility “success” stories, not childfree by choice, and not parents – we are misfits.

    I started working in a law firm six weeks ago – my first full time office work in years since my infertility treatments – and I honestly think I have forgotten how to talk to regular people. So much of chit chat around the office is about kids and grandkids, and I am at a loss for words. When asked why I had a career gap, I say I was doing back to back IVFs which brings the conversation to an immediate awkward holt. I have no shame about what I have been through. To not acknowledge it, feels like I am being silenced. I can’t stand for that.

    Sarah, I hope you and your husband can nurture new friendships in time. We need more safe social spaces. Take good care.

    • Exactly, Jo! Grieving the loss of parenthood and all that goes with that but no one notices or acknowledges.

      I give you so much credit for not only going back to full time work but for being so honest in your office setting. If you are like me there will be times when the silence you’re met with will make you wonder about a lot of things. For whatever it’s worth, it gives me satisfaction to think of the fertile chit chatters in your office being met with a dose of the other side of reproductive reality. I’ll be thinking of you:-)

  • Reading my mind again, thank you for being so expressive.
    I’ve always found socialising a trial. It has constantly taken a lot of effort and emotional energy for me. So to throw childlessness into the mix as well pushed me to my limit in the early years.

    Now, to a lesser degree with new acquaintances, I’m still on my guard for the inevitable offspring questions, because they always come, and that is itself draining, and although I still don’t like it, I handle it slightly better now that I’m older.
    Old friends are a lot easier to socialise with, we’ve already done the hard work, and I can tune out if I need to, when the conversation turns to what their kids are doing.

    Leaving work a few years ago gave me a well-deserved and much needed opportunity to recoup, process, come to an acceptance and work out my future plans…unexpected illness with older family members in the last few years delayed that last thought so I’m just recently coming back to future plans…
    Home has become too easy a refuge to retreat to, so I’m slowly working my way up to joining some interest groups and the known risks we know that come with meeting new acquaintances.

    Hahaha, yeah isn’t it frustrating when you click with a “normal” and you know the obvious questions are going to arise and instantly put a dampener on the possible new friendship. I tell myself it’s still worth the risk though, as a few minutes of unease may one day turn into a great future friendship. I have met too few who have the empathy to stand in our shoes, though, even for a moment… maybe I’m not looking hard enough?
    But, from my ‘folder of quotable quotes’ from a blogger I follow, “If I survived infertility, I’m sure I can survive this!” ; )

    • Ha – yeah, who said that again?? 🙂

      Good luck with the interest groups – it may not be the same thing, but I’ve found I enjoy the group focus in the yoga teacher training I’m doing – it’s been nice being with people where we’re all concentrating on one thing. It’s got benefits a free for all social situation doesn’t. Most children and grandchildren yip yapping will take place during breaks, etc., so I can at least be prepared.

      Your comment spoke to the many challenges and questions that linger on this topic……Thanks so much for your thoughts.

  • I love your honesty and sense of humor on this topic. I find that when I joke about these social situations with my husband (because of course no one else in my world understands), it is SO much easier to cope. So much of what you said resonates, but especially the part when you said when in social situations you often find yourself craving your home and solitude. It was like you were speaking my mind. For so long, with the exception of my husband, I have been, in a sense, my own best friend. I have made my home my refuge from the forced social interactions that are shallow and meaningless to me. It is my space to be me, without judgment or phony pleasantries. It’s so hard to find people who really “get” it, acknowledge it, and then put it aside, with the awareness of its existence, but still not trying to fix it or shove their children (or neverending stories about them) in your face. Arghh!

    • Good for you! Thanks for sharing. I’m starting to accept that I’ll have to turn to other things for fulfillment (practices, hobbies, solitude), maybe for the rest of my life, as the result of the many social situations that are now dissatisfying (if not downright excruciating!!).

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