Role Models and Putting Emotions Work


role modelRole models after failed IVF are hard to come by. Understandably, we’re in all new territory.

Nevertheless, I’m devoting this year to making huge leaps and bounds in managing my infertility and its legacy. For the first time since my IVF failures I am going to look to the future no longer handicapped by confusion and ambiguity. If all goes well, I expect to exit the cul-de-sac I’ve been navigating aimlessly once and for all.

In Search of Role Models

Among other pursuits this year I’m going to actively seek out new role models — women who couldn’t or didn’t have children (this subtlety is hard to tease apart as most don’t willingly label themselves infertile, barren or the gentler term “unfruitful”).  More often than not it is left to us to speculate. In either case they offer a road map of sorts that doesn’t revolve around motherhood, and provide useful lessons for building a fulfilling life of a different kind.

Where to begin for these role models? Well the local library for starters. I checked out two books to help me on my way.  The first is Katharine Hepburn‘s autobiography called simply: Me.  I eagerly consumed the first 100 pages last night and am impressed by her independent and yet still nurturing spirit. She was clearly devoted to her younger siblings and fostered closeness within her extended family. She unambiguously wrote that “visiting and adventures [with her younger sisters] I’m sure that this was why I never had children of my own.”

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Nurturing Comes in Many Forms

As I’ve grown closer to my nieces and nephews I’ve learned that nurturing is not solely the province of mothers. After spending the afternoon with my California niece (11) and nephew (8), it was clear they didn’t want me to leave.  Calling later to tell them I was home safely, my sister-in-law said my nephew had something to tell me. His little voice came on the line:

“You know, Aunt Pam, we continued playing games after you left, but it just wasn’t as fun as when you were here with us.”

Ah, music to my ears. I love the little ones to pieces.

The other book next to my bed requires a little more work on my part and won’t be easy. Called Healing Through the Dark Emotions, it’s written by psychotherapist Miriam Greenspan and offers a process for unlocking the healing power of grief, fear and despair called the “alchemy of dark emotions.”  She argues that they:

“are neither positive nor negative, but simply human emotions and that it’s our attitude toward them that’s negative. These dark emotions can be our best, albeit most demanding spiritual teachers when we get beyond the compulsion to control [or deny] them. By learning to attend to and surrender to the energies of grief, despair and fear we create the conditions for something new to arise in ourselves.”

Strong Women Who Are Not Mothers

Well, it’s a tall order to be sure, but I’m not above taking a new look at these demanding emotions that come packaged with infertility and loss, and I am eager to emulate strong women who are or have contributed to the world around them in meaningful ways outside of the much celebrated role of mother.

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I’d also like to thank Mrs. X who nominated me for a Thinking Blogger award.  If you haven’t stopped by her blog, you’ll be rewarded when you do. She, like many of the pioneering bloggers writing about infertility’s impact, is a role model to me. She writes beautifully and thoughtfully about her experiences trying to conceive.


18 Responses

  1. MLO

    January 14, 2008 7:41 am

    It is so easy for us to repress instead of own our darker emotions. My family has always taught us that it doesn’t matter what you feel, rather, it is how you choose to act upon that feeling. And, sometimes, by choosing to act positively, that dark feeling can morph into something more positive.

    It is not easy, though. I know there are times I just want to curl into a ball and not interact with anyone – as all of us in this situation know.

    I hope your new journey is successful!

  2. loribeth

    January 14, 2008 2:06 pm

    It would be nice to have some specific childless/free after infertility & loss role models, but we know how difficult it is for people to identify themselves in this way. Childfree by choice people are usually more vocal about their choice & the benefits they see, and they certainly encounter some of the same attitudes from society at large that we do. Sometimes we need to hear their message!

  3. zhl

    January 14, 2008 2:54 pm

    If you are looking for other books to read, I recommend My Life in France by Julia Child. I’ve loved her since I was a kid and never even thought about whether she had kids. She does mention the issue briefly in the book, but otherwise it’s just a great read about an adventurous woman who really didn’t find her life’s passion until her late 30s.

  4. JJ

    January 14, 2008 3:15 pm

    A well deserved award–and thanks for the link to her blog!
    Positive role models are a big help–I find I pull random strength by reading a quote from one of my role models.
    Your nephew is too cute–glad he was able to share such a special feeling with you!

  5. niobe

    January 14, 2008 3:56 pm

    The book sounds interesting, but, at least at the moment, I’m having trouble conceptualizing the healing power of grief and despair. Tell us more…

  6. Jenna

    January 14, 2008 4:37 pm

    This post certainly spoke to me. I have balked the idea of being the aunt who spoils her nieces and nephews because she doesn’t have any kids of her own (I had two of those). But as time wears on and I see myself falling into this role, I am starting to enjoy some of what is has to offer. I see that there is more to mothering than parenting. It’s no mistake that my 4 year old nephew often calls me “mom” without even thinking of it. A ‘mistake’ he makes with none of his other 3 aunts.

  7. MrsX

    January 14, 2008 9:50 pm

    PJ – I see that I am not the only one who recognizes what a wonderful writer you are and thinks that you absolutely deserve the prize!

    On role models, you might consider reading “Reconceiving Women: Separating Motherhood from Female Identity” by Mardy Ireland. This is an issue I have been struggling with – how I can feel like a productive member of society if I am not a mother. I hope that you find some good answers (and role models).

  8. TABI

    January 14, 2008 10:55 pm

    Congrats on the award! I absolutely agree to look for new role models. Thanks for the recommendations. It’s nice to think that my interaction with my nieces and nephews is so loving and shouldn’t be seen as some sort of second class relationship.

  9. Babystep

    January 14, 2008 11:38 pm

    You know, I have no nieces and nephews. My brother and his wife decided not to have kids and they never changed their mind (and I don’t think they will). So, I am the end of the line. Part of my desperation is that I really want my parents to be grandparents, and I am their only hope! I know they will love me just the same if I can’t do it, but it makes me really sad. And I would LOVE to see my brother interact with my kids.

  10. motherofnone

    January 15, 2008 4:16 am

    I can certainly relate to the need for role models. I have some childless women in my life who are absolutely role models in that they have sought and found meaning in their lives without motherhood. However, I am desperately in need of role models who are women who rebounded from infertility (and perhaps even ART) to be truly content.

  11. Bea

    January 15, 2008 9:06 am

    I always liked the role models provided by Richard and Elizabeth Burton (Biography: A Rage To Live). They were childless after infertility, but did some amazing things together. The woman’s role is a little Victorian, so you have to read it in the context of social norms back then. If you do, you’ll see she was quite strong and outside-the-box.

    On a separate note, I do think that one of the problems with infertility in this modern age is the breakdown of the “village raises a child” attitude. Parents can be quite possessive of “their” children, and “their” style of parenting. It’s quite sad – everyone misses out on so much this way.


  12. luna

    January 15, 2008 6:43 pm

    you said a lot here. first, I love the commitment to breaking out of the old i/f patterns of feeling stuck in neutral or going in circles. for a long time I’ve felt like I was sitting idling and choking on my own exhaust while eating the dust of others with more significant and exciting destinations. l’m glad you’re working on a roadmap out of there. please keep on sharing it with us…

    and congratulations on the well-deserved award!

    and I also love being an aunt. it’s so rewarding and a special relationship, aside from maybe being the closest I can get to parenting or spoiling a loved one…

    now about the transformative power of grief. I haven’t read that book but my grief counselor and I discussed this a lot. I think this is one of the hardest things we can ever hope to learn in life. we are forever changed by the grief of losing a child or our fertility. we struggle to come to peace with this our whole lives. it’s not that we will become wise spiritual yogis as a result of our suffering. I think it’s that we can only hope/try to use the powerful emotions and impact of our grief in a way that can help change our lives or the lives of others. that we can hope to find a way to somehow harness what we feel and experience to create some kind of positive growth. evolution is transformation. many of you do this every day without even realizing it. your words help others find their way through this dark journey, you raise awareness and give voice to many who have been so misunderstood. this is compassion in action.

    I think the healing part comes not because we “overcome” our grief but when we can truly come to peace with taking our unfortunate experience and turning it into something positive. life process, I suppose.

    anyway, I look fwd to hearing more about your journey. and many thanks for your support. ~luna

  13. Ellen K

    January 15, 2008 7:00 pm

    Good for you. My love of literature and history certainly provides me with a list of childless women to emulate. Who says that children are the true “legacy”?

  14. Irish Girl

    January 15, 2008 8:26 pm

    Great post. I hope you meet many wonderful and inspiring child free women this year.

    I consider myself very lucky to know several child free women personally. My aunt as well as a close friend from school both chose not to have children for personal reasons. Another is an ex-coworker who was single during most of her child bearing years and her child free status is less her choice and more her circumstance. Yet another was so involved with her career she simply never stopped to make time for parenthood. How do I know all of this? I asked! And they were all very eager to share their stories with me, comfort me with my own choice/journey, and provide much needed support. They have offered some of the most profound insight and advice I’ve received. Happiness has found each one of them and so I know it will also find me, and you, and all of us no matter our path.

    Congrats on the nomination, too!

  15. shinezhil

    January 18, 2008 3:42 pm

    Most of the really amazing women you hear about in European and American history–from Hildegard von Bingen to Anna Julia Cooper–weren’t biomoms.

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