I’ve always been drawn to difference. Hailing from a quintessentially small white New England town, on the edge of my adolescence my restless soul began to grumble about the lack of human variety in which I was swimming. To which my Dad would chuckle something along the lines of, “How do you know anything about human variety? You haven’t been anywhere yet!”
Making my way out into the world in my twenties I had the tendency – and was also quite determined – to have experiences different from what I knew. This led me to work and/or live in many settings alongside the human variety I had envisioned and craved as an adolescent. And as far as marrying outside of my race, culture and class – looking back I don’t think I thought twice about it.
This way of doing things rendered many frustrations I would not have otherwise had, often times revealing the downsides of co-mingling human difference. While I came to possess a more mature view of natural human limits, I never let go of my beliefs in the power of human differences coexisting as well as the internal universal experiences that bind us.
The divergent experiences within the childless not by choice community were initially intriguing to me. I rejected the assisted reproductive technology snobbery notion that one had to engage in treatments to suffer legitimate pain and loss. And I still do. Further on down the road, in spite of the ongoing devastation I suffered trying to conceive I took an interest in those who felt left out or unvalidated by not having had the chance to try for a child at all for whatever reason. We are all, I surmised, joined by a similar societal invisibility and social isolation regardless of how we got here.
In the midst of all this, an erosion crept in. I found myself in a wayward place, intertwined in an unraveling. AGAIN. I awoke to a chorus of narratives within our demographic I could not reconcile with my own experiences. I encountered a share of silencing and misunderstanding from in person childless not by choice experiences for reasons extending far beyond my natural charm deficit. In an odd and most cringey twist of fate, I found myself jackknifed by difference.
I had put the cart before the horse (hey – it’s what I do!) in unconsciously placing an interest in other people’s stories above the defining of my own and the needs that arise from it. My inner domains were floundering.
Even though I thought I knew my own narrative, I’ve spent the last year in search of just exactly that. But not the narrative hurling like an out of control galaxy that comes from the chaotic nothingness of the early days, but rather the one that is gently and defiantly excavated from a more settled place. The one that artfully loops past, present and what might be into a brilliant kaleidoscope of realism. No easy feat, I’ve learned, when your narrative blossoms from an underestimated if not denied human experience and lands to some degree on what western culture disdains the most – an absence of clear resolution and a lack of agency.
As it often goes, initially I chalked this disintegration up to some mysterious deficiency within myself of which I was not yet aware. I did come to realize though that it was high time to get a defined grip on my own narrative. Stumbling through a swamp of narratives not aligned with my experiences was all the more reason for me to dig in my heels.
But as I was doing so, I wondered constantly why this mattered. What’s the big deal? Why do I feel so ungrounded? Why do the differences I’m exposed to have me recoiling and running for cover? Reminding myself of that which I was already aware – that we all have different experiences (DUH!) – served only to deepen my rut, an unchecked dismissal in the throes of life’s other turbulences. Because as it turns out, narrative is HUGELY important.
“……the default mode of human cognition is narrative” – this quote from psychology professor Jonathan Adler (in an eye opening piece on story in the Atlantic by Julie Beck) sure got my attention. Or, as Julie Beck writes, “When people drop the cheesy pick-up line ‘What’s your story?’, like a man who nicks his carotid artery while shaving, they’ve accidentally hit upon something vital.”
Yeah, I’ll say!! See if I ever dismiss what’s bugging ME again. Organizing the past into narrative is a method of understanding the self. Not only is narrative the channel for communicating how you became who you are, it also informs who you’re on your way to becoming.
Furthermore, again from the Atlantic article, “Once certain stories get imbedded into the culture, they become master narratives – blue prints for people to follow when structuring their own stories, for better or for worse.” I was stuck between the rock and hard place of thrill that there were narratives becoming imbedded in the involuntarily childless culture at all and alienation that so many of the embedded narratives did not reflect my realities.
No wonder I needed some distance to reclaim my story!
“So what exactly got ME here?” I’d often wonder over the past year, on my sabbatical from other people’s narratives.
First and foremost, I’m here in the childless not by choice community because of untimely life altering traumatic loss. No ifs, ands or buts. And certainly, no apologies.
I didn’t not have children, I lost my children. Period.
I assimilate these truths from my connections to my experiences at the time, connections that were both ripe and potent.
I always knew motherhood would not be an absolute end all be all for me, that I would need to covet other things in my life, therefore I find no comfort in this “revelation” on the heels of having lost it.
I’m not here because I thought having children would solve all of my problems. I actually anticipated that having children would create problems and I wanted to be in a place in life where I had the resources and desire to meet those problems with intelligence and creativity.
And I’m not here because I realized after the fact that I wanted children for reasons that were somehow immature and misguided. I really honestly wanted them. The larger than life efforts I had to put forth to have them unveiled my perceived ambivalence was not anywhere near as prevalent as I had thought. Which, let me tell you, is quite a shit realization to have while attempting to plow through multiple causes of infertility.
My partner and I had always been suspicious of, and thus disregarded, any social or societal pressures to have children. It was important to us that we have them for the right reasons, and so we initially considered both a child free and a parented life, knowing both would be good and worthy, albeit extraordinarily different from one another. Coming from the place of already knowing this, I’m definitely not here wrung out with angst over thinking I couldn’t have a good life without children.
It was the obstacles to living a good life, obstacles over which I had little to no control that were the point. Like most trauma survivors, I lost my ability to plan into the future, and I lost it for a good four years at that. Quite the pickle within a community that is so heavily focused on reinventing, rebuilding and all things that require……planning.
I experienced cruelty and giddiness when my ability to plan into the future began to trickle back. The cruelty was that by then I was waist deep in my nervous system disorder and couldn’t do much of anything which rendered planning irrelevant….but I’d sketch out plans anyway. “You know that’s not actually going to happen, right?” I’d chide myself. “I know, I’m just doing it because I CAN.” I’d say back to myself with a delighted smirk.
While I never felt I wasn’t worthy as someone without children, I have been profoundly affected by the fact the outside world typically seems to think so. While I suspect this experience doesn’t entail the harshness and physical threats often encountered by other minorities, it’s the last thing anyone who has lost all of their children, parenthood and grandparenthood needs.
My overarching question hasn’t been “Can I have a good life?” In the early years it was “Do I even care?”
And then came my real query – “How can I survive and even internally prosper when life is NOT good?” To that end, I’m more than happy, thrilled even, with how I’ve responded to this question over the last number of years. I’ve enjoyed not having that question so dominant in my narrative over the past year, as circumstances have allowed, and I look forward to the possibility of that continuing.
I take no enlightenment from the fact that people who get to be parents have challenges. Unless it’s a life altering one, like a child with a crippling addiction or a severe disability – that stuff I can relate to. Other than that, parenting challenges are only relevant to me in terms of broadening my general perspective and understanding of the overall human condition. In terms of my experiences with not being able to have children they are absolutely irrelevant.
Having a mother can cause a lot of problems too after all, however that doesn’t mean I’d be better off in some ways if mine had died when I was five. And I somehow seriously doubt that people who loose their physical children sit around contemplating the problems they’d have had their children lived.
I mean, I can just see it:
Husband calling out from other room: “Hey, Marsha…..Do you realize that had Johnny and Lucy lived, we’d still have problems????”
Marsha – “Wow, gosh really?? Well okay then!!”
I was mindful of the time in life, situation and with whom I was going to have children. When people find parenthood a disappointment or even miserable because they chose to do it at the wrong time for them, or with the wrong person, or for the wrong reasons, or because they chose to overlook the obvious fact it was going to be freaking HARD, that’s of course too bad. But it’s got nothing whatsoever to do with my story. Just as someone else’s shit marriage has no relevance to a widow who has lost the love of her life. I seriously doubt people who have lost their person sit around rationalizing that marriage is hard.
A short time ago, I found myself blanketed with a whole new feeling. I sensed a new life chapter brimming, finally, in ways and for reasons I couldn’t quite explain. And as I picked up the pieces of what seemed to be slightly opening road and turned them over in my hands, running my fingers over their crevices and rough edges, my premier instinct was this: I want a baby. Yep, there I was, aged forty nine, weathered by childlessness and all my last decade had served up, and instinctively that’s what I’d have done with my new start if I could have. I found myself internally ready to reboot the pursuit of parenthood, in that place I imagined I needed be to consider adoption almost eight years ago.
I didn’t find myself in this place because I can’t figure out anything else to do with my life, or because I think I’m not worthy unless I have children and blahbity blahbity blah. It’s that I know in my heart of hearts, at least under normal average circumstances, that parenthood is most what I wanted to be doing with this phase of my life. Just as I knew in my heart of hearts that I should not have had children in my twenties or even early thirties. Having a child with the wrong person, without any financial resources and without getting certain creative and entrepreneurial ventures through my system first was not for me – I would not have fared as well as most under these circumstances and I knew it.
My husband was patient with me, I was patient with me as I hashed it out. It was actually sort of – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – sweet to revel in the yearning removed from the grief and trauma of it all. I had never really gotten to experience this. The slideshow of “options” I had anguished over years ago ran through my head, in some ways as though I had never even considered them.
But things of course landed in the same place they had started. Especially for financial reasons – the monetary fallout from infertility and childlessness still ripples with us today and will take another couple of years to fully reconcile. After that, I’ll be working my pants off through my fifties in order to make up for at least some of it. And, due to my age the idea of pursuing parenthood has started to not feel quite right on a moral level – at least for me anyway.
One of the complications with stories like mine is that there really is no comparable narrative. I’ve always said though, that if it doesn’t apply to someone who heaven forbid lost all of their physical children in a tragic accident, then it doesn’t apply to me. And I still stand by this today. Obvious differences aside, some of which I’m thankful for and some of which I’m jealous of, this is the narrative that is closest to what I went through.
I feel in some key ways more comfortable within mainstream grief and trauma groups. Even though my losses are not yet fully acknowledged within these forums. The expression and language used in these situations is to me both normal and sensical relative to untimely life altering traumatic loss. People who fully acknowledge that they’ve been through life altering traumatic loss need the company of one another, I suppose.
The 911 Memorial also makes sense to me. I haven’t yet visited, but during the twentieth anniversary rituals it was mentioned that it holds symbolism of both the permanent abyss of loss and the growth of moving forward.
I don’t believe in benefits when it comes to life altering traumatic loss, benefits are something that go above and beyond the status quo. I believe in what I call “the least we deserve necessities” – life’s pleasures both big and small helping us through.
A couple years ago, I started to notice the early fifty something parents in my orbit. A few years ahead of me in age, their children had mostly left the nest. They had either careers they were into or passion projects running or both, interesting hobbies and were traveling frequently. Imagine my vexation then in realizing, while still limited daily by nervous system disorder symptoms and teetering on the edge financially, that all of the supposed supreme benefits of not having children are really not related to that after all. These are things people encountering periods of privilege in life get to do regardless of parented status, people without children just do them in different proportions is all. And another one bites the dust……
Early on, I was heavily influenced by having what are likely my most abundant characteristics – my capacities for connection and perseverance – rendered not only useless but destructively harmful within the forum of trying to have a child. Not in a single instance, but month after month, year after year. I’ve been greatly shaped by what I suspect were explosive levels of helplessness and powerlessness experienced in having nothing – absolutely nothing I did in the four years of trying to conceive make any sort of a difference in the situation. A situation that on the surface always looked good and like it was going to work – a massive psychological fuck no doubt. And I’ve been forever changed by being pressed eyeball to eyeball with nature’s and the universe’s innate indifference.
THIS is my ground zero of not asked for transformation, the points of combustion for Sarah Part 2.
I’ve since been able to add more forgiving factors to my resume, which now coexist alongside these earlier influences that left an indelible imprint over my entire being. I’m looking forward to my future and experience bouts of contentment within the mostly welcome chaos and intensity of my current life. My bouts of contentment I suspect mostly derive from the “and” of things, from my intention to not push any parts of my reality and experiences away. I’ve healed and grown to a point where I’m deeply thankful for my life.
I don’t share any of this to undermine where anyone else might be coming from. Most of the narratives circulating in our demographic are valid and important and deserving of air space. I am grateful for them, and the article from the Atlantic on story helped me to a better understanding of some of them. I simply needed to see more narratives that represent experiences like mine, and so, I’m putting mine out there.
I don’t see how I can achieve any sort of agency if I lie to myself about what I went through and how it impacted me. My irony? For me, the regaining of control lies in the courage to fully acknowledge those experiences where I haven’t had any.
I also share this to encourage you, if the spirit moves you, to examine your own childless narrative (or your own narrative at all if you’re not without children). We’ve gotten a spectacular start over this past decade, but there’s much left to be written, and especially spoken, in the collective childless and infertility stories. We need all voices and experiences on board.
This marks my final formal post on Infertility Honesty. When I catapulted my first post (which I haven’t summoned the courage to re-read just yet!) on this blog out into the world eight years ago today, December 29, 2013, I knew very little…and was probably better off for it. I knew three things as a matter of fact – I knew that I needed to write, that I loved my children and that this experience needed to be prodded from the cultural shadows.
This was nowhere near the ending I’d have imagined had I been capable, but yet I’ve emerged weathered, wiser, integrated and somehow whole. As have you, dear readers. I believe that I, and my experiences, have something to contribute to this demographic going forward. Having officially left the bouncy house of other people’s narratives, I now will be able to do that knowing exactly where I come from and where I stand.
I’m interested in the long term impact of childlessness and in what we can do to cultivate and sustain health and wellness in the face of not having children. Going forward, I will be betting on, as I have my whole life, the power that lies within the coexisting of difference, as well as the internal, universal human experiences that bind us.
I thank all of you who have responded to my posts and contributed to the conversation with sharing yourselves, your wisdom, your perspectives, creativity and support over the years, and especially to those of you on the path ahead who generously gave me the unconditional gift of your mentorship.
To write and be read has been one of the great privileges of my life. I hope to see you in “the Afterward”, be it on the mat, in the blog comments, social media or, down the road, on a webinar chat.
With Love and Gratitude always,
Sarah (aka Infertility Honesty)
2 thoughts on “Final Post – The Crucial Importance of Narrative”
Thank you for your years of sharing your story. It really helped me reconcile my own feelings despite taking a different path to the same end. I look forward to continue following your journey at Afterward Honesty.
Thanks so much for being here Jennifer, and for contributing to the conversation!