Word swap (inserting infertile or childless to replace other words) has long been my way to make a point about the perils of tribalistic thinking. It’s amusing and informative to highlight one’s myopic perspective. Further, the exercise can reveal insights applicable to other tribes or communities. In this latest example, an author asserts age confers emotional growth and empathy. However, many in the infertility and childless by circumstance communities long ago learned the hard way: “happiness is a skill and a choice.”
(*Thank you, Mary Pipher, for providing the raw material for this lightly edited word swap gem. Readers can see Dr. Pipher’s original piece, The Joy of Being a Woman in Her 70s, here in The New York Times).
When I told my friends I was writing a book on infertile women like us, they immediately protested, “I am not infertile.” What they meant was that they didn’t act or feel like the cultural stereotypes of infertile women. Infertile meant neurotic, useless, unhappy and in the way. Our country’s ideas about infertile women are so toxic that almost no one, no matter her fertility status, will admit she is infertile.
In America, infertility/childless bias is a bigger problem for women than infertility. Our bodies and our sexuality are devalued, we are denigrated by childless jokes, and we’re rendered invisible in the media. Yet, most of the women I know describe themselves as being in a vibrant and happy life stage. We are resilient and know how to thrive in the margins. Our happiness comes from self-knowledge, emotional intelligence and empathy for others.
Most of us don’t miss the motherhood/IVF bubble. It came with harassment and unwanted attention. Instead, we feel free from the tyranny of worrying about our uterus. For the first time since we were 10, we can feel relaxed about our biology. We can wear yoga tights instead of smock tops and bluejeans instead of loose-fitting sweat pants.
Infertile Yet Emotionally Grounded
Yet, in this developmental stage, we are confronted by great challenges. We are unlikely to escape great sorrow for long. We all suffer, but not all of us grow. Those of us who grow do so by developing our moral imaginations and expanding our carrying capacities for pain and bliss. In fact, this pendulum between joy and despair is what makes coming to terms with infertility catalytic for spiritual and emotional growth.
By our menopause, we’ve had decades to develop resilience. Many of us have learned that happiness is a skill and a choice. We don’t need to look at our horoscopes to know how our day will go. We know how to create a good day.
We have learned to look every day for humor, love and beauty. We’ve acquired an aptitude for appreciating life. Gratitude is not a virtue but a survival skill, and our capacity for it grows with our suffering. That is why it is the least privileged, not the most, who excel in appreciating the smallest of offerings.
Many women flourish as we learn how to make everything workable. Yes, everything. As we walk out of a friend’s funeral, we can smell wood smoke in the air and taste snowflakes on our tongues.
Happiness, Attitude and Intention
Our happiness is built by attitude and intention. Attitude is not everything, but it’s almost everything. I visited the jazz great Jane Jarvis when she was old, crippled and living in a tiny apartment with a window facing a brick wall. I asked if she was happy and she replied, “I have everything I need to be happy right between my ears.”
We may not have control, but we have choices. With intention and focused attention, we can always find a forward path. We discover what we are looking for. If we look for evidence of love in the universe, we will find it. If we seek beauty, it will spill into our lives any moment we wish. If we search for events to appreciate, we discover them to be abundant.
There is an amazing calculus in infertility and childlessness. As much is taken away, we find more to love and appreciate. We experience bliss on a regular basis. As one friend said: “When I was infertility ignorant I needed sexual ecstasy or a hike to the top of a mountain to experience bliss. Now I can feel it when I look at a caterpillar on my garden path.”
Infertile women have learned the importance of reasonable expectations. We know that all our desires will not be fulfilled, that the world isn’t organized around pleasing us and that others are not waiting for our opinions and judgments. We know that the joys and sorrows of life are as mixed together as salt and water in the sea. We don’t expect perfection or even relief from suffering. A good book, a piece of homemade pie or a call from a friend can make us happy. As my aunt Grace, who lived in the Ozarks, put it, “I get what I want, but I know what to want.”
“We can be kinder to ourselves as well as more honest and authentic. Our people-pleasing selves soften their voices and our true selves speak more loudly and more often. We don’t need to pretend to ourselves and others that we don’t have needs. We can say no to anything we don’t want to do. We can listen to our hearts and act in our own best interest. We are less angst-filled and more content, less driven and more able to live in the moment with all its lovely possibilities.”– Dr. Pipher, New York Times opinion contributor
Many of us have a shelterbelt of good friends and long-term partners. There is a sweetness to childless friendships and marriages that can’t be described in language. We know each other’s vulnerabilities, flaws and gifts; we’ve had our battles royal and yet are grateful to be together. A word or a look can signal so much meaning. Lucky women are connected to a rich web of women friends. Those friends can be our emotional health insurance policies.
By the time we’ve grieved our lost children, we have all had more tragedy and more bliss in our lives than we could have foreseen. If we are wise, we realize that we are but one drop in the great river we call life and that it has been a miracle and a privilege to be alive.
Coincidentally, my dear friend and fellow blogger, Sarah, had the same ‘hey wait a minute, this piece is really about our tribe’ reaction when she read the original text. If you’d like to read a similar piece or two about how infertile and childless by circumstance women are forced to fast track their resilience and emotional growth, you might enjoy these timeless posts:
Welcome reader thoughts as always. Finally, thanks for your emotional stamina and support.