Huffington Post contacted me to ask me if, as a childless not by choice woman, if I had anything to say about the Royal Baby buzz. It turns out I did. Please check it out.
Huffington Post contacted me to ask me if, as a childless not by choice woman, if I had anything to say about the Royal Baby buzz. It turns out I did. Please check it out.
Last week I got a comment on a post of mine that was about moving on and letting go of the hope of having genetic offspring. This was a post in which I was talking about how I was managing to move from grief into acceptance and, ultimately, into a happy ending. The comment that was left for me was by a well-meaning man, a man who clearly had the best of intentions. This man wants me to be happy and to have the child I had so long wanted. This man’s well meaning suggestion was that I “just adopt”.
“Just” is quite a word. “Just” sounds so simple. “Just” tricks you into thinking that the task it is asking of you is easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy. And I can assure you that my experience with adoption was been anything but ‘just”. And, not that I talk about it much here or anywhere, but I can tell you that my failed attempt at adoption hurt me a million-zillion-trillion times more than any IVF procedure ever endured. It hurt more because there was a baby that existed and that for a period of time that baby was promised to me. When the mother changed her mind and kept her baby I was unhinged. I was the closest to a catatonic depression that I have ever been. I continue to think of that little girl almost daily. I know her name and I know what city she lives in and I know what grade she is in now and all of that knowing makes it harder to let her go. I know that I don’t have it in me to endure that again. I feel sure that another failed adoption would kill me, and I am not being hyperbolic when I say that. One, I believe, has to enter adoption knowing that they might not get the child that was promised to them. One has to enter knowing that and be able to handle that risk. I simply cannot handle that risk, and so that is why I don’t adopt. For me it is just as simple as that.
Lisa Manterfield, the author of I‘m Taking My Eggs and Going Home: How One Woman Dared to Say No to Motherhood, and the blog Life Without Baby, explains her own reasons:
I think I could answer this question calmly and logically if I thought it was asked from a place of genuine curiosity or concern. But it always feels like an accusation, as if a woman who wanted children but didn’t adopt is somehow a lesser human being, or the dreaded word so often associated with childlessness: selfish.
So, instead of educating about the complexities of the adoption process, I usually just offer a neat version of the truth: that would have, if we hadn’t already maxed out our heartbreak cards.
After five years of dealing with infertility, my husband and I did choose adoption over the expensive and evasive fertility treatments that were offered as our next low-odds hope. We quickly learned that the “millions of unwanted children looking for loving homes” is a myth and “just adopting” isn’t a matter of going to Wal-Mart and selecting a baby off the shelves.
At the time, foreign adoption was a quagmire of bureaucracy and corruption. Guatemala was in the midst of a baby-stealing scandal, China has just changed its requirements (making us ineligible), and good friends of ours had finally pulled the plug on six fruitless years of trying to adopt from Russia. Private domestic adoptions can be prohibitively expensive and just as fraught with danger. With the availability of birth control and the lessening stigma of the unwed mother, there simply aren’t enough “unwanted” babies to meet the demands of potential adoptive parents. As such, competition to adopt domestically is so stiff that it can feel more like a game show than an application for parenthood.In the end we opted to pursue adoption through the foster care system. We now understand that this route is a calling, and not just an alternative route to parenthood. The goal of the system is to keep blood relatives together whenever possible, and foster families can have several children temporarily in their care before an adoption becomes possible. We were more than ready to open our hearts to a child (or children) who needed a home, even if that child wasn’t the newborn we’d once dreamed of, but having had our hearts ripped out and stomped on so many times through infertility, we no longer had the emotional stamina to go through losing a child over and over again. Some people may view that as selfish; I prefer to call it self-preservation.So, when someone asks me why I didn’t just adopt, they’d better hope I say, “Because I’d maxed out my heartbreak card,” or be ready for a long education about the realities of adoption.
I believe Pamela has said she views adoption as a “calling” and one that she just didn’t feel personally. Another online friend once put it this way: adoption was something that she tried to get excited about — but couldn’t. Her heart just wasn’t in it. And didn’t she owe it to any child that she adopted to be excited, truly excited, about bringing that child into her life?I don’t think that makes her, or me, a bad person. Better to be honest with yourself about your feelings and limitations and what you personally feel capable of doing.
My husband & I talked about adoption, but I didn’t feel that excitement or enthusiasm that I saw in other couples we knew who were considering adoption. If I felt anything, I think I just felt exhausted. Dealing with stillbirth and years of infertility does that to you. I was in my 40s (he
was too). I’ve often said that, maybe if I’d been 35, I might have felt differently. As it was, I was just tired, and ready to move on with my life. I didn’t look at adoption & see a possible child for us. I just saw more work, more prodding into our personal lives, more money, more complexity,
more waiting, more uncertainty, more potential for more heartbreak. I didn’t want another roller coaster ride. I’d had enough of roller coasters. I wanted off.”
Nothing I know matters more
Than what never happened.
— John Burnside, ‘Hearsay
I once had a psychoanalyst ask me to write out in detailed form the way I wish my life had gone. I am not sure why he asked me to do that, and at the time I was even less sure. I do know that I was at once both resistant and energized by his invitation which I ultimately did not accept. When I think back to my work with this well-meaning analyst,I suppose many of my hours with him had sounded a lot like the following: “If we had only stayed in Seattle and not moved to Los Angeles.”; “If only I had been able to stay near Mirjam and Paul( my Nanny and her husband) and not move two states away from them.”; “If only I had been allowed to stay at Montessori and not been forced to attend Parochial school.” It’s funny to think back to that time and see the point my analyst was trying to make. He was, I suppose, trying to get me to see the impact of my unlived life and discover who it was that I longed for and what I imagined those roads not taken would have lead to. I imagine that he thought that I was marred by regrets which is strange as I don’t really experience myself as a person who regrets much. But was my analyst onto something? Was my unlived life worth examining?
Adam Phillips’, author, psychoanalyst and my latest intellectual crush, has an answer for that. “It seems a strange question until one realizes how much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not. What we fantasize about, what we long for,are the experiences, the things and the people that are absent. It is the absence of what we need that makes us think, that makes us cross and sad.”
In his latest book, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, Phillips explores the unlived life and how it impacts our lived life. The book jacket offers the following description of Phillips’ exploration:
All of us lead two parallel lives: the life we actually live and the one that we wish for and fantasise about. And this life unlived (the one that never actually happens, the one we might be living but for some reason are not) can occupy an extraordinary part of our mental life. We share our lives, in a sense, with the people we have failed to be – and this can become itself the story of our lives: an elegy to needs unmet, desires sacrificed and roads untaken….Adam Phillips demonstrates that there might in fact be much to be said for the unlived life. …he suggests that in missing out on one experience we always open ourselves to the potential of another, and that in depriving ourselves of the frustration of not getting what we think we want, we would be depriving ourselves of the possibilities of satisfaction.
This is, I imagine, and I imagine my old analyst would agree, is something I know a little about.
There is the me that was an only child who moved from Seattle at three and moved to Los Angeles and whose parents were career focused and not child focused. There is the me who had traumas and dramas mar her childhood. And that me that went on to marry and not have children and become who I am today. But what, I suppose, makes all of the pain of that biographical narrative so much more painful is that I hold in my mind the story of “what should have been” and ” the unlived life that I should have had”. That, truth be told, is much the pain of infertility and the resulting grief that lingers today…it is the feeling of missing out and having in my head the alternate life I would be living if I had only had the baby. I share my life with the Tracey that I have failed to be. There is the me that exists and then there is the me that went to Sarah Lawrence and who is a mother and who has a huge and loving family ( the me that doesnt’ exist).
In answering the question of why do we spend so much time imagining another ( or unlived life) Phillip argues that we are by nature frustrated creatures and that is because our expectations and fantasies are more than can possibly be met by the world. He goes onto explain that one of the ways we cope with that frustration is to fantasize about what we need and what is missing. It is Phillips’ assertion that fantasizing about what we don’t have is not merely an act of compensation but that it gives us insight into what we want to do with our lives. The fantasy gives us information about what we want to do and how to give our selves some sense of satisfaction. Phillips’ encourages us to use our fantasy life to seek what is truly available in the world. He goes onto say that by really knowing our frustration that comes at the intersection of lived life and not lived life that gives us a better sense of what we really want, so it is important to look at that wished for life for clues
A very interesting point that he makes and one that I need to pay special attention to is that the fantasy of the unlived life can make the lived life seem disappointing as there are no boundaries in the fantasy life and there are always boundaries, rules and limitations in the lived life. “reality isn’t disappointing, it is just reality.”In my unlived life I had that baby and I live in Lake Bluff and I write in my free time when I am not being the best mother I can be. Yes, giving space for that unlived life makes me sad. When I really walk around that life it is both lovely and horrible in the pain that it constilates, but when I really move into that fantasy there is something I wanted psychologically and symbolically, as well as literally,and some of those things can happen and some of those things can’t. In the fantasy I am the perfect mother and I have the perfect baby and I am perfectly happy. I know the reality would have been very different and I am perfectly okay with that.
Phillips argues that Capitalistic culture promises to endlessly supply things we want, that if we have a need that Capitalistm promises to produce something that will fill that need( interestingly that in the height of my trying to conceive I used to dream of going to Land of Nod or Pottery Barn Baby and buying my own perfect baby as well as all the nursery furniture). Phillips makes the case that “the effect of this forced feeding( by Capitalism) is that we never can think about what we might want.”
The surprising point that Phillips makes is that frustration is more enlivening than happiness. “I think that our frustration is one of the best things about us….at its best our frustration, for example, can lead us into the knowledge and the acknowledgment that we need other people, say, and that there is a limit to what other people can give us and we don’t have to, as it were, murder them because they are so frustrating….And if frustration were more culturally acceptable…it would be more talked about.” We are capable of more satisfaction in our life and that can looking at our frustration and seeing what is act
As much as I love Phillips, and I do, I find him to be a bit of a frustrating read ( and for Phillips that would likely be a compliment) he writes in a free-associative style that leaves one feeling completely unsure of what they just read( and I KNOW that Phillips would love that critique). Let me be absolutely clear, I am not in this post recommending that you rush out and buy his book ( but you might well enjoy it). What I do hope is that you might feel inclined, after reading this post and some of the scaffolding bones that make up the body of Phillips argument, to examine your unlived life and see what exactly frustrates you about it? What in the frustration offers for potential REAL fulfillment in your REAL life?
I WANTED a baby. I wanted to have a family. I wanted to create a life for myself and for the longed for baby that I didn’t have created for me. While I can’t create that baby, I can, if I chose, create a life in which I have more opportunities for love and connection and nurturing, which I imagine is at the crux of the desire for a family. I don’t have all the answers about the meaning of my “unlived life” but I do think it is definitely worth exploring further. And I can see already that just in posing the question that there is an opportunity to be somewhat less frustrated, which is strangely a bit frustrating.
Last Sunday I spoke at the Fertility Planit Show held in Century City, California. I was invited to be on the panel “Letting Go of the Hope of Having Genetic Offspring”. Yeah, it was not exactly the glamour hour at the Fertility Planit conference. I imagined people from all over the South-land deciding to spend their weekend and their $40 in order to learn the latest advances that might up their success rate. The last thing, I imagined, that hopeful couples would want to hear about is a panel of people talking about “Letting go” of exactly what it is they want most. I felt like I was the proverbial skunk invited to the garden party, or perhaps more aptly the divorce attorney invited to the wedding expo. I had visions of our panel being held in the bowels of the hotel. We might have a storage closet as our meeting place. There would be me and the other “letting go” panelists and maybe a long-suffering junior-volunteer journalist who had been sent to see if there might be a human interest story in our panel of sadness. In my fantasy, when the journalist saw the lack of attendance for the panel she got up and called her editor and told him that it had been a complete waste of time.
Even though I had that fantasy, I had another one too. In fantasy number two there was a huge crowd and they wanted hard data and facts and figures and they wanted to know exactly how, why and when I got over my infertility issues. They wanted me, in my fantasy, to answer their question in full and complete sentences that lacked “ums” and any other verbal ticks that I turn to when I am nervous. They wanted me to solve their problems in the ten-minutes I would be allotted on the panel. I feared that whatever my answers were that they wouldn’t like them. I imagined that they would be like the 1000+ commenters on Huffington Post who were filled with hostility towards almost everything I had to say about being infertile. As a counterpoint to that anxiety, I had the knowledge or hope that people tend to be nicer in person than when they are writing anonymous comments. I suppose it is harder to say mean and hateful things when standing in front of person who is spilling their guts out about how hard infertility was and how harder still it was to let go of—-only that knowledge only slightly comforted me—especially when that someone is crying).
You see, dear reader, my fantasy life is, as demonstrated in the aforementioned fantasies, often masochistic and full of unreasonable expectations. Hence, I was, to be completely candid, terrified. I was prepping for the panel in a way that I hadn’t done since studying for the GRE exams. And even as I crammed on topics that I KNOW I found myself marveling at the ridiculousness of prepping on what I am in fact an expert on.
The first question I was to be asked by the moderator was: “Who am I am and what is my relationship to the topic? Okay, well who am I? I should have that down, after all I know who I am. However, I wanted to succinctly explain the depth of my relationship to the topic which is not easy to do in three minutes.
What I planned on saying was:
I am an expert on “Letting Go of Trying to Conceive”, not so much because I am a MFT and that I work with patients who are struggling with infertility. Nor am I an expert because I have written about Infertility for Huffington Post or on my blog, La Belette Rouge. I am an expert because I spent five-years trying to conceive on my own(with my partner’s help) and another five-years and over $100,000 trying to conceive via the help of a Reproductive Endocrinologist. I did four and a half rounds of IVF, 21 rounds of IUI. I did ICSI. And we moved on to do IUI with a sperm donor. I didn’t stop there.
I did Feng Shui, Acupuncture, Yoga, and Chi Gong. I took flower essences, vitamins, and herbs. I saw healers, energy workers and Maori Tribal chieftains that supposedly had the power to heal even the most profoundly infertile couples. We were assured by healers, psychics, astrologers, and all who loved us that there was a baby in our future. Even thought I am agnostic, I had friends and families saying prayers, rosaries and masses for us. We were on prayer chains at over 100 churches. We built a baby shrine in our home—friends and family gave us symbols of fertility that would assure us our baby. I meditated, got massaged and got into therapy to manage my stress. I looked at my psychological resistance to pregnancy and mothering and everything I could possibly be resistant to and might be making my womb inhospitable. I ate more yams than one human should. My ex-husband ingested more pumpkin seeds than you could find in an entire pumpkin patch. I affirmed, “I easily and effortlessly become pregnant”. And instead I become uneasily and with great struggle, not pregnant.
I let go of the hope of having biological offspring on December 17, 2008. That was the last time I tried to conceive with the help of medical technology. I was shopping at Target in Highland Park, Illinois. I went into the bathroom and saw that after another round of treatment that I wasn’t pregnant AGAIN. I went home and called the doctor’s office and instead of scheduling ANOTHER round, I told them I was done. The nurse told me, “Okay” and that was it. I knew that day in a way that I had never known before that I could keep doing this over and over and I knew that I would not get pregnant. I knew that all the kings horses and all the kings men weren’t going to get me pregnant, no matter what kind of success rate they advertised or what kind of Chinese herbal supplements I choked down. That was the day that I quit trying to conceive and I started to move on with my life. It is my hope that today I will give you some tools that will allow you to move on, if that is what you want to do.
Well, I have no idea if I said anything like that. I am guessing I didn’t, as I had only three-minutes. I suppose if you want to know what I ACTUALLY said and what all the wonderful people on the panel said you can check this link out and look for my panel ( look for Sunday at 3 p.m.)
The second question that I over-prepared for was: What helped you let go? And do you think it is possible to ever really move on?
My over-prepared answer (and likely not the one I gave to the incredible Fertility Planit audience ) was:
I feel that I was lucky that I started the infertility treatment process knowing that at some point if the treatment wasn’t working that I would stop trying. I remember taking a walk the night before I began treatment and the thought came to me, that clearly was coming from a smarter and wiser part of myself, and that voice said, “At some point, if this doesn’t work, then you will stop treatment. “ For me, knowing that there was a limit to what I would do in order to conceive was vital. I knew there would be a point when I could no longer endure the pain and disappointment of failed infertility procedures was a strange comfort to me. I would ask myself after every round of IUI, “is this my limit?” If my answer was no I would go on. I know that many couples have the mindset when they begin treatment to continue until they have their baby, no matter what. However, infertility treatment doesn’t work for everyone and knowing that and having reasonable expectations around treatment is, I believe, vitally important. I wanted desperately to have a baby, but after all my heroic efforts failed, it was a comfort to me to have that question in order to check in with myself and see if I could take anymore. I am so grateful that I didn’t continue and do more and more and more even though I knew I had reached my personal limit. I would advise anyone to continue to check in with themselves and not to feel pressure to do more than their body, soul, relationships or bank account can handle.
The final question I was going to be asked was: What is the single most important thing a person can do for themselves, once they’ve made the decision to let go of becoming a parent entirely?
The single-most important thing, I believe, at least for me, and for many patients that I have worked with is to grieve it fully. When giving up on having a baby one is giving up so much: the grief of never having the biological experience of pregnancy; the grief of not having a family, in this way; the grief of not having a baby, a toddler, a child, an adolescent; The grief of not relating to your peers or going through the developmental markers that come through being a parent: The grief of not being a mother. To give up on having genetic offspring leads to MANY losses. And it would be my personal and professional advice to allow yourself to grieve fully and completely. I know it isn’t easy to do and I KNOW that through personal experience.
At the height of the pain, everyone told me that it would get easier and that I would get through it, but I didn’t know if I would. I thought the pain and the grief of it might kill me. But I did get through it. The day came when it hurt a little less and then a little more and there were days when I wouldn’t cry when I saw a pregnant women. Overtime it hurt less and less. With even more time, I was able to see babies and not wish they were mine. Slowly it stopped being the first thing I thought about in the morning and the last thing I thought about before I went to bed.
And mostly now I am happy with my life and even grateful for how it all worked out…The Truman Capote quote, “more tears are cried over answered prayers” even comforts me on occasion, but there are times when I am taken over by the fact that I will never be a mother or a grandmother. I never know when or when it is going to hit me but when it does it is not uncommon for me to cry with the same amount of depth of feeling as back in 2007 when I first let go of the hope of having a child of my own.
The hope I have to offer today is that I am here to say that life can be meaningful without children and that even though I didn’t get what I wanted in my infertility treatment I did learn a lot about myself though the treatment. I learned how strong I am and how much endurance and tenacity I have. I learned to tolerate ambiguity and not knowing, something I was lousy at before enduring infertility. I learned the very hard life lesson that doing all the right things and working hard doesn’t necessarily mean that you are going to get what you want. It also hurt like no other loss I have known and it is a wound in me that I will have all of my life, even as I have moved on.
Every time my period comes I am reminded of my inability to conceive, even though I am in no way trying to conceive. Recently I had my period show up a week late and I found that my “letting go” of hope to be challenged. I KNEW that I wasn’t pregnant. But what if I was? What if? I tried to keep the fantasies at bay. I tried to remind myself of the reality. And then my period came and I grieved again. I know my grieving it isn’t over, but neither is my life. I don’t think I will every let go completely, it is a process. Moving on, no doubt, is possible. It just takes time and it isn’t a straight line. That said, I continue to pick up and put down and let go and hold on again to the idea of a biological child. Shelagh Little writes that infertility is like a low level lifelong bio-psycho-social syndrome. My physical inability to produce children has emotional and social consequences that I struggle with at least to some degree every day. Her definition of infertility helps me to understand why it still hurts and that, to some degree, it always will—even as I move on. I am extremely grateful to Shelagh for that way of conceptualizing infertility.
Finally, I want to share what I believe is/was my personal recipe for moving on and letting go:
1. Getting to my personal limit
Knowing that I had tried as hard as I could to have a baby and that I could try no more. That was the first step in my letting go. I have no regrets about how hard I tried to get pregnant. I know I gave it my personal best and that is all I can ask of myself.
Having a therapist to go to twice a week and sob to was essential for me in my recovery from the active grief that comes from letting go. My therapist gave me a safe space to grieve. I felt like friends of family could only take so much of my grief. My therapist could take all of it. And his taking it and allowing me to leave my grief with him was huge for me in moving through it and making meaning of my pain.
3. Finding other people who had gone through the pain I had and seeing evidence that they had moved on
Reading Silent Sorority and Life Without Baby was profoundly helpful. The first place I turned to after deciding to let go was to Google. I queried, “what to do after failed infertility treatment?”. At first I found nothing helpful, except a few posts about how to stay away from Disneyland and Chucky Cheese’s. Finally I found Pamela Mahoney Tsigdinos and then Lisa Manterfield (whom I was lucky to be on this panel with and FINALLY meet) and other bloggers who knew my pain, even though I didn’t know them. It made me feel less alone and it helped to see people who were surviving and thriving without children.
4. Giving voice to my experience
Having my blog to write about my experience. I made friends. I found even support for my experience. I had an outlet to process what felt unprocessable( to coin a term).
It takes time. Time may not heal the wound of infertility, but time, and all the other aforementioned tools,does offer a kind of unexpected medicine that does allow for peace and happiness and meaning to sneak back into your life in unexpected ways .
Well, I don’t know if I said all that. I do know that speaking at Fertility Planit was healing for me and that I am extraordinarily grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this wonderful event. In talking about my process of letting go I got to see how far I’ve come. And it was incredible for me to have the opportunity to share my experience with those who are in the process of hoping, holding on, praying and, maybe, letting go. I was deeply touched by the courage of the those who attended. Letting go of the hope of genetic offspring isn’t easy and I admire the men and women who were in the audience, it is courageous to be in the trying to conceive phase and to conceive of not conceiving.
Looking out into the audience and seeing all the people suffering the pain of infertility, I am left with a new fantasy. I truly hope that something I do or say or share is helpful to someone suffering the grief of being unable to conceive—even if it is only one person. Maybe this last fantasy can become a reality.
Today I want to go to her house and play Gin Rummy with her. I want to eat her potato salad and sit on her furniture. I want to smell her smells and hear her stories.
2. James Hillman
There are days that I wake and I realize that James Hillman is really dead and that I will never hear him speak again. I go to Youtube and try and find a clip that captures who he was to me and I can never find it and it only makes me feel worse. I re-read his books and remember his lectures and doing all of this only makes his absence more intense.
I never see apricots anymore. Did I miss the breaking news, are apricots extinct?
4. Blogging daily
I miss being able to write everyday. And I miss being able to read everyday. I like my life the way it is but sometimes I miss my life the way it was.
5. Summers off
Summers used to be the times when I read and read and read. I want a summer of reading. I want it to be the kind of summer that feels like it lasts forever and I want each day to be filled with a book that opens up a new world in me.
6. The promise of some future self that would completely surprise me
I know who I am. I know, pretty much, what I’ll do and where I’ll go. I miss that feeling that today I might turn a corner and meet someone who could change my entire life forever. I know its still possible; only today it feels less likely.
7. Having a body that wasn’t so impacted by stress, sleeplessness or diet
I want to have a body that doesn’t punish me for neglecting it. And I don’t want to have to take medicine or Advil or go to doctors or give up gluten.
8. Having hair that I could let dry in the sun and that didn’t require many products to make it look good.
9. Grad school
I miss lectures, reading, and writing papers and learning new things. I miss that feeling of potential that one has when one is in school. I have patients who are in grad school and I see them wanting to rush through the process and I constantly finding myself wanting to tell them how lucky they are to be just where they are.
Before I could afford stuff I used to think that getting stuff would make me happy. The sad truth is that stuff can’t make you happy. I sort of miss believing that. It was nice to believe that if only I could have those Kate Spade shoes I would be happy. I do miss that.
What do you miss? Come on, tell me….You know there’s something you miss. Please share!