(A spoken word recording of this post can be found here.)
Sadness is but a wall between two gardens.
Some years ago, when I was still working in my first and favourite subtitling job, my fellow shift workers and I found ourselves working on a Labour Day Bank Holiday. To mark the day as different from any other typically mundane Monday, a couple of us decided to use our break times practicing an altogether different skill to our usual subtitling one. We took off our headphones, got up from our desks and set up our little corner of the office as a nail salon. Then we invited our co-workers to swap their usual coffee breaks for a few minutes of manicure.
There were many lovely things about this experience but the best one was the most unexpected. While I filed, primed and painted their nails, my friends and fellow employees, both male and female, started opening up to me about stuff that they’d never discussed with me before. I still don’t know what the cause was – is there something in the chemicals in hairdressing and beauty salons that makes us chat with relative strangers about our lives? – but the effect was lovely. They left my pod with beautiful nails painted in the colour/s of their choice, and I stayed behind with the warmth of their stories – some happy, some sad, some funny, all, without exception, better for having been shared.
When I first decided, two long weeks ago, to share my story of infertility, I had no idea that I was setting myself up for a similarly heart-warming exchange. I thought when I started writing that I was doing it as an exercise in catharsis. I thought that by writing my story down and looking at it from a distance I’d be able to find some threads of sense in it that would make it easier for me to move on. Any thoughts that I had about sharing were focused on the desire to be open and honest, and were certainly not concentrated on the possibility of getting anything back.
My Dad, when he’d read Part Two of these posts, said he was concerned that there was a danger, in telling this story, that I would ostracise people with my grief. But instead of separation or the solitary contemplation that I’d anticipated, I’ve experienced a groundswell of warmth, support and solidarity that was wholly unexpected.
Some people have written to say, “Oh, really? Me too!” Some have shared stories far, far more harrowing than mine, and my heart goes out to them. Some have told me of the IVF experiences of their friends or family members. One friend sent me a heart-wrenching sequence of poetry that he’d written about his experience of the same subject, part of which has recently been published by the Poetry Society. Some have said that they’d never thought about the issue before and were glad to have it brought to their attention. Some said that they never wanted to have kids themselves but were thinking of me anyway. Some have sent virtual hugs and kisses, which are always rapidly snapped up by someone like me, who lives too far away from the source of most real ones to grab hold of them very often. All have been utterly appreciated and have made me feel a thousand times better, at this stage of the game, than I’d have thought possible.
And still I have pages and pages and pages of notes on this subject that I’ve not found a space for here, and I don’t really want to change my blog title from Notes from an eternal expat to Notes from Infertile Girl. (Although one lovely friend said that “Infertile Girl” sounds like a superhero so perhaps I should reconsider…). Maybe it’s just time to find another forum.
For the meantime, though, I’ll write down a few more thoughts for anyone who has the time to indulge me just a little bit further. (And please know that these are generalised observations of myself and our society, and are not specific reflections on anything that’s ever been said to me by my friends and family, all of whom have been immensely supportive.)
When you buy a ticket to visit the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, you’re arbitrarily assigned a classification of “white” or “non-white”. This classification determines which entrance you take into the museum. When M and I went there a few years ago, we bought our tickets together then were immediately separated. We felt estranged, isolated and apprehensive – exactly the emotions you’re supposed to feel as you enter the rather intimidating structure and empathise with those who suffered the segregation imposed on them by the apartheid system.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not for a second suggesting that the experience of finding yourself childless in a child-filled world can be compared to the suffering experienced by those living under oppressive regimes.
But it turns out that there is a degree of separation and misunderstanding between those with kids and those who would have liked to have them but can’t. Growing up, settling down and having kids is seen as the normal trajectory. So when you’re forced to skip one of those steps you suddenly find yourself outside of the norm. Abnormal. And the fact is that you can start to feel rather estranged and isolated.
There are all sorts of platitudes and stock phrases that we, as a culture, trot out in given circumstances to make other people (or maybe just ourselves) feel more comfortable in a range of conversations. I cringe when I think of some of the things that my younger self might have said to people in the past. Things like this:
- “You’re engaged? Congratulations! So when are you getting married?”
Younger Michelle, perhaps they’d just like to be engaged for a while. Can’t they live in the now, rather than feeling forced to rush onto the next big event?
Maybe I could have just said, “Congratulations! The champagne’s on me. Here’s to a happy engagement!”
- “Wow, you’re married now. How exciting! So when do you think you might have babies?”
Idiot, younger Mish!
1. Let them enjoy just being together. Life is long. Give them time!
2. Maybe they’re already pregnant and don’t want to make the announcement just yet. They’ll tell you when they’re ready.
3. They might not want to have kids. That’s their business.
4. They might already have been trying to have kids, so far without success. Don’t make them feel awkward about it.
- “You’ve had a few failed cycles of IVF? Well, keep trying. I know someone who got pregnant at 47 after her 8th treatment. You’ll get there in the end.”
Or maybe they won’t, younger me. The IVF industry is constructed on a very solid foundation of hope, but the awful fact is that the ground underneath that solid concrete is crumbling. The recently outgoing chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, Lisa Jardine, used her departure to make a point that she’d felt unable to make strongly enough during her six years in the position. She said:
‘This is a sector that trades in hope, and the papers and women’s magazines are full of encouragement. Yet the success rates for IVF remain discouragingly low. The last figures we have show that for every cycle of IVF, fewer than a third of patients will emerge with a baby…That leaves two thirds of would-be mothers and fathers with the heartbreak of “failure”.’
Do read the article if you have time. It’s excellent. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24652639
I’m sorry if anyone reading this is still hanging their hopes on IVF. I hope with all my might that it works out for you, that you’re among the lucky ones.
But I also really think it should be more widely known that IVF doesn’t work for the vast majority of people forced to resort to it. Everyone who goes into IVF believes that they’ll come out the other end with a baby, but most don’t. Our knowledge has come such a very long way since Louise Brown was born in 1978 but there’s still a very great deal that we don’t know. I’ve had three ART specialists tell me now that getting pregnant, with or without IVF, is a matter of luck. Even a lucky person like me would be in the minority if she came up trumps in the lottery that is IVF.
- “You’ve had a few failed cycles of IVF? Never mind. Have you ever thought about just adopting?”
So, younger Michelle, you’ve said this to people and managed to leave the conversation without having your eyes gouged out? Amazing! Every person who’s been through years of fertility treatments has thought about adopting. But adoption itself, while often a wonderful outcome for the parents and children involved, is not a cure for infertility. And it’s an arduous, time-consuming and expensive process.
M and I are 49 and 43 respectively and we move countries frequently. I think these facts make us mature, ready and responsible, and in a great position to bring children up in an exciting international environment in which they’ll rapidly become citizens of the world. But I fear that an adoption agency might use the same factors to judge us as both old and incapable of providing a stable environment for children. Adoption is not an easy solution.
- “Maybe it’s just not meant to be.”
Mm-hm. Yep. Right. Erm…according to whom? Does that actually mean anything other than, “I’ve had enough of this subject now… Can we please move on?”
On another topic altogether… M has said recently that he’s going to stop taking photos of me. It’s a protest against the fact that on the rare occasion that he does take control of the camera, I invariably hate any resulting photos in which I’m the subject and threaten to delete them.
However there’s one picture of me that I’ve always liked, and that I’ve used as my profile picture on various websites for years. The picture was taken by my best friend’s eldest daughter when she was three, long before she became the grown-up nine-year-old big sister of two that she is now. Against her mother’s strictest instructions, she’d crept into the attic room at their place where I’d slept, woken me up and kept me company as I got ready.
When she took this photo we were playing sharks. The bed was the ocean and she was the scary many-toothed monster that was going to chomp me into little bits and spit me out again. In a desperate bid to get away from the boat-capsizing beast, I’d just dived in to the water, risking my life. The shark stopped to take one last photo of me before her final deadly attack.
It seems, when I look at this picture now, that I wasn’t really too distressed about the prospect of succumbing to my fate. It’s been a blast, I seem to be thinking, and now I’ll go out with a bang.
That is, I think, the way I have to approach this next unexpected stage in my life. I’d thought that I was going to be a mother and I’ve done everything I possibly could to make that happen. But it didn’t, and now, barring some miraculous future event, it probably never will.
But things aren’t looking so bad really. The ocean is blue, the horizon is out there and I’m swimming in the finest of company. The compass is set for adventure.
Hm. Maybe it was, after all, meant to be.