Involuntary Childlessness in the Human Conversation

Scenes from when it works, Illuminations on what goes wrong 

Today I am dedicating my blog to National Infertility Awareness Week and to the launch of Justine Brooks Froelker’s latest book The Mother of Second Chances, based on her blog Ever Upward releasing on April 17th. For five weeks 25 amazing women will share their stories of infertility and loss as part of this incredible blog tour, because together we can shatter the stigma.

Click here for the scheduled list of participants and posts, running all of the way from March 27 – April 28!!  We would love for you to participate by sharing these posts far and wide. We’d especially love to see your own broken silence by sharing your own infertility story using the hastags: #NIAW, #infertility and #EverUpward.

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I recall walking out in the world during the two years following my fertility treatments feeling like the teacher from Charlie Brown – voiceless.

The portrayal of even a smidgen of my experiences brought forth endless platitudes. Blank stares and silence filled the space where ceremony and ritual, verbal acknowledgements (try I’m so sorry for your loss) and casseroles are supposed to be in the event of that which is world shattering.

Close to 20% of the female population aged 45 and over in the United States (and in many other countries around the world) does not parent.  It is likely the majority of this population is child free not entirely by choice, hopefully one day soon there will be an actual statistic available.  IVF has now been around for 40 years, providing many of us with a towering pile of failures.  And yet the human conversation still lags far behind reality.

In daily conversation, humans did an impeccable job depicting the harsh lesson that under my circumstances sharing has as much, or perhaps more, of a capacity to re-injure than it does to heal. Not only had I lost my children, parenthood and grandparenthood, my right to claim it, talk about it and receive compassion somehow didn’t exist either. I learned the hard way that when it comes to the loss of parenthood, most fail to do the most connective thing a human can do in the face of someone else’s pain – that is to see a piece of themselves in the injured and bereft.

I’ve often wondered, shuddered actually, at what our world would look like if we treated the loss of physical children in the same way – “What’s that, your kid died instead of lived?  Yeah, hey OH WELL.  Guess your child just wasn’t meant to be.  Think how much cheaper family vacations will be now!  Are you going to get a pet?”

There is this illusion out there that those coming through a life altering traumatic loss have the rest of their lives waltzing on as normal. The inexperienced perceiver compartmentalizes such tragedies, synthesizing them as cognitive when they are in fact anything but. Truth was, I wasn’t able to speak about, never mind breath or exist much else coming out of four years of trying to conceive, one surgery and ten failed fertility treatments. I wasn’t emerging from some inconvenient thing that happened in a corner over there, I was emerging from a death of sorts into a life where most things as I had known them were no more.

In the fields of psychology and sociology it has been well documented that support from fellow humans is an essential component to the emotional and spiritual healing processes.

“The quality and quantity of support the griever receives is a major influence on the capacity to reintegrate the loss into her life and renew resources for living.” – Dr. Alan Wolfelt, Reframing PTSD as Traumatic Grief

Dr. Wolfelt also lists a lack of support, stigmatized losses, and a lack of participation in meaningful ceremonies (oh can you hear the bells clanging, my fellow infertility survivors?) as contributing factors in complicated grief. 

Mourning by nature of its definition – “a shared social response to loss” – must be viewed in the broader context of social and family perspectives.” – Dr. Alan wolfelt, Reframing PTSD as Traumatic Grief

“In humans, a lack of social support has been found to be twice as reliable at predicting PTSD as the severity of the trauma itself.”

Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

Without any form of social protocol or expectation of emotional labor (click to check out Cathy’s post on this subject matter over at Slow Swimmers and Fried Eggs) on our behalf however, those of us who must transition from infertility to a life without children are left to fend for ourselves. We are forced to be the wounded patient, grieving childless parent, doctor, educator, advocate and fucking Ghandi all in a single bound. Nothing less than a barbaric set of expectations, no doubt.

And so in the grieving, healing and resurrection process you find yourself in the unfortunate and not asked for debacle of being dependent on your fellow humans for empathy. A most precarious position in this modern society, that was just described by Michelle E. Steinke in her recent Huffington Post piece Stifled Grief: How the West Has It Wrong as a “….culture of emotionally stunted individuals who are scared of our mortality (and of the inability to reproduce, may I add?) and have mastered the concept of stuffing our pain”.

Because you see, once someone is not empathizing the only frayed thread left for connection of any kind is to explain yourself (which 99 times out of 100 results in the person not getting it anyway). And in grief and loss, it’s virtually impossible to explain yourself. One, you don’t have the energy and secondly, your gut knows that what you are experiencing relative to what you’ve been through is entirely normal and necessary. Plus there’s something deflating about having to provide step by step instructions on the nuts and bolts of your existence. Can you imagine if parents had to explain, from square one, why they use car seats for their young children or their concern over a less than ideal social situation in which their child is entangled?

Which is why comfortable interactions with people who incorporate the realities of my life have become a source of intrigue. When things are easeful in conversation it’s unusual and thus I sometimes can’t help but wonder why. “What made that work?” I’ll ponder as I bask in the rarity of normalcy for as long as it will last.

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In talking about how empathy can’t be scripted, Brenee Brown states that “Empathy is about being present, if we’re present and engaged, we’ll know what the person across from us needs.”

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“It really means a lot to me that you did this.”

I was fumbling for the right words amid the din of a holiday gathering, returning a book a friend had lent me. It was a compilation of the blog posts of someone who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer that transpired into a book after his death. My friend had, um-prompted, placed the book in my hands in the months after I declared I was going to write mine, relating the blogging and book process to my situation. And he also acknowledged the journey of the spirit that accompanies crisis and loss, both mine and the author of the book. Markedly different journeys of the spirit, no doubt, as I as of now get to live and the author didn’t. But journeys of the spirit they both are and that my friend knew this and volunteered it without need for explanation was music to my heart. I felt seen in a way that is uncommon in my new life.

“Loss launches us on spiritual journeys of the heart and soul” – Dr. Alan Wolfelt, Reframing PTSD as Traumatic Grief

My friend seemed oblivious to the beauty of his actions, I meandered around a bit more in attempt to express myself. I finally settled on something to the effect of ‘You listened and met me where I’m at and that’s rare – not many people do that’.

“Well that’s SAD” he aptly replied.

Needless to say I agree with him.

*****

“You know, it was weird. Here I am in this conversation where I’m talking to someone about their child, offering some input even, and it felt aligned and normal. It even felt good as a matter of fact.”

My curiosity regarding why some things work and others don’t had again grabbed hold of me. This time, I was lucky enough to get to bounce it off a fellow child free not by choice survivor of infertility who also happens to be a person both wise and deep.

I described to her the scenario: I was in a conversation with someone I’ve been getting to know over the past few years in a professional/client situation (I’m the client). I’ve known her to be an intuitive, astute and sensitive person, she’s someone I’ve always thought highly of. An adult child of hers was having some chronic health issues to whom she thought writing might be helpful in some way, and she was picking my brain on how I had used writing to help myself. She’s someone who has always not only respected and entertained my infertility survivor child free not by choice realities, but taken an active interest in them. One way or another, she “gets it”.

The majority of my experiences have gone unspoken amid the utter lack of openings in the human conversation for such things and the need to emotionally self protect so I can heal. And so I reveled in the opportunity to unpack my self therapy process along with the idea that it might also help someone else.

“But so much of it was what she didn’t do” I went on to tell my friend. “She didn’t act with that presumptive air so many parents put on, that haughty assumption that not only they but everyone around them must give their problems greater weight. There was real equanimity. I didn’t feel there was the expectation that I responded to the issue in the same way she did, in other words, she didn’t “as a mom” me. I had the sense that she understood that while I empathized with and felt for her situation I’d be coming at it from a different direction due to my experiences, and further more she valued that direction.”

My friend put things in a nut shell:

1) Well for one, she’s heard you,

2) She has normalized your experiences

3) And she’s mining your wisdom

And then she pointed out that when dealing with our situation, most people don’t even make it to step one. So true.

It was her wisdom mining point that especially hit home with me. While my journey through treatments and more so the grief trodden aftermath has taken me to places humans can’t even go on their own volition, society took me back in as though nothing had ever happened. It’s like asking someone who has personally traversed through Saturn’s rings to see a picture of them having coffee at Joe’s Diner.

It reminds me of a section in a book I read recently, Tribe, On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger.

“Men (in the Papago Tribe) who were forced into combat by attacks from other tribes had to undergo a 16 day purification ritual before re-entering society. The entire community participated in those rituals because every person in the tribe was assumed to have been affected by the war. After the ceremony, the combatants were viewed as superior to their peers because – as loathsome and crazy as war was – it was still thought to impart wisdom that nothing else could.”

Other than that I would substitute the word “superior” with the term “equally worthy”, this is how I feel about involuntary childlessness – that it imparts a wisdom all its own.

With those who openly entertain my reality, I notice certain qualities. Receptivity, curiosity and a willingness to learn. An ability to be present with someone else’s pain without judgment or attachment to the outcome of the interaction. An unspoken understanding that it is not my job to spend my life assimilating to someone else’s normal. I’ve also noticed that people in their 60’s and 70’s, as are the two above, seem to have a better understanding of things in general. They are more accepting. My husband and I have connected quite a bit with this age range since the loss of our children, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Being that I haven’t been where they’ve been, I often wonder if I can reciprocate appropriately in these circumstances, if I can do MY fair share of emotional labor.

But age isn’t necessarily the primary factor. Not by a long shot.

A couple of years after our final failed treatment I found myself in a Nerf gun battle with my nephew, a handful of his friends, my brother and another Dad. Long story short, I shot one of the kids in the eye by accident. How super.

Immediately from my gut hurled the silent statement “Wow, you can’t even make one and now you just ruined one. Nice job.” Now I’m no charmer, however I didn’t know I was capable of such negative self talk. But there it was lurking in my depths, the demon of unworthiness. And right on the heels of this my brother, having no idea what he was about to bring to the surface kiddingly said, “You shot a kid, wow, you’re a HORRIBLE person”.

Suffice it to say a melt down followed (while I was simultaneously laughing at the absurdity of it all). My nose spontaneously released a ball of snot the size of my palm as I, riddled with pain, made my way over to sit down on the sidelines. The kid I shot and his brother had been going at it and sat down on the sidelines prior for a crying time out, now it was Aunty Sarah’s turn. The track record of disastrous traumatic nothingness that haunted my reproductive experiences had manifested, in the first two or so years after treatments, in the potent fear that I would harm a child, specifically that a child would somehow die on my watch. Thus, shooting a kid in the eye with a Nerf dart becomes logically triggering.

Everyone, including the kid’s Dad had been more than generous in letting me know he was ok, no harm done etc. But sit there in an ocean of sobs I did. Making my way back into the war, I was greeted by my 10 year old (at the time) nephew.

Ben: Are you ok?

Me: Still a little upset but I’ll be fine.

Ben: (sweetly) I know being around kids makes you sad sometimes.

My husband and I have been brief and to the point but open with him about wanting children but not being able to have them. My nephew knew of my sadness because on a prior visit we were in the exact hell an infertility survivor should never be in a Denny’s on Sunday morning. He noticed my discomfort and I explained to him: “When it comes to having babies people have many different experiences, and our experiences affect how we feel about things, right? For someone who gets to have children, this scene is normal, but for someone like me who tried and tried to have children but couldn’t, well this can be painful. Neither is right or wrong, it just is. Does this make sense?” He nodded and moments later we were in a conversation about why it’s not good to stick your finger in the syrup ramekin.

And so there he was in the Nerf war a few months later with his emotionally beat up auntie, acknowledging, connecting and supporting without judgment (take note, grownups).

Me: Yeah, especially when I HURT one of them.

I was mad at myself for not paying attention and not being more careful in the presence of the kid I shot as he was 2 years younger than the others. At that age a two year difference can be pretty huge.

Ben: Oh, he’s fine. He’s already running around playing, see?

Me: Thanks, Ben Ben.

The following spring I was eating at the family table, getting ready to hop into my car for the drive from Maryland back to my home in New York. Asked how I was doing and what I had awaiting me at home that morning by one of my family members, I proceeded to answer like a normal human. It was during the time Julia Leigh’s Avalanche was cluelessly reviewed in the NY Times by a reviewer with tone-deaf fertilitis, and the child free not by choice blogosphere was coming together to rally behind Leigh and celebrate her powerful work. I shared this, explaining that it’s important for us to speak as the dark side of baby making is still not accepted by even the most accomplished of people.

What followed was the tragedy of distraction adults have honed so well, silly comments not acknowledging the depth of my subject matter accompanied by the mundane yet potent aversion of breakfast details.

And then there was my nephew, listening stealthfully.

“You know, it’s kind of like with the hamsters….” he started in a thoughtful tone.

Now. I realize “it’s kind of like with the hamsters” is not the most promising lead in to a connected conversation on infertility survivor-hood, but given the atrocious strike out level held by adults on the subject matter, I was more than ready for an interception of sanity. Plus I’ve always been one to invite the special intelligence of children into the conversation, so I gave it a go.

“And how’s that, Ben Ben?”

He went on to fill me in that most people just see the cute and cuddly side of the hamsters when in fact behind the scenes there are many unethical breeding practices going on (if only he knew the depth of his own metaphor) and that many owners don’t keep them in cages large enough to facilitate good health.

“Just like people only see the cute and easy side of having babies but not all of the trouble and things that don’t work that go on behind the scenes.” I said.

“Yeah”, he agreed. We nodded in silence, and in understanding of one another and then he was off on his well researched description of the kind of cage he’d be giving his hamster when he got one. I commended him on his thoroughness.

My wish for my nephew is that he is one day able to know the beauty of his soul. In the meantime, I’m left hanging with the question:

Why is society and community not present for people like me in a way that a ten year old can so easily execute?

For now I’m going to set aside the since the beginning of human history miscalculations and myths on the meaning of human reproduction (connecting value and self-worth to the ability to reproduce, for example), though I think this plays a role.

It may, in many ways, boil down to how well, willingly and deeply the other person has connected to their own pain. My nephew has had a decent amount of his own in his short life.

As Brenee Brown has found in her research, “Our capacity for wholeheartedness can never be greater than our willingness to be broken hearted.”

People who haven’t connected to their own pain, and granted many on this earth have good reason not to, respond to others from the places of judgment and fixing. They are less able and willing to take the griever’s lead, and, from the vantage point of their world view unilaterally decide what THEY think the griever needs based on THEIR values, lack of experience and ineptitudes – a train wreck in the making no doubt. Their smaller emotional capacities invite the need for sameness which pulls them away from seeing things from someone else’s point of view and, they tend to sympathize instead of empathize. And I’ve recently realized that I really hate friggen sympathy. I used to chalk it up to “well at least someone is trying”. But when effort veils aversion it fosters a misguided mess. We grievers can smell when people are acknowledging our plights from the place of wanting to get it over with, fueled by their desire for distance and disintegration.

Sympathy incites disconnection, empathy instates connection. When someone has connected reasonably to their own pain, they empathize and, like in the scenarios I’ve mentioned, they are better able to sense the scope of someone’s loss.

“To be truly helpful, the people who make up the support system must appreciate the impact the event and all its fall-out losses have had and are having on the griever” – Dr Alan Wolfelt, Reframing PTSD as Traumatic Grief 

And there is something about connecting to one’s pain that invites humility as Dr. Alan Wolfelt so truthfully points out:

“….grief is a dimension of life experience that responds more appropriately to humbled souls.”

14 thoughts on “Involuntary Childlessness in the Human Conversation

  1. “the unfortunate and not asked for debacle of being dependent on your fellow humans for empathy” – so damn true. Not until going through Infertility treatments did I truly realize how shitty it was and how so many people I considered myself close to – family included – would ghost us or show such an incredible amount of insensitivity.

  2. There’s so much here. From truly understanding empathy and how to practice it to pointing out that our society really sucks at supporting those who are grieving unless there’s a social stigma attached to not supporting. And even then, we’re not good at it. But infertility and loss are even harder because of the stigma attached to those who survive, especially when the story of that journey doesn’t end with bringing home a baby. It’s more than sad; it’s inhumane.

    I wish I had answers for how to resolve this. Either potent pints that would snap people out of their limited mindset or insight into how to help others understand. Sadly, the change that is needed won’t come easily. But it’s through people like you sharing their wisdom and insight that will help bring about this much needed change. Reminding us that it requires openness and being willing to explore to actually be supportive. A valuable life lesson so few actually are willing to learn.

    • My musings and your comment remind me of Elie Wiesel saying, and I paraphrase, “I don’t have any answers. But I have a lot of great questions.” I always liked that he defined himself by his questions, his observation was that answers come and go but questions will always remain. A good thing for me to remember to keep in mind when contemplating this much needed change.

  3. As I read here, some form my subconscious begin to outline a screenplay … truly energized as I got to experience your post on another level. The ideas co rained here became the basis for a sort of improv — not surprising as your writing always lights up the neurons. Look forward to talking more about that soon. xo

    • That’s funny, because I’ve thought of trying to write a screenplay, or a staged play from our point of view. I’ve also envisioned Saturday Night Live type sketches where in my mind’s eye I always cast myself as the pregnant person rubbing her belly and self righteously exclaiming “And I wasn’t even TRYING…..” Dare to dream. Thanks for being psychic and connecting to what goes on in my strange head. Great minds think alike:-)

  4. Well, here’s another beautifully expressive post for my favourites folder.

    Gosh, what to pick to comment about??
    Probably best to go to the most heart-warming and positive –
    That nephew of yours…. so sensitive and compassionate. He’s already miles ahead of so many adults.
    Just beautiful!

    • Glad it resonated:-). Am currently reading Brenee Brown’s “I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t)” and she points out that children have a propensity for responding well in these situations as they are generally very curious about the world and people around them and aren’t yet stuck in their perspective as being the “right” one. I had just written this piece when I read that and thought “Ok, THAT makes sense”. My friend lost her husband when her nephew was 2 and a half, and she says he (he’s now around 8) can sometimes comfort her in a way no one else can.

  5. I voraciously read your posts every time I get a notification in my inbox. I’m so desperate to share my experience with people who understand or even care, really, that I just love all your words. Thank you.

    • That means so much. I feel a similar desperation to share, to have people understand…..I think not having that in daily life is more far reaching and impactful than anyone can quantify. I think it’s why I sometimes feel angry when people I don’t know well start talking about their kids unprompted – they get to freely speak of their realities but when I freely speak of mine there’s often a consequence.

  6. I’ve been saving this up to read, knowing that my head (physically and mentally) wasn’t in it when you first posted. First, I had to laugh about the hamsters. Because before you got to his explanation, I remember being shocked when I read the instructions of the gonadotrophin that I was about to inject myself with for IVF was made from hormones from Chinese hamster ovaries … or something like that. Hamsters always equal IVF in my mind now.

    Second, your discussion of the issue of the human conversation that we are only rarely allowed to be part of always gets me thinking. I need to think further, but in the meantime, I’m glad you are talking about it.

    Oh, and to me, sympathy often means pity which often means condescension and smugness. I so much prefer empathy. Why then, do I say “you have my sympathies” when I’m saying it with empathy? hmmmm.

    • Oh no – hamsters are a bad metaphor for you – understandable! Chinese hamster ovaries, gosh, nothing is out of line in dimension baby making, that’s for sure.

      As far as people without children and specifically the odyssey of motherhood denied being excluded from the human conversation, I still can’t wrap my head around it. The experience itself or how to manage it.

      Had been blaming myself for relationships on the fritz where the other person did not empathize, but rather sympathized with me. It helps to understand that their sympathy is actually an act of disconnection.

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