This guest post comes from Andrea Rose, teacher and budding artist. Andrea’s first husband became infertile due to cancer in their first year of marriage while they were in their early twenties. She and her current husband struggled with male factor and age-related infertility for over ten years. She has had to make difficult decisions and change her viewpoint about herself, family and friends. After unexpectedly landing on the margins of society, she regained her footing, brushed herself off, surveyed the unfamiliar landscape, and discovered deeper strength and a new vision.
I recently let another friendship go. This one was particularly tough because this friend was someone who had been in my life for 20 years and in my husband’s life for 25. She is loving, patient, and intelligent. We have welcomed her, her husband and three children into our world at times vacationing together and maintaining regular correspondence while living far apart. They are all wonderful people.
My husband and I began trying to conceive very soon after we got together but we did not mention our difficulties with infertility to many people including the friend in question. For over 10 years we hoped we would get our hard fought for child. In the meantime, we would try not to bother people with our problems and keep the faith. As we aged out of adoption, and I entered menopause, and we decided that surrogacy was not viable for us, we became very open with friends and family about our situation and the deep grief we were experiencing.
My friend read the infertility blogs and information I sent her and really tried to understand. She knows that once someone has “called the time of death” on their hopes of having a child, that it usually takes 3-5 years to come out of grief and mourning and that this is necessary, difficult and complex work. After all, it is not the loss of just one thing we mourn. Several months ago, while visiting her family, she took me aside and asked me to “change my story”. She wanted me to put a more “positive energy” into it.
I experience things emotionally first and then intellectually. Her request made me feel sad, contracted, misunderstood and silenced. We still had several days together and I didn’t mention our infertility to her again. I spoke only “positively” and put on a happy face until it was time for our visit to be over. CNBCers [childless not by choice] have lots of experience with this strategy. Unless there were a huge shift in her perspective, I knew that my story, my truth, was something I would never entrust her with again.
Valuing the friendship and understanding the shaky ground upon which it now rested, my husband wrote her a thoughtful email asking that she try to understand that while our story might not be a completely happy one, infertility is part of our story and always will be. The tone of her response was impatient and annoyed and in essence these were her main points:
- Perhaps our childlessness was a “gift”.
- Childlessness was defining our lives and our relationships.
- We could overcome our situation and write a blog.
- We could turn away from grief toward healing.
- She said my husband and I were depressed and feeding each other’s depressions.
- All the CBCNer’s she knew had “come to terms” with their situation and pursued different dreams together in support of their relationship and a full life.
- She suggested we change our thoughts and stop hurting ourselves by “clinging” to our stories and have a happy outlook.
- She suggested we focus on the good things we have in our lives.
- She told us that our grief was taking too long.
- She gave examples of how she had met the challenges in her life with positivity. Could we not do the same?
- She said we were wallowing and asked us when we were going to “let go of our story”.
- She suggested that when that was done we would be free to enjoy life with our friends the way we used to be.
How could someone who had read so much infertility material and heard so much about the subject produce such a letter? Almost everything in it countered the research and suggestions for grief work for effectively processing the experience. Every one of the above points contained an aspect of either silencing, judging, blaming, shaming, or invalidating our position as the experts and arbiters of our own journey and truth.
What do we do when this happens? How do we remain true to ourselves and our beautiful, hard won, deeply life-changing stories? When we didn’t share our stories, why were we seen as well-rounded, intelligent, multi-faceted, people with interesting lives and when we did speak, why were seen as defining our lives by being childless not by choice? We were still the same people who worked, enjoyed hobbies, travelled, volunteered in our community, continued to develop varied relationships, etc.
Society needs to understand that our stories of infertility are meaningful, valid and important and that they co-exist with our other life stories. They are not mutually exclusive. They are entwined. Society must stop asking us to excise our infertility stories from our other life stories as a means of silencing, shaming, or making its mainstream population more comfortable. It doesn’t need to “fix” us, set a timetable for us, or tell us to “get over it” and get back to who we were. We will never get back to who we were and we are proud of it. It’s been an enriching albeit difficult journey to new ways of knowing, understanding and being. Why would we want to “go back” even if we could?
Sometimes we must kindly and lovingly turn our backs on some relationships in exchange for our authentic selves and the rest of the world. And that’s what I call a pretty good trade.
Andrea asks: Wouldn’t it be a great idea to have a Mourners Code specifically for our demographic?
A Helpful Resource from Andrea: Healing a Parent’s Grieving Heart: 100 Practical Ideas After Your Child Dies by grief counsellor and educator Dr. Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D. Although the book was not written for our demographic, much of it can be applied to our lives. It addresses the topics of grief and healing and in addition offers compassionate advice and simple activities. It’s concise, practical and offers strategies which can provide grounding in the shaky-pudding world of life during/after infertility. She especially liked the “Mourners Code, Ten Self-Compassionate Principles at the end of his book. This section helped her regain a sense of power and a newfound sense of sanity by realizing, as a CNBCer, she had “rights”. It also helped immensely in understanding which relationships/responses were helpful and which were hurtful and to feel ok with not accepting the hurtful ones.
Related posts and articles from Silent Sorority contributors
Academic Research on ‘Silencing’: Exploring Epistemic Injustice – Karen Bell argues epistemic injustice occurs when the value of a marginalized group or individual’s knowledge is diminished by a more powerful group.