Collateral Damage Gets a Breather

Socializing With Fellow Child Free Not By Choicers

I felt my whole body present and peaceful before I opened my eyes.  Light filtered in through our hotel window which faced Pittsburgh’s Point State Park, just to the side of Heinz field.

“I feel, like…..good” I stated to my husband (mornings for me have never exactly been a time of intellectual prowess).  However, in the noticeably less plowing and more functional third year of grieving and mourning the loss of one’s children to infertility, feeling good still rates as news.

“I can’t quite explain it….” I meandered as I stretched my body and gulped in as much of my good feeling as I could, reflecting on our weekend in “the Burgh” with fellow blogger Kinsey.  “I think I might feel…normal……..which is of course weird.”

The precious few times I’ve been asked to site the toughest aspect of what I go through, aside from not getting to have children, I always answer “the social ramifications”.  Hovering in the backdrop of my response is the shaky, filmy sense that even I don’t yet really know what that means.  Not fully, anyway.

The experience of untimely, life altering, traumatic loss is not as simple as “one door closes and another opens” or “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” and other such douche-baggeries.  Throughout the course of fertility treatments, I witnessed people getting more than they could handle practically on a daily basis.  But consider the source of such platitudes – it isn’t wisdom, but rather the privilege of cluelessness from which they are bred.

I was reminded of this this morning when I read my friend’s heartbreaking Facebook post on the angst of dating and fielding new relationships in the face of her husband’s death five years ago.  All I can offer is the understatement that it sounds overwhelming and exhausting and I admire her, and honor that no matter what comes or doesn’t come of it, she is slogging through some towering collateral damage.

What I refer to as collateral damage Dr. Alan Wolfelt calls “secondary” or “fall-out losses” in his first of six central needs of mourning, Mourning Need 1: Acknowledge the reality of the losses.  In his book, Reframing PTSD as Traumatic Grief, which I HIGHLY recommend by the way, he writes, “All significant loss is multi – dimensional.  When someone I love dies I lose much more than the physical presence of that person.”

Addressing these secondary losses in our realm, Pamela Tsigdinos refers to

“……the many little deaths that infertility inflicts over and over in our lives” in her latest post.

For the involuntary childless infertility survivor, what is this social collateral damage?  I have to admit, I’m not confident in my ability to describe it.  I will dare say I suspect it is the most unseen, under rated aspect of the child free not by choice experience.

It all starts with survival, really.  In having no organized support system while having to interact with a world that lacks the construct, among other things, to “get it”, we have no choice but to put one foot in front of the other.  We compromise.  We find our ways of coping.  For me, it has been a whole host of things.  I hone and use my voice when I have the energy.  I’m the faithful curator of my own solitude.  I’ve become a master of redirecting conversation – gently coaxing people with children who lack empathy and sensitivity away from topics that are painful and on which I can’t elaborate or relate – in the way one would patiently remove a child’s hand from fragile objects in a store again and again, teaching them to have consideration for something other than their immediate wants.  “No, sweetie, that’s not yours to touch.  You might break it and then you’ll have to pay…..”

So somewhere along this odyssey of coping, it hits you.  Your reality is completely NOT PRESENT in the human conversation.  It’s as if your life, this life you didn’t ask for you are doing your damndest to claw your way through, in the context of other people’s brains, DOESN’T EXIST.  Now.  What’s a person who already lost their children supposed to do in the face of such quaking nothingness??

For me, I firmly feel it is not my job to conform and appease the jolly one – sided narrative society has established on human reproduction.  I feel I should get to live my experience as out loud and authentically as someone who easily conceives and has healthy babies.  It only makes sense, being that I haven’t done anything wrong after all.  My life now is an innocent culmination of what randomly is:  The natural desire to procreate with my soul mate, the undying love I have for my children, failures of both nature and science and imposed resurrection.

Not as rare of a combination as people might think, yet those of us who are enduring this debacle find ourselves in a world that hasn’t even acknowledged it, never mind made room for it.  It’s hard to realize how much children – and emotional aversion – dominate human behavior and conversation until you’re stripped of both.

After fumbling our way into Pittsburgh, PA on a rainy early evening in late July, it hit me during dinner.  “Do you realize we just drove eight hours to a strange city to meet people I met online?  Because we’re connected by involuntary childlessness?”

I hadn’t thought much of our trek prior.  It just seemed the thing to do.  Unlike a lot of my life, this seemed normal.

“We all should really give ourselves a lot of credit” I stated as I internally second guessed myself.  I didn’t want us all to be under pressure to like each other.  Was our trip creating that?  I tried to look at it as though at least we were now meeting people under the “having things in common” circumstances many people with children get to meet under.  And I knew Kinsey and I both possess three ingredients necessary for a good time together – irreverence, sarcasm and the need to curse.  Plus, the potential iffy-ness of the situation probably didn’t initially register as it was nothing like what I deal with as a child free not by choicer on a daily basis.

Conversations with humans are now fraught with acrobatics.  When to tell, how much, setting boundaries, letting people know I of course won’t have many of the same world views and responses as someone with easily conceived children, assessing the emotional capacity of the person to whom I’m speaking and the degree to which they are – or aren’t – able to entertain my reality, being smart to minimizations and dismissals, being open and receptive to those who do care, conveying that grief, mourning, healing and integrating loss are normal and not pathological, making sense and not talking down to people when in reality I want to clobber them, when to express myself, when to let differences slide……

Even in the presence of those who love and support us conversations all too often are laced with explaining, justifying and educating.

Anything that matters and is important to my life has to be muscled into the conversation or it’s as if I don’t exist – The grieving, mourning and healing process, writing, self and life re-invention, how I might use my experiences to help others, creativity, my commitment to serving as a source for reporters willing to expose infertility and childlessness related issues, where my husband and I might go next as being in the home and neighborhood we thought we’d be raising our children in is not great.  I’ve learned to be grateful when I’m in the rare presence of a person where these things flow easily in and out of the conversation.

And then there are scenes like this that happen on a regular basis:

At the end of exercise class, a mother laments sending one of her children off to college and receives outward empathy and support.  I’d love to express that I really wish I was going home to my children after class, as I find myself missing them lately, but am not up for explaining and enduring blank stares.

I’m in a group of people (who know of my losses) near kids playing a pickup game of soccer.  Many of the women in the group begin to mindlessly and incessantly yip yap about their children’s activities.  It hits me in this moment that I will never know what my children’s voices sound like.  I’m not at all confident I can share this with these people and not be further injured by their judgement, discomfort, minimizations and unsolicited spiritual pontifications, so I stay silent.  Two people in the group notice my glazed over look and actually care, engaging me in other conversation.  While this is a record number of people giving a shit and taking action on my behalf, it’s not enough to ward off a panic attack.

And then there are the inevitable altered perspectives resulting from grief and trauma.  I’ve been through one surgery and ten failed fertility treatments.  I’ve taken over 1,000 needles and have had 15 catheters rammed into my uterus.  I’ve received ten “Sarah, I’m sorry I’m not calling with better news” phone calls.  Can you imagine getting ten phone calls confirming the non-existence of your children??  All of this occurred at an out of pocket cost of $77,000 dollars while people who shouldn’t be parents cheaply make babies over and over and over again as that’s the world we live in.

And yet.  It seems the world forgets to properly adjust its expectations.  I find myself thrust into conversations where paying for braces is presented as the most egregious financial crisis since the market crash in 1929 and empty nests are portrayed as one of the more wrenching, colossal losses a person could suffer.  The acknowledgement that I would, and have, given everything in order to experience these “problems” is notably absent in the conversation.

Truth is, we child free not by choicers can’t say what’s on our minds and hearts regarding what, unfortunately, takes up a vast portion of peripheral human conversation – parenthood and grandparenthood.  We can’t really say what’s on our minds and hearts at all, not without risking those things that perhaps re-traumatize more deeply than our silence – judgement, dismissal and uninformed attempts to fix that which was never pathological in the first place.

Not a day goes by when I don’t wonder what this does to a person.

Merely being out in the world requires an epic expenditure of energy.

In being around other people who wanted children but couldn’t have them, we don’t have to deal with a single drop of any of the above.  Not one single drop.

And as it turned out, not only were they lovely hosts and the nicest of people, but Kinsey and I and our boys had plenty to talk about.  We could have talked all night.  Especially when it came to those things that even the most well – meaning and supportive of people could not understand unless they’ve been there.  We were able to freely and easily discuss our reasons for not adopting with one another, just one of many weighty, life altering processes I haven’t been able to really share with people.  At one point, I actually caught myself in the middle of explaining and justifying.  “Oh, wait, I don’t have to explain because you guys get it HA!!” I gleefully exclaimed.

Can you, those not in the child free not by choice position, imagine then, what it would be like?  If that which was deeply relevant to your life was never spoken of in daily conversation?  If a major chunk of the human conversation centered around that which you had given everything to have but couldn’t?  If your life as you know it failed to exist in the outer world?  What would that feel like?  What all would you lose that you have now?

What I suspect it boils down to for me is this:  Both Infertility and involuntary childlessness have violated my sense of connection and safety in this world.  They have eroded feelings of ease and belonging.  No matter how patient, honest, outspoken and willing to educate I am, my normal takes a hit as the realities of human reproduction that are expressed in the world are only those of the privileged majority.  I know over time I will assert and cement my new normal and find my different ways of connecting.  The return of ease?  Well, I’m not so sure about that one.

I value the relationships I am forming through all this as well as the navigation skills my harsh realities have sharpened.  But there is a part of me, an unhealed part sobbing for attention, that misses the easier days.  The days when connection with another person or couple was simply enough.  When Julio and I didn’t have to worry about not being accepted or minimized by people in whom we place our trust and would otherwise want to spend time with.  The days when people used to be able to easily “get” me.  And when interactions with humans weren’t constantly shaped by uncultivated emotional capacities and the unjust limits of stigma, taboo, ancient archetypes and modern day prejudices, perpetually requiring the almost impossible balance of honest disclosure with an attempt at palatability.  Yes, I miss deeply the mindless ease of being with people.  And this, my friends, is a very real secondary loss, a fall-out loss that could not be more valid.  Collateral damage at its most potent.

“No rest for the weary” I often find myself grumbling.  But this time, there was, and I soaked in every second of it.  Having our normal ring out freely in the conversation?  This I can actually describe in one word: Purifying.  Being in the presence of understanding, acceptance and non judgement is not only nice – I’m now convinced it’s medicinal.


MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE/THE POLICE//Just a castaway, An island lost at sea/Another lonely day with no one here but me/More loneliness than any man could bear/Rescue me before I fall into despair/I’ll send an SOS to the world/I’ll send and SOS to the world/I hope that someone gets my/I hope that someone gets my/I hope that someone gets my/message in a bottle/message in a bottle//A year has passed since I wrote my note/But I should have known this right from the start/Only hope can keep me together/Love can mend your life but love can break your heart//I’ll send and SOS to the world/I’ll send an SOS to the world/I hope that someone gets my/I hope that someone gets my/I hope that someone gets my/message in a bottle/message in a bottle//Walked out this morning, Don’t believe what I saw/A hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore/Seems I’m not alone at being alone/A hundred billion castaways looking for a home

20 thoughts on “Collateral Damage Gets a Breather

  • Oh Sarah. You said it exactly. The nothingness. The major part of what we face is never mentioned in daily conversation. I call it invisibility. It’s so completely devastating. And yet I’m determined to not stay here as an invisible nothing… Thank-you for the courage you sent my way to day, the validation, I feel heard. Thank-you

  • Missing you children who were never conceived is a loss many don’t get at all. I know it well. How do you explain that the 6 years of treatments, 7 IUIs, and 9 IVFs took you further and further away from your child — your child who felt so very present to you when you first begun?

    Thank you for speaking this loss bravely in public so we can nod along in acknowledgement.

  • I’m convinced that connection is medicinal too! Every word of this leaves me nodding my head! The acrobatics required during day to day conversations is in sharp contrast to the ease and comfort that I felt with you. Understanding and common ground can not be underscored. I think we easily could have talked all night too!

    I remain grateful that you and I had the opportunity to meet (and our boys!), yet I’m already trying to figure out a way to get together again. Goddamn distance. 🙂

  • Ease does return. In different ways, with different people at different times, till it becomes the norm again. But I can totally relate to the delight in finding people you can be immediately at ease with, who get that one thing about our lives that is so much to the forefront of our minds. I’m so glad you all had a great time together.

  • I’m glad you met people who get it.

    Your post made me think of unique sometimes mutually exclusive experiences we all have. One does not get the experience of being childfree not by choice and dealing with toddler tantrums. When I was first year teacher and job took all my life I was so happy to meet someone who has had similar struggles and gets it. And so many people just don’t get it how different it is from their office jobs. I get it what it means to feel happiness, jealousy and guilt about some others pregnancy while you have picked out names ages ago. I get it how hard it is to be idealistic rookie teacher. I’m sure there are a lot of possible experiences I don’t get. It’s ok not to belong to any random company. You will treasure even more the rare ones with whom you can talk easily.

    This world needs more compassion, right?

    • Yes, and add to the mutual exclusivity you speak of that we didn’t chose this, it’s non – existent in the human conversation and that’s it’s not even societally acknowledged as a hard, never mind life altering experience.

      One thing that’s come out of my experience for me – I’ve learned I don’t need to “get” someone else’s experience in order to make them feel heard and validated.

  • Sarah….thank you so much for another post that is just so spot on…on so many levels. Although I’ve felt a little more “consideration” lately in my world, I ache for the experience and understanding you describe. Those that have walked in these shoes truly get it. We certainly need more of this kind of connection in our community.

    • Hi Steph! I’ve probably said it before, I’ll say it again – I hope one day there are enough organized support systems in place for people who wanted children but couldn’t have them. Adjusting my expectations socially is proving to be quite the long and drawn out process. Your comments have helped me realize I’m not alone in that.

  • Sarah, you have powerfully expressed the importance of this often overlooked topic and “side-effect” of being child free not by choice. We don’t get to say what is on our minds freely, as people with children do, without risking judgment, condescending remarks, or even worse, pity. I also miss those easier days of socializing when I felt I was on an even playing field with others. Now I feel I have to be on top of my game at all times, defensive and ready to deflect that hurtful or insensitive comment that inevitably comes up in conversation. It is exhausting! So much easier to socialize with old friends with whom it doesn’t matter or new friends who have been through it and naturally “get it”. I’m so glad you got to enjoy time away with someone who does get it. Thanks for sharing.

    • I so appreciate it when people bring up the uneven playing field we deal with socially. I need reminding, for some reason. It helps me pull back from judging myself when I get frustrated I can’t make things “work” (function is relative, as we all know!). In tough social situations I tell myself, “It’s not an even playing field, you did the best you could”, especially in those cases where I’m the only one making the effort. Ahhh…..onward:-)

  • Yes, yes, and yes again: “Both Infertility and involuntary childlessness have violated my sense of connection and safety in this world. They have eroded feelings of ease and belonging.” So true for me, too! Thank you for putting it into words so eloquently.

Ideas? Thoughts? Feelings? Share here.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.