Of Milestones and Healing

This blog has not died, it’s just been in some serious hibernation mode! Once again I find myself in the familiar place of having several blog posts half written in my head and not enough time to sit down and compose my thoughts in an orderly enough manner to post online.

While my own infertility struggle has been resolved, infertility continues to be part of my life through involvement in online infertility communities (particularly twitter), my volunteer role with an infertility charity, and of course by seeing the toll it continues to take on people I know who still walk this difficult path.

My own healing process is also ongoing as I continue to gain (often surprising and unexpected) insight into my own experience with infertility, even from my current privileged vantage point. I am a numbers person –  numbers are a natural way for me to make sense of the world – and infertility lends itself well to being reduced to a numerical shorthand. Anyone versed in this shorthand can understand notations such as: TTC 32 months, 4 IUI’s, 2 IVF’s, 3 mc’s (just an example, not my story). But at its most basic, the weight of another month or year passing with seemingly no end in sight is an experience that those facing infertility can relate to.

While I thought that my infertility story had been written, I am surprised to find myself facing yet another milestone. My husband and I first started trying for  baby in June 2008. I got pregnant with my first son in September 2011, or after 3 years and 3 months of trying to conceive. Now, in a few weeks, it will be 3 years and 3 months since that beautiful little embryo first snuggled into my uterine lining to become a part of my life forever. In other words, the amount of time that has passed since I conceived my first son will soon be longer than the amount of time that it took to conceive him.

Over the last 3 years and 3 months the process of shedding the psychic weight of infertility has been gradual, and like any weight shedding exercise, filled with periods of sudden weight loss, followed by plateaus, and continuing slow and steady drops. After giving birth to my second healthy son, I thought that I was finally done.

However, I now find myself with pent up anticipation of welcoming this new milestone. I remember back in my dating days, that once a relationship ended, I felt like I could only have true closure once enough time had passed to cancel out the effects of the time spent in the relationship. I now look forward to taking this next step in my relationship with infertility.

Perpetuating the Infertility Taboo

As I mentioned in a recent post, I will soon take on a more public and impactful role in the wider infertility community through volunteer efforts with an organization whose mission  is focused on infertility awareness, support and advocacy.

Outwardly, my volunteer efforts will focus on helping other people who are experiencing infertility, however, my motivation for taking on this role is not  purely altruistic. Aside from all of the usual benefits that people get from volunteering their time, I am hoping that this more public role will force me out of my comfort zone and get me talking more about infertility, and my own experience with it in my day to day life.

While living with infertility, I did not like to share many details about what was going on with friends and family. I was always honest when people asked if I wanted kids, and would freely share that we were trying, but that was usually the extent of it. As I have written in earlier posts on this blog, the reluctance to share many details extended even to other people in my social circle who were also experiencing infertility (though in this case, the reasons for not wanting to share were much more complex).

The sad thing is that I think at the time, my instincts were correct, and I was emotionally better off by not sharing. Even now, when I am sharing my experiences with others who are in the midst of their own infertility struggles, if the topic of being more open with their broader social circle comes up, I generally advise that the less said the better. Instead, I give them ideas of how they can connect with other people also experiencing infertility, or steps they can take to protect their emotions from the repeated painful reminders that being infertile in a fertile world can bring.

Unfortunately, infertility remains one of the last taboos. Probably the closest analogy I can think of is the perception of mental illness, yet I think even mental illness has come a long way in the last ten to twenty years in terms of public awareness, and acceptance of the mentally ill.

All of these factors lead to a vicious cycle: the general public has many misconceptions about infertility; as a result, infertiles who choose to share their struggles find themselves facing ill timed or intrusive questions, or receiving unsolicited advice from caring friends and family who are trying to be supportive (not to mention much worse from others who may not be as well meaning); leading to infertiles deciding they are safer to keep quiet about their struggles; resulting in an uninformed public and the continuing taboo.

There is the odd person who has the emotional and mental make-up to take on the role of advocate while in the midst of their own struggles, however for most people, I think it is more realistic to advocate once their own infertility is resolved (however that resolution may happen). Therefore, I strongly believe that in order to break the vicious cycle, and properly educate the public about infertility, it is up to those (like myself) whose emotional resources are no longer drained by infertility.

And yet, despite promising myself that once I had Baby Boy I would be more open about what we went through and share my experiences with friends and strangers alike, to date I  think I have failed miserably. The reasons for this failure are many.

I am generally at peace with my own experience with infertility. Yes (as I explained in a recent post), the scars are there, but they are just that – scars. Infertility is no longer a gaping, weeping wound, nor even a fresh scab that can easily be picked to bleed again. It depends on the day, but I would guess that it has an impact of 5% to 10% of what it used to (and much of this is actually due to the positive after effects of infertility, which I also described in the aforementioned post). Therefore, I think I am in an excellent position to advocate and share my story every chance I get.

However, the reality is very different. When I do bring my experiences up in conversation, I tend to keep it vague – I say that “it took us a long time”, or maybe (the odd, odd time), I admit to doing “fertility treatments”. And while I wish that I took every available opportunity to share even this amount of information, I usually only bring this up when I suspect that the person in front of me may also have experienced (or be currently experiencing) infertility. And when I share even these fairly neutral statements (from behind my current shield of motherhood, and growing pregnancy belly no less!), my stomach is clenched and my heart is racing, and I feel completely naked and exposed.

Therefore,  I completely understand why infertility remains a taboo topic, because despite my best efforts so far I have not been very successful in doing my small part to change things. I am looking forward to what I hope will be growth and healing as I take on my new role, and slowly, step by step become the advocate I’d always hoped I could be.

Crossing the Great Divide

This is another post that I wrote on my other blog, however as much of it deals with the experience of infertility, I thought it may be of interest on here as well.

Baby Boy turned one recently, which means that it’s been just over a year since I became a mother. There is an argument to be made that I was already a mother to the babies that started developing in my womb but did not make it, or to the embryoes created during our IVF, but in this post I want to focus on motherhood in the traditionally understood sense of the word: a woman with a child. As someone who struggled with infertility before becoming a parent, it has been interesting for me to explore over the last year to what extent my experience of infertility impacts my identity as a parent, and vice versa.

While we were trying to conceive, as the months and then the years passed by, I found myself detach more and more from the world around me. The experience of infertility is very isolating, and sometimes it felt like every day brought fresh reminders of how different our reality was from that of our friends, colleagues, and society in general.

When you are first trying to conceive, the initial months are unremarkable: you have sex at the “right time of month”; you read the first chapter of pregnancy books to make sure you’re doing all the right things to conceive; you imagine how your life will change when you have a baby; and then you wait to see if your period will arrive on schedule or not. It is very easy to find community and common ground with friends and strangers alike when you are in this stage.

As the months go by, you start to get discouraged, but it still feels like pregnancy is just around the corner. You did not get pregnant the first month trying, or even the second or third, but your experience continues to be unremarkable. At some point though (and this point is different for everyone), you start to notice a divide between your experience and what you have read or heard about. As you go further and further down the road, the divide becomes greater. Key events that signify that your experience is no longer “normal” may  include trying for over a year (and realizing you are now considered infertile), experiencing pregnancy loss, and the initial visit to a fertility clinic. Suddenly, you realize that you do not know anyone who shares these experiences (or maybe you do, but they have kept their struggles to themselves).

Realizing that you have to rely on a fertility clinic to help you conceive is a difficult thing to deal with, as is having to go through the testing and investigations required to narrow down what the problem is, and once identified, learning to accept the problem. Lying in bed after having sex, as you think of baby names for your likely newly conceived baby is a distant memory. There is another divide once you start fertility treatment, and then a further one when you move on to IVF, with each step leading to further isolation and loneliness as your story becomes more and more removed from the typical narrative (there are further divides, but I will stop there, because that is where my experience stops).

Once you become pregnant, the struggles do not stop. You are now part of a sisterhood that you have been yearning to join, and you are closer than ever to achieving what has often felt like a distant dream.  But, even though you are ridiculously happy, the divide is still there. While from the outside you look like any other pregnant woman, as soon as you speak to other pregnant women, or parents of young children, you are reminded of how different you still are. While they are complaining of the normal pregnancy aches and pains, you are terrified that there is something wrong with your baby, and are closely watching for pregnancy complications that could impact your baby’s health. You cannot relate to the experiences described on pregnancy websites.  Even though you are pregnant, you are still infertile.

And then you give birth to a healthy baby. You take your baby home, and your new concerns become feeding your baby, sleep (theirs and yours), and making sure baby is reaching their developmental milestones. You learn about teething, fevers in babies and starting solids. Perhaps you struggle with going back to work, and how to find childcare for when you do.

You find community with other new parents and find that they have all the same concerns. It does not matter how their babies got there; you are all in the same boat now. Sometimes you think you love your baby more because of how much you fought to bring them into the world, but then you see how they look at their babies, and how tenderly they hold them and you realize that they love their babies just as much.

And this is where I find myself today. I am first and foremost a parent. Whether I am talking to my friends who also had babies in the past year (without the experience of infertility), or whether I am reading my twitter feed filled with tweets from women parenting after infertility, the concerns are the same. We all want what’s best for our babies.

When politicians speak of family friendly policies, they are now speaking to me. At work, or at social gatherings, I can finally contribute to the conversations about the joys and challenges of having children. The huge weight that was on my shoulders has been lifted. The feelings of isolation, of “otherness”, of feeling different are gone. I have crossed the great divide.