Infertility and Fighting Words


Infertility. Whenever I start wondering if I’ve said all there is to say on the topic and the many ways the experience is misunderstood I find more raw material. Two good reasons for writing came at me sideways and, not surprisingly, each wound me up.FightingWordsNow that there’s no longer smoke coming out of my ears, I’d like to talk about them. One came from HARO, an online service media use to reach news sources. The second came from a woman who finally conceived after struggling with infertility. She contributed a column to Exhale. Both in their own special backhanded way completely dissed women without children after infertility treatments fail.

And if there’s one thing that gets my goat, I mean really fries my tomatoes, it’s when I feel my little tribe of women — those without children after infertility has shattered us — is marginalized or worse, ignored or judged unfairly. What did the offending parties say?

1) “Writing a book on hope for couples with infertility issues. Interviewing women and men on their stories of infertility.  Must be a story of hope and you did eventually have a baby.  Could be from IUI, IVF, adoption, naturally, etc.” (oh, the implications of this! must NOT get wound up again)

2) “I’d found in the related [childfree after infertility] communities that did exist a brand of bitterness that I found tough to swallow. Not every individual, of course, but the overall tone… possibly related to the traits of folks who were able to move on with grace versus those who clung to the pain.”

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And you’re wondering why so touchy, PJ? Let’s start with the second one first.  “Clung to the pain?” Seriously?? It’s laughable that anyone would think feeling such pain is elective. This woman clearly doesn’t know she’s talking about. Every woman I’ve ever known in this tribe would like nothing better than to ditch the pain, deep six it permanently and forget it ever existed. Easier said than done I’m afraid. It’s taken me longer than I ever expected to work through the bitterness but that’s mostly been exacerbated by a society blithely pretending that no pain ever existed or questioning whether the pain was, in fact, legitimate (infertility losses don’t “count” don’tchaknow).

I had more support and understanding when the neighborhood stray cat we used to feed passed away. With all due respect to Jose Motown (the cat), his passing was sad, but it didn’t rock my world. So when someone implies we’re responsible for our own suffering and the complex emotions (not to mention the questioning of our identity, purpose, relationships, etc.,)  well, that tends to augment the bitterness not sweeten the pot. Our ability to “move on with grace” takes superhuman effort amid the many obstacles in our path. Cut us some slack, please. With a little more compassion we’ll get there faster, thank you very much.

See also  Moms: We Hear You Loud and Clear

And now to the first item. I replied matter of factly to the query this way:

If what you’re writing about is hope tied to infertility then you do women and men who rediscover hope after surviving infertility by creating a meaningful life with children as a part of it (being devoted aunts and uncles and mentors) a tremendous disservice. You are also reinforcing the negative stereotype that couples without children have no hope, nor by association, meaning in their lives without being a “mommy” or “daddy.”  I encourage you to rethink your definition of hope and what it entails where infertility is concerned.

So much infertility ignorance in the world, so little time…

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32 Responses

  1. Matthew M F Miller

    March 20, 2009 3:09 pm


    This is why I wrote my book while still TTC. I was very aware that the so-called “happy ending” wasn’t a guarantee for us, and it isn’t for anyone, and I didn’t want to send the message that you go through all of this stuff and at the end you get what you “worked” for as some sort of movie-ending conclusion.

    Realistically, for so many, it doesn’t work that way and I think everyone would benefit from a little more reality. If every story ended with a baby it would set up unfair expectations and ultimately make those who never conceive feel all that more isolated.

    In terms of pain, I think people underestimate how deep this runs for some. Constance and I are less than 4 weeks from delivering and I have yet to let go of our infertility (I never will, actually). I’ve had no closure. I’m still resentful of the challenges we faced and I think that my pain is healthy.

    I never want to forget what we went through and how we got to where we are today. Even though it causes me sadness and pain, it’s part of who I am. It’s threaded throughout me and there is no way to unravel it from the whole. And I don’t want to deny myself to make someone else more comfortable.

    That’s my long way of saying, way to go, PJ. Thanks for standing up for all of us.

  2. MLO

    March 20, 2009 3:23 pm

    PJ, People suck. No, really they do. Individuals don’t suck. But, the sad reality that keeps getting confirmed is that people don’t want to learn anything that takes them out of their comfort zones – or that might change the judgments they have already made.

    It doesn’t matter if its infertility, chronic disease, food, finance, politics, or whatever. People will cling to false ideas. Think about the fact that there are plenty of famous women who have even come out as being childless not by choice in the past couple of years – mostly rock star types. These women have admitted that it was the hardest part of their lives that they had to accept – being childless in a child-loving world.

    I know I’m a cynic. I have a hard time reading certain pollyannaish blogs in the IF blogosphere without wanting to rant about the naivete. But, I’ve noticed that those who are the most pollyanna-like have had the easiest time achieving their dreams – as far as easy goes with infertility. There is a world of difference between a successful or unsuccessful “vet” and somebody that succeeded early on – or never felt like a “vet,” as it were. The mentalities are different. I’m not sure that either group can fully understand the other.

    It comes down to how people feel about things. Feelings are not a choice! We do not choose how we feel. We feel what we feel and until people stop blaming people for feeling the way they do, I won’t trust the general public with my, or anyone else’s, heart’s desire.

    I read the one article, and, honestly, I don’t understand why such an article was put on a site that is supposed to be about infertility. It came across as incredibly judgmental. But, having known how self-important some professional writers are, I am not all that surprised by the tone of the article or the comments from the author.

    • Ellen K

      March 21, 2009 3:17 pm

      I don’t really understand why that column was posted there, either. It seemed very disjointed to me. I couldn’t understand the point of her column. It’s not surprising that the site’s editor had to attempt to clarify the author’s intent.

  3. Christina

    March 20, 2009 3:46 pm

    I’m an Exhale columnist as well, and I was a bit surprised at the original article — I think I was the first to post a response, and if you look at it, I said there weren’t ENOUGH books about the unhappy outcome — and later, that marginalized groups, when silenced from the mainstream as we are, always sound angry when we finally get to speak. The message will be diversified and mediated, the more we get our voices out there in the mainstream world.

    Pamela Jeanne — how do we get to be on HARO’s list so we can be contacted by the media? It’s the only way we can counter this one-sided coverage.

  4. Cindy

    March 20, 2009 4:02 pm

    “I had more support and understanding when the neighborhood stray cat we used to feed passed away.” This is so true! People simply don’t understand the losses connected to infertility and their dismissive attitude only inflicts greater pain. It would be so nice for someone to say, “I know it sucks. I’m so sorry you are going through this. How can I be there for you?” When all we usually get is, “You’re still not over that?!” I’ve actually been told to think about all the free time I have since I’m not a parent. Why, I could volunteer or travel or do all sorts of things!

    Would you ever tell someone grieving the loss of any loved one, “Well look at the bright side. Look at all the time their absence in your life is going to free up for you.” No one in their right mind would consider that comforting. Yet someone thought that was appropriate in my situation. I guess because I lost something that was never tangible, it looks to them like I’ve lost nothing and am grieving over nothing. If only they could see my hopes and dreams and identity in a coffin. If only they understood how integral this desire is to being human. I am in the process of grieving. I am not bitter. I am sad. If only people understood this.

    Thanks for this blog, PJ! Thanks for trying to build understanding and providing a supportive place.

  5. shinejil

    March 20, 2009 5:36 pm

    Your response was beautiful: firm, thoughtful, and heartfelt. More profound than the standard fare reporters deal with.

    When people pawn off suffering as a choice, it’s usually because they lack the heart to have full compassion. They can’t deal with you feeling pain that will be with you forever, so they blame you for it. Very stupid. And most of what people take for bitterness is just sorrow, sorrow that has no home because it’s unwitnessed.

    Anyway, PJ, sorry you have to deal with so many idiots. We have lots of work to do, don’t we?

  6. Rachel

    March 20, 2009 6:25 pm

    So very well said. And I’m feeling you on the ‘clinging to their pain’ remark. As you said, clearly spoken by someone who has not walked the mile(s) in the appropriate shoes to know what the h*ll she’s talking about. Hats off to you (again) for keeping the dialogue open and multi-facteted, as it should be. You may not be able to change as much as you’d like, but you’re doing what you can, and that in itself is enormous.

  7. Kathryn

    March 20, 2009 7:47 pm

    Thank you for writing this. I’ve still not “given up” on the hope of having a baby, tho some days are harder than others. However, i am very aware that we might very well not have the “happy ending” of a bundle at the end.

    The link at the bottom is one i found very helpful, a “baby dust” site, & she talks about how to support friends with IF & tells them very clearly what NOT to say. (“Just relax,” “You can always adopt,” etc.)

    Thanks for your post. It means a lot.

  8. Dora

    March 20, 2009 8:23 pm

    “clung to the pain” ?!?!?!?!?


    Pamela, your voice is SO important. I’m not feeling very articulate today, but my gut response to this post is AMEN, SISTER! (Then again, you’re preaching to the choir.)

  9. Barbara

    March 20, 2009 11:32 pm

    I don’t think we have a good understanding of what hope means and is in our day to day experience. People talk about hope all the time, but what are they really talking about? Sometimes what they are talking about is actually called denial.

    To me, hope is two things. The first is openess to possibility, and the second is that you know that ultimately, know matter what, you are going to be OK.

    That is the true story of hope, rather than an outcome based scenario which is beyond the control of all of us. People who think they can give hope by rattling off success stories and ignoring stories that took a different road do all of us a disservice.

    In that light, you PJ offer an enormous amount of hope to women going through infertility. And I thank you for this.

  10. Lala

    March 20, 2009 11:51 pm

    I do not cling to the pain; it is a constant in my life, and probably always will be there lurking – in every pregnant woman, television commercial and the hundreds of other reminders that I see every single day.

    I think the writer is sitting in a place of smug condensation, since she got her baby, she can look back on HER infertility as a little bump in the road – something that was a learning experience that in her mind, made her a better parent. Lovely for her. But for those of us that will never have a baby never really are able to move completely out of the infertile world. So all we learn is that life is a bitch, and there is no real lesson other than that.

    I for one think that anyone that wants to write about their infertility deserves the chance to be heard and is a unique and real experience – and if she doesn’t like the number of stories out there, well, no one is making her read them, and an infertility/loss site isn’t the right forum for her article.

  11. Jen

    March 21, 2009 2:04 am

    I posted a response on Exhale and then deleted it. That’s the second time it’s made me that upset. I’ve had enough of that BS to last a lifetime. I’m not wasting another minute on it.

  12. WiseGuy

    March 21, 2009 6:08 am

    I guess some people still believe that there are only fairy tale endings to their struggles, and those who don’t have them have to be grinches.

    Can’t believe that those who have been through the fire can act so cold.

  13. Deathstar

    March 21, 2009 7:56 am

    More like the pain clung to me. It did/does define me. But it can be transformed ….. eventually. But each person follows their own path, grief takes it sweet friggin time. Through advocacy, through community, through compassion, through healing, through holding the space sacred for those who need to be heard. Deserve to be heard. Everyone needs a place to heal.

    Take heart, PJ, some people get it. They really do.

  14. Ellen K

    March 21, 2009 2:17 pm

    It makes me very angry that the media and mainstream publishers insist on conventional “happy endings” of parent with child.

    D. said just this morning that he feels we would have been all right no matter what — this is just one possible path of many — now THAT is a message of hope.

  15. waterbishop

    March 21, 2009 4:21 pm

    “clung to the pain”. Oh boy.
    I love how people insinuate that we sit around nursing our pain and seem to relish in it.

    Today’s “hope” seems to be only applicable to the happy endings you always wanted in the first place. If it is a different happy ending, with changing expectations, then what? It doesn’t count?

  16. Phoebe

    March 21, 2009 6:59 pm

    I can understand why you were flabberghasted. It’s just sad that someone who has been there can’t fathom the compassion anymore.

  17. loribeth

    March 21, 2009 7:03 pm

    I think stories that don’t necessarily end in the conventional fairytale way can sometimes be the most interesting ones. I’m glad to see so many people here feel the same.

  18. luna

    March 21, 2009 7:36 pm

    excuse the alarms, but I still have smoke pouring out of my ears and fire racing through my veins. infuriating.

    your responses are of course right on and far more eloquent than anything I might have said.

    thanks once again for your important voice.

  19. Irish Girl

    March 22, 2009 12:02 am

    “folks who were able to move on with grace versus those who clung to the pain.”

    Words so easily spoken by someone who perhaps has never experienced such a harsh loss such as the inability to create their child, having no choice but to reinvent themselves completely. Being judged and misunderstood by a society that ignores uncomfortable conversations is reality for anyone who has been through a “survivable” loss like infertility, cancer, divorce, natural disasters, etc etc etc. And, yes, I do believe we are survivors, especially those of us who are living childfree after infertility. I consider myself a strong, optimistic, believer in hope … how else could I live my life?

    For the record, to whomever wrote those words about grace vs clinging to pain, I wonder what you would describe as your own “loss” or “devastation”? And would you be able to honestly say you’ve gotten “over it” completely? My guess is no, you wouldn’t, because loss stays with us, becomes a part of us, and if we’re lucky, it also makes us strong in the broken places.

    If I could proclaim one message to others regarding life without children after infertility is would be that of hope. Life is unpredictable, out of our control, and no matter who you are, it includes loss of some kind. As PJ calls us, our Silent Sorority is an inspirational group of bright, tenacious, optimistic, beautiful women. All of us living our lives with grace.

    PJ, I can’t thank you enough for being our voice.

  20. Ms Heathen

    March 23, 2009 2:58 pm

    While I’m not particularly surprised (although still angered) by the item from HARO, I was deeply, deeply saddened by the lack of compassion exhibited by the Exhale columnist.

    The dignity, strength and courage exhibited by those who make the heartwrenching decision to live childfree after IF never ceases to astonish me. You are all valued members of this community, and your experiences deserve to be met with a greater degree of understanding.

  21. Kami

    March 23, 2009 7:07 pm

    I am at a loss for words. I would get rid of the pain that clings to me if I could too. As someone said, grief takes as long as it takes. If she can judge so easily, she didn’t really go through that much.

    Ok, so maybe I’m not at a loss for words, but if I added anything more it wouldn’t be very nice.

  22. Jeanne

    March 23, 2009 9:52 pm

    Oh Pamela Jeanne!

    You worded this perfectly as always. I’m sorry they riled you up but you used it as an opportunity to educate people… as you do so well.

    Kudos to you!


  23. katie

    March 23, 2009 11:44 pm

    Grrr… I’m assuming under the first category people who ended up building their families through adoption are not good enough, either??!

  24. Lady McLeod

    March 24, 2009 12:13 am

    GRRRRRRRRR. I have ordnance. You need some extra ammunition, you let me know. The world abounds with those who are ignorant and those who can see no further than the end of their fingers (a teeny, teeny universe they inhabit).

  25. Maritza

    March 25, 2009 3:58 am

    O the eternal bitterness of infertile folk, will we ever hear the end of it?

    When someone loses a child their grief is a memorial, but for infertiles? What is our grief to be? Phantom sadness?

    So strange, this incomprehensibility of infertile grief. Thankfully in my life I have RLF who have walked the walk, and talk the talk.

  26. Ann

    March 27, 2009 6:45 pm

    Coming from the same “camp” as the woman in the second example, her comment disgusts me. Can she have so easily forgotten the pain of infertility? Rather than “move on gracefully,” you have every right to feel the way you do. Some people…

  27. Bea

    March 29, 2009 3:21 am

    Yeah, clung to the pain… wow…

    It is true that some people get mired in it for an incredibly long time, compared to the average, but two points: there’s no protocol for pain, you do it how you do it and b) if someone is taking an “unreasonably” long time to get through it, I think you have to ask yourself why. Is it really a deficiency in the person, or is it because the person isn’t receiving the right sort of support, to aid them through the crisis? In my limited experience, the answer is usually the latter.


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