The latest contributor to A Fresh Start is Stephanie. I first came across her writing on More.com. A few emails later she invited me to join her on a radio segment where we both discussed our respective experiences coming to terms with infertility. In this piece, Stephanie shares her story and sheds some light on “disenfranchised grief” and where she found new strength. You can read still more stories from strong women in this blog’s Tapestry of Voices category.
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“You’re both identical twins?! Wow! How many children do you guys have?” Expecting a staggering number, my husband’s and my response sadly, over nineteen years remains the same.
We anticipated our foray into parenthood would be a breeze but our pursuit can only be described as more tornado like. We didn’t see infertility coming and the emotional carnage it left in its wake felt catastrophic. With reckless regard for our feelings, it left my identity, in particular, desperate to conceive, birth and raise our own biological children, strewn, scattered and beyond recognition, with the only real feasible option to rebuild from the ground up.
I’m Italian and Irish and yes, that makes me Catholic-the devout kind. The kind with a very clear understanding that missing Mass on Sundays borders on a cardinal sin, grew up faithfully attending Forty Hours Devotion and regularly lugged hefty loads of guilt and shame into the Confessional.
Add up my Italian/Irish and Catholic pedigree, prolific family background (my mother had two sets of twins and three more children), sweeten the deal by marrying an identical twin AND the youngest of ten children, I ask you, who isn’t laying odds we have parenthood in the bag?
After five years of infertility treatments, and trust me, a rather lengthy and poorly attended pity party for myself, I had to reconcile that no one would ever call me, “Mommy.” As I began to heal, little by little I pieced together an identity independent of motherhood but the process was painful and in truth, evolutionary.
But if you’re anything like me, you get the sense your loss of never parenting often goes unacknowledged.
This is not to say the people in our lives haven’t done their best to be supportive. The challenge as I see it, comes in when others have not experienced the loss personally. How can those who parent really understand the emptiness we struggle with over our lifespan? In all fairness to them, they probably can’t.
There is a term for an unacknowledged loss. It is disenfranchised grief. One of the most poignant explanations of this feeling is in an article in Counseling Today.
Howard Winokuer, president of The Association of Death Education and Counseling and Director of the Winokeur Center for Counseling and Healing in Charlotte, NC says,
while the death of a family member or friend is commonly recognized as a substantial loss, counselors agree it’s far from the only event that produces feelings of grief. When we think about grief, generally speaking, we think about death. But I think that’s a very limited and tunnel vision view of grief. Grief is the end result of any loss, and loss is so broad.
Karen M. Humphrey, a retired counseling professor and author of Counseling Strategies for Loss and Grief echoes Howard Winokeur’s sentiments. She says that all losses are legitimate. Humphrey gives the example of a woman who has always dreamed of having children discovering she is infertile as an example of disenfranchised grief. She goes on to say “That could actually be more challenging and more disruptive than dealing with the death of someone.”
She is my new hero.
I am moved that she publicly validates and legitimizes the emotional turmoil and sting associated with infertility. My sense is though, with no “body to bury” the intangible nature of our loss is hard for people to grasp. When cancer or other life-threatening illnesses lurk in the corners of our neighborhoods, families or workplaces, casseroles proliferate. When infertility strikes, people are left, in a sense to feed themselves.
A loss, is a loss, is a loss. No one else has to understand it, get it or need to, in order for feelings of loss and grief to be justifiable. Russell Friedman, executive director of the Grief Recovery Institute agrees and defines grief as “conflicting feeling caused by a change or an end in a familiar pattern or behavior.”
We learn to grapple within. We tuck into a spot in our emotional closets, where on occasion it falls out and hit us, unsuspectingly, right on the head. Leaving us to rediscover where best to place it, so we can safeguard against the threat of it falling out again and again.
The good news is like any other loss, the intensity of the pain subsides. For me, I have found tremendous solace in being Aunt Steph to over thirty-eight nieces and nephews, writing a memoir about my experience (Doris, Sophia and Me: Lessons From My Mother Who Didn’t Live Long Enough and My Daughter Who Was Never Born), and in my work as a grief and loss therapist.
Remember, though, while it might be helpful, you don’t need to gather permission slips from friends, colleagues or neighbors to legitimize your loss. As fellow travelers down this same bumpy and foggy road, we know it hurts and you are not alone.
Stephanie Baffone, LPCMH, NCC is a licensed, board certified mental health therapist and writer whose guiding principle is if you have wisdom from which others might benefit you are obligated to pass it on. She is in private practice and specializes in grief and loss, couples counseling and issues related to infertility. She writes a bi-monthly column at Savvy Auntie and blogs about love, loss and life at Stephanie’s Stories.