Last night I called Aunt #3 (I have four aunts on my mom's side - big Irish family, you know...) for an update on my grandmother, who appears to be dying (she has rallied but is not expected to go home from the hospital). After updates on my grandmother and my mother (in great physical health and under care to work on her mental health as well - apparently with some progress lately), Aunt #3 said something or other a second time about how I would be such a good mother after having dealt with all this insanity as a child. I felt two comments required a response, so I said, "Well, that probably won't happen," and she responded with the obligatory, "Well, you're so young," and I felt it necessary to point out that after five years and lots of doctors, "young" didn't mean a lot and the odds were just plain low.
I know that this aunt has one child (from her second marriage), and if I do the math...I guess she had my cousin when she was 39? Maybe 37? So I thought there might well be a story there, and after I explained (in a decently successful attempt at brevity) my diagnoses and treatment so far, I actually did hear the story.
My Aunt E was married fairly young; we'll call her first husband Sam. When she married Sam (as I learned for the first time last night), she already knew he had testicular cancer. I'm not sure whether it was in remission at the time they married, but she knew it was impossible for him ever to have children. She married him knowing that he was all the family she would get, and she was happy with that because she loved him. But the cancer killed him after they had been married only a few years. In her thirties, she married my uncle - we'll call him Jim. It turns out they had a lot of trouble having children too. They had tried all the treatments and whatnot - she decided that IVF and ART were not for her, but she had been seeing a doctor - and they eventually decided to go with adoption. At that point, the pursuit of children had effectively taken over their marriage.
She said that in their entire marriage, she has seen him cry only twice. And the second time was then - they were going through the adoption process, and he finally broke down and told her, "I can't do this. I'm not going to court some eighteen-year-old for her baby." She thought about it, and she realized that her whole life had become about having children. It was driving them apart; and she realized she was jeopardizing her marriage. She concluded that being married to him was all that mattered. They decided that they would spend the rest of their marriage with just the two of them, and they found that they were really happy. Not long after that, she found out that in an effective medical miracle, she was pregnant with my cousin, but was never able to have another child.
She told me that - of course - she loves my cousin. But she said, with a conviction I couldn't possibly dispute, that she would have been just as happy if she and my uncle had never been able to have children. "You can have a happy life even if you never have kids," she said. I think it's easy to say once you get your baby that childlessness wasn't, in retrospect, so bad. But I think it's different to say as someone who truly accepted - happily - the idea of living childless, who had really embraced that life. And it's also different to say it as a 59-year-old, looking back on decades of marriage, and appreciating your child, but really understanding what it would have meant to have your whole marriage without her, and knowing what it means to say that you could have been happy either way.
I'm not saying that I understand how she feels, because I honestly can't look at my life right now and say that I will be perfectly happy if I can never have children. Maybe it's true, and I hope it's true and I come to understand it soon; but right now I can't see it. But talking to her, I believed her. I don't believe she's deceiving herself, and I don't believe she was lying, or embellishing, or sugar-coating, or...well, she's just not that type. And I can't dispute the wisdom of someone who has been there, plus a generation, and gotten to look back on the whole thing.
So there you are...for what it's worth.