In a very ironic way, infertility is like parenthood.
There is a very distinct shift from non-parenthood to parenthood. I’m not just talking about trying to get out the door for work, so weary from lack of sleep that you’re totally oblivious to the spit-up running down the back of your jacket or the cheerios smashed into your pocket or the sticky finger prints on your cell phone. Or the way your voice shifts up an octave and you forget how to talk to someone in a complete sentence. No, there’s a moment somewhere along the way that your child captured your heart and you fell so deeply in love that you only now truly understand what it was like when every other mother or father previously gazed in a very particular way at their child and simply said, one day you’ll meet your child and understand. And then you did.
It’s that moment when you realize, as Elizabeth Stone said, that your heart is going to forever walk around outside your body. That you will do anything for them. As another Daddy friend told my husband upon the birth of his new baby girl, “I might as well hand over my credit card now”. When our daughter was born three months later, my husband simply said, “Mike was right”. Once you are a parent, you get it. You understand in a striking heartbeat how deeply your own parents love you in a way you could never have understood before and you appreciate now in a blinding flash what a miracle it is you are still alive after the crap you put them through growing up.
Waiting and waiting
There is a similar community-of-knowing if you’ve struggled with infertility. There’s a moment in time when the novelty wears off. The trying becomes trying. The bottle of prenatal vitamins waits mockingly when the cupboard door is opened. And if one more person smiles smugly, winks, and says “have fun trying”, their face risks serious damage.
…weeks of waiting become months of waiting become years of waiting.
If you’ve ever endured the two-week wait, you know of what I speak. Even the two-week wait can mock, as it turns into a three-week wait that still yields no positive results and delays the next opportunity for conception. It’s as if the body itself is playing its own cruel game. It’s when weeks of waiting become months of waiting become years of waiting.
While there’s a general appreciation that even non-parents can experience the joys and struggles of parenthood, this becomes troubled in the realm of those trying to conceive, as reflected clearly by the repetitive and ludicrous – if well meaning – statements from friends and acquaintances alike. “Do you plan on having more children?” and conversations about the benefits and draw backs to the amount of spacing between children – as if there’s a sense of control about the matter. “Just relax”, “It will happen when it’s supposed to” or stories of someone who knew someone who got pregnant right after adoption may be well meaning, but they’re short sighted statements and lack reality and comprehension of the issue.
Breaking the silence
May 7th-13th was Mental Health Week. This is relevant to fertility because rates of depression for couples trying to conceive (‘TTC’) rival those of people with cancer. It’s also significant as part of the messaging around mental health involves bringing awareness and attempting to break the stigma around mental health issues. I feel that fertility issues are also not acknowledged or talked about. Just as we are challenged by issues of stigma around mental health issues, we have no cultural dialogue for fertility struggles.
…we have no cultural dialogue for fertility struggles.
I recall a discussion with a friend before I had my daughter. She had just gone through a miscarriage and was talking about her journey of discovering she was pregnant and the devastation of the miscarriage. While I knew the socially acceptable responses to give, my brain just could not empathize. I remember my astonishment that she would be upset that she had been pregnant. She had had what I had been hoping and dreaming of for what seemed like forever, and she was upset? At least she knew she could get pregnant which seemed like a lot more than I was ever going to have.
Anyone would know the socially acceptable responses to support a friend who’s had a miscarriage. And as a psychology student who has trained, practiced, and taught unconditional positive regard and empathy, I got it. But the other aspect of counseling training is to understand your own “stuff” and observe your own reactions to the people and emotions around you. On any given day these will be influenced by mood, or energy, or any other number of things going on around you.
As couples who are experiencing fertility challenges I think we need to be honest with ourselves about what we are experiencing and how this affects our everyday lives and moods and interactions with others. If there is no safe place to express our true emotions, no matter how shameful or horrible they may feel they are likely to get worse and hurt us farther.
While I honestly acknowledge my happiness for friends who announce pregnancies and births, I also acknowledge my own sadness. Much like a friend who announces that they are about to take what has always been your dream vacation, feelings of jealousy or anger or sadness may be a part of the mix. It may also include happiness for their good fortune: one that may never seem like it will be yours. And though it may seem appropriate to (jokingly) express your jealousy or frustration as your friend makes travel plans, it feels less socially appropriate to do so when it comes to pregnancy and birth, despite the increased stakes and emotions.
May 20th- 26th is Fertility Awareness Week according to Infertility Awareness Association of Canada. If you are “TTC”, my thoughts and prayers are with you, wherever you are in your journey and whatever you are feeling. People experience this broadly and my experience may not be yours. Much like we want to support and encourage those with mental health issues to help break the stigma and find support, I want you to know that there are many out there who are dealing with fertility struggles. I wish you peace and happiness in whatever your path and outcome might be.