When it comes to infertility and involuntary childlessness, everyone needs to go back to school.
The second day of our little North Fork of Long Island July getaway started out with a full delicious breakfast, and a bike rental that went off without a hitch. Perfect eighty – degree weather and much pedaling brought us to our first winery stop in the early afternoon.
Sipping on a succulent sparkling rose, my husband and I found ourselves seated in proximity to what for us is a past life of sorts – a group of eight youngsters celebrating an engagement. I enjoyed their effervescence to the hum of my internal groan as they yammered on about how many kids each of them wanted and were going to have.
The disturbing aspect of all this you ask? What was missing. There was no acknowledgement whatsoever that babies might not come right away or at all. No mention that many who want three kids can only have one, or maybe none, never mind what they have to go through to get there. And the utter lack of control we humans have over human reproduction? Nary a whisper of this truth. Or this one: That you can’t always have what you want in the kid department, never mind the process of things not working can violently shove you through a transformation that makes the transition into parenthood look like kindergarten circle time.
Now, I’m all for an innocent dream-a-thon amongst friends. It is, after all, one of the privileges of youth.
Yet the rattling absence of the concepts of “if” and “maybe” in their conversation highlights a glaring yet unseen truth: Our young people are perpetually groomed for parenthood, yet are left entirely in the dark regarding the life altering difficulties that may arise in its no – results – guaranteed pursuit.
“Holy shit, they don’t know” I quietly mused to my husband as I continued observing.
The universal nature of my experiences, as well as those of the entire infertile community, has always been clear to me. ALL of human reproduction is relevant, not just the yippy skippy parts.
When people talk of an upcoming marriage, the potential of challenges and hardships are openly acknowledged. Even marriage vows include the possibilities of sickness and poverty. During sex education we’re enlightened to the realities of unplanned pregnancies, sexual assault and the risks of contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
But baby making? NAH!
So what if one in eight people of child-bearing age seek medical treatment for infertility? Medical treatment whose common side effects include anxiety, depression and PTSD?
So what if one in every four pregnancies ends in a miscarriage and one in every one hundred sixty births is a still?
So what if twenty percent of women in this country over the age of 45 don’t parent, percentage not by choice as of now unknown but estimated at at least half of this mentioned group? So what if there’s not a statistic at all for men in this category?
So what if other diseases such as cancer can rob a person of their ability to reproduce?
And so what if there is little to no support for the mourning, healing and recovery processes of those who suffer?
As of now, society’s response to this has been to keep over – glorifying parenthood, projecting onto our children about when “they have kids one day” yeah like as if that’s a slam dunk, pretend infertility is rare and that involuntary childlessness is not even a thing while allowing the experience of easily procured parenthood to continue to monopolize the conversation and keep up the idiotic claim that parenthood is “the only way you’ll ever know real love”.
Nice job, folks. The epitome of inadequacy, no doubt.
As their flutter of excitement amid their perceived to be no holds barred dreams continued, my feelings of disturbance escalated.
“Someone has failed these kids!” I exclaimed to my husband. “We as a society have failed them.”
(Can you imagine if people recited vows as they embarked on the pursuit of parenthood? As the societal tone deafness to all things traumatic in human reproduction stands today, they would go something like this: In baby and in baby, and in joy and in joy, and in boy and in girl (and in the order you want them of course), chocolate bunnies will rain from the sky as all of your parent dreams which you just need to believe in will easily come true. Rainbows, unicorns and lollipops until death do us part.)
But I know, having lived it myself, the more realistic scenario. There’s a good chance one of these kids, and thus couples, will be the one in eight. If it were a group of twenty people, at least one would end up not being able to reproduce at all. At least one other would end up child free by circumstance, not by choice.
And so the one in eight will either hide their plight or be met with platitudes and dismissals when they share it. Success from attempts to educate and integrate, if they can summon the strength at all amid the gargantuan levels of trauma and loss with which they are dealing, will be tepid and infrequent. It more often than not will boil down to either faking it to stay in connection with their child-bearing peers, or being left alone if they are stricken, as I am, with the disease of full disclosure and the unwillingness to endure a lack of acceptance from those who are supposed to care.
Not acknowledging the possibilities of infertility and involuntary childlessness from a young age not only leaves those living with these circumstances alone and isolated, it destroys any potential support systems. Bystanders often see only taboo, stigma, emotional discomfort and social inconvenience in these situations, instead of seeing traumas and losses that need their support, acceptance and abidance.
I continue to plug reality into the future as I look on at the group. “I wonder which one is going to be the ‘Just relax and take a vacation’ genius? It’s inevitable, every group has one. And no doubt at least one of them will assume the role of delivering grief’s ultimate debaser – the ‘everything happens for a reason’ mail bomb.”
“I want to go over there and tell them…someone has to tell them….” I hissed out my frustration.
“Don’t go” my husband stammered in a rare show of nervousness reserved for those instances when part of me wants to pull the trigger.
“Of course I’m not actually going over!” I exclaimed with unwarranted indignance (I have been known to act on my impulses every now and then).
However my empty arms wanted to gather up all eight of these sweet young adults, my lil’ twenty something punkin pies, and give them their due. The truth talk parents and educators should have given them long ago but didn’t and continue to fail to do so. I thought about it and it would go something like this:
Nine Things You Need To Know About Human Reproduction People Should Have Told You But Probably Didn’t:
1. Your abilities and inabilities to reproduce can impact every aspect of your life, but they are no reflection of your worthiness and value as a human.
2. It’s a good idea to cultivate a general awareness that many things can go wrong in the process of trying to have a family with children. An easy path and an actual result is not guaranteed to anyone.
3. However, there is no need or purpose to live in fear of infertility, miscarriages and other reproductive traumas. They don’t happen to everyone, and we’re not in control of when and to whom they do happen. But it’s important to know they happen more often than society has bothered to tell you.
4. Please know that if any of these things happen to you it is NOT YOUR FAULT, though you’ll notice there are plenty of ignorant folks ready to infer otherwise. In the same way Jack’s beanstalk isn’t real, fertility is NOT a personal quality. Infertility is not a reflection of the strength of your beliefs, your ability to parent, your ability to love, your past actions or your capacity to nurture. It is not a spiritual test (unless you choose to believe so) or commentary on what you are suited for in life. It is not even a reflection, most of the time, of the way you’ve taken care of your body. It is a condition for which there is no common denominator. It is not a reflection of PRECIOUS YOU in any way shape or form.
5. Reproductive medicine is costly, time-consuming and energy draining beyond measure. Despite being marketed as a cure and fix – all, its failure rates are extremely high. I know you’ve been taught to assume fertility treatments always result in a baby, please know that they often don’t. And that reproductive medicine offers no support system, or even acknowledgement of, the life altering emotional fall out and mental health issues patients commonly experience.
6. You know how you’ve been taught that if you work long enough and try hard enough that you can achieve anything? That persistence always pays? Please know these principles do not correlate to the realm of human reproduction. People who do nothing can get everything, there are those who do everything and get nothing. Often times the harder you work the more you lose. I want you to know, whether you ever go through it or not, it is an experience that counters much of what we’ve been taught to believe.
7. To those who do not encounter fertility issues, you will more likely than not have one or more close people in your life who will. Please know it is not their job to conform, rather it will be your job to support, abide with, accept and learn from their struggles. This is more needed than you will ever know.
8. To those who end up acquiring it easily, know that parenthood does not happen to everyone who wants it. A significant percentage of the human race is not able to reproduce even with assisted reproductive technology (my conservative estimate is 5%). The adoption process is financially and emotionally arduous and does not guarantee a result. Being mindful of how and to whom you’re speaking when it comes to all things parent is a noble social standard.
9. People who wanted children but couldn’t have them have suffered a major, significant life altering loss. On the same coin we also go on to live full meaningful lives and do not care less about the state of the world than our parenting counterparts. The ones I’ve met in person happen to be some of the most inventive, tenacious, compassionate and nurturing people I know. Those “selfish, self – absorbed, indulgent” child free stereotypes that you might have come across? You can officially toss them!