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The psychological trajectory of non parenthood is not a flatline

Over the past year plus now, I’ve been on an expedition with my body.  I enlisted in physical therapy due to a shoulder injury, which then spanned, at my urging, to a fuller body physical therapy program to address scoliosis.  Between that and osteopathic manipulation therapy sessions, I notice slow but steady improvements.  It’s hard, consistent work.  And even though my present musculoskeletal issues would likely qualify as minor, I’m choosing for now to keep trekking.  

Characteristics that shaped my infertility experiences have resurfaced and this puts me on alert.  My persistence, ability to commit, need to see what’s under every rock and general fire – the very things that screwed me in baby making land – have re-emerged within this plight.  A scoliosis body carries with it a whiff of mystery, it’s conceptually akin to a Rubik’s cube that never quite gets solved.  I remind myself that I am now also equipped with a much softened expectation of cause and effect, an awareness of persistence’s dark side and an honorary PhD in that which we don’t control.  With all that, I think I’m ok to keep going. 

I’ve gotten the idea along the way that I’m not your average patient.  Much of this is due to my alignment based yoga practice and training, and the heightened body awareness that renders.  But underneath the surface I feel there’s something else.

“Why is this so important to you?” I’ll query, even though I know the outlying motivations.  Yes, I’d like to be able to expand my capacity to do and teach yoga, and yes, this has been a really good thing to do within the liminal space created by a resolving nervous system disorder.  It also was clear early on that this would be less difficult and more productive to initiate now, as opposed to twenty or even ten years from now.  

But the deeper thing that bubbled up was this: I have been through and lost so much.  And while I know I don’t have to list them all for you here dear readers, the loss of one’s children, parenthood and grandparenthood – as if that weren’t already an unheard of version of monumental – is just the start of it.  The boundless social losses and the sobering, utterly discombobulating shift in world view, for me, have absolutely rivaled the former.  So as far as I’m concerned, whatever’s left – and there are some truly potentially wonderful things in my life – whatever is coming out on the other side with me can function as bloody damned well as fucking possible.  Thank you, and have a nice day.

That is it.  That is the phase I’m in now.  

It stuns me, quite honestly, that so many years out of treatments one could still be cleaning house, examining pieces from the well worn rubble pile, sorting and tossing and taking what’s left on high powered maintenance missions.  Some of this is due to the general messiness of the human condition – in my case having had three back to back crisis on top of the infertility/childlessness thing.  

But much of it I think speaks to the expanse and breadth of such a loss.  And to all of the general experiences it straddles: Trauma, grief, invisibility, thwarted socialization, disenfranchisement, biological difference, expanded psychological development that puts you out of step with your peers, societal sidelining, swimming against embedded cultural ideologies….just to name a few.  Coming out of multiple failed fertility treatments, I got spat back into a life that, over time, continued to make less and less sense.  To assess, sort, repair and trail blaze just might take some time. 

Time that, as of now, has brought me to a place of hard nosed scrutinization.  I’m holding what is left up to the light and doing my best to place it in my life appropriately.  Not tending to that which is important to my well being can go.  Toxicity (which for me typically plays out as serving as a bolster for someone else’s emotional dysfunction) can go.  Lack of focus can go.  Delusion can go.  Not just for me but for those close in my life.    

Yes, what I have left can work as well as it possibly can.  And that means everything – standards, boundaries, finances, businesses, relationships, home, my time, my actions aligning with what serves me and my body too.    For a whole host of reasons.  

For one, I don’t have children to care for me when I’m old.  

Mostly though, if I take pleasure and interest and refuge in my body after all I’ve been through, then I deserve to enjoy and experience that to whatever degree is reasonably possible.  

And, I must confess, I have this vision of me decades from now, if I get to live to old age, in a retirement community.  Now I of course realize it’s possible a lot of nice things could be going on in this phase of life.  But, being no dummy to reality I also realize there may very well be the occasional (or not so occasional, depending on how my luck plays out) shoving picture in my face of grandchild I don’t know and never will from my wonderful and super aware peers.  I’ll crawl away if I have to, but you know me, if the option is available I’d rather swagger.

Before this “scour and inspect everything in my life” phase, things were quite different.  The first three years coming out of treatments and then soon after knowing I’d never be a parent by any means had me in the belly of the moment.  Mostly because I had literally lost my ability to see and plan into the future.  I first had to grieve the future I lost and also learned that when you spend a significant amount of time pursuing something that doesn’t happen, it splinters your sense of time (Learned this from The Next Happy by Tracey Cleantis).  I would later also learn that an inability to see or plan into the future is a basic symptom exhibited by those who have suffered trauma.

I was also stuck with the knowledge that anything precious can be taken from you at any moment for no good reason, or perhaps just for no reason whatsoever.  So that expensive dinner?  Have it, your husband could die next month and then not having it would breed instant, explosive regret.  Stay in the hotel for an extra night?  Do it.  

Paired with this phase was the “Eat and drink whatever you want whenever you want” phase.  Yes folks, there was that.  I had after all spent four years doing everything right and nothing wrong trying to conceive, which had rendered nothing, and, (as if that weren’t insult and injury  enough!), sent me to the brink of annihilation on multiple levels.  My theory was that if that’s what taking care of your body gets you then hell, I’m indulging.  It’s only fair, right?  Plus, taste, and at times subtle levels of inebriation, were often the only flashes of feeling good I had.

Days and infinite seconds were excruciating, and my life became about getting through them.  Survival has a way of entrenching you in the moment, which is a torture AND an awe like no other.  I was genuinely at all times grateful for the presence of my husband – when we spent time together, when he walked through the door at night, when he woke up in the morning.  Because I knew on a cellular level none of that is guaranteed.  I was glad to do his laundry because that meant he wasn’t dead.  Every time the phone rang and caller ID showed it was a family member, I figured someone had died or that something else equally tragic had happened.  Upon finding out it hadn’t, that time at least, I’d experience complete amazement over hearing my Mom’s voice or the existence of my nephew.

During this phase I was once called back for a mammogram recheck, my biggest concern being how was I going to get support if I had breast cancer and had to sit in a support group with women gurgling that they were being strong for their children.  I didn’t think I could survive that.  I was cleared at the appointment, they just had to reconfirm that what showed up were my usual cysts, and I walked out into that balmy November evening in wonderment.  I didn’t know tomorrow, but I knew that not having breast cancer in that very moment was mostly dumb, stupid luck, and I was going to drink in every bit of that feeling while it lasted.

Living in the moment, one sided though it was, was the reality of my experience at the time, and instead of swatting it away, I lived true to it.  It was a time both numb and vivd.  And I’m not sorry, even though not thinking of the future and not planning ahead eventually cost us.  I’m impressed with those who make big life decisions and /or can strike out on a new path – and one that sticks even – within the first few years following their losses.  That wasn’t me, I just wasn’t anywhere near capable at the time.  What I did do though, was live right in the face of life’s true fleeting nature, and that’s something that I hope will always be a part of me.  

But in order to really move forward, at least some of that has to be left behind.

The phase that emerged from that, well, I’m not sure what to call it.  It’s the phase my current cleaning house phase grew out of but I’ll need some more reflection time, which we all know is scarce these days, to figure that one out.  The onset of my nervous system disorder squelched my connection to the moment, as there was no more spontaneity and my ability to interface with people was injured for awhile.  Although I was, in spite of my fear and utter physical misery, supremely excited in the emergency room when my chest X-ray came back fine and it was confirmed I didn’t have a brain tumor.  Awesome!

Unfortunately, the protracted purgatorial limbo of “Are we going to get to have children?” was followed by more upheaval.  The uncertainty of when I  will have a fully functioning autonomic nervous system again (coupled of course with the awe and gratitude that I eventually, at least for the most part, will), the completely unjust uncertainty of will my husband and I get to stay in this country, and the uncertainty of will we continue to have restaurants and will we end up with almost nothing financially or not.  Though a minor assault, the uncertainty of will I get to teach yoga has been just one more unneeded obstacle in the path of moving forward.  

Though I feel great angst over the collective suffering and inequities, the pandemic as of today has actually improved my life on some key, albeit temporary, levels (knock on wood, as I haven’t lost the awareness we don’t know what tomorrow holds and no one is immune).  It is also stressful and disconcerting, absolutely, but nothing says “my life was so royally sucking” quite like a global pandemic rendering visible improvements.

While everything that followed hasn’t held a candle to the emotional brutality of infertility and involuntary childlessness, it has been an additionally unmooring and cumulative drain.  I can’t really say I’ve learned much though, as my other recent experiences have been far less life altering than loosing my children to infertility.  Not to mention they are shorter in nature and come with the unearned privileges of societal acknowledgement, social support and the possibility of resolution.  While there is always something left to learn, I always say that once you loose your children, parenthood and grandparenthood, that list becomes severely truncated.  The events of the last three years have given me a chance to flex my post traumatic growth muscle, so there is that.  They haven’t resolved yet, but I see change of some kind – we don’t know exactly what – on the horizon in the coming months.  For once I have a hope for the future balancing the daunting truth of the unknown.  My current phase of “scrutinize and clean up everything” just might be the right predecessor for what’s to follow, who knows?

That one needs children to have a developmental trajectory and rich inner experiences is a laughable myth.  It’s also outright bigotry.

It is my hope that I can fold the wisdom born from necessity from each life phase I encounter into the next one.  What started out as a bloody, messy wound might actually manage, over time, to weave itself into a refined tapestry. For whatever sort of fleeting moment life may have it.

Has your path through non-parenthood shown a phase or phases?  What are they?  I’d love to hear from you.

4 thoughts on “PHASES

  • I always greatly appreciate reading a new post from you. You, your husband, and your restaurants have been in my thoughts. With all of your free time and boundless energy (ha!), will you pretty please write a book? Personally, I like the idea of titling it Swimming Against Embedded Cultural Ideologies. 🙂

    As for me, I think I am entering a new phase but I don’t know what it is yet. For a while now I’ve described my current phase as a post-acute recovery period. I think I’m still in that, but I’ll be thinking about the sub-phases of this phase because I feel like I’m entering something new. I’m hoping to coast for awhile (ha! again)…

    It’s just been one thing after another for so many years now. I’m sure a lot of us feel that way. I think you said it perfectly here: “While everything that followed hasn’t held a candle to the emotional brutality of infertility and involuntary childlessness, it has been an additionally unmooring and cumulative drain.”

    Thanks again for the post! You always give me good stuff to think about.

    • Great to hear from you Phoenix! Thanks for holding us in our thoughts, it’s such an uncertain time though I am feeling strangely optimistic about how things will play out. We’ll see……I will certainly take your book title proposal into account, as I’m not a master of title forming. And yes, my life, just like all of our lives, are of course brimming with free time and boundless energy so heck, why not just sit down and write a SERIES of books while I’m at it??

      Love the label “post-acute recovery period” – so precise and it makes total sense. Also love the idea of sub-phases. This gives me much to chew on. In the meantime, best of luck – of course – on the coasting notion. One can hope, right??

  • Beautifully complex post as usual. When everything ended for us this summer for real with the final failed adoption attempt, I think one of the biggest kick in the guts was the fact that we’ve been stuck in this pandemic, leaving us no options to just go take a vacation or go have that extravagant dinner like you were talking about. I remember after every treatment failure we would always have a we can get away planned right after results day so that way we could either celebrate or hibernate away from home… And I also remember after my miscarriage and ending treatment and now ending adoption attempts, the immense overwhelming grief has always resulted in physical destruction (miscarriage being a herniated disc in my back, treatment ending being my retina disconnecting, and now a month after adoption attempts ending my knee just blew out). One of the reasons we ended it was not only being out of money but also the fact that I was honestly terrified of what would happen to my body if we had any more losses, as my ‘before & after’ pictures of what I looked like and how I felt before and after TTC/TTA are pretty terrifying. My level of depression right now is pretty damn intense, so much so that I had not talked to my therapist in 2 months until today… And we have been talking to her since the beginning of it all… I just knew that she wouldn’t be able to help, but I kept the appointment and turns out we brought tears to her eyes as she confided how heartbroken she was for us. She asked what she could do to help, and I almost laughed out loud. Because now during a pandemic nothing is for sure and everything is restricted that was on our bucket list… You know all the things that they tell you you should do if you decide to try to go from childless to childfree mentality… Oh yeah and I live in Oregon so we now wear masks just going into our backyard because of all the f****** smoke.

    • Am so sorry for your final loss, Aimee. Grief is so overwhelming physically, so wishing you ways to take care of yourself within the imposed limits that exist right now. That said, I can see how the pandemic seriously dampens those options. I haven’t been able to participate in travel and other such means of dealing for years now, so the pandemic hasn’t affected me much in that way. What you write does remind me of the onset of my nervous system disorder almost four years ago now – I was three years out of treatments, had my means of surviving and coping and them BAM, suddenly NONE of them were available to me. So not needed!! And the fires on top of it all – even for me as a distant bystander on the east coast I find myself just not being able to fathom it.

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