On Sisterhood, Healing and Dreaming Big

You don’t often witness those who did (or did not) go on to parent after infertility openly discuss — and I mean with real names not aliases — how infertility impacted their lives.

We’re at a pivotal time, in particular, within the tribe of women who faced situational or physical childlessness coming forward with books, PhD dissertations, events, virtual lunches, video chats. Our star is rising. Our stories are being heard.

I’m pleased today to share not one but two conversations. The first a Q&A, a video chat, among Women Without Children took place recently hosted by Lisa Manterfield. You can tune in to listen or watch here.

Also new to the scene and willing to share her thoughts is a former AP reporter, Nancy Shulins. When she described herself in an email as “a fellow sorority sister and former infertility patient with no human children to show for it,” I was intrigued.

Turns out her story of infertility healing includes an unlikely companion — a 6-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred. You can learn more in her recently published book, Falling For Eli: How I Lost Heart, Then Gained Hope Through the Love of a Singular Horse.

She agreed to share more about her experience. Here’s our recent online conversation:

Pamela: You’ve been a writer all your life. What was different about writing Falling for Eli?

Nancy: What was different about Falling For Eli was the pace at which I wrote it, and the pleasure I felt as I wrote. More than anything I’ve ever done, this book really came from my gut and my heart. I’ve never been a very fast writer, and my inner critic invariably ran the show. Not this time. The story was much more accessible and as a result, I was able to get it down without the usual second-guessing.

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Pamela: Your life today is much different than you imagined in your 30s/40s. Knowing what you know now, what would you tell your younger self (the one surrounded by baby carriages in suburban Connecticut)?

Nancy: If I could, I would take my younger self by the hand and tell myself to stop hiding in my house, but rather to seek common ground with the women I was trying so hard to avoid. When I finally managed to do that, my life began to improve immeasurably. I felt more understood, less alone, and better able to cope. I’d also tell myself not to take other people’s pregnancies and babies so personally, as though every one of them diminished my chances. Instead, I would seek out and accept the support of other women, including women with children.

Pamela: Your story is about healing in the wake of loss. What lessons can you share with women who are in the early stages of miscarriage/infertility recovery?

Nancy: There was a time when I couldn’t imagine ending my treatment and going forward in my life without kids, when the thought of doing so was overwhelming. I felt such unbearable emptiness. Clearly, I wasn’t ready to stop. But as time went on, slowly and gradually, I began to see that there could come a day when I could stop trying to have children without falling apart.

Barring some medical reason that necessitates stopping, I think women should if at all possible to keep control over that decision, to choose for themselves when to stop. In the meantime, I’d recommend that they start to know just a little that there will come a day when it’s okay. Once they get there, they’ll be in a much better position to determine how they want their lives to look.

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For me, the key to going forward was finding something to nurture, and realizing that nurturing can take many forms. A horse, a dog, a book, a dream, a business, a garden, a home. Whatever it is, when you’re ready, you’ll figure it out. It’s a huge leap of faith to let go of the baby dream without knowing how to fill the hole it leaves. But sometimes you have to let go of one dream in order to reach for another.

Pamela: What attributes of Eli and the other animals in your life do you wish you’d see more of in humans?

Nancy: Joy. Honesty. Playfulness. Curiosity. The ability to live in the moment. The willingness to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve, to love unfettered without fear of the consequences.

Pamela: Do you think you’d be as comfortable today discussing loss and healing without writing this book? Why or why not?

Nancy: The book helped me work through some of my own unresolved feelings about healing and loss. As a result, I can discuss both with greater understanding and conviction than I could have prior to writing the book. I would’ve been okay talking about it before, but I don’t know how helpful I could’ve been. Now, for having steeped in these feelings awhile, I can honestly say that I know what I know. I can juxtapose my younger self with the self I am now, and be reasonably happy with where I’m at and how I got here.

Pamela: If my math adds up from reading your book, you’ll be 58 this year. I’m 48. I can’t help but think that younger women look at us as, well, grand dames. Is there anything you’d like to address about this stage of your life that might be helpful for those younger than us?

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Nancy: As everyone already knows, the 58 of today is a far cry from what it was in our mothers’ time. The better you know yourself, the better life gets. Being comfortable in your own skin, another concept we’ve all come to know, really does count for a lot. So does having lived through hard times and having weathered disappointments.

Somewhere along the line, we stop caring quite so much about what others think of us. It’s liberating in that it makes us less afraid of failure, and therefore more willing to take chances in life. As the author Neale Donald Walsch once said,

Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.

I agree. And I’m far more comfortable leaving my comfort zone at 58 than I ever was at 38. The truth is, I like it out here.

Pamela: Thanks, Nancy! I do, too. And now a question for blog readers: what new dreams are you nurturing?

Nancy Shulins was the first woman special correspondent in the more than 150-year history of The Associated Press. Her in-depth features for AP earned two Pulitzer Prize nominations and a Clarion award, and are included in numerous anthologies and textbooks. Shulins has taught writing and coached other writers at newspapers from coast to coast. She is the author of two books, Every Day I Love You More (Just Not Today), and Come to the Table. She lives in Norwalk, CT, with her husband, a consultant.