An Unexpected Life


post traumatic growthSomething remarkable happened last Friday.

During a deeply personal conversation revolving around making sense of infertility losses — and other equally light topics (NOT!) — I didn’t shed a tear. This was a first. There are restaurants all over the Bay area where I’ve left mangled tear-stained napkins. This time I not only held it together, I was able to see that I’d worked through a tremendous amount of emotional angst. Until recently tears would spring forth at even the smallest benign reference to anything related to my infertility. Each tear that followed signaled still more unresolved painful emotions to address.

One of the things I’ve learned in the wake of unsuccessful infertility treatment is that there are no road maps for couples who find themselves childfree not by first choice. Each day is a new beginning. Each week with pregnancy announcements and enthusiastic parental bonding brings challenges that must be overcome. Each month we find ourselves reminded of our loss but (outside the associated cramping and PMS) the pain diminishes some. Each year we grow stronger.

We have to be strong because we’re swimming against the tide. Most everyone we meet wants to know why we’re not living their life — you know the one perpetuated by family TV shows and pop culture: first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage.

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It feels sort of weird to be the object of misplaced judgment, misunderstanding (and suspicion even) because we’re not like them. Now that I’m getting comfortable in my non-mom skin, I appreciate a little more each day that my life is not scripted in the conventional sense. I truly don’t know what lies ahead.  Since there will be none of the usual milestones to mark the passing years I’m guessing my husband and I remain forever young, forever in love and forever on our own little adventure.

What I do know is that I am determined not to be bitter or broken like the least fortunate of women reflected in this study, Life 20 Years After Unsuccessful Infertility Treatment.  It looked at the long-term experience of involuntary childlessness among 14 Swedish women 20 years after their infertility treatment.

“Half of the women were separated, and in all but one, sexual life was affected in negative and long-lasting ways.The effects of childlessness were especially increased at the time the study was conducted, as the women’s peer group was entering the ‘grandparent phase’. Many coped with their childlessness by caring for others, such as the children of friends or relatives, elderly parents or animals.”

It also concluded what I’ve been suspected all along:

“…[there’s] a need for developing models of counselling and support that stimulates self-reflection and strengthen personal resources and empowerment for individuals and couples experiencing involuntary childlessness.”

I never fully appreciated the swell of approval or the reinforcement of the “normal” life as a parent until I stepped back to reflect why it has been so difficult to find my place in society.  It’s only been through my own self-reflection and writing that I’ve been able to carve out a new life. There were no “how to” guides like: How to Pick up the Pieces when Science and Nature Find their Limits or Involuntarily Childless: The New Black or How to be the Best Infertile Ever!

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One of the intriguing things about living my life is that I’m not sure how it’s going to turn out. I’ll drop popcorn kernels in the wild for those of you coming after me…(and if my early days are any indication I promise fun and great sex will be involved!)


26 Responses

  1. Christina

    March 2, 2009 4:16 pm

    I feel the way these findings are phrased is a little skewed to cast a negative light on infertile women. What do they mean when they say half are separated? Do they mean divorced? In the US, the divorce statistic is over 50%, higher among those with children, and childless couples report being happier.

    I think in Sweden, people often have children without marrying — so this separation statistic matches the divorce statistic in the U.S. But it doesn’t say if it’s higher than that among women with children.

    It would kind of make sense that two people in a union might go their separate ways more easily if there was no pressure to “stay together for the kids.” God knows I have friends who’ve suffered together for that reason — some finally divorcing as we approach 50.

    The study says it was a huge impact on the women — but they don’t let the women speak for themselves, and explain how. Still, I’m glad the subject is starting to be discussed.

  2. Erica Schlaefer

    March 2, 2009 5:03 pm

    You are very strong. I am so glad i have you to learn from as I try to help infertiles with my non profit. You offer so much insight.
    Thank you

  3. MLO

    March 2, 2009 5:35 pm

    Maybe we need an oral history type of project to let women who have not been successful speak for themselves? I have found that oral histories are often much more effective than the written word or stories to convey the depth of emotion surrounding an event.

    Too many presume to write for others when that person’s own words would be so much more effective. We allow filters – like the study – to determine things. There are even definite cultural skews of those we do see – mostly coastal and / or urban. Childlessness not by choice effects every strata in society.

    We have allowed, as a society, reporters to dictate what is said, instead of seeking out the people who are affected – including those for whom access to medical care, and hope, are not even possible.

    Perhaps there is a project here. Perhaps not. There are a lot of unheard voices.

  4. Peeveme

    March 2, 2009 5:53 pm

    “Most everyone we meet wants to know why we’re not living their life”

    Wow! that sentence really sums its up. While I was ultimately able to have children (one genetic and one from Donor Eggs) I certainly can relate to that statement. Even now I feel like a fraud in the “parent” circles. I reject that this is the norm that everyone must conform to and am sensitive to those who are not in “the club”. Maybe because I have been there, maybe because I feel like I came so close to an involuntary child-free life.

    I sometimes ponder what I would be doing if I had not been so lucky to have had children. Given my personality I would probably fill my life with achievements. Work, volunteer work, community work, activism. Not that everyone has to go that route but I think that is what I would do.

  5. loribeth

    March 2, 2009 6:25 pm

    My qualms about the study are (a) the sample was so very small & (b) the women who participated went through infertility treatment 20 years ago. That’s a lifetime in IF terms — so much has changed since then. I would be curious to learn whether they get different results with a bigger group & different time frame.

    That said, I’m always (pathetically) grateful for any research being done/attention being paid to this subject. (You’re right, there are few if any guidebooks for us…!) ; ) And “forever young, forever in love and forever on our own little adventure” sounds pretty good to me!

    Thrashing my way through the wilderness alongside of you…

  6. Lori in Denver

    March 2, 2009 8:11 pm

    Love the book titles, esp the last one.

    Maybe a “girl’s guide” needs to be written. By the one with popcorn kernels who figured out how to live happily ever after and not leave too many tear-stained napkins.

  7. Shelby

    March 2, 2009 11:10 pm

    So well put. Our place in society as infertiles or living childless and not by choice makes us less definable by cookie cutter standards. People are always disturbed when one ‘goes against the grain’ so to speak, even if we didn’t exactly choose it. But that doesn’t mean we are completely out of choices and by choosing to not be bitter and to embrace the life you have, you are making it easier for those who will follow in your path.

  8. Deathstar

    March 3, 2009 3:35 am

    See? You are a true Bodhisattva of Infertility! I love your book titles! How to be the Best Infertile Ever! hahah – you must read my chapter – How to Sneak away from Horror Delivery Stories – where the heroine brags about her perineum being in perfect shape!

    Currently writing When Adoption Takes Too Long. Chapter one – Daydreaming of Sleeping in Forever.

  9. Rachel

    March 3, 2009 5:05 am

    Speaking personally, the predictable is so very boring… here’s to the unknown, with lots of great sex!… : P

  10. luna

    March 3, 2009 6:20 am

    I saw that study too. so true there are no models for guidance or support. it’s a good thing we’ve got you to lay those kernels.

    love the book titles too!

  11. b writes

    March 3, 2009 7:11 am

    Way to go PJ.

    I said to my husband last night that I think I am becoming emotionally fit. That is, can restore my heart to a normal(ish) state after heightened emotional activity. If i extended this metaphor to you, you would be the emotional equivalent of a superathlete!

  12. lostintaipei

    March 3, 2009 7:58 am

    Having decided long ago the child-free life would neither embitter me nor break me, I’m so glad to have found you and love your shared defiance in refusing to be sunk–nicely encapsulated here.

    In this IF blogosphere, I identify so much more with the child-free families than those seeking treatment. So I’m in a strange state writing these sentiments while there’s a remote possibility I could finally see a BFP in less than a week.

    Either way, I will perpetually cheer any family that lives child-free–by choice or not. It’s a rather interesting life and no less valuable or worthy. Moreover, it’s quite an admirable route in the green world.

    I’m so proud of you… to not only have turned this latest corner in growth, but to have recognized it–definitely a milestone to celebrate.

    I’m holding up my imaginary glass of wine (it’d so be real if I weren’t in my last TWW) toasting to your inspirational progress.

  13. Alex

    March 3, 2009 8:38 pm

    For those raising questions about the study, I’m at an academic institution where I can access the full text of the report online. I went and looked, and the authors report that, “Half of them [the women interviewed] were still married or cohabiting with the same man who took part in the infertility investigation and treatment. The other half were divorced or separated, and two of them were remarried. Six of these seven related their divorce to their infertility situation, and in every case it was the man who had left.”

    The comparison is made later in the article that, “In Sweden, during 2000, the divorce rate for the general population within this age group was 0.5%,” — I have to wonder if the authors mean 50%.

    For those interested in kernels, the study reports (and I am quoting these verbatim with no judgment, recognizing that some of these may be hurtful to some readers here), “In response to the question ‘What advice would you give couples that are undergoing infertility investigations and treatment today?’ the answers varied, but there was broad consensus that people should try to take charge of their lives and that they should not put their fate in other people’s hands. Typical comments were as follows: ‘Involve the men’; ‘Sit down and talk about what is important in life’; ‘What is my life meant for?’; ‘Try to let go when it proves impossible, don’t hang in there too long’; ‘Don’t forget to live’; ‘Make sure you get somebody to talk to and go through everything, fear of husband’s leaving, guilt, what do I want …everything…’; ‘Ask yourself if you want to adopt’; ‘Make sure you talk everything through with your partner’; ‘Don’t turn other children away, they could give so much pleasure’.”

    A recurring theme throughout much of the article is one mentioned in the abstract, that many of the social difficulties of childlessness are re-activated at the age at which one’s peers enter grandparenthood.

    For those seeking positive findings, the authors do also report that, “All but three had found life styles that they were fairly satisfied with and devoted themselves to other children and/or other interests. In the three exceptions, a life story that focused on an identity as infertile and childless was still very dominating.”

    I hope that information is helpful to those interested in these findings.

    • Pamela Jeanne

      March 3, 2009 8:49 pm

      Thanks, Alex! Appreciate you taking the time to track down more detailed info…

  14. Jenny

    March 3, 2009 9:59 pm

    I think it’s wonderful that you’ve made such progress. Recovery from unsuccessful fertility treatments is brutal, whether you decide, like I did, to become a parent through adoption, or decide to become childfree.

    One thing I did want to mention is that there actually *is* a wonderful “how-to” book about picking up the pieces that I read after our last IVF failed. It’s called “Sweet Grapes: How to Stop Being Infertile and Start Living Again,” and I highly recommend it. Here’s a link:

    And there’s also a book called “Never to Be a Mother: A Guide for All Women Who Didn’t, or Couldn’t, Have Children.” I actually bought that book and never got around to reading it, but it certainly sounds appropriate.

    I’ve been doing a lot of personal work lately on this whole feeling of being excluded from “the club,” despite the fact that I did become a mother through adoption. I think it is very true that those of us whose bodies failed us struggle mightily with feelings of authenticity in our lives. I appreciate that you are blogging about your journey and helping me through mine.

    • Pamela Jeanne

      March 4, 2009 3:55 pm

      Dear Jenny,
      Thanks for writing and for your honesty about being a mother and still facing exclusion from “the club” — I fully understand why you’d feel that way. I agree that authenticity issues remain a challenge for those of us who’ve found ourselves unable to conceive.

      As for the books you referenced, I’ve got and read them both. While I have great respect for the authors who wrote Sweet Grapes, I felt it didn’t fully explore the difficulties associated with the lasting effects of biological failure. As a result it left me unprepared for the emotional tsunami that followed in the wake of stopping treatment. It’s one thing to want to move on, it’s another to actually do it.

      Never to be a Mother didn’t leave a huge impression. I think I was numb by the time I found it. Since it was a series of vignettes of women who didn’t become mothers for a variety of reasons, it didn’t allow me to identify with any one person in depth. If I remember correctly the topic of loss after IVF wasn’t there. Finally, since it came out in 1992 most of the stories were of a generation before me with different social pressures. The societal love affair with all things related to pregnancy and mommy and child we find today —  we are in an unprecedented era of MOM’sCLUBS and Mommy and Me play dates — seems much more extreme and cruel in its own way …back to your point about the exclusion factor.

      That’s why I’m glad there’s an online forum to discuss these issues openly and honestly…

  15. Lewis Richmond

    March 4, 2009 6:18 am

    All loss is hard. The loss of being able to make life must be extremely hard. As a man this is something I cannot experience. I learned a lot from reading this post.

  16. Bea

    March 4, 2009 11:51 am

    Since it’s not that kind of blog, I won’t ask you to elaborate on the sex… but you do make it sound enticing! That, in itself, is surely proof that you are moving forwards.


  17. Irish Girl

    March 4, 2009 9:14 pm

    I agree and think the healthiest thing we can do for ourselves is to stop trying to predict what’s coming next. I never imagined this would be the way things turned out for me, reproductively speaking, but I take comfort knowing others are living happily childfree not by first choice, too. We may not be the conventional or traditional or predictable type of folks, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be happy. 🙂

  18. Io

    March 5, 2009 2:07 am

    Everyone else already said all the good stuff 🙂 So I’ll just tell you how awesome you are and how I now have Forever Young in my head. If it’s still there tomorrow morning, I am blaming you…

    • Pamela Jeanne

      March 9, 2009 5:11 am

      Aw, thanks! that’s going to take some thinking on my part….will get on it soon.

  19. Ms Heathen

    March 9, 2009 1:04 pm

    It’s such a shame that, even in the twenty-first century, this social stigma should still be attached to those women who remain childfree (for whatever reason).

    Yours is such a valuable voice in this respect, PJ! I admire your bravery and honesty in speaking out on this issue – you are a real trail blazer and an inspiration to so many of us.

  20. niobe

    March 12, 2009 3:28 pm

    Reading this post makes me look forward to the day (which I’m hoping will come soon) when I’m able to read your book. You have so much insight to offer.

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