Male Call: The Head Cannot Heal the Heart

Silent Sorority

Editor’s Note: When it comes to matters of the heart, there’s nothing quite so comforting and validating as discovering you’re not alone in teasing out complicated emotions. Whether in the blogosphere or in society as a whole male voices are in the minority on the topic of disenfranchised grief. It’s rare to hear men give voice to their feelings on involuntary childlessness or the finality of infertility.

That’s just one of the reasons why this guest post from Brian Hawker — a self-described teacher, sometimes writer and bad trumpet player is so special.  Take it away, Brian…
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For several years I have lurked over the shoulder of my wife reading articles and blogs by women dealing with the broken dream of not having children and figuring out how to fill the vacuum with redefinition and reinvention. This has been called “Plan B.” My wife and I walk this path and it is very confusing because there actually is no path.

Until very recently, when infertility altered your course, there was no map or GPS with confident directions cheerily announcing: “You have reached your destination.”

Until very recently, when infertility altered your course, there was no map or GPS with… Click To Tweet

It is only within the past few years that the trailblazers have come out of the shadows to make noise, write books and alert the media to the existence of a now not so “silent sorority”.

I struggle with this search for a path because, to me, so far we have been using left brain solutions to solve a right brain problem.

Heart Silent SororityOkay, that’s not entirely true. The emotions attached to the grieving have been very right brained but now that we are trying to re-configure our lives without the family we wanted and prepared for, I feel some anxiety that maybe we are being practical and realistic, not acknowledging the ongoing importance of the emotional nourishment that comes with particular kinds of deep connection.

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“Plan B” seems to prescribe more for the head than the heart but they speak different languages.

Responding to an emotion with logic – travel, volunteering, learning Spanish, playing the trumpet, writing a book (which is what I’m doing) is very satisfying but, at least for me, doesn’t address my need for reciprocal kinship and the yearly rituals of seamlessly moving in and out of the lives of people who “get me” with all of my annoying bumps and warts. It’s true that having children isn’t necessary for connection. I have a very deep connection with my wife, a few relatives, some wonderful friends and this personal journey has given me the accidental gift of a more meaningful relationship with myself.

But why do I still have this sense that something is missing? Do I need children to feel like a whole person? Elizabeth Gilbert and the Dalai Lama enjoy very full childless lives.

Five years ago, in the midst of our struggle, a friend came to visit and during a conversation with my wife who was explaining to her our sadness and sense of loss, she asked “Why do you still want to have children at your age?”

She is a thoughtful, educated person but clearly unaware of a gap in her understanding of this solitary, painful journey. Her question suggested that we didn’t need children to have a good life. This is where it gets tricky. I don’t need my eyesight. Lots of people are blind and they function quite well. I don’t need to be able to walk. A wheelchair will get me pretty much anywhere. I don’t need two lungs. If one shuts down, I can still breathe. Can I have a meaningful life without children and the myriad stressful, joyful, difficult, satisfying, funny experiences that come with “full catastrophe living” to quote Jon Kabat Zinn? The answer is . . . I don’t know, so that’s just to let you know where I am on this fuzzy path.

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Heart Matters

My cognitive ability has been mostly reliable for many decades but my most meaningful experiences have been emotional, not cerebral. Grad school was great. I loved my program and met fabulous people from all over the world but all of this doesn’t answer my need to express what I can only think of as love energy. My wife is a true partner and my closest friend but that’s a lot of emotional eggs in one basket. I’m still trying to figure all of this out but I don’t want to use my prefrontal cortex to do it! Air, water, food, connection. What’s the point of the first three if the last is missing? My head can’t heal my heart.

Let’s just say I’m puzzled (as if that wasn’t obvious). I’m going to give myself a shake, carpe diem and accept that some big questions don’t have answers, that my life is precious and that perhaps there is a new frontier out there where I can learn new ways of getting the connection I need to feel like a whole person.

Perhaps real wisdom lies in not seeking answers at all. Any answer we find will not be true for long. An answer is a place where we can fall asleep as life moves past us to its next question. After all these years I have begun to wonder if the secret of living well is not in having all the answers but in pursuing unanswerable questions in good company. — Rachel Naomi Remen

More about Brian: He remarried at age 50 and hoped to start a family with his younger wife. They discovered after several years of trying to get pregnant that his infertility was the obstacle, although the doctors would often use ambiguous language to describe his condition. Brian’s 20-20 hindsight realizes that he and his wife needed an advocate to help them ‘stickhandle’ through the maze of decisions, treatments and the confusing fallout of facing the prospect of a future without children. He continues to work on reconciling his unexpected reality and credits the strength of his marriage to keep him from completely falling over.

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By coincidence, a feature story titled, The Untold Grief of Childless Men, also went live this week in Australia.

As Brian — and the men in the Australian piece — make clear while there has been little social support for those who carry the lasting scars of disenfranchised loss … maybe, just maybe, in sharing our little-heard and little-understood narratives we can help change some hearts, and the world we inhabit, for the better.

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Let’s build on the quote Brian shared, “… the secret of living well is not in having all the answers but in pursuing unanswerable questions in good company.” Welcome your thoughts.

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11 thoughts on “Male Call: The Head Cannot Heal the Heart

  1. Kathryn

    Hi Brian,
    what a lovely article.
    Reading this has helped me to realise why my plan B seems to be somewhat faltering and lurching in its trek. I’ve always been a bit meticulous with mapping most things in my life and with no planned path to follow and no destination in sight I’ve hit a snag trying to find a direction to take, as we are now mapping the road as we travel along it,…detour ahead!

    My brain can quite adequately find alternatives to fill the time, find a new direction, but my emotions are still a few steps behind it seems, not quite in sync, which makes the journey ahead feel a bit hollow at times. I realise now I can’t separate the two, they need to travel in tandem.

    Your friend’s question about not needing children in your life may have merit but it still irks me that the choice was taken from me – whether by circumstance, medical condition etc.

    I think we were about 3 years into our fertility treatments when I had to explain to a family member, after her comment about an acquaintance being childless after 10 years and that they still weren’t over it….was that it wasn’t something you ever got over, it was something you had to learn to live with (maybe I already had an inkling about our future childlessness).

    Thank you for the insight.

  2. Dear Brian,

    Thank you for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post. Hearing from men in the ALI community is a rarity, which is tragic as they also have their own stories from this trauma and journey towards healing. So thank you for sharing.

    Your point about using the head to heal the heart really stuck with me. We often try to find logic or reason our way out of grief. As if finding one answer will make the pain vanish. You’re right about needing to acknowledge that emotions don’t always work that way.

    Wishing you all the best on your journey to healing after infertility

  3. dear Brian,
    it is lovely to read a story from man’s point of view.
    Wishing you & your wife all the best.
    Klara

  4. Brian – This made me stop and pause….and wonder about a lot of things. Thanks for sharing.

    One thing that started to emerge for me is the fact that, because our loss is not validated we are defaulted into the position of having to justify it. People aren’t coming from the context of losing one’s children to infertility as a universally traumatic and life altering thing, they see our state as purely individual. Thus they don’t realize that it’s not WHY you feel the way you do, but rather THAT you feel the way you do that matters. I agree, when it comes to feelings, “answers” are often irrelevant. I can’t think of any other untimely life altering traumatic loss where people are put in the position of having to EXPLAIN why it’s bad, be it death, other diseases or violence.

    I’ve also noticed when people are expressing pain/dissatisfaction over something that cannot be changed in their lives, the assumption they are not living a full life often occurs, when really, it’s not one or the other, it’s both. A full, meaningful life AND the sadness/void/sense something is missing existing side by side.

    So many directions to go with this, a dangerous subject, really:-) Thanks again for sharing. I’m looking forward to showing this to my husband, who keeps ME from completely falling over. Glad we both found luck in the marital department, anyway.

    Sarah

    1. PM

      Sarah, this is absolutely what I was trying to say, and said with great understanding. I find it frustrating that I can’t figure out things like this for myself, but remind myself that its good to have others who can /have carved out an insight that rings so true it actually eases the tension.
      Thanks

      1. You’re very welcome, PM! I’ve found putting words to our experiences to be quite baffling myself. Writing has helped me with this – even when I end up writing pieces of crap they are still immensely therapeutic. Most of what I think and write starts with eloquent queries such as “what in the hell is really going on here” and “what even IS this shit???”.

        Enjoyed your response to Brian’s piece too – thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. So glad to have this important voice join the conversation! Brian, thanks so much for sharing your heart with us! I can relate to so many of the things that you wrote about.

  6. Amy

    I have read this over and over. Thank you, Brian for sharing these thoughts and feelings which validate mine. Validation is something rarely found in this journey which makes these words even more special.

  7. PM

    Thanks Brian. Having just been through another grueling awful family get-together, and years past finishing IVF, your questions, and thoughtful enquiring thread helped me.

    I was adopting your approach and pondering on your article and it occurred to me to ask what was behind your friends question’ “Why do you still want to have children at your age?”

    My instinctive answer to her would’ve been “why do you assume that on reaching some arbitrary age I would suddenly stop wanting to have a family?

    Whats behind her question? Does she really wish to understand your state of mind/heart with this enquiry.
    The assumption she is making is that the desire for a child and a family is only valid for a short time-limited period , arbitrarily set by some other body. Who? That once you are over these child focussed years, perhaps, and everyone else has had their children,possibly, you should (notice the judgement in that word) just somehow get over it. The empty space is gone. Move on. Other things await. The loss ceases to exist, and with it any acknowledgment of the loss. Its couched as “why do you still want to have children” but it sounds more like “How can you still be wanting to have children after all this time?” But loss lingers. Long. And revisits.

    From others this is what I value most. Not sympathy, never pity, just some acknowledgment of the grief.
    But it is just too hard for most to image it, or to go there I think. Perhaps this was reason for her enquiry. Curiosity.

    I’m glad you were asked this, and not me. I suspect you handled the answer much better.

    Thanks anyway.

    1. Brian Hawker

      Hi PM!
      I was struck by two things in your comment. First, that our friend’s question assumed “that the desire for a child and a family is only valid for a short time-limited period” and second, your suggestion that “it is just too hard for most to imagine it, or to go there I think. Perhaps this was the reason for her enquiry. Curiosity.”
      If I understand you correctly, you are prepared to cut our friend some slack. Maybe we need to do this when we have these kinds of encounters where a friend/relative/colleague says something hurtful while being completely unaware of the effect of the comment or question.
      I don’t like encounters like this and as I’m sure you are aware, there’s more where that came from. In our world, we have all become experts at predicting how things are going to go in certain social situations. However, I don’t want to be a martyr, knowing that some people will say things that make me feel crappy and then feel obliged to take on the task of cutting them some slack although my better self tells that this is exactly what I should do. I want satisfying encounters with people, not conversations fraught with the additional responsibility of accommodating someone’s lack of awareness while my truth, my whole truth, remains untold, and therefore, unheard.

      So, PM, I’m going to go out on a limb and tell you what I have been scheming to do in these social situations that are supposed to be fun but end up making me want to jump off a bridge.

      The Pre-emptive Strike: When meeting someone new, when the “usual” questions are asked, I am going to say, “You are probably going to want to know if I have children and I would prefer not to go there unless you are prepared to have a conversation that lasts longer than five minutes which would be fine with me. So, where are you and your spouse planning to go on your next vacation?”

      One way or the other, I know I’m going to feel uncomfortable but by saying this, I’m taking charge of the conversation instead of it taking charge of me.

      Teach by analogy: If some other friend asks that question in the future I am prepared to say: “I believe we don’t really understand anything we haven’t lived. If I read a book about poverty, I still won’t really understand what it’s like every day just trying to get by but if I take the time to listen to a person living that kind of life, I will potentially develop some empathy and understanding about how I may have taken my favourable circumstances for granted. Similarly, when I talk to you about being childless, I want you to know that, like you, I expected to have children. I thought it would be easy. For most it’s true but my assumption was incorrect. Then I just figured that if there was a problem, medical science would come to my rescue. Second wrong assumption. Then, when I realized after 15 years of trying that it wasn’t going to happen and that I at least deserved the same consideration we would all give anyone who had experienced some other kind of personal tragedy and discovered that almost no one was prepared to offer me some support, I got angry.

      This subject is just recently coming out of the shadows and people like us need to stop hiding. Our story, and the stories of others facing an unexpected reality (I call them “invisible conditions”) are important. This is a difficult message to communicate and you have probably not given it much thought (Why would you?) but childless people need support just as you would no doubt show consideration to others who have suffered a deep personal loss. If I told you that I lost my entire family in the Air India bombing, I doubt you would respond with silence. But this is what happened to me. I lost the children I dreamed of having and silence makes the loss even more difficult. As much as I’m uncomfortable talking about this, I understand that it takes effort on your part to listen instead of heading for the exit. I appreciate your effort to get a handle on my struggle because it is a struggle. I’m not going to pretend it isn’t. I also don’t want you to think that I struggle 24/7 because I don’t, anymore. I am a busy productive person. It’s just that this struggle is a part of who I am and if we are going to have a relationship, I don’t think you would want me to give you an edited version of my life.

      It takes courage to say these things PM but at this point I figure I have no alternative. I’d rather suffer the possible negative consequences of making myself vulnerable than shrink into the woodwork. It might take a few Margaritas to get me started but I am not going to be silent. There will be no overnight revolution in society to make me feel better but if I can stand my ground and give my self-esteem a ten or twenty or thirty percent boost by speaking up, then I know I will have honoured my story and shown solidarity with tens of thousands (millions worldwide) of others like me.

      I wish you healthier encounters in the future. For me this has meant avoiding some encounters altogether but my priority is to face family, friends and society with resolve to tell my story and ask others to walk with me. My standards are higher now! I want to pursue “unanswerable questions in good company” which is exactly what we are doing by joining Pamela’s Sorority and sometimes fraternity!

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Actually, responding to you been therapeutic, for me!
      Wherever you are, wishing you a sunny day.

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