Failure is Not an Option…


… or is it? I guess it depends on your definition of failure.


This latest philosophical debate kicked off in my head a few days ago. The catalyst? The contents of an email I received Monday from someone in the publishing world, which also caused my stomach to clench. (Note to self: in the future, do NOT open your personal email in the middle of a deadline day — even if it’s during the few minutes you have to catch your breath over lunch. Especially on the eve of a big project that you are responsible for turning into a success.)

Context and Background

First some background. For my regular blog visitors, it’s no secret that I’ve labored in my spare time (and more intensely the past year or so) on a book. It relates a drama that takes place behind closed doors in households around the world. It offers a personal look at the darkness that falls when the babies don’t come. But that’s just the beginning.

When the protagonist (aka me) slowly discovers her body has failed her, her world turns upside down. Relationships, self-image and plans for the future devolve into turmoil. After accepting biological failure she begrudgingly looks to science to help “right” her. She hopes IVF will (finally) put her on a path to starting her family.

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Only science fails her.  (Lots of the “f” word here. However, it’s not the “f” word used by Brits and Irish alike as a verb, adjective, adverb and any other part of speech you’d care to mention.)

No Hollywood Ending

My book intentionally doesn’t provide a neat and tidy Hollywood ending. It isn’t just my story. It’s a more universal one.  It asks readers to consider what happens when life doesn’t go according to plan.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always relished stories that challenge me. Stories that bring to light a different kind of outcome help cultivate a deeper understanding of the human experience. I’m clearly biased, but I learn more when things don’t turn out as expected.

So what exactly, in said email, caused my head to spin and my stomach to clench? This sentence:

“Childlessness/living child-free is, as you know, the proverbial ‘orphan’, ‘ugly step-child’ and every other insensitive and derogatory term you could come up with of the infertility world. Doctors almost always see it as failure. Other infertile people are terrified to acknowledge it as an outcome, let alone to explore it as a choice.”

Sucker Punch Lands

Whoa. Reading such a statement in black and white came at me like a sucker punch. It never occurred to me people would look at our decision to stop treatment in such negative terms. Or label our outcome with the word failure.  Seriously.

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Seems I’m damned if I do – as most of society questions the sanity of couples who pursue treatment. And now I’m damned if I don’t — as in succeed that is.


Now I know that by infertility blogging standards, I’m in a small category and that in not succeeding with IVF I am most infertile women’s worst nightmare.

Seeking Freedom from Destruction

But our call to end treatment was not about choosing failure. It was about choosing to be free from what had become a darkness filled, destructive reproductive bondage.

The decision to end all medical and new age-y yoga, herbal, acupuncture interventions was not without costs. It raised a new set of fears. After years of efforts aimed at one and only one outcome (getting pregnant), the idea of allowing another option to take shape was emotionally taxing. Further, it surfaced a host of unknowns.

What exactly lay around the corner?  What would our future look like? Would we ever find ourselves whole again? Would we be able to look at newborns and not die a little inside — either from envy or from sadness?

I was once again plunged into darkness.

I could find nothing on the bookshelves or online to help answer those questions. And if the darkness wasn’t lonely enough, my childless state was further aggravated in my day to day life by those who assumed that our not “having” children was selfish at worst or hedonistic at best.

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I’m not done, yet, with sorting out all of the unexpected twists and turns that have come my way (compliments of infertility) but I don’t think of my outcome as synonymous with failure.


32 Responses

  1. Matthew M F Miller

    May 7, 2008 7:30 pm

    The only way to truly fail yourself is to continue to do something, over and over, that hurts you or traps you in an unhealthy place and threatens your happiness.

    It’s NEVER a failure to change course – it’s a failure to not change course when the same old scenery is making you claustrophobic and unhappy.

    In fact, I would call you an unheralded success because you are doing what you need to do. BRAVO!

    • Pamela Jeanne

      May 8, 2008 2:46 am

      Thanks, Matthew. As a successful writer and soon-to-be author, I’m sure you can relate to the difficulty in trying to get beyond the “it’s never been done successfully before therefore it won’t work” response.

  2. luna

    May 7, 2008 7:43 pm

    ouch is right. you so eloquently articulate your perspective, as usual. and once again, it seems the outside world view of infertility is skewed by personal values and judgment.

    I absolutely know what you’re saying about why you “chose” your path. but the email elucidates a perception more common to mainstream thinking that all stories must have the tidy happy ending, that tech/med/science prevails, that you can achieve it if you just want it badly enough, work hard enough, have enough money, etc., that anything is possible. wrong.

    a failed cycle doesn’t make a failure.

    that said, I know many infertiles don’t even want to consider the child-free/childless path until they’re forced to. for some, that’s after multiple IVFs, for others, it’s any form of intervention. others may continue to hold out hope forever without any “success.”

    I’ve certainly felt like my body has failed me, but the thought that others would view me as a failure because I don’t match up to their ideals? well, I can’t say what I’d want to say to them here…

    your decision takes more strength and courage than most people care to know. and that, my friend, is no failure.

    I take it this was a rejection letter? sounds like the editor needs a little enlightening — the book could very well *empower* others to take a bold step that might save some heartache later.

  3. Kelly

    May 7, 2008 8:49 pm

    I’m so sorry that people are so ignorant and cannot understand that sometimes people NEED to hear about the “other side.” Not all couples, such as yourself, are successful and it not always a matter of failure, but choice to move on. I interviewed such a couple today for my podcast. There is no way that they can physically create a baby based on their medical status. They know there are other choices for them and they are considering all of them: surrogacy, adoption, and childfree living.

    I have heard, that publishers and others in the book business only want books with “happy endings.” What they don’t know is that your book could help other women or couples come to terms (pun unintended) with their own infertility journey.

    Keep up your work of helping those that need to hear your message! They are listening even if those you’re hoping will help spread your message aren’t.

    • Pamela Jeanne

      May 8, 2008 3:32 am

      Ah, Kelly, your experience in the book business is bearing itself out. Since when did every book about life-changing experiences have to end with the equivalent of a big musical number? Has society become that shallow? I’m doing my best to make lemonade out of lemons but I’m not about to pretend that there aren’t some days that are more sour than sweet.

  4. beagle

    May 7, 2008 9:15 pm

    I think your book is needed.

    Is what you’re saying that they don’t think that topic will sell?

    This only partly relates, to your topic but my SW just told me that the local REs won’t allow her to put adoption pamphlets in their office.

    What does that say?

    It brings us back to the fact that the $$$ industry of infertility. If more people knew going in that IVF is not such a sure bet, less people might choose the gamble.

    Maybe groups like RESOLVE needs to bump up the attention given to the child free option. And not even the “option” but the reality. Because, at least in the beginning of grieving the loss of the ability to have children, the idea of child free did not sound like a choice to me. Now I can see it more so as a choice and less as a sentence.

  5. Loo

    May 7, 2008 9:21 pm

    So sorry, I think it is a mark of all great writers to have their manuscripts rejected at least 29 times or so, therefore, you must have a masterpiece on hand.

    I wonder if part of the reluctance to publish is the enormous financial power of the industry. If there are so many companies dedicated to ART, they may not want the no money-making outcomes too well known. Sadly.


  6. DD

    May 7, 2008 9:36 pm

    Because of your blog, specifically YOUR blog, I have realized that couples who stop treatment voluntarily are anything BUT failures!! That’s such a ridiculous concept!

    To me, it’s success, knowing yourself and your partner so well; to know your own limits and not measure them against anyone else.

    I didn’t even get the email, but it has definitely stirred some emotions in me that would make me respond with the other “f” word. The one we use in WTF.

  7. annacyclopedia

    May 7, 2008 9:46 pm

    This post gets really close to why I identify with you so much, despite our different circumstances. I’m in a small category, too, and my choice to pursue DI instead of IVF was born out of that same desire for freedom and not out of a sense of failure or being at a dead end. Your posts always remind me that I am on this path, that it’s me. That means I get choices here, that I don’t have to do anything that doesn’t feel right to me, that I am not at the mercy of doctors, family, friends, the world telling me what to do. Your posts remind me that every choice I make through this process will come with pain AND that it’s ok. No matter what happens, I can get through it. I can survive it, as you have. I certainly don’t see you or your choices (or my own)as being associated with failure. I absolutely agree – I learn more when things don’t go as planned. And I’m so incredibly grateful to have access to your thoughts, your experiences, your insights to help me remember that.

    So right the fuck on, PJ! Glad you found an antidote quickly, and I pray that your book gets published and widely distributed to everyone who needs to hear what you have to say. Including the fuckwits who are so scared of a world that isn’t full of Disney-fied happy endings that they can’t see that every life has sorrow and joy in it – yours, mine, and their own.

    • Pamela Jeanne

      May 8, 2008 3:44 am

      This is a shout out to you, Luna, Beagle, DD, Kami, Loribeth — all my peeps … drinks are on me. Where do you want to meet??

  8. Kami

    May 7, 2008 10:33 pm

    I used to scratch my head at people who wouldn’t try that hard (from my perspective) to have a baby. I don’t think I thought less of them, just thought that they must not have wanted a baby that bad.

    But the more stories I read and the closer I got to the end of my rope, the more I realized that at some point you need to quit trying to get pregnant/have a child and embrace a different path. When it is time to move on is entirely personal.

    For me, the saddest stories are the ones where the person / couple never made a conscience choice to live child free, but just failed to act on it until they decided it was too late. I have only talked to a few people in this situation, but they seemed to have more regrets.

    I hope your book gets published. There are so many people who could benefit by reading it who could then realize that child free is a choice and not a failure.

  9. loribeth

    May 7, 2008 11:02 pm

    Ouch indeed. There is truth in what they said… I can remember someone on a board for childless-not-by-choice women observing that we were the “black sheep” of the infertility community, & that label has stuck with me ever since then. People in treatment don’t always want to hear about us, because they ARE terrified to face the reality that not everybody who wants a baby gets one in the end.

    BUT — it’s one thing for those of us living this life to give voice to that perception — quite another for someone from “outside” to weigh in like that. From us, it’s an observation; from them, it feels like a judgment. Personally, I think that yours is a more interesting story than the stereotypical “just when they were about to give up, she got pregnant” story we are so often subjected to.

    This may sound corny, but the last scene of “It’s a Wonderful Life” just popped into mind: “No man is a failure who has friends.” Judging from all the supportive comments posted here already, I’d say you are anything but a failure, PJ! And P.S. I agree — Sharah’s post was fabulous!

  10. Heather

    May 7, 2008 11:18 pm

    I get that when you started treatment living child free was not the goal. BUT, after years of treatment, hell just after years – things change. People change. Goals change. At some point, whether you have those kids or not, you have to permit yourself to live life. It may not always be pretty and wrapped in a fucking bow – but that is life.

    I’m sorry people suck.

  11. Michele S

    May 8, 2008 12:50 am


    I agree, ouch! But I think it is true that a lot of people are terrified to face the choice that you’ve made.

    If you were going to market this book to *yourself* a few years ago, when you were still trying to concieve, how would you do it?

    Would you have been afraid to read this book? What would have reached you?

    • Pamela Jeanne

      May 8, 2008 2:52 am

      Hi Michele,
      Good to hear from you. Your question is an interesting
      one. I actually see the larger market for the book as being the
      “fertile” world. They may not realize it but they play a pivotal role
      in the recovery of couples trying to make their way when infertility
      treatments fail.

      And how many parents today might have to
      provide understanding and support to their daughters or sons who may
      face a similar predicament — odds dictate 12.5% of the population face
      infertility factors. Just because a person has the biological bits
      doesn’t guarantee they’ll work on demand. I worked very hard to make
      the story hang together for those unfamiliar with infertility as much
      as for those in the thick of having to face the unthinkable…

  12. futurewise

    May 8, 2008 10:10 am

    I like having choices. As taunting as it sometimes may be, I like to take control over that part of my life because there are so many other unpredictable and uncontrollable things in my life. I did not choose infertility, and I want to keep my freedom to decide if I want to pursue a certain goal (adoption, DI, or living childless).
    I like your blog, and I am sure I will like your book.

  13. ursi

    May 8, 2008 10:18 am

    I found your blog very helpful even when I was still having treatment. I think many infertile people are quite aware that they may end up without any children, and they consider how they will deal with that, even while they are still hoping things might turn out differently.

    As someone who is still struggling to come to terms with childlessness, I would find it hard to read one of those books that ended in a surprise pregnancy, or even one that ended in adoption. I think your book is much much needed. Very best of luck getting it published.
    And thanks for the pointer to Sharah’s post.

  14. shinejil

    May 8, 2008 1:18 pm

    I think BECAUSE so many people are terrified, your voice needs to be heard. Treatments fail, in all branches of medicine, like all human endeavors. It could indeed happen to anyone. It is a failure of sorts, but not of you as a person.

    We need to face terror head on, to keep our sanity before, during, and after treatment.

  15. Samantha

    May 8, 2008 4:33 pm

    Treatments fail, and I think this where people start to get confused. There are infertiles out there who view living child-free as a last choice, and for you, it obviously wasn’t your first choice, but it was a decision that you made. You decided, “treatments are failing me. This is not what I want”–and I’m glad that you will be explaining that choice to others.

    Personally, I know my former RE had the goal of getting me pregnant. If I stopped treatment before he got me pregnant, he viewed it as a failure, whether I adopted, never had kids, or even got pregnant years later without any ART. It’s a pretty narrow view-point.

  16. Dianne

    May 8, 2008 4:59 pm

    UMPH…so angry with what the editor (I presume) assumes and that my comment was just eaten!

    I wish there was a letter campaign that we could start. Just because he/she doesn’t like the fact that things didn’t work our perfectly as first intended….he/she may need to be reminded that shit happens. And infertility has some of the worst of it. It very often fails – they are truly the silent minority. The fact that he/she is putting us further into silence – makes me so ANGRY!

  17. May

    May 8, 2008 5:31 pm

    I am only somewhere near the end of the beginning, as it were, on the road of fertility treatment, and I am having a lot of trouble getting people to understand why I need to work on my career, go for promotions, go back to university, write, etc. I am propping and shoring tte basement of my life in case the roof falls in – I am well aware treatment is only a chance to get pregnant and no guarantee of a baby. But my amazingly fertile family do not get this. They wonder why I am bothering with my career – surely I’ll get pregnant any day now? I cannot make them understand the importance of Not Relying On That – the just think I’m being silly and drama-queenish. Oh, how I’d love to be able to hand them a book, and say ‘see? It’s not that easy. It’s not that simple. There are NO guarantees. We have the whole rest of our lives to deal with whether this works or not.’

    I am sick of the avoidance of the subject, in my family and among friends. I want them to understand childlessness is not the Unthinkable, and while it will be heart-breaking, it will not be The End either. So I do so hope your book is published soon.

    (Sorry about the rant. I’m a bit emotional today – busy week).

  18. chicklet

    May 8, 2008 5:56 pm

    This, “It was about choosing to be free from what had become a destructive reproductive bondage” is exactly where I am at today. I realize I may not be done just yet, I don’t have a BFN for sure, but if I do, I’m terrified of what’s to come. Cuz I really truly believe, I can’t do this anymore. I need my body back, my self back, my marriage back. Cuz while we’ve survived with humor in tow, there’s only so much of being trapped in this vortex I can take.

    Today, being where I might be, I have even more respect for where you’re at. I didn’t think I could have MORE for you, but apparently, you’re pretty f*g awesome;-)

  19. Heather

    May 8, 2008 6:34 pm

    While the email was true that most people do not want to consider the rebuilding to make yourself whole (yet still without children) option, there are those that face this choice everyday and find a complete lack of resources discussing this issue. That is why your work is so important. Let there at least be one light in the dark discussing a topic everyone else seems to be afraid to touch. And it’s rather presumptuous of the publisher to assume that there is not a happy ending in the end – regardless of child status.

  20. foreverhopeful

    May 8, 2008 6:53 pm

    I think your story needs to be heard as well and I’m so glad you are writing this book. Its a reality for many that you can do everything possible to try to have a child and sometimes it doesn’t happen. I don’t see it as failure. It takes so much courage and strength to do what you do.

  21. Rachel

    May 9, 2008 12:29 am

    Hollywood isn’t the only place to get your story told. There are more and more venues for getting your story produced and out there. And I think the window of opportunity for our stories is opening. I haven’t seen Baby Momma, so I’m not endorsing it, but the fact that it’s even out there is actually pretty huge.

    It hurts to be looked at as the freak, the anomaly, or someone’s worst nightmare. But perhaps the more you continue to speak, the few couples will have to endure the ignorance.

    Looking forward to reading your next rewrite!

  22. Geohde

    May 9, 2008 7:36 am

    Ouch, indeed.

    The reality is that not everybody will succeed, no matter what the treatment, but labelling them as ‘failures’ because of wonky biology seems harsh,


  23. Bea

    May 9, 2008 9:49 am

    It was a great comfort to me, when first diagnosed, to be able to look at examples of childfree couples/people and know that, no matter what, there was worthwhile stuff out there. I wish there were more examples – they were pretty thin on the ground, and all of them were out of date (pre mainstream IVF, or pre any real treatments at all).

    Being able to find peace with it – that’s not failure at all. Being able to pass on that peace – that would be a fantastic success and I look forward to hearing about it from you.


  24. gabrielle

    May 10, 2008 1:03 pm

    PJ, I will need your book, just as I need your blog. I am still midway through our attempt at non-childfree living but I do see the momentum stopping sooner rather than later. Your blog in its entirely and a post like Sharah’s strengthen me and remind me that I LOVE my life. Absolutely love it. And there is no failure in trying and then moving on. Before we even started TTC I made a choice in my head to not be someone who was putting themselves and their spouse’s mental and physical health in jeopardy in pursuit of a child. For me, to reneg on that commitment to myself would be a failure, not the other way ’round.

    I’m sorry about your stomach churn in the midst of busy work day – I still haven’t learned that “no personal email opening” lesson either.

  25. sharah

    May 10, 2008 4:45 pm

    That sentence in that email is exactly why I’m still trying to write about infertility and its impact on my life and our decision to walk away. Because as much as it hurts to hear that, it doesn’t mean it isn’t true. And that perception isn’t going to change until people like you and me and the other childless infertiles step and explain that yes, there is life after failed treatment. And that life isn’t necessarily a life of sadness, deprivation, and failure. It’s just a different kind of life than most people think of as an option.

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