Tuesday, June 11, 2013

been thinkin' - Part I

Always dangerous.  It means, at minimum, endless blog posts.  In this case, I suspect, several. 

When I started this blog - as I believe I've mentioned a few times - I wanted to write something that was about the experience of being infertile - what this life actually means.  As distinct from the process of doing fertility treatment - this is where I am in my cycle; these are my blood test results; here's what I'm planning on doing next month.  I was interested in looking at what kind of life this is, rather than the process of obtaining a baby. 

Of course, I traveled away from that, and I've indulged in as many "HCG shots this month - BFN" posts as any other IFer.  Well...actually, I suspect, fewer than most.  (Maybe I didn't entirely forget my original plan.  Or maybe by the time I started the blog, I was already starting to move from "when" to "if" - at the tender age of 26!)  And then I started to post a lot of things on home decor, which is more or less off at right angles from all other options.  (Though in a way I claim that it's part of the "just being," since it's what I cared about that wasn't IF treatment, and would remain important to me, baby or no baby.) 

But IF, amusing sprite that it is, has brought me back to that "just being" topic in the most decisive way possible: making me one of those childless-post-IF ladies.*  It's just being, or not being.  I choose the former. 

My DH and I just came back from spending nine days traveling around Ireland - a treat so great I wasn't always sure when I woke up in the morning that I was really staring at the shores of County Cork!  That is definitely not something we would have been able to do if we'd had a baby in the last couple of years.  (Of course, we have friends who travel more than we do who have a one-year-old.  And plenty of childless couples won't be so fortunate as to bop over to Europe.  Comparisons don't entirely hold up.  But I know for sure that we wouldn't have made that trip if we had a baby.) 

The leisure time has been extremely welcome - Ireland was stunning, and I think the getaway together was a huge blessing for the two of us.  I can't figure out whether I was taking time off from my job or just from spending all my non-working hours on some home project, or just being away from my regular routine, but it was refreshing.  I got a lot of time to think; or, perhaps, to think less, allowing notions that had been vaguely orbiting my head to settle down into some semblance of order. 

I've spent a bit of time pondering man's original commission and curse from Genesis.  You know the ones - starting with Genesis 1:28, "Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth."  That's the job of humanity - enjoy the blessings God has offered us in creation.  Emulate His creative work in turning this place into a home for mankind, while being a good steward of the things He provided to supply our wants.  After Adam and Eve choose to do the one thing God forbade them to do, they receive the curse that sends them out of Eden - but the curse assumes that the commandment to "fill the earth and subdue it" still applies, only in a disfigured way, following the Fall. 

To Eve, God says, "I will multiply thy sorrows, and thy conceptions: in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children, and thou shalt be under thy husband's power, and he shall have dominion over thee."  And to Adam, "[C]ursed is the earth in thy work; with labour and toil shalt thou eat thereof all the days of thy life."  The curse given Eve is of questionable application to a barren woman; as many bloggers have written before me, an infertile woman would consider it a blessing to experience the discomforts and trials of pregnancy and childbirth.  (Though the linking of "sorrow" and "conception" can hardly be stronger than for infertiles!)  And, similarly, we can't fulfill that first commandment: "Increase and multiply." 

We can, however, "fill the earth, and subdue it" - not in the sense of filling it with people, to be sure, but in the sense of mirroring God's creation in our own endeavors in His honor and in pursuit of our proper nature.  For good or ill, I see my role in the fallen world following Adam's curse, not Eve's: "with labor and toil shalt thout eat" of the earth "all the days of thy life."  In the pre-lapsarian world, the earth yielded good fruit willingly; after man's disobedience tainted all of creation, noxious flora flourish, and the good fruit withers. 

Nowhere is this more apparent than in my garden.  It requires "labor and toil," and "the sweat of thy face," to keep the vegetables alive for even a week.  The weeds constantly creep in.  Apparently thriving plants literally die and vanish overnight.  Even the vigorous grape vine is its own worst enemy - in its quest to take over neighboring shrubs, it has made itself vulnerable to attack by an even more aggressive vine.  The grape leaves only started emerging a few weeks ago, and I just noticed this problem yesterday; and it will take me a dozen hours of hard labor to remedy it, possibly more.  And I don't even eat grapes.  I undertook a herculean effort to clear the lilacs off of the azaleas in the front just a few weeks ago, and yesterday I discovered that the azaleas are now being persecuted by a dozen new invaders. 

The principle of entropy is, in my opinion, far easier to observe on an ordinary suburban plot than in outer space.  I've ripped out weeds and sprayed with regrowth-preventer in the side yard (paved with bricks - well, mostly), and the weeds are coming back anyway.  Even the aggressive spearmint is invaded by ivy.  My strawberries rotted the minute they ripened.  It takes a constant investment of human effort to assert even an unambitious version of order, prevent structures from being damaged by vegetation, keep edible plants alive, and keep out poisonous or thorny species.  And it isn't one of those "a little bit here, a little bit there, you don't even notice it" things.  If I wanted the whole place (all .25 acres!) in good order, I would have to work myself to exhaustion - constantly. 

Nor is this true only of the outdoors.  It would seem that way, but the other week I discovered that the wallpaper I put up on the wall behind our bed (20 hours of work to finish one wall) has been gouged up beyond recognition by a stupid bolt sticking out of our bed frame - I didn't even see the damage happening.  Now I have to rip all the paper off and do it again; or buy half as much paper and rip off the damaged sections and patch them, probably with visible seams; or create some sort of feature with chair rail to make it look as though half the wall is deliberately not papered.  Which might be as expensive and time-consuming as re-hanging the paper.  And all this before I have finished painting trim, hanging curtains, finishing the woodwork in the kitchen, getting the broiler working properly, attaching the kitchen sink faucet tightly.  Even before I've finished, I have to start again; and not with the cosmetic things, but with repairing damage. 

Perhaps because I'm 31 now, not old and wearing out, but past the freshest bloom of youth, I've started thinking about my own mortality - not about my death, but about what it means to live a life limited in time.  I had the sobering thought that for two largely wasted decades, I used my strength and energy to cause work for other people - messing up my room, dirtying clothes, requiring meals and supervision.  For the next two to four decades (depending on my health), I will be pouring out considerable amounts of energy and whatever strength I have (less considerable) into increasing the order and beauty in the world around me.  In my early 20s, this campaign was poorly organized; I was a fairly hopeless housekeeper and didn't give a thought to things like growing food.  Or even buying decent ingredients.  I did, however, get myself another degree, make a start in the working world, do a bunch of sewing, and make strides in teaching myself to cook. 

I've now become more ambitious; I'd like to cook really well, keep my home cleaned properly (and consistently enough that I can entertain on little notice with no major cleaning project - this has been difficult to manage around my various projects, but it's something I'd like to achieve), make it beautiful to look at and comfortable and useful to those in it, and restore and respect the historic qualities of the house.  I'd like to be able to keep my yard in well-groomed order, grow beautiful flowers outside and bring them inside, and grow the vegetables I'll need for the summer and enough herbs to last me through the year.  I anticipate that in the next ten years we'll live in a different house, and I dearly hope that one will be historic, too; and there will come a renewed set of responsibilities for repairing and maintaining old things, understanding how they are made and cared for, learning to create timeless beauty and discipline myself not to follow trends in an older space, learning how to manage the land, and balance all of that with my other responsibilities - work, family, faith life, friendships, housekeeping, exercise. 

In other words, by the sweat of my brow, with labor and toil, I'll manage the earth, and the structures on it; I'll work, against the never-ending onslaught of disorder and breakdown, to make beautiful the things I have created in imitation of God's creation, and the creations of men, others' imitations of God, that I've been entrusted to maintain. 

And then, in the next several decades of my life (if I am granted so many), my strength will fade.  Far from being able to work myself to exhaustion day after day after day and accomplish the improbable, the scope of my efforts will narrow to bare maintenance - repairing a few small things.  Then, I will be limited to the housekeeping - and probably will be employing different methods than I use now, ones that involve fewer stairs, or less heavy lifting.  By this time, I will likely be the steward of a home that will turn into the place that fixers like the now-me want to buy - slowly neglected, with value falling off its eventual asking price, looking for someone young and healthy and strong to restore it.  And ultimately I will not even be able to take care of myself; whatever money I've been able to save from my working years will go to paying someone else to take care of first my things and then me.  I will no longer be in the creating-beauty-and-order-at-the-cost-of-exhaustion business - I will be in the survival business.  And eventually, that business too will come to an end. 

Obviously, this could fairly be read as depressing.  But that's not really where I'm going.  At one point, I figured, "All right, if I don't have a baby to blog about, I will blog about my decor notions!  At least that's something I'm interested in, and not an endless series of un-pregnancy laments."  And then at some later point, I thought defiantly to myself, "Well, some people will leave a legacy of children and family - you know, the normal thing to do.  But maybe I'll preserve a century-old house such that it can survive another century well enough for someone else to come along and do what I'm doing, 100 years from now."  I do defiance with the best of them, but eventually the anger cools, or exhausts you, and the defiance sort of deflates under its own weight.  It doesn't work as a long-term policy.  And even I have to admit that it's a little ridiculous, pretending that a house is a baby. 

But I was looking at it entirely the wrong way about.  The house doesn't have to be a baby.  It doesn't even have to be a substitute for a baby.  Likewise, what else I do with my life doesn't have to be a substitute for motherhood.  My value as a person, and the worth of my undertakings, aren't measured up agains the yardstick of maternity and child-rearing.  The yardstick is value in the absolute sense: what makes a good life?  What is a useful purpose for a life spent on this earth?  And the commission in Genesis offers the answer: increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it.  Thus, bearing children would be a valuable undertaking; but not the only one.  I can't multiply, as it happens.  But I can work on the care and use of created things, and the subduing of the earth. 

I can take care of my house, because it's something beautiful, and beauty is to be preserved; because beautiful things give glory to God, Whose creation supplies us with our primary understanding of what beauty is; and because participating in the work of creation and preservation is participation in the divine work, even as participation in the creation of new life is.  And this work is worth sacrificing my time and energy and strength - a measurable fraction of a finite store of life - because it is valuable.  It would even be worth sacrificing more.  This Old House recognized a woman in its "moxie awards" this year who impaled her leg on a tiller during her restoration of a historic barn: "Caroline stands by her priorities.  'I have a limp,' she says.  'But I also have a beautiful barn.'"  This woman is radically sane.  It's nonsense to suppose that we'll be young forever, or healthy forever; some day, we'll all have a limp - if we're lucky.  But we could get that limp without ever pouring out our strength to achieve something valuable.  I've thrown away years of being fit and hormonally stable, and (what was left of) the health of my reproductive system, in an effort to have a child - which will never happen.  The least I can do now is to devote my health and strength to something worth doing that will happen. 

Frightening though it is, this endless post is only the beginning of my musings in this direction.  (You think I am kidding.)  Next post, Part II: Ireland.  (Prepare for lots of pictures - zero babies.) 

*Granted, I made the decision about when to stop treatment.  I see that as a good thing - not only because I think I picked the right time, but because being able to choose the time is itself a blessing.  I'm confident that more treatments wouldn't change the outcome, just give over more of my life to needless misery. 


  1. Funny timing on this post. I woke up this morning after a rough week with el kiddo being sick and thought to myself... "does it make me a bad parent to be able to say that I think life would have been just as fulfilled without children?" Of course I love my kid and it's not a thought driven by regret, but honestly...I can see that the grass is pretty darn green without kids, too. Travel, relaxation, hobbies, volunteer work...so many great things that would be fun to pursue that are either vanquished or made significantly more difficult by kids.

  2. Oh honey. This is why I love reading your blog and have for the last several years. It isn't just about the medical treatment. Don't get me wrong, posts on other blogs helped me navigate my own treatment, but you have a wide scope and I love that. Thank you. I love this post so much because it acknowledges worth of whatever life God gives you (or allows to happen to you). You are doing exactly what God wants you to do- you are using your life to give Him glory. And, that is worth everything! Can't wait to see the follow up posts- with zero babies.

  3. I haven't been able to read blogs much lately, but I'm so glad I read this post because I love it!!! Yes, it truly IS about the question, what makes a good life and what is a useful purpose. There is no one uniform right path for everyone...the most beautiful way to live is to live out God's unique will for each of us. Beautiful post. Just beautiful. :)

  4. Your blog always provides so much food for thought. Love the makeover too!