“It’s a pronatalist world and we’re just living in it……”
I knew entering a nail salon the afternoon before Mother’s Day was not the brightest of moves. It’s about as smart as adopting an indoor porcupine, actually. I live in permanent mockery of my “poor little first world problem”, as I’ve been known to call it – yet my trips to the nail salon have turned fodder for many a blog post. For the involuntarily childless infertility survivor, women + mindlessness is never good. And so off I went, in part because my sweet cousin had just passed away, I was a little shell shocked and knew I’d be on a plane in a couple of days, and in part to treat myself.
One “assignment” in my yoga teacher training for the month was to practice Satya/Truthfulness. This is one of yoga’s classical ethical guidelines that falls under the category of the Yamas/Behavior Restraints. In assignments like these, I tend to bring greater observation to what I may already be doing as opposed to committing to something via foresight. This time though, with M-Day on the horizon, I decided I would speak my truth when the Happy Mother’s Day brigade unleashed itself upon me, which we all know is only a matter of time for those of us who have no choice but to walk out in the world. I expressed my views and desires regarding Mother’s Day in my post here.
The first part of my nail salon jaunt was uneventful, as I only had to bear a conversation between two grandmothers dissecting their upcoming Mother’s Days. Catching their conversation out of the corner of my ear in the small space, I was intrigued by it as one would be intrigued by viewing a rare peculiar looking sea creature through aquarium glass. They ticked through the list of where their kids would be and what their grandchildren were doing in true news, weather and sports type fashion. Their conversation flowed easily from the base of their parenthood. They were miffed that their grandchildren’s soccer games were scheduled on the holy grail of Mother’s Day. I, as usual, kept myself entertained and laughing with my own puffy speech balloons. “That’s just AWFUL. I’m going to send you some positive vibes. Golly I hope you muddle through somehow….chins up, ladies. Chins up!!”
I then relished twenty beautiful minutes of quiet until The Clan started to arrive. A Mom who had left the kids with her husband so she could get a “break” and announced it in dramatic fashion. Person after person filing in to purchase gift certificates. A mom with her two young girls for mother – daughter mani-pedis. Better to be around people who are enjoying their children than complaining about them. I noted I’m much less triggered by this than I would have been a year ago. But it’s impaling just the same. I also noted from people’s conversations that I was yet again in a familiar position – I was the only one like me present. I internally smirked at my car and “Infertile on Board” placard that I had parked prominently by the nail salon door in hopes of stimulating some awareness and that people might be more mindful of the full spectrum of human reproduction before they speak. I know, I know, I’ve always been a dreamer, what can I say?
But I am triggered. Feelings of isolation and devastation, more tepid than in years past, make their way through my body. I breathe, try to think about the kind things I will do for myself the next day and carry on. And right after I pay, it comes. “Happy Mother’s Day!” my nail tech innocently serenades.
And, in good ole MC Hammer fashion, it kicks in.
STOP. SATYA TIME.
In the cozy nail salon, in the midst of about twelve people, I speak. Calmly, matter of factly.
“Oh no, I survived infertility, so, for me it isn’t. Tomorrow is a day I survive.”
I don’t think my nail tech really got what I said. It had come up in our conversations before that I tried to have children but couldn’t. She has continued to talk about hers even though I really don’t respond. There’s a bit of a language barrier and I do enjoy her professionalism, focused demeanor and desire to communicate with others. It is what it is.
The rest of the salon however, froze. As an infertility survivor I’ve become sensitized to the different kinds of quiet that exist. The woman getting the mother daughter mani pedis, who was of course sitting next to me seemed to stifle a gasp. Though it probably more came from shock and discomfort, I hold out hope that it perhaps contained some empathy too. I just love empathetic utterances in response to my reality – a sigh, a groan, some primal tone that shows they feel something, anything for me. Instead, typically, I’m met with silence.
I, on the other hand, didn’t miss a beat. I took the time to thank and appreciate my tech, handing over a bit fat tip like usual. I commented softly and jokingly on my strange flip flops and thanked her for removing the paper from in between my toes. “Thanks May, I’ll see you next time” I said as I gracefully exited the store to the background of frigidity, my heart pounding.
There’s just something amusing in bearing witness to a collective inability to momentarily be in the truth in which I will be spending the rest of my life. So yeah. It’s great that I spoke my truth. It gave me satisfaction to know that there are now perhaps a few more people who have an awareness of those who are not able to have what they have on this day. What happened to me could happen to any of the children of the people in there, facilitating greater awareness of infertility and childlessness is for the benefit of all.
And now the rest of the truth. I figured the caught off guard Seaford Long Island nail salon customers were not ready for this one so I spared them. Sometimes, if you reveal too much truth people end up shutting down. But for you, my dear readers, I hold back nothing and you know it: People who are in the raw phases of imbibing their losses and acclimating to life without their children are inundated (I myself seem to be on the cusp of this phase moving into a more active life rebuilding). We are stretched past capacity on every level. We are mourning, and being forever altered by, deep personal losses most people cannot understand. We are often just trying to put one foot in front of the other, grappling with reconciling the unfathomable. Those in this space need to be informing about as much as someone with a gaping leg wound needs to be running around a hospital administering medical treatment to others.
I awoke on M-Day feeling a blast from the past – inertia. Though it was only months ago that I felt this every morning, I experienced it as a visitor I hadn’t spoken with in a while. I honored both my progress and my need to stay in bed. “It’s Mother’s Day and you lost your children only two years ago, sweetie. If you wanted to bound out of bed that would make you rather insane now wouldn’t it? Either that or just extraordinarily numb, and you know you’re far from either.” I’ve learned to see these things within us that we’re prone to judge and resist – sadness, inertia, lethargy, rage – for what they are. Remnants of loss that would not be present had I not loved and continue to love my children passionately, fully, unconditionally. So I’ve become mindful in my experience of them and in not pushing them away.
I slowly, gently and lovingly make my way up and commit the day to exploring the space of what is. Meeting myself where I’m at is not only a practice I take seriously. It has become my art.
I feel a physical yoga practice in me but tell myself not to force it. The knowledge that this would be the first functional thing I’ve been able to do on M-Day in years is noticeably seductive, but if it happens I want it to be real. I stay in my moment and by late afternoon make my way into to a lovely 2.5 hour practice. Not only did I have room for more than the harsh feelings this day brings, I noticed the opening and took the opportunity to engage with life for the first time on this day in years. I then showered, set myself a lovely table of wine, cheese, warm bread, olives and marinated mushrooms and all that matters in life, and had myself a meal in honor of my healing.
I also took the time to post on Facebook, after all, why should I remain silent? Aware of my impatience and sonotcharmingness, I attempted to elevate myself from my initial sentiment of THIS DAY TOTALLY BLOWS. I came up with “Thank goodness for wine, cheese and long yoga practices, though not necessarily in that order.” I listed the kinds of cheese in which I was partaking, posted my pictures and that was generally it. I wondered how many people “got it”, but sometimes when it comes to truth, comprehending your own is the best you can do.
I’d like to stop here and tip my hat to the survivor phase of things, and point out that while what I described above is good, it isn’t “better”. As far as getting through Mother’s Day this year, I slayed it. But in years past, when all I had room for were the oceans of thwacking emotions that inevitably surge when grappling with such a harsh reality, I slayed it as well. It is because I was able to be in those moments that I can be here now. The survivor phase won my respect as it is the seemingly endless moving from one merciless state to the next, absorbing one harsh truth after the other, choking down one pile of feces after the other, with no end in sight. It is a phase where the courage of facing things only, for a while, drives the spike of reality deeper into your being. It is temporarily fruitless, yet somehow we keep breathing, keep getting up over time with no promise of an end or reconciliation in site. This to me is faith. And this year, though not “out” of anything by a long shot, I felt myself crawled up on a shore of sorts, able to view the tsunamis that have shaped me from more of a distance. So to my survivor phase people out there – honor yourselves. You rock.
I woke up the next day exhausted, noting that in spite of my progress, getting through the day prior took a lot of work. But I don’t have much turn – around time – I’ve got a plane to catch.
When you go out into the world as a child free not by choicer, not only do you have a view that is in many ways different from the mainstream, you’re met by a world that, in spite of your experiences with infertility and childlessness, presumes you will see things as they do.
On the way to the airport, I was initially enjoying the company of the people who were kind enough to give us a ride on their day off, people who also know full well we tried to have children and couldn’t. I had no problem checking in on how they were doing and engaging in restaurant Mother’s Day speak as they had both worked that day. I worked many in the past myself and know it can leave you physically feeling like you’ve been thrown against a wall for days after.
It was when the conversation took a turn to her personal views on Mother’s Day that things got funky.
She first mentioned a customer who was ill behaved and that he “should be appreciating his mother on “her” day.” There was no mention, as usual, of the joys, dividends and benefits his mother very well could have reaped from raising him.
I acknowledged out loud the guy sounded difficult, but needless to say, her blind adulation for motherhood in general was not resonating.
“Maybe his mom is a bitch.” I stated in my matter of fact tone. Having been diligently and intimately involved in human reproduction on a single digit cellular level for years, I can attest to the truth that the ability to reproduce is #1 Random and #2 Has got absolutely nothing to do with worthiness. My romps through trying to conceive and involuntary childlessness have also made the absence of connection between being a parent and being a good person rather glaring.
She then went on to tell me how some customers gave her praise for working and rallied around her telling her that, as a mom, she deserved to be home enjoying the day.
I felt glad that she was seen and acknowledged, it’s impossible for me NOT to wish that for my fellow humans. What struck me was her complete inability to pay that forward. An interest in how the day was for me, an opening in the conversation for me to express MY reality however, was blatantly missing. A rough difference from spending the day missing my children while working, I spent it in acknowledgement of their elusive evaporation into the ether. Trying to figure out how to insert this into our conversation, I was bowled over not only by the differences in our world views but also by her seeming lack of awareness of them. The moment passed with me still perplexed by the mere act of existing amongst people who have children. I forgave myself; after all, putting the child free not by choice truth in conversation is like trying to plant a flower bed on a concrete slab.
So needless to say I arrived at my destination already somewhat saturated, but more than willing and ready to put myself aside for someone else’s tragedy.
My cousin’s wake was an onslaught of families with children and people I hadn’t seen in years. It was an overwhelming turnout for a fantastic person who brought people together and is now gone unfairly and too soon. It seemed her close loved ones took some comfort in the turnout and for me this was priceless.
My husband and I made our way through the crowd and there she was. The memory came flooding back to me, the memory of that moment when I knew my husband would make an awesome parent. It was at the wedding of the deceased, sadly, around twelve years ago. Little Maggie was all of two years old when she stole the show at my cousin’s December wedding. Bounding exuberantly down the aisle at the ceremony and twirling around the dance floor into late hours in her dark green velvet dress, red hair gleaming, my husband (who was not even yet my fiancé at the time) was clearly smitten. When I brought the subject of her up later in the evening he dreamily replied “Oh – it was dee beautifullest thing I ever see”, his face aglow with wonderment. And there she was now before us, suddenly an adolescent, a symbol of our dream denied. A connective, vibrant yet centered soul, she was a joy to chat with. I only had to see the dark thunder cloud of anguish spread across my husband’s face to know that he remembered too. “I’m so sorry honey” my spirit whispered as I continued to talk with her. Conversing with a fourteen year old regarding what she doesn’t like about where she lives and where she would rather live and what college is like and where I live and how I feel about it and how these things are forever shifting in life is right up my alley, after all. I enjoy hearing and not minimizing the adolescent perspective, when they take an interest in my life and dispensing a little wisdom here and there. I seek out her younger brother who is quiet and scowling, obviously not comfortable being there. Totally my kind of person. We chat Nerf guns, another favorite subject of mine, for a bit. I simultaneously am present with their dreams and future aspirations along with the death of ours.
“But it sounds like you’re in a place where you feel settled?” her Mom interjected into our conversation. “Oh no” I stated emphatically. Reminding myself that I was at a wake, I subsequently left out the part that grieving and mourning the loss of your children in the home you bought to raise them in is rather excruciating and therefore we hope to move at some point. I omitted quite a bit that day, to say the least. Even diarrhea of the mouth old me knows there is a time and a place for truth. I sensed this wasn’t exactly it. This day, this week, was about a wonderful genuine soul gone too soon who brought joy to so many. It was about children now without a mother, a husband now without his beloved, a father and step mother thrown into the soul shattering act of having to bury a daughter. It was so not about me.
But yet biting my tongue still took its toll, as I observed my state in the days following. Like a person externally flinching from a jab or punch to the gut, my insides had recoiled, much more gently than they used to, to people going onandfuckingon about their children, where they would be attending college, where they lived, how many children THEIR children now have, how my cousin was friends with all of the other moms in the neighborhood so they would rally around the family (thank goodness of course but still hurtful for me to have to hear), and how her husband’s job would no doubt empathize as he is now a widower WITH children. I spent much of the afternoon, and trip, searching for opportunities and means to insert my authentic self in fertile world conversation – an exercise in futility if there ever was one.
“I’m glad your son is happy living there” I assured a father whose twenty something child had relocated to the west coast. I managed to snuff out his “but he’s not near me” lament, displayed just like all of them with no regard for the child status of the person to whom they are speaking, by changing the subject. Human reproduction is the only area of life after all where it is still entirely socially acceptable to have zero awareness of those who are less fortunate than you. Much of our trip was also spent attempting to drop anchor in conversation on topics that suited BOTH participants (parents and child free not by choice). This is a lot of work when you’re the only side making the effort.
What would have happened, I wonder, had I chosen to plant my reality in conversation?
In a perfect world, I would have liked to have responded with “I wonder if my children are happy where they are as photographs of two and four celled embryos buried underground under a tree that died. Too bad I’ll never get to ask them. I only got to experience my children up to the point of four cells, you know. But I sure hope they are happy where they are because I’m sometimes awakened at night by the space where they ought to be. As a matter of fact I woke up early this morning sensing a shadow next to me that I thought was my son, reached over and patted nothing. Travelling to the west coast as you have to do is much easier, I venture to say. Hey, do you garden? I’m planning to plant a white garden on their burial site, do you have any white flowering plants in your yard you enjoy?” That, after all, is my truth.
On second thought, maybe a wake IS the place to share such a reality. But in the end I can only go with my instincts as the loss of my children to infertility was not accompanied by an owner’s manual.
I left out a lot of my truths during my visit; that “moving on” is a myth, that grieving a major loss takes place over years not months, and that someone is no more deserving of empathy for the loss of their beloved just because they were fortunate enough to get to have children. Truth was, my family’s tragedy and rawness was not in need of my unsolicited commentary.
Back at home, I had had to communicate with a few people regarding my absence. I accepted every condolence for the death of my special cousin with grace and appreciation. Truth is, no condolence should be minimized as I believe it is an act of spiritual generosity. The truth also is that I received infinitely more condolences for the death of my wonderful cousin who is not a part of my daily life than I did for the loss of my children, parenthood and grandparenthood. And this stung like hell.
There’s nothing quite like infertility to challenge, or even obliterate, everything you thought you knew and believed. At a certain point on our journey, I would come upon quotes or world views that used to make sense to me. I walked by a board that had Emerson’s “We find in life exactly what we put into it” at its center. It was post endo surgery pre IVF, 2.5 years into our string of intelligent yet fruitless efforts. “Uh, NO YOU FUCKING DON’T” I blurted out loud to myself and no one in particular. I used to take comfort in Emerson quotes. A native of Massachusetts, I was even born at Emerson hospital for goodness friggen sake. But deep in the throes of infertility not even Ralph Waldo could hold water. I also had started talking to the TV, as my husband can well attest, much to his unadmitted amusement. “What in the hell are they talking about? That’s so not how it is” I’d scoff at things that used to resonate or views that, though maybe I didn’t share I would not have batted an eye at in years prior. There is a cyclone of change brought by making effort after effort to reproduce and not getting to, and I was in the middle of it. And then I heard Elie Weisel talking to Oprah. “He really makes sense to me for some reason. I wonder why that is?” I mused to my counselor at the time.
He had me at, and I paraphrase, ‘I define myself by my questions. Answers will come and go, but questions…..questions will always remain.’ Ahhhh, music to my weary ears!
Fortunately, at some point following the loss of our children, I encouraged myself to shift my focus and delve into what DOES resonate with me, given that now the majority of daily life doesn’t. It just seemed the right thing to do. And why not include the one person I could listen to without groaning as I went through round after round of IVF? So having downloaded Elie’s memoirs, “All Rivers Run to the Sea” on my Kindle, I started reading it on the plane to and from Chicago. I found myself in greater awe of, and feeling even more adoration for this truthful courageous poetic soul. And there on the plane I plunged into HIS truth, tears gliding down my face as I reaped precious resonance from a story my heart deeply wishes he never had to write.
And my favorite Elie-ism? “The opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s indifference.”
He knows this truth in a more tormented and destructive context than I could ever imagine.
It’s a truth those of us in the infertile and child free not by choice communities can no doubt appreciate in relation to our own experiences.
I land back in New York and go right into a yoga teacher training weekend. “What do you need, sweetie?” I gently inquire as I coax myself through. As if dragging a lame leg that needs rest through a marathon, my saturated heart and soul wounds plod through a weekend that is rife with learning and knowledge and abundance and good fortune and amazing teaching and soul food to ponder. I manage to stay in it. But it’s not easy.
In the face of the many philosophies I’m bombarded with over the weekend, I remind myself that I am already doing a good job. Navigating one’s way through a world that does not acknowledge the very important difference of involuntary childlessness is hard no matter what coping measures or attitudes one might employ. Acceptance is a process.
“I am sad” I state to myself, reminding myself that, although I no longer feel it every day, I am just sometimes going to miss my children, probably for the rest of my life. So what do I need? In the presence of this inquiry, the truth flows seamlessly.
I ache for “Me, too” in conversation with my fellow humans.
I yearn to walk into a sandwich room at a wake, or anywhere for that matter, to the din of women talking about something, anything besides motherhood, their children and the way life and the universe supposedly “work.”
How I dream to come upon the hum of chit chat regarding blogging and creativity of any kind – the creativity that occurs amid the rebuilding of one’s life in that space, that eerily silent screaming dust settled shell shocked space that follows the atrocity of wanting children but not being able to have them.
How I would benefit to come upon conversations on the grieving and healing process amongst those who have actually done it.
How I miss an existence where immersing myself in the human race does not inevitably involve some sort of explaining, justifying, educating, asserting my reality and withdrawing to protect myself emotionally.
I need a warm comfortable place to rest besides inside of myself. I need people who get it, not paradigms.
“You know what it is?” I said to my husband a few nights later. We were having a wonderful evening together, finally able to luxuriate in the processing of our recent experiences. “It’s that……it’s….it’s……it’s…..”
Yes Virginia, articulating unexposed truths can be a rickety process to say the least. I’m immensely grateful for the presence of my husband, that one other precious person in my world who “knows”.
“It’s that our reality does not exist in anyone else’s mind.” I release a bubble of air and fall back limp. There now. “But is that it?” I rise back up again. This shit is hard. “Do you think I got it right?”
He agrees and I continue. “When other bad things happen to people, those to whom it didn’t happen at least have a vague understanding that thing, be it death, disease or otherwise, is bad. But we’re put in the demoralizing position of having to justify our pain. In our experience, it’s as if, empathetically, the whole human race has flatlined.
“We have to go in and out.” was my husband’s assessment of the workings of our relationship with people and mainstream society. I asked him to elaborate. “Well, we have to go in because that’s life and we can’t totally avoid it. We need to practice being in other people’s reality. We have to go out, because that’s (mainstream reality) not our life. To have our reality we need to be on our own.”
Yes, perpetually not being met where you are at – culturally, socially, personally, could very well define the experience of those who wanted children but couldn’t have them. My husband’s words help me to speak the simple truth of my weekend which was just simply that, by Friday, I was ready to be “out” (of the mainstream) for a while but couldn’t be.
In reflecting upon the week I was able to see much truth. This position I’m in in life is uniquely challenging. But, as of today, at least I get to live. I thoroughly enjoyed the precious few conversations I had that week with people who tried to take me where I am at and showed a non – judgmental curiosity towards getting to know me and my life. I will continue to speak my truth when I can, and to contemplate it when I can’t. There is no level of challenge or strife that would make it worth it to bow out and conform to someone else’s preferred reality. This year it was even clearer that Mother’s Day for me will become an acknowledgement, or perhaps even a celebration, of the progress I make in acclimating to the absence of my children and my accomplishments, however small or ambiguous, in this life I did not chose. This year, the truth was both simple and massive: I AM HEALING.
Wanted to give a nod to my fellow bloggers who have expressed themselves one way or another on the general topic of infertility/child free not by choice socializing. I appreciate their openness and offerings that have helped to make me feel less alone.
Find Brian Hawker’s guest post on Pamela’s blog here.
And thanks, Brian, for your quote that sums it up so perfectly – “I want satisfying encounters with people, not conversations fraught with the additional responsibility of accommodating someone’s lack of awareness while my truth, my whole truth, remains untold and therefore, unheard.”
Justine’s post is an important read.
Pamela’s post details a possible light at the end of the tunnel.