Talking About Infertility: A Friend’s Guide

It’s getting easier to interact with my friends with kids, and with their kids. I spent the weekend visiting with a friend i’ve known since high school, her husband, and their two adorable daughters (2.5 years and 10 weeks). It was an awesome weekend, we went hiking, caught up, hung out with the kids, and gave her some much needed adult time while her husband looked after the kids.

Something that has come up a couple of times with my family/friends who have children is their uncertainty as to how uncomfortable it is going to make me if they talk about/interact with/gush over their children. And I do understand that. I get that there is a distinct level of awkwardness surrounding the conversation of infertility. Since it remains such a taboo subject of discussion, people have their own ideas and expectations for how they expect the infertile individual to feel and what their comfort level would be if they were in that situation.

I can’t speak to anyone else’s feelings on the subject, but here are mine: I like to hear about how happy people are to have their children. I think the fact that they enjoy their progeny, that they are excited to be parents, and that they love the experience is a good thing. Yes, of course it makes me think about what i’m missing. Of course there is a part of me that is sad.

What is exponentially worse is the people who have children and apparently hate or resent the whole experience. It is one thing when someone has the thing I want most in the world and treasures it… It is a whole other thing when they have it and they treat it like an inconvenience.

I know that having children is stressful, and draining, and a huge sacrifice. I know that it is hard, and that there are moments where any parent is likely to regret how much of themselves they’ve had to give up in order to support their progeny. I don’t think there is any such thing as a perfect parent, and perish any thought that I consider that I would be anything close to that if given the opportunity. But at least here in Canada, we have access to birth control, family planning options, and worst case scenario, abortion, all subsidized by our health care system. There is no excuse to bring an unwanted child into this part of the world. I don’t expect anyone to take the concept of terminating an unwanted pregnancy lightly. Unfortunately, I do think too many people take the concept of parenting lightly, which seems to have a whole other set of consequences.

As someone who has given parenting, childbearing, child rearing, and the sacrifices and work involved a lot of thought, not just in the last four+ years, but for the better part of a decade before that while my Husband and I were planning a life that centred around having a family… I honestly find it difficult to imagine how anyone can go into it without a basic grasp of what they will be giving up in order to support the little life they create. However, I am often confronted with evidence that exactly that happens all the time, and it drives me a little crazy.

So, talking to a friend who is dealing with infertility. Things to consider:

If you are curious about someone’s interest in having children, should you ask? The blanket answer to me is no. It’s none of your business what they want, and chances are if they want you to know they will choose to tell you. However, I think it can come up organically in conversations, and depending on how open they are about their fertility status, and how close the two of you are, they may choose to bring it up. If you are not comfortable having that conversation (and maybe hearing about some of the baggage behind it) don’t ask. My closest friends all know the basics, and varying levels of details about what my Husband and I have been going through. I personally chose to brush off the question or ignore pointed comments that can hang on the air if I don’t feel like talking about it. I will either full on lie, make a joke, or just say that we are not having kids without qualifying information. The basic point is: It’s none of your business, I don’t care who you are, my fertility is mine, and I will choose when and with whom I discuss the details.

You are aware that someone cannot have children. Should you invite them to child-centred events (baby showers, children’s birthdays, etc.). Yes. But don’t be offended if they chose not to attend. Really, I think that should be true of all events – an invitation is not a directive, it’s presenting the option. I think it’s weird when people nag you to show up to something once you’ve told them you won’t, regardless of the event details – weddings, parties, trips… an invitation shouldn’t be considered an order. But I digress…

Should you discuss your children/child details with/around your infertile friend? Yes. If they are not comfortable, they can choose to remove themselves from the conversation. As I said, I love to hear about my friends children, and my nieces and nephews. The little munchkins’ existence has no bearing on my own lack of children, and knowing that there are kids around who I can lavash with whatever maternal urges/attention/care I have (Plus getting to hand them back at the end of the day) is a good thing. I personally also have no issues with my friends discussing the more challenging realities of their child rearing experiences. As I said above, I know that is a part of it, and constant sunshine sugar and roses just makes my teeth hurt. I’m cool hearing all of it, and if I were not, I would say something or absent myself.

Asking questions about their situation, should you? Sure. Again, I think it’s up to each individual to determine their boundaries and what they wish to disclose. As with invitations, questions don’t automatically deserve a response. With those friends who I have chosen to disclose my experience, I have no problem discussing it in more depth, as long as the circumstances are appropriate. I am not going to have a heart to heart in the middle of a party with a bunch of other people listening in. But if I have already determined that I trust someone enough to have told them what is going on in my life on that level, I have no problem going into more detail. In fact, for me, I frequently have trouble talking about it unless someone chooses to ask. I tend to feel like I am over burdening my friends with my issues, so I generally avoid bringing it up. Sometimes someone choosing to ask about it is a welcome opportunity to vent/discuss/elaborate/communicate on an issue that I find intensely difficult to address. There is an aspect of buyer beware in this: If you ask, you may get far more of an answer than you expected and possibly more than you wanted. This is an emotionally charged issue, and it can come out in a whole huge ball of everything that can be overwhelming. Or maybe it just feels massively overwhelming to me. Whatever. Let that be on the asker, if you’re willing to ask an incredibly personal question, you should probably be prepared for the answer.

Random other things:

I don’t care that you don’t feel like you can understand what it feels like. I don’t want you to, I wouldn’t wish this on anyone I care about.

I don’t need your suggestions for other options for potentially getting pregnant – thank you, I know you’re trying to help, but I am a pretty phenomenal researcher in my own right – you are not going to suggest something that I have not already considered.

I don’t want to be told about the friend/acquaintance/your dog’s uncles owner who got pregnant after years of trying just when they had given up all hope. We all know that person (or at least know of them), and they are the exception, not the rule. People talk about that type of event, they talk a whole lot less about the absence of it.

Don’t bitch to me about the person in your life who got knocked up by accident, chose to have the baby, and is being a totally irresponsible parent. I know they exist, I work with the progeny of some of them, I am aware it’s a thing… but if you want to trigger a meltdown in me, that is your fastest route. Don’t do it, if you do, and you know you’re doing it, you’re just being an ass hole. If you are the irresponsible parent, chances are we are not friends, because I saw you coming from a mile away and removed myself from the situation. You didn’t have to feel my wrath, you’re welcome.

I have other things in my life that fulfil me, I am not broken. Yes, I think about my lack of ability to have children constantly. Yes it feels like a giant gaping hole in my life. However keenly I feel that loss, it does not mean that anything else I chose to do with my life is somehow done to compensate. It’s not. I’ve had a few people talk as if my masters degree, career, sport, etc. are all just ways to fill the void… they are not. I do these things because I think they have value. Yes, they are also valuable in terms of their ability to distract me and as coping mechanisms, but they would be equally valuable if I were able to have children – just ask all the fertile people who have also chosen to participate in those things!

I don’t expect to “get over it”. I choose to avoid talking about my infertility in part because I don’t feel like dealing with any backlash from people who, as with the loss of a loved one, think that grief has an expiration date. It does not. Time helps. It makes things less raw, less immediate, and improves coping skills, as well as offering perspective. But nothing stops this from being present, and I won’t simply wake up one morning and not care. So if, when i’m in my 60’s and long past child bearing potential, I mention the sense of loss… It’s still present, it’s still real, and if you can’t understand that… Either you are lucky and have never lost something you truly loved, or you’re a sociopath and you don’t actually feel that deeply about anything. Either way, I don’t really want to hear about it in that moment.

These are my honest, if cheeky, thoughts. They are likely only relevant to me and my situation. However, if you are reading this and wondering what to do in terms of your friend, the best thing you can do is just ask them what they need. Gently, calmly, and respectfully… and then respect their answer.

Cheers,

-Me

 

Advertisements

Pity

I hate being the object of pity. I’m not much happier with sympathy, I can sometimes handle empathy… But I hate pity.

I raced at Regionals this weekend, and although all of my four races felt good, and my team came together and performed well, I did not win any medals. Which was disappointing – every other person on my team won in one of their other races, I seemed to be the common denominator among losing boats. I thought I had made more improvements over the last year than I had, but apparently it’s going to take a lot more work to compete at an international level and win.

One of my coaches, who is an ex national team athlete (he was headed for the olympics until an injury forced early retirement), decided to race a single scull, and unsurprisingly he won. He felt like it was unfair, because despite having followed the letter of the law, it is somewhat unsportsmanlike for an athlete of his caliber to compete at a masters level. So this is where the pity comes in: At the end of the regatta, once the boats were packed back on the trailer and we were ready to make the 4+ hour drive back to the ferry, he called everyone together for a team meeting/end of regatta wind down chat. It started out nicely enough, he made some nice comments about learning a lot from adult athletes and how much he enjoyed coaching us…

Then he brought up a new thing. The “spirit” award. Citing the idea that this person had been positive and complained the least throughout the weekend, he called on me, and gave me his gold. And I just wanted to crawl under a rock and die. It I felt that I had earned that award, maybe it wouldn’t have felt so shitty, but I don’t think I did – There was another member of the team who had been far more helpful, positive, and proactive than I had been all weekend, which means they selected me because they felt bad for me. Because I alone had not medaled. I can handle my own disappointment, but knowing that I was the object of my coach’s pity just … It just sucks.

I held it together until I got into the car to drive home and then let the tears come. The ladies I was carpooling with were worried about me, and agreed that it was a poor choice and pretty transparently a consolation prize… and they were lovely. Half an hour into our drive home we were giggling about other things.

I have no desire to have anyone pity me. A large part of why I keep the details of my infertility largely private is because I have no interest in being the object of that attention. And I work my ass off at rowing, i’m just not performing at a high enough level to win yet. Having my coach think that that action was appropriate just… Makes me want to quit. Having it happen in front of all of my peers, and drawing attention to my failure, not to mention making me a lightning rod for their pity as well? FML.

I know that he thought he was doing something nice, and that makes the whole thing somehow worse. If he were just being an ass hole, I would write it off and dismiss it, but he genuinely thought that he was being kind. And there isn’t really a way to give it back without being an ass hole in return.

I’m aware that three days of racing in 35+ degree (celsius) weather, plus <5 hours a night of sleep for five days, plus 7+ hours of travel time on either end it making me more emotional than normal. I’m aware that once I am well rested and a few days have passed I will feel less miserable about this. But right now I don’t want to get back on the water, I don’t want to deal with anyone from that arena, I just want to hide, give up, oh, and starve myself to boot, because when I hate myself, I feel all the old body image issues resurfacing.

I have to go for a training shift at my new job today. I am overtired, have a slight heat exhaustion hangover, and my brain feels like fuzzy mush. Not ideal training circumstances, so here’s hoping I can get through it with some shred of dignity intact.

Fuck pity.

-Me

A Weird Conundrum

So, something I am noticing that I am struggling with: I am starting to get on with my life. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I am getting over not being able to get pregnant – that remains a nice little black cloud in my psyche, but I am starting to see it more as a distant storm instead of an ever present shadow. As I am able to actually focus on the good things in my life, I have a weird sensation like i’m cheating on my unconceived, unborn child. Like somehow being able to build other positive things in my life is doing a disservice to the dream of having a biological child. I think it’s associated with the general grief experience, but it’s an interesting aspect. It’s like somehow if I can move on, if I can build a positive and fulfilling life without having imprinted my DNA on the next generation, I never really wanted it that badly.

I know that’s a load of crap. If I woke up tomorrow, or next week, or next year, and took a pregnancy test and it were positive, I…. I don’t have the words to express how happy I would be. I have dreams where it happens, and the disappointment I feel on waking and finding out it isn’t real is almost heartbreaking.

So as I actually feel like I am building a different life, and a good one… I find the feeling of being unfaithful to my original plan very interesting.

I think my Husband and I will take a very serious look at adoption sometime in the next three years. I think we will look at children who are in the foster system, not infants… and I think we will be parents. We will have a child, or children, and we will parent together. But in the meantime, I need to not feel guilty for trying to build a good life without my dream baby.

-Me

Apparently it’s time for a change?

Soooooooo, its been an eventful few weeks – on top of quitting my job last week, I got a call that my surgery date is much, much sooner than I expected. Initially they called me Monday to tell me that it would be June 27th. I rearranged my entire schedule around that with less than 6 hours notice, and tried to come to terms with the idea of being slightly incapacitated starting a new job.

Then on Tuesday I got a call from the bookings people that they had neglected to check the surgeons availability, and that the 27th wasn’t actually an option. So instead it’s been postponed to July 25th. Six weeks seems like a reasonable amount of time to prepare…

I will still need to take some time off quite early in my new job, but I will at least have a month to settle in.

In some ways having a breast reduction is another step in my acceptance of not being fertile. I had been waiting to see about the surgery until I had children, since breast feeding is apparently more difficult post surgery. Choosing to do so now is again admitting that it isn’t going to happen. I waffle back and forth between weird last minute hope and being accepting of the reality.

The limbo is waning. It won’t go away, it won’t be gone, and I will grieve on some level… but I am starting to concretely move on.

-Me

All of the things, and yet still the same.

You never know exactly when the next wave will hit. The moment that you are reminded, yet again, that you won’t ever hear a munchkin call out for Mum and be calling for you.

In other news, I quit my job on Friday. I’ve been frustrated by working for an internationally publicly traded company whose focus is the bottom line… For three and a half years. However much I love WHAT I do, the company for which I do it has been nothing short of disappointing. There is a significant amount of lip service paid to the value of teamwork, collaboration, supporting their employees, yadayadayada, but the reality differs. I have been repeatedly informed that I am not worth paying more than the minimum, and that I am replaceable. So it is slightly satisfying to see the look of panic on my managers face when he now has to try to replace me. I do have another job to go to. I’ll be working for the municipality where I live, and it will be much more community focused, which I think will be a good fit for me. What is terrifying is the fact that I will be taking a huge risk in terms of hours – this new job is based entirely on my ability to build and maintain a client base. And I think I can – I have done so before. But it is venturing out into unknown territory without a safety net, and I am unsettled.

I will also have significantly more free time than I am used to, and that is also unsettling. I am used to being so busy I don’t have time to think, and that is at least in part by design – if I’m busy, I can’t focus on the things that upset me, because there is no time. Now I will have time. my first impulse is to try to fill it – with anything: work, school, choir auditions, exercise, etc. I know I need time to slow down and regroup, and that it will be good, but my crocodile brain doesn’t want to give anything the opportunity to catch up.

Since quitting I have felt lighter than I have in a very long time. I know I made the right decision, I know that this will be the best in the long run, and the more time since I sent in my resignation the more sure I am that it was a good idea. I feel alive in a way I have not for a few years.

I need to believe in myself and my own professional abilities, I need to remember that I can, and have, in fact done this before. But the self doubt creeps in, and its insidious tendrils wrap around my heart and drag…

It will be ok. I will make this work. And worse case scenario, I can always find another job….

And in the meantime, I will continue to avoid thinking about that voice that will never call for me in the night.

-Me.

In Reference to Mental Health

I think, through my adolescence and 20s, I had seen my bouts of anxiety and depression as a passing phase. I saw the flux as the result of hormone shifts and the stressors of school, work, relationships, whatever. I remember vividly my sister in law, who also deals with depression, telling me that she thought I was depressed, and brushing it off. I was 24. I think I had bought into a significant portion of the societal bias against mental illness, a stigma that continues to cause me to be very careful of who I discuss my mental health with, and under what parameters.

I’m not proud of bowing to social norms. I don’t lie about my mental health, but I definitely hide it under a shroud of bravado and easy smiles. I will answer direct questions honestly, but I learned a long time ago that when you seem like your life is an open book, no one bothers to flip the page. I have spent years carefully constructing a facade, one that is just quirky and odd enough that most people assume that I can’t possibly be hiding anything, because wouldn’t the foul mouth, dirty sense of humour and tendency to do a happy dance randomly in public be the obvious things to hide? It’s not that those things are lies. They are just emphatically not the whole truth.

Interestingly, within the safety of that shroud I have learned to watch other people and their behaviours more carefully. Because I am painfully aware of my own disguise, I am more inclined to see through those that other people use. From a professional perspective, it’s extremely valuable: I am adept at seeing past the walls and learning about people – and I find their whole self interesting, which leads to better therapeutic relationships and I think ultimately better care.

As my 30s are well and truly underway, I am more aware of the reality that comes with dealing with depression, at least for me: It isn’t transient, or a passing phase. That doesn’t mean it won’t pass, and it doesn’t mean I can’t work on it, build up my coping skills, and improve my outlook. In fact, even as I sit and write, I’ve been pretty stable for the better part of a month despite significant upheaval in my professional life. I feel like a whole person most of the hours of the day. I recognize that I have a tendency to over-extend my resources, and I work to make sure that I allow for that, and the recovery time that needs to follow. So I work on balance, and self care, and try to practice what I preach.

But I am starting to realize that it is important for me to own my mental health. Because it is mine. It’s not going away, it will be ever changing, and sometimes hard… But sometimes it will be glorious, and I will get to experience true and utter joy – and that is worth everything, every single time. I have chosen thus far not to seek medication. The talk therapy has been effective, and all my understanding of the medications are that they dull your senses at both ends of the spectrum: no huge lows, but also no highs, and I live for those (none external chemically induced) highs.

I am blessed with a strong cohort of very good friends, who have been available to me in ways I could never have imagined, even when I didn’t know how to ask. I am lucky to have married a man who has weathered my storms with grace, and been willing to work on our relationship even when I was ready to give up. I have strong biological family bonds, and stronger logical family bonds, and I treasure them.

But on mental health: Its mine, good, bad, or otherwise. I am happy that this most recent depressive episode seems to be passing. With each successive experience I am more certain that there will, eventually, be a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

I will mourn my ability to conceive for the rest of my life. I am starting to accept that, and the daily hurt is slowly ebbing away. There are sharp pangs, and there is a very good chance that I will never attend another baby shower as long as I live. And I will let myself grieve that loss as often and as deeply as I need to, because that too is mine. Mine to decide how much it hurts, mine to determine what the appropriate response is, and mine to share only if and when I choose. I don’t know if I will ever parent in any conventional sense, or if any doctor will ever be able to tell me definitively why my body doesn’t seem capable of conception. And it’s not ok. But it is something I can acknowledge and build into my life foundation, not use to tear myself down.

Someday I want to share my story and struggle with mental health with the people I care about, and maybe beyond. Partially because I think there are too few stories about the people who don’t conceive (how many times has my saying I can’t get pregnant been met with “i’m sure you will!” or “I know a woman who said that and then…”), but mostly¬†because I would like to¬†face my fear of sharing these little secrets I’ve been so carefully hiding for so long. But for now, this is Me.

-Me.

Growth?

I’m starting to feel like myself again. And by myself I mean I am feeeling better, less depressed. I hesitate over that phrasing – alienating the depression, acting as if it is not a part of me, pushing away – it feels off. I suppose what I mean is that I feel closer to being the version of me I am comfortable living with. I think there is also an element of recognizing that although the depressed, nasty, brutal though processes were *gasp* “coming from inside the house!” So to speak, they felt like there was a monster speaking through me.

I think I find it difficult to reconcile between acknowledging that I was that monster, and wanting to push as far as I can away from it/me. Because ultimately I can’t runaway from myself. That monster is going to have to be maintained and cared for, so that it doesn’t decide it needs to try to be in control again.

But those thoughts aside, I am feeling better. Despite the upheaval in my professional life, and just passing the fourth year since we started trying to conceive, I am starting to feel real joy and hope, and I don’t feel guilty about it. One of the surest signs that I feel better is hat I don’t feel like I need to hide my depression from everyone around me. I am hardly broadcasting it (I don’t really broadcast anything…) but I don’t deny or hide it. Rather than naming it giving it power, it seems to instead strip away the layers of fear, hurt, pain, sorrow, and self doubt.

I recognize that, having been through some type of cycle of depression several times, I seem to be susceptible to the state. I know that it is possible that it will come up again in the future when the going gets tough. But each time I come out the other side, my faith that there is a way through is strengthened, and I recognize the value of hope. Two years ago I had “Hope” tattooed behind my left ear. Although I have never regretted the ink, the meaning behind it has shifted over time, and at the worst it felt like that permanent reminder was mocking me. Now, it serves he purpose it was intended for from he start, and reminds me that, whether I see it or not, hope is always there, and there is something worth hoping for.

-Me