With little fanfare, we suddenly found ourselves suspended in a murky underworld inhabited by the reproductively challenged. Looking for answers, I frantically thrust my arms out into the shadowy abyss and immediately did the one thing that rarely provides the reassurance that one is seeking and almost never quells any confusion – I started Googling. One of the first emotions that had overwhelmed me when we heard the news was not that I may never give birth to a mini-me, but rather anxiety over how my husband Paul was handling the revelation coupled with a fear of what this new reality would do to our relationship.
Infertility is one of those circumstances that can explode a marriage in one fell swoop or slowly erode away at it with insidious precision. Riddled with worry, I typed away at my computer, creating increasingly fatalistic phrases such as, “can’t have baby divorce” and “no kids infertility unfulfilled life.” These searches delivered an avalanche of blogs dedicated to infertility journeys.
The experience of not being able to reproduce naturally is jolting. Reproduction is an evolutionary behavior that has had unrivaled staying power. As our continuously modernizing world evolves, we have shed many routines and behaviors practiced by our ancestors. However, the biological urge to reproduce, and the expectation of what it offers, is something that has never seemed to wane. One does not have to look further than their Facebook feed to see how brutally challenging yet rewarding and life-affirming carrying and raising a child can be.
It’s been over two years since Paul and I started trying to conceive. Several years ago, we had definitely noticed an uptick in our need to nurture, with me reigniting my lifelong love of the cutest, most underrated pets ever, guinea pigs, and Paul maintaining a strict daily bonding schedule with our elderly cats, Frankie and Bo. Other than that, we both refused to be consumed with overzealous planning and anxiety that can occur when a couple is trying to get pregnant. We were like the hippie stoners of the reproductive realm, unhurried, not really stressed, and pretty sure “Everything would work out when it would work out, you know, man.”
When it became clear that things “were not just working out,” I tried to come to grips with our fertility challenges. I clicked and read story after story online. I found that couples were choosing all kinds of paths to feel their way through the shadows. Some were trying various medical procedures, others were adopting, and then there was the deeply pious set – those couples who found comfort in good old- fashioned prayer and impenetrable hope. Although the coping mechanisms varied, all of these stories were bound by an excruciating thread of sadness, disappointment, and devastation.
As I waded through these digital testimonials, I was forced to address our current situation. It was a quiet, deeply private, and lumbering confrontation that existed mainly in my head and in honest, searching conversations with my husband. As we considered our options, certain truths became exceedingly clear – we both were sad and disappointed, but not devastated. We both were open to the options with which we were now presented. We both admitted to each other that we didn’t feel the ache of unfulfillment that so many people say you are destined to experience if you don’t have children. In addition, we both were not caught up with the idea of legacy and an all-consuming desire to extend the family tree.
It was not until two years had passed in our infertility journey when I felt compelled to start writing about the bulging thicket of emotions that had been steeping slowly and silently away in my mind. Initially, when friends and family asked me how I was feeling, I was cagey with them. I was not ready to vocalize the feelings that rolled around continuously in my head because I was still navigating them slowly and cautiously. After the discovery that Paul and I felt similarly about our situation, I was still struggling with my personal and unexpected reaction to infertility as a woman. I was realizing that the most difficult part of this journey for me was not the fact that I may never give birth. Rather, it was the harsh judgement I was placing upon myself for not adhering to ingrained societal conventions and norms surrounding motherhood. I had internalized outdated, traditional beliefs that I would never impress upon another woman.
Inside my entangled web of thought I repeatedly identified a few particularly stubborn threads. The first one was that I felt guilty with quietly feeling OK with the reality that I may never give birth naturally. The second, more nagging one was a question of my identity as a childless woman in her mid-thirties.
My Unexpected Reaction
At one time, the guilt I felt about feeling OK with our infertility reality consumed me daily. My innate reaction both betrayed and confused me. I did not understand why I wasn’t huddled in a corner crying, my ovaries aching to give birth. Why was I not feeling the emptiness that so many women express when they realize they may not be able to have a child naturally? Was I coping by floating around in a fragile bubble of denial? Would it soon pop, delivering me into a blubbering mess of despair, or worse yet, a detached state of permanent ennui? Was I just a selfish asshole, even though I would never make this assumption about other childless women?
I have always loved kids (except when we’re at water parks together). As a teenager, I revelled in being the babysitter that everyone liked, one who would never think of plopping her charges in front of a television set. As I grew older, I was “that girl” who annoyingly cooed at babies in public and naturally threw friends’ kids onto my hip without thinking twice. I ADORE my niece and nephew. I had never been one of those people who scowl cynically at the sight of kiddie updates clogging their Facebook feed, who know with extreme certainty that they are not boarding the baby train.
I blamed myself for not being devastated. For naturally believing that whatever Paul and I decide to do, whether it be adoption, IVF, or not having kids, that we will be OK. That there are other fulfilling ways to nurture and give to others if we never end up having children. In short, I was not OK with feeling OK.
Motherhood as Womanhood
Beyond the guilt and mistrust of my reaction, I suffered from serious self-doubt about my personal identity. For obvious reasons, motherhood and womanhood are inextricably linked. Although it is not a woman’s sole identity, it certainly can feel like it when you find yourself at prime reproductive age. The role of the doting, self-sacrificing mother is one that for right now, I don’t have, and I feel–at times–left out of this shared experience that so many women navigate together. My inner conscious had sneakily metamorphosed into an overbearing mother circa 1950. If I was not married and “creating a family” I was clearly not succeeding at life.
My identity angst was also intensified by the narrow paradigm that is peddled when discussing childless women. A common scenario is that if a woman is not pursuing motherhood, it is because she has decided to invest in a career that prevents her from being able to “have it all.” This is true for many women, but it’s not true for me. I like having a career that fulfills me, but I had tried the stress-inducing, demanding job scenario and realized it’s not what I want. I was not a mother nor was I toiling away at a job that required 60 – 80 hours a week, nevermind “having it all” and balancing both of these things simultaneously. This left me feeling wholly inadequate.
Although I had achieved and was content with a work-life balance that had eluded me for a long time, I judged myself for it, simply because it did not fit neatly into either side of the common paradigm prevalent when discussing women my age. Although I have started to cultivate a self-love for who I am at this moment in my life, it was very difficult for me to initially accept the reality of who that person is – a 35 year-old childless, not overworked, happily married woman who is lucky enough to be able to travel the world. Although this IS a wonderful and incredibly privileged situation to be in, I can still feel somewhat isolated from the majority of women in my age group.
In the flurry of family-starting fever that defines the lives of so many American middle class couples in their thirties, it can be hard to remember that it’s OK to not be on the same trajectory and to be content with it. It can be so easy to forget that the process of self-acceptance invites new and unexpected possibility.
On Being OK with Feeling OK
The silver lining to this entire experience has been the reminder of the strength and resoluteness of the partnership and friendship that Paul and I have built. This journey has been easier because of it. Despite the fact that I can still struggle with self-acceptance, there is not a day that goes by that I don’t feel like the luckiest woman in the world. I have an incredible husband whose enthusiasm for life is infectious.
We share a love and kinship buoyed by honesty, compassion, and positivity. In comparison to a lot of people, we lead charmed lives. After briefly considering IVF, Paul and I both decided it was not right for us. We had plans to eventually settle permanently in New England to be closer to family, but had also been yearning to travel more over the past few years. We realized this was our chance. Over margaritas one night in the spring of 2017, we decided to do what we are best at – not dwell, not obsess over things we can’t control, but instead trust our intuition and commit to steps that felt right for us. This meant simplifying our lives and launching a plan to travel the world for 6 months. I write this as we explore our second destination, Dubai. Raising children, whether it be through adoption or IVF is not out of the picture, but for now we are extremely grateful for the abundance of love, privilege and opportunity that we have right now.