Zen and the Art of Living After Infertility

 

The title of this post came to me as I poured my second cup of coffee. I’ve never read Robert Maynard Pirsig‘s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but I recall laughing the first time I heard the title. In researching his ideas further this morning, the book is now on my reading list. Here’s an excerpt from Mr. Pirsig’s book:

I’ve wondered why it took us so long to catch on. We saw it, and yet we didn’t see it. Or rather we were trained not to see it. Conned perhaps into thinking that the real action was metropolitan and all this was just boring hinterland. It was a puzzling thing. The truth knocks on the door and you say, ‘Go away. I’m looking for the truth.’ And so it goes away. Puzzling.

My bagel grew cold as I pondered this passage further. He’s captured a kernel of truth here. As I’ve gotten greater distance from the messy morass of my infertility experience I’ve acquired a new appreciation for the “con” infertiles have to push through to find our own truth. When we’re conditioned to believe that “the real action” can only be found in one kind of lifestyle, when we’re trained to believe that we’ll be denied the fullness of life in going into the “hinterland,” we hesitate, we hyperventilate, we are reluctant “to catch on.”

Whether it’s Mr. Pirsig or Joseph Campbell or Pema Chodron I find myself attracted these days to philosophers and societal observers. Inevitably their words bring new insights and new ways to process and evaluate.

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There will be judgment about why we’re not parents. There will be misunderstandings about the path we’re on. There will be condescension. There may even be pity or jealousy.  Each of us must find our own truth, and when we do there’s peace. As Mr. Pirsig writes:

The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.

I observed how much quieter and at peace my heart and head have become as I sat through a documentary screening about breakthroughs in science at work earlier this week. In the film, a woman speaks calmly about the day she was diagnosed with cancer. When she went on to say that the doctors informed her she had at best 18 months to live, my colleagues in the room visibly shuddered as did I. She tightened her jaw and explained that after much crying she decided to fight. Smiles appeared around the room and you could almost feel the commitment to do the same from everyone in their seats. Then the emotional separation occurred. I found myself on an island — don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice island, but an island nonetheless.

“I had to fight,” the woman said, “for my children. I wanted to be there for their first day of kindergarten, their first soccer or baseball games, their first puppy love, their graduation day…”

The room almost collapsed into tears as the parents surrounding me empathized so hard they gasped.

Years ago such a collective bonding of parental concern and devotion to living only for their children would have launched me into lunar orbit. Instead, I found myself wondering how the room would have reacted if this woman had said her desire to fight came from the motivation to fulfill longstanding dreams, to contribute her talents to society, and to be a good person who made the world a better place. She did all of the above in starting a foundation and working to advance a cure for a rare form of cancer. But what everyone focused on was that she has been able to live to see her two children into high school.

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I was able to see and value the woman in the documentary as more than a mother, unlike my colleagues around me. Not only was I in a state of “zen-like” peace in that moment, I was seeing life in 3D. Too often we’re conditioned to see or experience life only in one way. Whether it’s the zen of motorcycle maintenance or cancer or infertility we have within us the capacity to reach into new dimensions.

So among my 2011 resolutions is to further embrace Mr Pirsig’s philosophy:

Which of your engines is overdue for maintenance?

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14 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Living After Infertility

  1. “There will be judgment about why we’re not parents. There will be misunderstandings about the path we’re on. There will be condescension. There may even be pity or jealousy. Each of us must find our own truth, and when we do there’s peace.”

    As the Christmas newsletters, and photos (and a birth announcement) started arriving in the mail a few days ago, I’ve been trying to make peace with where DH and I are with infertility at the moment. All too often I feel like DH and I are on an island as I read the letters detailing lives that are foreign to us. I really needed to read this today. Thanks.

  2. Mali

    I have to say that I’m more at peace now, having been through infertility, than I ever was before I tried to conceive. I know more about myself, about what I value in life, about what’s important to me and others, about why I want to live. Before I was probably like others – living the way we were supposed to live, and never questioning it, seeing it through one lens only. I’m glad I can see it differently now. And at times I pity those frazzled parents, who haven’t had time to stop and think in the way I have been able to.

    Obviously you’re way ahead of me. Great post.

  3. This post hit home for me in several ways. A childless aunt of mine, whom I emulate in many ways, just lost her husband of 50 years. I grew up listening to my mother trash her two childless sisters for being “ladies of leisure,” for having adoring husbands, for having freedom and interests. Since my aunt was widowed (less than two weeks ago) she’s been talking (understandably) about the past, about the special memories, and circulating pictures of the time when they met in Paris, where my aunt was modeling and studying for her PhD and her 15 years older husband was a senior military officer. Their childless lifestyle was intentional. “She got to do whatever she wanted!” My mother (of four) fumed. I said, “Well, you did what you wanted, didn’t you?” At almost 80, my aunt is just as youthful and curious in attitude as she was as an adventurous young woman. I love looking at the photos of that glamorous couple dressed up for a state dinner. My mother thinks it’s vain to send them around. I guess, to her, my aunt remembering and celebrating the life she and her husband created is as annoying as kid Christmas cards are for so many of us.

    I guess my moral is — we can all prefer the metropolitan or the hinterland — but we don’t have to judge or disparage either.

    Another thought: about this time last year I had a cancer scare. During the three weeks when I awaited results, my husband and I took a weekend in New York, where we lived for twenty years. I remember sitting at a cafe outside on a very late Indian summer day, and thinking with the same passion as that woman in the film — being in New York again intensified my feelings of loving life in all its variety. I cherish my life. I don’t think I have to write the world’s greatest novel or do some idealistic feat to earn my place on this planet.

    A third thought. Elizabeth Edwards passed last week. She happens to be the sister of a friend. As we all know, she used advanced fertility treatments and gave birth at ages 48 and 51. She had such an overpowering desire to replace the teen aged son lost to a car crash, she may have put her own health at risk by elevating estrogen in a menopausal body already at heightened risk for cancer. No one wants to talk about the risks of giving birth at such a late age. I wonder if she’d bypassed that urge to do it again, if she might not still be alive. I know this is a discussion that raises hackles in the infertility community, but my cancer scare last year involved the body parts manipulated by artificial hormones. I was really mad at myself for taking advantage of technology, just because it was there and I was able to scrounge insurance coverage for it.

  4. Pamela

    Funny isn’t it how one woman’s vanity is another woman’s joy?

  5. Pamela

    Thanks, Mali. Like you, I very much value the dimensions and nuance I see now…

  6. Kim

    “The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”

    What an elementary truth, and a great action plan to take into the New Year.

    It’s sad to go through life chasing what society says will make you happy and fulfilled and you miss the happiness that is right there in front of you.

    My mom, who is 85 years old, spent a majority of her time worrying about the physical welfare of her children (I have two older sisters that had some health problems growing up) and missed a whole lot of living in the process. She now has dementia and being with her can be heartbreaking.

    She was a retail store manager prior to giving birth and staying home, traveled around the States as a young woman and was part of the “Greatest Generation” that endured the Great Depression and WWII.

    When my sisters started getting sick, it was as if she lost herself in the process of caring for them. If you fast forward almost thirty years….both are reasonably healthy and happy, living in different states with their families; all that worrying accomplished little.

    Since I was quite a bit younger than my sisters, I was often the tag-a-long while she cared for them, especially after my Dad passed. During this time I grew up, went to school, got married, endured infertility, and found out a lot about who I was. Unfortunately, Mom, who had that singular focus, missed out on getting to know me as a person, as I did her. As long as I was physically ok….that was good enough for her. And now that we are all grown and fine, the dementia has stolen our relationship.

    Where is it written that parents have to lose themselves (sometimes, at the core) in order to be good parents?

    While being there for the milestones are great. It’s just as important to remember who you are, too, and be that person. And your life is about more than just your children.

    Christina – I had the same thought about Elizabeth Edwards and the advanced treatments she received in order to give birth that late in life.
    It’s just another sobering reminder for women to get ALL the facts regarding fertility treatment.

    Kim

  7. Delia

    Wonderful post, Pamela. And on my birthday, no less!

    “The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”

    I think this will have to be one motto for the new year.

    I also agree that the experience of infertility has given me the ability to look at people in more than one dimension. I never assume people are defined by a spouse or children. When I meet people for the first time, I always ask about who they are, and they can tell me how they define themselves.

  8. Pamela

    A very happy (belated) birthday! The beauty of reinvention is that we get to become the women we want to be and the see world through new eyes. We’re all on this new path together and have much to learn about ourselves and each other.

  9. Bea

    Nice post. And a good point made by Mr Pirsig. And well applied by you.

    Society does sometimes forget that there are other, valid pursuits.

    Bea

  10. Marci

    This is wonderful insight you had in viewing the woman in the film as “more than” a mother. I am learning how the experience of non-parenthood can have the impact of widening our perspective by allowing us to view ourselves as more than our roles.

  11. Hi Pamela! My husband has read this book and said it was eye-opening, so it is on my list to read. Your book is also on that list. I have it on my virtual bookshelf on my blog and I just started a giveaway letting my readers pick a book they have wanted to read. A few have picked your book which has intrigued me even more.
    I am also writing you because I just finished my own memoir on my infertility experience (of primary and secondary infertility) and have been searching for an agent. I was curious to know if you had any recomendations that you can e-mail me.
    Thanks so much in advance! I look forward to reading your story!

  12. Tanya

    Hi Pamela – I am currently at the divide of the two paths. My fertility journey has not yet resolved itself either way but I want to be able to imagine my life without children and all it could be – so your blog and your life is a true inspiration.

    Infertility has been the hardest thing I have had to live through – I often describe it as having a minor car crash every month – it doesn’t put you out of action but the dents collect and break down the trust in your body and soul.

    Having said that though I am now seeing infertility as a spiritual adventure a chance to heal some life long wounds and learn to love and value myself for me – not for what I do, or my relationship or my looks – but just for me – my essence.

    If I hadn’t gone through this I might never have gone on this adventure. I don’t know how this journey is going to end but I do know that if I become a mother – it will not define my life and if I don’t become a mother – it will not define me life.

  13. Yvonne

    Thanks so much for this post. It is heartfelt and thought provocative. I often find myself “in orbit” during similar situations and am working to overcome this. Its so refreshing to remember that just because I may be surrounded by those who aren’t childfree and who throw all their values on me, I am not alone. Thanks.

  14. shar_j

    I really needed to read this today. After five years of TTC, I ironically find myself ahead of the curve than my DH, who still thinks that it will happen if we try hard enough. I sometimes get a feeling that I am on an island, observing him, waiting for him to come to terms with the possibility that it may, indeed, never happen and we’ll still be fine. These days, I feel a strange detachment from that constantly anxious state of mind, where I was probably a year ago. Although I feel for DH and want to bring him where I am today, I’m sure it’s not possible. He needs to go through the process to be able to completely understand what it means to give it up…
    I’m going to hunt for ‘Zen and the art of…’ right now!

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