Infertility Community’s Black Sheep: Women Who Don’t Achieve Motherhood
Some ‘no-holds barred’ conversations stick with you — like the one Loribeth and I engaged in on surviving infertility and the search for peace in a mommy mad world. (Listen to the podcast here). Not achieving motherhood is a taboo topic in the infertility community, which is why we were unlikely guests on the tongue-in-cheek named podcast ‘Bitter Infertiles.’ The conversation was all the more surreal because both hosts, Cristy and Mo, were pregnant at the time of our discussion. To their credit, the hosts openly shared their fears and tackled a few myths. Writing about it later Cristy acknowledged:
“Though I was initially terrified of exploring your stories, I’m so glad I did. You have taught me so much about life and helped me see that though I can’t control what happens to me, I can control how I chose to confront each disappointment and moment of pain. You’ve taught me that from the ashes we can rise like Phoenixes and pursue a life that is full, filled with purpose, happiness and joy.”
Recently transcribed, this is one of a few ‘best of’ discussions and blog posts I’ll revisit in honor of my eight year blogaversary. You’ll find the first part of our nearly hour-long conversation (edited for space and minus the ums and ahs) below. We confront fears, take on myths, reframe our identities, discuss the hazards of ‘drifting’ and how the single-minded pursuit of pregnancy also has the power to destroy.
Mo: I am really happy that you are with us today … it’s very unhealthy for me to realize that I don’t see ‘just stopping’ as an option, and I think this goes for a lot of women. We are willing to abuse our psyches and our bodies until we get what we think we want.
Cristy: Yes, it’s because we have this idea in our head. The truth is nobody starts this journey assuming they are going to go down the path of living child-free. The biggest myth about child-free is that one has decided that ‘they just didn’t really want children anyway, and they gave up,’ which is so not true.
Mo: Yeah, it’s something that is very much not talked about in this community, not acknowledged. I’ll admit being an avid blog reader since I found this community, and I will be the first to admit, Pamela and Lori: I did not read your blogs.
“For me, it was like this kind of self-defense mechanism … I don’t want to even think about that. And you know what? I don’t think that’s healthy. I don’t think that’s right.”
I think there are a lot of women who stop and say, ‘OK, I’m going to adopt.’ And there are a lot of women who just get stuck in this endless cycle of treatment after treatment after treatment. And they’re not doing themselves any favors…
Cristy: Or the flip of it is they stop, and then assume that somewhere along the way that they’re going to get a magical positive pregnancy test and everything is going to be wonderful after that point in time.
Pamela: Don’t beat yourselves up too badly, because the fertility industry — and I’ve talked with people who have worked in and around and are directly involved with it — is optimized for one outcome, and one outcome only. There is not a very well-developed network to help women move to a path that is completely counter to everything that they have been promised, socialized to believe is their right.
And, frankly, science is both our best friend and worst enemy. We live in an era where there is an answer for just about everything. And so to accept the impossible, when everyone around you is encouraging you to continue, continue, continue; that takes an enormous amount of strength, against a psyche that wants nothing more than to get the dream we always had and held very dear.
Loribeth: I think everybody comes to their own decisions for their own reasons, and when you stop, you’re still hoping for that magic. I hoped for a long time after we officially called it quits. I charted for quite a long time afterwards and just secretly hoped that miracle would happen. You don’t just suddenly stop cold turkey and say, “Oh, I’m going to live child-free,” and off you go, and you live happily ever after…
Pamela: I may be creating an extra wrinkle here, but I have never really felt comfortable with the terminology ‘living child-free.’ I have children in my life. This idea that we want nothing to do with children, is to me a misnomer. I tend to think of it as my ‘life not parenting.’
People who absolutely make the decision not to have children feel very possessive of the title ‘child-free.’ They made that decision. Lori and I did not. Lori and I have had to come to terms with the fact that we were unable to have children, but that doesn’t mean we embrace and celebrate a life without children.
The point is women in our situation have to grieve.
Women who choose to adopt are counseled very thoroughly, to ensure that they mourn the losses that they’ve experienced, before they embrace the life of an adoptive parent. So this notion of grieving and mourning and coming to terms is very important for everyone involved, regardless of what path you’re on.
Cristy: Right, and I absolutely agree with you. I think that’s actually a really important distinction. I’ve met couples that are still … I refer to them as drifters, meaning they haven’t made a decision. They’re still trying, or they’re … or they’re secretly hoping. They haven’t really made a decision on what they’re going to do in their lives. And I see that they don’t have children in their lives, because children are painful. They’re a painful reminder of what you can’t have.
And it’s kind of … it’s kind of like you’re just putting off this grieving process the entire time. Whereas I think with these decisions to take these paths of resolution, it’s painful and you do have to grieve, but I think in that, at least for me, that’s when I started bringing children back into my life, for the first time.
Mo: That is so well put, Cristy. Coming from the perspective of the person who was staying away from that thought process like the plague, I think part of it really, truly is being afraid to grieve your losses.
And I mean even with some semblance of a path of resolution on my end, I still find myself every once in a while jumping back into the losses I suffered, and realizing that I’ve never … I haven’t grieved them completely. And I think there’s a fear there for a lot of people to confront this; to realize, “OK, this is my life. This is what it looks like, and it’s not perfect, but let’s see what we can make of it.”
I think that’s a really big reason why people don’t dare go there. And you’re so right about the children issue. I did the same exact thing.
Pamela: There is something that’s called disenfranchised grief. And unlike grief where you lose a grandmother or a sister, a friend … where there is a formal grieving process, where people deliver casseroles to your house, where there is an understanding that you will go through a very sad and painful period of moving beyond having that individual in your life, there is no process for people who have lost their dream of parenthood; for people who have mourned alpha pregnancies, for people who have mourned miscarriages.
Society is not at all equipped to know what to do with us. And so, there is the double issue of your own personal grief, and the fact that you need a support system around you that will allow you the space to understand what you’re dealing with.
And I think it’s that very lack of support system that makes the experience Lori and I went through so much more complicated. Because people want you to hurry up and be done with it already.
Mo: The grief that comes with infertility, the pain of infertility, the pain of pregnancy loss is such an orphaned pain… It … it’s such a difficult process. I can only imagine the strength and bravery that it took both of you to, you know, really choose life, choose your sanity. (I feel like I’m you know, doing the opening monologue to “Trainspotting”)
You know, I think it takes a lot of courage to just say, “OK, we’re done.”
And on that note, I did not go and read your blogs and read your personal stories ahead of time because I had avoided it. I wanted to be in the place of those, who avoid this topic. And so if you don’t mind, I want to grill you a little bit about your process, if that’s OK.
Mo: OK. So my first question to both of you is what happened to cancel out the idea of donor egg, surrogacy, adoption, and all the other, like options that are open to women in your situations?
Loribeth: Well for me, you have to remember what I was going through. We got married when I was about 24, and we put off having a family for various reasons until around the time of our tenth wedding anniversary. Never thought there would be any problems. My cycle had always been regular. We tried on our own for 2 ½ years. I was starting to wonder if something was wrong. I’d go to my family doctor and he would just basically pat me on the head and say, “Don’t worry. It will happen.”
Then much to my surprise, when I’d just turned 37, it did happen, and I did get pregnant. Unfortunately though, it was a very long story, but, it was a very roller coaster pregnancy. I lost the baby… stillborn about 6 months into my pregnancy. This was more than 10 years ago now.
Then for about a year, I temped, I charted, I spent a small fortune on OPKs [ovulation prediction kits]. It was close to my 40th birthday. My OB/GYN referred us to an RE. We did triple cycles of Clomid; nothing happened. We weren’t quite sure how far are we going to take this.
We consulted a fertility counselor and agreed that we were going to try three cycles with the injectables, and then we’d see what happened there. No luck. Shortly after the third cycle failed, I started having anxiety attacks. I thought I was having a heart attack. My husband said, “This is it, as far as I’m concerned. This is just not worth your health, your psychological health, your physical health.”
I wasn’t so sure I was ready to throw in the towel. We were planning a vacation. The fertility counselor said, “Take a break. Try not to think about anything related to trying to conceive. When you come back then think about it.”
By the time we came back, I knew that I couldn’t do this anymore. Part of me felt like we should try IVF just because it was there, but I looked at all the factors. We were both over 40 by then. Donor egg wasn’t as common as it is today, if I can put it that way. And you know, there were places where we could do a donor egg if we had wanted to. The regulations we have here [in Canada] are much stricter than they are in the states.
It was just something … it just seemed a little bit too out there. It was just more than I was willing to take on.
Loribeth: And as far as adoption went, you know, we thought about adoption, we talked about it. What it boiled down to was my heart was just not in it. Somewhere online I read, ‘If I can’t find it in my heart to be excited about adoption, is that really fair to the child, if you go into an adoption half-heartedly?’
All I could see was that I was over 40 years old, and that this was going to be another long slog ahead of me. We could wait for 3 years and nothing could happen. And I just thought, ‘No, I want to move on with my life.’
Mo: Right, right.
Pamela: The questions every single individual who sees a reproductive endocrinologist confronts every step of the way is where are your comfort zones, and where do you fit in the process of your path to parenthood?
So when I started at 29, I had surgeries, laparoscopies, to try to correct some endometriosis. And each step of the way, I thought it was all about fixing my body, and that whatever was wrong could be cured. There was also the complication of male factor with us but there was no clear diagnosis. The fact that we were ‘unexplained’ really complicated the matter. If I knew what I could focus on, that probably would have made it a little easier in terms of letting go.
Cristy: Oh, I agree. I agree.
Pamela: And, as you know, when you don’t have something you can focus your attention on, you suddenly become a little bit distracted. So as I got further and further into it, I realized if it’s not clear if it’s the eggs, if it’s the sperm, if it’s my uterus, how am I going to be sure that donor egg or surrogacy is going to work, either? Because we frankly don’t know where the problem lies.
So the idea of going through the emotional and psychological and financial pressure of pursuing any of those paths struck us as a bit of a non-starter because we weren’t guaranteed that a surrogacy or a donor egg or a donor sperm would work for us.
Pamela: And last but not least, to Lori’s point, I think everyone who has pursued … and, of course, we looked into adoption …appreciates just how complex adoption is. The only people who think adoption is simple are the people who have never looked into the process.
Mo: I absolutely agree, hands down.
Pamela: And for us, I was on the verge of turning 40, and we had been at it for 10 years. I was emotionally, physically and psychologically exhausted. I didn’t know that I was in a position to sign up, and I knew, to Mo’s point, I hadn’t fully grieved everything that we’d been through.
And so it wasn’t fair to any child to be perceived as anything other than my first and foremost priority. And I knew we had to take care of ourselves, and by the time we actually did, I was 43, and we’d kind of timed out in terms of where a birth parent looked for a family for their child.
Mo: It’s so amazing to me… the selflessness that comes with making the decisions that you’ve come to. I think a lot of women, and I hate to say it but it’s really true. We talk about the need to have a healthy mother at the end of this. If you’re going to have a child, you need to be healthy for that child.
Cristy: I think it’s more than that. I think one of the things that is also so selfless about this decision is that you’re making … you are preserving your family.
Cristy: You … you … you are making decisions to preserve your family. It is … I can’t begin to tell you the number of stories I’ve seen where I have watched women destroy their family …
Mo: So true.
Cristy: … In the dream of having a baby. And, in the process, throwing away everything they have. They will throw away their marriage. They will throw away their support circle. If they have children, they will throw those children away, too.
Cristy: All in dreams of having a child. And I think what is incredibly amazing, and so selfless is both of you have really taken a step back, with your partners, and said, ‘You know what? My family is important. My sanity is important. And my family may not look like other people’s families, but it doesn’t make it any less valuable.’
Pamela: Cristy, you … you are so kind. I think for Lori and me, and all the women who fit in our category, the thing that we confront more than anything, by society at large, is the belief that we are the ultimate in selfish by not throwing everything and then some at becoming a parent.
Cristy: And I think the thing that is amazing is that, unfortunately, our society glorifies the image of mother, which is basically the pregnant woman. What they don’t really analyze is there are a lot of women out there that are truly so emotionally disturbed, either prior to pregnancy or the process of having gone through pregnancy, that at the end of the day, they are not fit to parent. I think our society is really jaded on how they view the family. So I think actually … I actually view both of you as being very selfless beings. I really do.
Mo: Yes, yes.
Loribeth: Well, thank you for that. As Pamela said, you know, we’re often called the opposite. Motherhood right now and pregnancy is so glorified with the baby bumps on the covers of all the magazines.
More on the stigma and misunderstandings encountered in a society unaccustomed to fertility failures in Part II of our conversation. Meanwhile, welcome your thoughts.