And the confounding abyss in between
Walking into my first social outing since a virus attacked my autonomic nervous system 5.5 months ago, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Though much less than a few months ago, my nervous system still tends to over assimilate sound and does not adjust smoothly to darkness. Not to mention I’m still dealing with a slowly waning level of dizziness and lightheadedness. And then there’s the fertile world whose presence is, of course, immeasurable.
The first people we recognized were a hetero married couple who happened to be speaking with my husband’s business partner. Right on the heels of saying hello, the man in the couple jubilantly informed us that they were talking about their kids.
This couple generally knows that my husband and I tried to have children and couldn’t, my husband’s business partner is enlightened of all the grimy details.
Brimming with exuberance, he continued, “We were talking about how I’m a softie for our daughters, he (my husband’s partner) melts over his daughter, and my wife is gaga over our son.”
I wondered if this is what it feels like to have people eat in front of you when you’re hungry. It was as if I had just had a double mastectomy and someone flashed me their boobs.
Oh and let’s not forget my nervous system disorder….
I paused just long enough to make people uncomfortable in the absence of the expected mindless drooling and cooing. And because really, what in the HELL was I supposed to say to that??
“And we’re infertility survivors!” I rebutted, donning a superficial cheer underlined with steadfastness.
Following awkward laughter I added, “We’re child free not by choice, so, that’s my contribution to this conversation!”
And the guy continued (yes, CONTINUED, you read correctly) with “Well, we were talking about sibling rivalry and when they get in each other’s hair and stuff like that.”
“That’s a GREAT problem to have!” I responded.
Seriously, what does one have to do to get these people to acknowledge your plight and move towards a more inclusive subject matter? Threaten them with a primitive weapon? Maybe next time I’ll try sky writing.
So yes dear readers, my initiation back into the world started with a bang.
There was no acknowledgement of our loss, no empathy or interest expressed, yet we did stay on and converse for awhile. Child free not by choice tone deafness aside, these people are about as nice, warm and funny as you’ll get. Plus, I seem to come equipped with the most annoying belief in my fellow humans’ capacity to learn and expand. Maybe one day I’ll stop tripping over it, but in the meantime…….
They had plenty to talk about besides their children (eventually!) and were lively, interesting people. We shared an intrigue over different cultures and a love for food. Me and the woman both have a goofball like nature and riffed off of each other’s sarcasm. Cutting to the chase, they were people who, if we had been able to have kids ourselves, would have been kindred spirits, aces in the hole as far as bonding goes.
But instead. I found myself piloting my way through a conversation that, while engaging and not void of redeeming qualities, was also rife with landmines, triggers (though duller than they used to be), and the endless nagging question of how to share myself. Authenticity, creating openings for my reality and views (as opposed to bombarding with them) and assessing the emotional safety of the situation is quite the trio to juggle.
There was a mention of their daughter’s sweet sixteen and of trips they want to take with their kids. They informed us they try to get out once a week without the kids. In reference to a friend’s achilles injury it was added emphatically, “yeah, and he has THREE KIDS!”, as if that somehow increased the importance and urgency of his recovery. And there was the rift at the end when she tried, kindly, to empathize with my nervous system debacle.
“This REALLY must have changed your perspective,” she attempted to connect.
“Not that much” I shared. “Coming on the heals of the past seven years and all we went through with infertility, there’s not much that’s going to alter me more than that experience.”
She was taken aback, and tried to explain to ME the difference between the trouble with fertility and trouble with health. And spoiler alert, she deemed physical health to have much more weight than children and parenthood. Easy to do when you haven’t lost it, I suppose.
I let her know that I’ve always been grateful for my health, and that while yes, having it threatened makes you see things a bit differently, infertility threatens the existence of your children, so, they both matter. She looked baffled. I went on to say that in the greater scheme of things, our infertility has been life altering while this nervous system disorder likely won’t be (grief and trauma virgins typically don’t understand this key difference in life’s problems). I offered the main thing I struggled with was grasping that this nervous system disorder was hard too, a different kind of hard. She perked up momentarily.
“An EASIER kind of hard” I stressed. It was there I lost her. Another one bites the dust.
My yoga practice has taught me to feel myself energetically from the inside out. Due to the social annihilation of being child free not by choice, I tend to do this even more off the mat than I do on. And I noticed, my energetic innards were restless, shifting, in a state of dis-ease during this conversation. The people I was having it with were, after all, from the “I’m not going to silence and dismiss the child free not by choice aspect of you (better than nothing) but I’m not going to acknowledge, connect and relate to it either (still not that great) camp.
Our next conversation stop was quite fortunate. I ended up chatting with the significant other of a colleague of ours who has recently been diagnosed with some chronic health issues. She was very sweet about my dysautonomia, but also open and accepting when I inserted infertility and involuntary childlessness into the conversation. She spoke of her daughter not randomly and mindlessly, but in relation to one of the subjects we were talking about. She asked questions. She was interested in how infertility had changed me and acknowledged that I must be “so so strong” when I shared with her how I had to pull so far into myself to survive, especially given the current lack of societal support and acknowledgement. And I noticed something: My inner body’s acrobatics had quieted. My energetic insides were flowing and at ease. This conversation, though engaging on the outside like the other one, also had all of the foundational basics covered – openness, acknowledgement, empathy, acceptance.
Identifying change, or more so the depth of it, that results from a societally unrecognized loss is no joke. It takes on a different kind of difficulty a few years in, when the pain becomes less gyrating and the affects of the loss can take on a more subtle blanketing.
With your path and world view no where to be found ‘out there’ – in the media, the human conversation, and often times even in your own infertile community – one is left to rely solely on their inner compass, left with the job of not only having to sense it, but of having to decipher it.
Last year I began to notice that being around certain people and certain situations evoked an extraordinary, yet unexplainable, sadness.
Interactions with many people felt like high level fencing matches. For however palatable they may have appeared on the surface, I would walk away breathing sighs of relief. I would find myself inexplicably drawn to people that should have, but just didn’t fit me.
Oh, it can start with the clash of the experiences of parenthood and parenthood denied. With parenthood being acknowledged in multiple conversations but my loss of parenthood not. With the amount of parenting talk being excessive and presented in a way that lacks consideration towards those of us who lost it, and with the other person’s unwillingness to take an interest, to integrate, to be uncomfortable for the sake of my truth.
But it hardly ends there. There are often striking differences in world view, the lack of common ground as to what constitutes “hard” or a “problem” and the differing opinions on that which is generally relevant in life. Drastically different needs and the constant expectation, especially from women, to bond over that which no longer resonates with me.
Many people are utterly tone deaf to the fact that someone who went through multiple failed treatments and other measures to conceive only to have lost all of their children, parenthood and grandparenthood is likely NOT going to respond to life in the same fashion as the privileged majority. But I digress.
I would navigate these situations as though there was something I could DO about them. I fought to hang on to the good I saw in the other person in spite of the disrupted frequencies I was experiencing. I fumbled with my subconscious yet all too glaring awareness that if it weren’t for infertility, these interactions would be totally kosher.
In a similar way to which we can be attracted to the unhealthy, abusive patterns of our parents in our adult relationships because they are familiar, I felt the magnetic pull of my old, pre-infertility pre-involuntarily childless life and self. Trying to tango with that which was familiar but no longer working morphed into quite a dirge. But the person we grow into post life altering loss takes a while, years actually to form and emerge, so it’s no wonder there’s some confounding time spent straddling lives and selves.
In my old life a lack of connection was acceptable. Fellow humans failing to meet me where I was at went unnoticed. People not seeing and appreciating my essence was overlooked and I was not incredibly conscious when the majority of the conversation was eaten up with mindless, peripheral blather. I didn’t listen to others all that well, and I didn’t expect others to really hear me.
When you’re dealt the hand of infertility, and especially the loss of parenthood and grandparenthood as the result, you know right away when an interaction lacks depth and connection. Like many who suffer other life altering traumatic losses, you are absent of both the energy for and tolerance of being with people just to pass time and take up space.
Since the greater human collective does not recognize your plight, you can’t afford to not be heard in your more intimate interactions and to not be accepted in your close personal relationships. The person that is emerging as the result of your personal tragedy not only needs to be seen, she needs to be nurtured. She needs to be embraced. She needs to be loved and accepted during her precarious trek to the next side of her life.
And the yearning for depth and to see and hear the personal tragedies of others who share themselves, that capacity that resulted from the loss of your children? That muscle NEEDS to be exercised. Because if your lost children taught you anything, it’s that nothing matters more than connection, meeting the present moment and hearing and seeing each other the imperfect best we can as we are able, especially in times of pain and crisis.
And I see the good in all that. But this is not the time to drool over the supposed wonders of transformation. Transformation is grueling, unincited transformation can be downright raping. I find a piece of my soul to still be perpetually screaming “I didn’t ask for ANY of this” at the top of its lungs.
Within the past few months, I’ve had a realization. I was drawn to people who no longer fit me but would have in my old life because this too is a loss. When I’m in the presence of not only parenthood, but of a world view, perspective, belief system or way of being I can no longer have due to my experiences, I feel awash with sorrow, a momentary wave of distance between me and the rest of existence.
I’ve processed a lot of the changed relationships infertility dumps upon us. With family, with friends lost, with current friendships and acquaintances. And the people you meet post infertility, into your involuntary childlessness trek? Also potential losses. I was subconsciously, or really, UNconsciously, trying to paddle upstream, peddle backwards uphill, to hang onto this last shred of what should have been.
Funny thing is, it’s not like I’d rather be this old life person. I LIKE the new me, who is ironically, more myself than ever before. It’s just that there are about a million better ways to unite with your true self than losing your children, parenthood and grandparenthood.
I realized I’m going to be shaking hands with what would have been probably for the rest of my life, with people whom my soul full well senses the old Sarah would have gelled with just fine, therefore I’d better get busy and start nurturing and honoring that pain. The eerie strand of what would have been is part of me now, a most normal component in life after loss.
And so I was able to have a useful perspective on the aforementioned conversations due to my realization. My self talk went something like this:
“You see, the first people are very “old life”. I know love, it’s ok to be sad. Be as sad as you need to for as long as you need to. It would’ve been fun, the four of you. But you don’t need that in your life now. And it’s not your job to make others see and value you. The second person is full of “new life” potential. She seems willing to meet you and see you where you are now. Make sure you notice that. And I know you know where to put your energy.”
Yes, the losses are so much to grapple with it’s often hard, or sometimes impossible to see where we might be going. I am sure that honoring what we lost is every bit as important as what we build moving forward. In fact, at least in my experience, the two are inextricably linked.
In my humble attempt to re-wire, I remind myself it’s not my job to make these interactions and relationships work, rather, it’s my job to let things lie as they are, to dissolve or perhaps not come to any kind of fruition. I’ve got nothing to compensate or apologize for and it is self disrespecting to act otherwise. I will try to use future “old life” situations as an opportunity for the release of what would have been. Which eventually may help me focus more clearly on what is and where I might be going.
“This above all: to thine own self be true.”
William Shakespeare, Hamlet
I’d like to amend:
“This above all: to thine own post life altering traumatic loss self be true”.
Eatcher heart out, William.
21 thoughts on “Old Life, New Life”
Its so frustrating trying to connect with others only to be “put in your place” with “at least you don’t have X.” Thanks you for this post, Sarah.
Yes! If there’s anything I’ve learned from my experiences it’s that if I haven’t had a particular experience someone is talking about, particularly a major life struggle/loss/challenge, it’s my job to shut up and listen. People generally don’t make this shit up. Theory and sideline analysis do not trump the wisdom of actual experience.
Great post! It struck a chord on many levels. I also feel a shift happening where I am sick and tired of trying to force relationships with people who do nothing but blather on about their children, ignorant to the isolating effect their egocentrism creates for those of us who are child free not by choice. It’s draining and has not served me well.
What I’ve noticed, at least for myself anyway, is that people either have empathy and the ability to attune to someone else’s vantage point or they don’t. While someone who isn’t open right off the bat will more likely than not NOT come around, I’ve had such a hard time learning this. Deep down, I must be an optimist (shhh, don’t tell.)
My husband was commenting last night on how much courage it can take to pull away from people, or of what isn’t serving us as you referred to. I think he’s right. It takes courage to try and connect, but it also takes courage to acknowledge it’s not going to happen and, in our circumstances, that there’s not much we can do about it.
You have definitely outdone yourself on this post as it’s one of the most perfect pieces of writing I’ve read in I don’t know how long. Finding that new normal and acknowledging that we’re not the same person that we were before going through this hell… story of my life. And thank you so much for sharing that TED Talk! I was crying throughout as she really said it all as to the stuff we go through, not just emotionally but things like in the workplace that often get smothered. And the insinuation that those of us who don’t have children just haven’t tried hard enough, that is not only what other people insinuate in their “don’t give up!” speeches but also the underlying voice we hear in our heads when we are deciding whether to and the journey or not. We stopped after six rounds of donor egg IVF and yet I still hear in my head regularly, “maybe we should try another donor”. It’s so fucked up. Thank you as usual for bringing such an articulate and sensitive voice to what so many of us are thinking and dealing with.
Thank you! It felt an ambiguous subject to write about, constantly tripping over my old life and self whist adjusting to my new ones, but it’s been plaguing me for a while now.
Jody’s talk is amazing, isn’t it?? I have no idea how she packed so much into what, 17 minutes or whatever it was? I about stood up and cheered when she said something to the effect of, and I paraphrase, ‘there are a million different ways NOT to have a baby, not trying hard enough is not one of them’.
Yeah! My husband and I re-watched it last night since he’d not seen it and he totally appreciated the Bingo part of it. And I know what you mean, I said I wasn’t going to write about it but you know, fuckit, write about what ya gotta write about, doesn’t mean we’re not moving forward, just means we’re (gasp!) human 🙂
I’m with you on the writing. Healthy, processing, mindful and inquisitive humans, even!!
Thank you for this post, I resonated with so many aspects of what you’ve shared here and you have articulated these thoughts so well. It helped me realise I am struggling with making a decision regarding a person I would call a “Grief virgin”, a colleague who just had a baby… I am not really interested in meeting the baby. When I had let her know something about my infertility struggles she complained about how she was trying so hard to have a baby and it was so much effort and it sucked so much… she had tried for one month at that point… and then… I kid you not, she literally fell pregnant the second month of trying. I got the distinct feeling that she was not willing to hear of anything negative from me, which is fine, I get that, but also that she expected everyone else’s full participation in her joy, complaints about nausea, and whatever else… sorry… right now, I’m just not feeling it. I hate being bitter though.
Two whole months!! Golly how did she muddle through??? Generally speaking, women expect to connect over pregnancy and child rearing, many become completely mindless in the face of such different experiences and throw whatever they can hoping it’ll stick, even if it’s like comparing a limb amputation to a hang nail. I got some of that when we were well into TTC, “Oh, I know, it took me six months (read: standard average time) once I went off the pill, I was so worried.” And going on in my head – “Oh were you really? Fuck you.”
Though I know it opens up other cans of worms, your honesty about your feelings regarding not wanting to meet the baby are healthy and self respecting. If only there was a standard social acceptance for such very real needs, like as in if someone is a widow in the early stages of grief or in the life rebuilding process, they might not want to see someone else’s honeymoon pictures.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be “feeling” the type of situation you describe. The pain decreases and my window of tolerance increases somewhat over time and more importantly, with the right support. My unsolicited two cents is that it’s not bitterness. It’s a very normal, and perhaps necessary in terms of emotional self protection, response to our very abnormal and painful circumstances.
One of the hardest things I still deal with is the emotional chasm I feel with those who resolve by parenting who then insert themselves back into their former lives like nothing happened. They’ll go on about things that once would have been torturous. I use to wonder if it was just a sign of shallowness. But you’ve pointed out it’s actually a very primal response to loss so deep and engulfing. With infertility, you don’t just lose your children and your grandchildren. You are exiled from the life you once knew. And yes, many of us grow from that, but it’s still an insanely painful loss as it rocks all aspects of our lives. People cannot fathom because it’s literally a death where we are still walking around. The shell of what was is still there, but the life we knew is forever gone.
It bothers me so much that your friends aren’t supporting you. That your story and reality are constantly being silenced. It shouldn’t be that way. Love and compassion should be the norm.
That must be creepy, as I would think it natural to want and expect SOME common ground in world view with people who have had similar experiences (this is often not the case though, I know). Do you feel a sense of betrayal when those with similar experiences jump onto the “just like it never even happened” bandwagon? I probably would.
I fortunately do have friends who support me. What I didn’t clarify in this piece is that the people I wrote about are more so acquanitences with whom we have hit it off in the past. But yes, being real and living my life and truth as they are is important to me, and most days I struggle to accept that many, if not most people, can’t take this in conjunction with my life’s reality. Those who can though, need and deserve to be cultivated. There’s been so much to grapple with this is something I’m only finding the energy for now, almost 3.5 years out of treatments.
You explain it all so well. It occurred to me that once you and your husband joined the three people who were talking about how great their kids are it would have been so much nicer if they had just changed the topic and asked you how you were and started a new more inclusive conversation. I find as I get older I have less patience for general small talk and would much rather connect with people over a deeper conversation. It sounds like the other lady at that party was very sensitive and had great empathy. I wish more people could be like that.
They finally did ask me how I was but only after I
1) Had to drop the infertility CFNBC bomb on them because their assertion of a child related subject was so, er, forthright and
2) I was the one who had to initially redirect the conversation, asking about their work, because I had the feeling that if I didn’t do it, no one was going to.
It never ceases to amaze me how people fail to associate trying to have children and not being able to with a needed conversational shift, in view, content, attitude, whatever just please something! It’s like “What’s that, you lost your children in a tragic accident? Ok, got that one out of the way. Now let’s talk about MY kids…..”
With the human conversation only including the easily conceived healthy child angle of things, people with that scenario don’t know how to pivot since their experience is validated, even adulated daily. That sure must be nice, but the rest of us are left to pick up the pieces from this societal failure as we grapple with our own losses.
And yes, the other lady was incredibly accepting. The positive difference in how this, and other qualities can make us feel is really stunning.
Great post! First of all, I just have to say I’m dying to know what the first couple you were talking to was thinking when they continued, after you identified as child free not by choice, to press on about what it’s like to be a parent. Really? Did they think that would be an acceptable topic for you? All of the women I work with are mothers and 9 times out of 10, conversation topics turn to kids. My brother was born when I was 13 so I’ve always had little quips and personal stories to interject about him (he’s now a 21 year old man) but recently I’ve stopped. I can see that everyone thinks it’s odd that I’d talk about my brother when they are talking about their kids, but don’t they see how painfully awkward the conversation is for the infertile woman at the table? No, they don’t care.
And I’d like to know if that woman who thought health > fertility would trade her kids for her health. Sometimes I feel like with my diminished (read: none) ovarian reserve, I’ve been handed a diagnosis of cancer. It sounds dramatic, and I don’t mean to elevate my pain over anyone else’s, but it’s like I’ve got a chance I won’t live, and it’s a very good chance, and I might beat it, but it’s more likely that I won’t. And no one understands except other women with infertility, until they pop up with an ultrasound picture, telling me I need to just “try a little harder.”
Oh, the “I got a baby out of this process therefore everyone else will to” crew. Cumbersome, to say the least. I’m so grateful for those who don’t look at things this way!! But I know they don’t always cross our paths when we need them.
It sounds like you have a tough work situation, at least on the social front. Is there is at least one person there who hears you and supports you?? I’ll sometimes interject things about my nephew (he’s 11) but only if I think it really applies. The downside I’ve found is that this opens the conversation even more for people to keep talking about kid things as people have been known to jump on my nephew as a point of “connection”. Which then gets dicey since being a mother and an aunt are so not the same thing. I also refer back to when I was at the age in question, which people do seem to think is strange. But what else am I supposed to do?
I have no idea what the first couple I spoke to was thinking. I do know what they were NOT feeling though, and that’s the connection between experiences like mine and pain and loss. I certainly don’t expect people to get every nuance, but come on people, you’ve gotta connect not being able to have children with pain and loss. Otherwise, what are we doin’??
Yup, I’ve noticed the fertiles just don’t care to include us in the conversation and they don’t care about our feelings.
It sure seems that way a lot of the time. Makes me want to celebrate those who do respond openly and respectfully. The abysmal side of this behavior I’ve been privy to has motivated me to try to be more aware of the areas of my life in which I’m privileged, and to put more effort into listening to those who have had to struggle in areas where I haven’t.
Superbly-written piece. I found that if I so much as mentioned any of the negative aspects of trying and failing to have children (past tense: I’ve been quashed into never doing it again), I was met with at best a raised eyebrow and a “do you know how hard my life is?” from my mother friends; at worse, blank incomprehension or outright scorn and impatience. Now that I’m out of the window for trying to have a baby, there is absolutely no sympathy, never mind empathy, from family, close friends, whoever. It is not there. I am 45, so I’m made to feel undignified and tragic if I so much as mention it. It’s harsh, and it makes me glad I’m not more extrovert. I have a small set of friends who I see on their own (no double-dates/couples nights, ever) so I think I’m protected from it; I’m rarely stuck in a group of parents apart from at work, in which case I just walk away. But I’m a grumpy introvert: I often wonder how more sociable types cope. Anyway, my current project is to try to own my situation, but is this a denial/betrayal of the fact that we are, actually, due some bloody empathy?? For example, I’ve been disgruntled lately by bombardments of child photos on family group chats: I’m the only one left without kids, and the self-pity in me wants to say to them “what do you think it’s like being the odd one out here?”. Then I think: why don’t I go to the other extreme and trump up my child-free life and piss them off that way… aaagh I dunno, it’s all a work in progress…. Thank you for this excellent, thought-provoking piece: you have prodigious writing talent!
You’re very welcome!
It’s funny, I feel my introversion has served me well through this crisis too. Although for being an introvert, I sure open my mouth a lot. Shucks.
I feel you on the scorn and outright indifference you’ve received from people. We really have a perspective people who didn’t go through infertility and unexpected childlessness don’t have, that it is currently silenced is such a shame. I hope one day it’s recognized.
Thanks for sharing your process….oh, the never-ending questions on how to function (or not!) with people. They bombard me every day too. It’s the ultimate (torturous) social experiment. I happen to love the query “what do you think it’s like being the odd one out here?”. I imagine the responses would involve some sort of dismissal, blank stares and perhaps a crossed eye or two, but it’s a question that so needs to be posed!
I know that feeling of desperately trying to be part of the conversation and inserting a tidbit about a niece or nephew into a child-dominated discussion. And in response I’ve been abruptly met with that cold, hard stare from some of the parenting crew, as if they are saying “It’s NOT the same thing”. It’s such an uncomfortable experience from this side of the table.