As an involuntarily childless infertility and IVF survivor, the best Mother’s Day gift I can offer my Mom is my own well being

I know it has been awhile, dear readers.  More on my unexpected hiatus from blogging and the pieces above later.  

For now, I‘m happy to report that I made it through my end of the week travels relatively unscathed by any Mother’s Day hoopla.  A few people with whom I’m in regular contact even remembered to not bid me a “Happy Mother’s Day” and upgraded to the somewhat inaccurate but much more welcome “Have a nice weekend” instead.  

Or at least I’d like to think so.  I regularly check myself as I’ve been prone to fantasizing about people giving a shit over the past five or so years, often to find out they were not even dipping their big toenail into my shoes.  But assuming it was intended, these seemingly micro considerations render a difference in one’s well being for the better.

The streak was broken though as I sailed out of physical therapy (dealing with a minor yet persistent shoulder injury) to a weather scene much altered from the hour and a half prior.  I commented on the shifty weather to a woman waiting outside.  A friendly, lighthearted exchange ensued.  Within seconds “we” were onto her disbelief over the fact that Sunday is the only day her husband and kids can help her with the gardening but not even on Mother’s Day is that going to work out with this weather.

Five years ago I was fresh off the trying to conceive boat, which for me entailed, among many many other things, four years and five rounds of IVF.  Not to mention a nasty little case of PTSD, which as it turns out, is a normal ramification of undergoing multiple fertility treatments.  Though not societally recognized, I was also understandably grief stricken.  Being in the world at all – in a grocery store, a restaurant, walking out of my front door or heck, sitting upright on my couch – felt like a constant tasering.  Innocent comments such as the aforementioned would tear at already gaping wounds.

Five years out, I find myself better prepared to field passing conversation about that which I lost.  I nonchalantly shrugged my shoulders and said “Yeah, it’s gonna be a total wash” (please note facetious ‘what’ll we EVER do’ undertone) as a mildly gleeful smirk crawled across my face.  We exchanged casual parting words as I moved away, impressed with the level of indifference I was able to summon.  Nowhere near as spectacular as the indifference towards the loss of my children, parenthood and grandparenthood I have so often encountered mind you, but worth a mention just the same.  

From there I headed towards home, contemplating my current shape of this forever changed holiday.

It has been pointed out to me on at least a few occasions that I have a mother and I can be grateful for her on this day.  As if the existence of my mother could somehow land on the spot of my missing children grief and send it on home, just like in a board game.

First of all, thanks to Captain Obvious for the “you have a mother” portion. And second, gratitude for my mother, when not haughtily used as a cold hearted attempt to snuff out my losses, is a very real thing.  Though rife with flaws and imperfections, we share a meaningful relationship.  And at age 74, the loss of her whenever it happens will be far from premature.  I’m grateful for both of these things as I know that they, like parenthood, don’t exist in everyone’s world, and that furthermore, their existence is random.  I hold awareness of this every day.  But the way I express it is perhaps not what would be societally expected of me.  

“But what about YOUR mother?” I’ve been asked on a few occasions when remarking on the challenges of getting through Mother’s Day when you wanted children but couldn’t have them.  My answer goes something like this:

“My gift to my mother is that I take care of myself.  I may not get her a card, or shower her with brunch or other gifts – and why would she want me to after all I’ve been through – but she knows I’ve got a tough set of days ahead and that I’m going to handle it.  And she knows I know the day is now bittersweet for her given my losses.”

My first Mother’s Day knowing I’d likely never be a mother arrived three months after our final failed fertility treatment.  With my husband being in the restaurant business, and me being too raw to entertain the presence of humans, the day was mine to face alone.  To face alone as my frigid new reality took swing after swing (harsh realities always swing harder and faster on holidays), leaving me to grapple with what actually takes years to fathom.  

Blinds drawn to avert triggers I spent the morning weeping in front of our embryo coffin.  I had come to the conclusion days before that running across pictures of our embryos was a torture that was going to retard my healing process.  But what to do?  As the visceral ramifications of no community participation in my life altering loss – no rituals, ceremonies or acknowledgements – pulsated through me, I managed to place the pictures in a wooden music box in preparation for burial.  I recall a rage that there seemed to be no safe place for me in the world in my current and not asked for state.  I recall a pain so grandiose I wasn’t sure I’d survive.  Towering emotions really can “take your breath away” as they say.  Given that every part of me except my body had died on some level, I had deemed myself particularly susceptible to having my breath stop.  I’d often catch myself in those early days not breathing, especially on that first Mother’s Day.  So I concentrated on breathing, and literally got through the day one breath at a time.

The next year, though still cruel, was a touch easier.  I had at least gotten the breathing thing down.  And by the third year, I noticed a clear trajectory as I had graduated to getting through the day with a yoga practice and cheese to go with the wine that got me through the day for the first two years.

Now on my sixth Mother’s Day knowing I’ll never be a mother, the day has morphed into a day of reflection for me.  I’ll forever hold in my heart my starting point from five plus years ago. It’s from there I can obtain a clear vantage point to see how far I’ve come, to honor my losses and my strength, to mourn, and to marvel at where I’ve been and where I might be going.  To take a moment to gasp at just how laborious and intriguing this journey is.  To be in it.  All of it.

Now, had anyone told me even a couple of years ago that I’d manage to fashion some sort of purpose for this in many ways wretched day, I’d have yelped in protest.  In the future I may visit my mom should I have the good fortune of being able to do so, or do something community/socially oriented.  The loss of my children didn’t come with an owner’s manual, so I have no way of knowing what I’ll need in a few years.  But this is what I need now.  What I need matters.  And in the face of life altering loss, needs matter.  Whether you’re someone’s parent or not.  

At least for now, I’ve figured out how to outsmart the burdens of this forever altered holiday, and meet my needs in a world that so often fails to do the same.  I’ve done my best to figure out the never ending game of chess that is childless not by choice self care – our parent centric, reproductive trauma tone deaf society makes its move, I counter with mine.  Over and over and over.  And for my parents, that should be and is already more than enough. 

There’s another angle at play here, but then again, isn’t there always?  I must admit, my general reverence towards people who parent has been transposed by what I now know they have – at least under normal, average parenting circumstances – due to my having lost it.  While the human conversation is thick with the challenges, woes, strife and sacrifices of parenting (some very real and valid, others not so much), talk of parenthood’s potential privileges is rare to come by.  The built in sense of meaning it can bring to one’s life, social resonance with and social access to one’s peer group and beyond, societal status, a prescribed life trajectory that saves one the major and often brutal hassle of reinvention, community support systems.  The possibility for one of a kind and irreplaceable relationships, memories and joy.  Lineage. 

My parents have been the recipients of all of the above.  I have been the recipient of none of it.  They conceived the wonderment that is me in one cycle (my mom always talked about conceiving me in one and my brother in not too many more, so I guess it’s public knowledge), which already sounds like a pretty good deal.  Their hard work as parents, unlike the hard work of infertility, has reaped its share of rewards.  While they have lost grandchildren through me, they also have been able to witness their daughter survive and even start to thrive amid what is one of the tougher losses a human can endure.  They can go to their graves knowing that chances are better than average I’ll be able to handle whatever else life throws at me.  So I don’t worry about them much on the parent holidays.  I enjoy them and am there for them at other times and in other ways.  They’ll be ok without a card, even more attention on top of that which society has already bestowed them, and any other related sideshows.  

Before appropriate (or not quite appropriate) social progress is made, the “acceptance” and “inclusion” of minorities typically centers around how well they are perceived to serve the privileged majority.  This typical human pattern also, woefully, holds true for the childless not by choice demographic.  

Jody Day at Gateway Women did a gorgeous job of slaying one such perspective in her recent post which you can read here.

The “But what about your mother” syndrome stems from this, at least in part I think.  Upon finding out I couldn’t have children, it’s assumed my automatic purpose on this day is to serve/dote on someone who did.  We childless not by choicers can sometimes get sucked up into this pronatalist whirlwind too.  

Truth is, the survival of our losses, self care, and perhaps eventual thriving are gifts in and of themselves.  Not just to ourselves, but for the people in our lives, whether they are awake enough to see it or not.  

Next year I just might end up celebrating International Women’s Day in March with my Mom.  It’s a day that honors ALL women, thus removing the uneven playing field of one’s reproductive situation from the mix – phew!  A day that does not participate in the archaic exclusion of women based on their maternal status – now THAT’S something I can get behind.   

Also worth checking out – this beautifully and brilliantly articulated piece from Pamela Tsigdinos at Silent Sorority. 

6 thoughts on “WHAT I GIVE

  • I’m not sure which I love more—reading your blogs posts or talking to you. Seriously, both always feed my soul and give me so much to consider and contemplate long after I have set down my Internet device or phone. Thank you for always being authentic, sensitive and eminently thought-provoking xx
    P.s. Thanks for the shout out. Much appreciated…

    • Wow. This leaves me feeling bashful.

      Though I don’t mention it often enough, I frequently find myself reflecting on the incisive and steady validation you have offered me, especially in those wretched early years coming out of treatments. It was, and still is, invaluable.

  • The “But you HAVE a mother” response still rings in my ears… I HATE that. Of course I have a mother – every one does. But the person saying that doesn’t know if my mother is one to be celebrated. Maybe she’s alive. Maybe she’s dead. What I’m realizing year after year is that these Hallmark days are so difficult for SO MANY people.. my mother included. She lost her mother this past August, so yesterday was hard for her. I could see this going the other way… “Well, you lost your mother but you ARE a mother…” Would people be so bold to say that? Doubt it.

    • Yes, yes and yes! The assumption that EVERYONE’S mother is to be celebrated is the epitome of seeing through rose colored glasses. In conversation with someone a few years ago who was aghast that someone they knew wasn’t honoring their mother on Mother’s Day I responded (with my usual level of subtlety), “Maybe his mom is a bitch!”.

      Love your point on the reverse scenario, which always does so well at revealing parent related prejudice.

      And, sending best wishes to your mom as she grieves her loss and navigates through this difficult transition.

  • I have two failed IVF babies this year. I’m wondering whether I can call myself a mother because of those. My own mother was really abusive and horrible. I don’t see her anymore. I’m dreading Mother’s Day which is next month. I have to go and see my mother in-law who clearly doesn’t like me. My husband adores her but I feel a real resentment coming from her towards me for taking her son away from her. I don’t feel accepted by her. The first couple of years of my husband and I’s relationship I tried to be nice and buy her a present for Mother’s Day. My husband told me she’s not my mother. In a really abrupt way. It broke my heart. I felt so rejected. I think I may find some way to get out of visiting her. I can’t stand it. She is not my mother after all.

    • You are a mother in your heart, Rosie. It feels to be a gray area, I know, but I’m sure we are mothers in some regard. I’ve used – mostly with myself – the term “embryo momma” or I’ll refer to myself as a “mother of sorts”. Not so helpful I know, but this is how I think of it.

      Getting through mothers day for us takes all we’ve got. Hopefully there is a way around straining yourself even further by being around uncaring people who don’t get it. Wishing you much space and self care to ride out this tough day.

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