I have this ludicrous feeling that what I'm about to say is original and insightful. In fact it's been said to death but somehow it's all finally starting to dawn on me. I'm saying it anyway.
As infertiles, we all know that infertility causes us to lose ourselves. Lose all connection with reality, in many instances. Much as I suspect many would like to distance themselves from me and my uncouth admission of this phenomenon, this is not my suffering that I incurred because - I'm a bad Catholic? I'm not one of the cool bloggers? This is not my story. This is our story.
Sure, we can tell ourselves that we're not psychos who will do unhinged or illegal things to have a baby. But when we joke about just grabbing a shopping cart with a baby in it "by accident," we have to admit that it's funny because...we wouldn't do it. But we can't deny the thought has crossed our minds.
If we're honest with ourselves, we all know that fertility treatment can be so all-consuming that many women keep trying long after the odds become prohibitive. In other words, we do things that are not prudent, that are not healthy, that are not rational, because we've been consumed by the pursuit of a baby: it's not whether I'll have a baby. It's how will I have a baby. Because I'll do anything. Go ahead, deny that that's common. Then look at comments on infertility posts. Ask yourself, "How many times have I read a comment to the effect of, 'I know this is your month!' 'Don't give up!' 'Baby dust!' 'Your miracle will come!'?" You do know what's implied there, don't you? Sure, the impulse is kindness. But the mentality is, this is not about biology, or grace, or statistics. You will have a baby. We all will. We won't even contemplate the alternative. And yet, as one psychologist has said, the ones with the most difficulty living with their reality are those who don’t make a decision - at least, if treatment doesn't end up working out for them.
The "Bitter Infertile" girls discussed this, wisely I thought, on a recent podcast. These two are women still in treatment, one of whom is pregnant, admitting that infertility and treatment can cause us to lose touch with reason, and with ourselves - not a helpful recipe for making decisions about future treatment, let alone about our families. And we've all had to admit it to varying degrees. I've quoted before the blogger who bluntly said, "Infertility is the place where dreams go to die." But that's not the only thing that dies. I think a prolonged experience of infertility and treatment means we lose our grip on who we are - not only our familiar personalities, from friendships to hobbies, but also our fundamental feelings of being loved, of being safe, and of being valuable. I think this experience is much more harmful - more seriously, and more lastingly - than most of us like to admit. But we are staring the evidence in the face.
I feel like I lost so much of myself to infertility.
I don’t even like being around people anymore. . . . I feel like a failure . . . . I have become numb . . . . I don’t think I will ever be the same . . . . The insecurities are bleeding into EVERY part of my life. I feel like I’m losing myself piece by piece day by day . . . . I want a baby, but I miss the woman I used to be. I just don’t know how to become her again . . . . I have lost my faith in God and I didn’t want to. I wanted to believe. I can’t anymore . . . . I don’t even feel like me anymore . . . . I haven’t become a stronger person, more loving or more faithful. I have become something quite the opposite and I don’t see myself getting any better . . . . I hate myself for BEING so hateful . . . . I have to force myself to talk to friends and to pretend I am my old self. I am beginning to think I am losing my mind . . . . TTC has robbed me of the joy and hope of life.
In fact, infertility diagnosis and treatment have been found to cause a six-fold increase in the likelihood of having post-traumatic stress disorder. Before you hit that link, take a guess what percentage of infertility patients the study found to have PTSD symptoms. "Among this group, 75 to 80 percent said they felt upset at reminders of their infertility, such as seeing commercials for baby diapers. Other common symptoms included feeling distant or cut off from people, or feeling irritable. Many also said they felt hopeless, and had changes in their personality."
Sound familiar? Tell me those things aren't serious.
The deranged focus that derives from long-term infertility treatment - which I have dubbed "baby or death" - whispers the lie that a baby will make everything better. And that may be the biggest lie of all. This woman discusses the feelings I have read about from so many bloggers: "once a previously infertile woman conceives, there often remains a sense of fear, anxiety and stress around waiting for the bad news that might come, or waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop." Of course. As those quotes above reflect, and our own experience teaches, infertile women learn to be confident that all good things will be ripped away. Unsurprisingly, depression during pregnancy has been found to be more common in infertile women. It makes no sense if you think of a baby as the solution to all problems IF-related. But it makes a very sound sort of sense if you understand that infertility breaks you. And pregnancy and parenthood are stressors - they just put more weight on the broken spot.
Likewise, you've probably read that post-partum depression is more common in infertile women; apparently, infertile mothers are four times more likely to have emotional problems after the birth of a child. There is also some correlation between infertility and developing PTSD after a subsequent pregnancy (I suspect more will be learned about this in the next few years). Our own "pookiedoo" describes the experience of post-partum depression after infertility, and the guilt it engenders in a mother who believes she should just be happy about having her hoped-for baby (or babies, in her case). Something like adding injury to insult to injury. (Pray for her, by the way. She's gone silent.)
Even if the woman chooses adoption the issue of infertility and its associated grief do not go away.
What this says to me is that a woman like me, who has gone through infertility treatment and come out with no baby, needs to go through a period of serious healing before regaining good mental balance, reestablishing healthy social relationships, achieving a sense of hope, rebuilding her faith and relationship with God, repairing harms to her marriage, and regaining some sense of who she is - what she cares about, what her life is about, what she's going to do with herself. This is relatively uncontroversial - anybody would see the ultimately-childless infertile as being in a major "loss" position (in fact, women like me are supposed to be swept under the rug so we don't spook the newbies. "No, no, Sally, that will never happen to you. Please don't worry. The Misfit was bad.").
My experience certainly confirms that much healing is necessary, that fertility treatment shakes the foundations of who we are. Obviously, I haven't had a chance to assess from experience how that is affected by having a baby. But I've done a lot of observing and a lot of cogitating, and I have a hypothesis.
First of all, consider that, infertility aside, motherhood is widely agreed to engender a loss of a sense of self. Someone has even coined the term "Maternal Intrapersonal Anxiety" to describe mothers' loss of a sense of who they are. I can't count the times I've heard stay-at-home moms say that they're forgetting how to have an adult conversation, or lamenting that they've lost touch with their interests. And those are just the stresses of motherhood in general. Caring for a newborn in particular (which is an inescapable phase of at least biological parenthood) is obviously a keen form of psychological abuse, starting with the sleep deprivation. It's generally acknowledged to be extremely stressful. And that's without necessarily adding other factors - infant illness, post-partum depression, pre-existing infertility, older siblings, other life stresses.
In other words, infertility strips your sense of who you are and of the rightness of the world. Parenting will strip away your sense of who you are even if you had one beforehand. And caring for an infant is so stressful it can make healthy women completely disoriented - and unhealthy women (like, for example, infertiles) depressed and traumatized.
Apart from all the gloom and doom, I do have a point here. Unthinkable as my situation may seem to many, I'm beginning to think I have an advantage (and this flash of insight is not original either). While I have to contend with lifelong childlessness, an emotional burden most of you have dodged, I actually have some "head room" to deal with that - and all my other issues, infertility-related or otherwise. Once stepping out of the blinding haze of madly TTC, and with no dependents to mind, life slows down to a hover. Don't get me wrong - I work full time and have a busy social calendar and can't even keep up with my housekeeping and there are a million things I never seem to get to. I'll be bored when I'm dead. But the existential reflection time, once it moves off the frenzied focus on "How can I get this baby?" and "What if I conceived quintuplets and passed up everyone who got married the year I did in one fell swoop and suddenly everything were perfect?" and "Am I defective as a woman?" and "How am I going to survive Christmas like this for the rest of my life?" and "Why would God let this happen to me?"...eventually gets around to, "How angry am I with God?" and "How much has my prayer life changed without me realizing it?" and "How many friends do I still have left?" and "What kind of new friends would I like to have?" and "What work does my marriage need?" and "What kind of life would I find truly fulfilling?" and "Where are the broken places in myself I need to fix?"
These are precisely the kinds of questions (well, most of them) that the typical parenting article (you know, the kind that's totally oblivious to the fact that infertility exist) notes that mothers need, but never have time for.
I am not claiming, of course, that the permanently childless have a monopoly on this kind of reflection and healing. Indeed, some of our wiser bloggers have been here before me: it can be done after infertility, but before parenting. In fact, if the parenting is going to happen, it's pretty well essential. I understand that a lot of adoption agencies emphasize that for their clients - "Have you taken the time to mourn the possibility of a biological child?" - but I think there might even be more to it than that: have you taken the time to mourn the loss of yourself, and to find yourself again, and be a whole enough person to add to your burdens this new and very needy person. And, perhaps more importantly, I don't think it's only adoptive parents who need to take this step. I reemphasize my point above: all our understanding of the human experience allows us to deduce, and all my observations corroborate, that a baby does not cure the psychological ills created by infertility. If anything, it is likely to make them worse. A baby may have enormous symbolic value for infertile women, but we can't lose sight of the fact that what a baby is is a highly-dependent human being, vulnerable to serious harm. (And I'm not talking about that "am I a good enough mother because I let me kid have sugar" bull$&!%. I believe it goes without saying that I do not find that interesting.) As the child of two mentally unstable people, I know this harm well, and the many many years it takes to find healing.
That is, the manic pursuit of a baby may be the most dangerous when it is successful - a pitfall that, it seems to me, receives no attention at all, and deserves much.
I think this concern is also borne out by the "infertility amnesia" phenomenon. We are beaten about the head (generally by one another) with the idea that infertility is supposed to "make us stronger" or be something for which we "should be grateful" (I am a lot closer to gratitude for childlessness than fertility treatment, so that tells you what I think of that), or, at minimum, be something that "teaches us compassion." The last is the only one I ever go on about; I'm not a roses and unicorns person, but I hate the idea of paying a heavy price for some lesson and not even learning one. I'm not going to claim that infertility has made my life better; I don't have mental problems that severe. But I genuinely do think that infertility has taught me to see suffering to which I would have been oblivious, and to respond constructively where before I might have stammered platitudes. And nevertheless I am regularly tripped up by another silent suffering around me that I missed.
Given this reflection, I find the frequent behavior of mothers-after-infertility enraging - from heavily-pregnant women leading infertility retreats, to mothers posting on their formerly infertility blogs that their babies are a blessing to the world at large not five years after they've recognized the insanity of someone else (that person not a former infertile) saying the same thing, to new mothers excoriating their former selves (and, by obvious implication, others' current selves) for having the audacity to suffer in their childless days. And that's on top of eleventy million baby pictures and baby stories, taking over the entire infertility blogosphere, not only battering childless women in their former haven, but stripping away all their allies with the same stroke. Forget not becoming more attuned to the sufferings of others; this is pouring salt on a wound you are staring at while the sufferer wails. I ardently hope some form of justice awaits these people - my emotions related to infertility have cooled with time, but not on that point.
Of course, this need for healing opens a new window on the infertility amnesia point. I'm not saying a woman broken by her infertility journey who plunges straight into motherhood, placing further (and possibly unbearable) demands on her un-healed self, has any right whatsoever to take out her suffering on people she ought to know are in no position to be a scratching post. Much pity as she may deserve (and leeway as she might be granted), the people she's hurting deserve more. But perhaps this offers a new frame from which the (few remaining) childless infertiles may regard the infertile-amnesiac momstander: not jealousy, but pity. After all, by the time her oldest is five, we may well be able to count the treatments we've done in the intervening time, and the babies we ought to have had. But in those few years, we may also find something she's unlikely to have for decades: healing.
Thus, as you might expect, my overriding concern is not with the well-being of the next generation (significant though I think that is). It is with us, the generation in which IF has ensured that I will be truly invested. In the final analysis, we do not really need babies (and a knee-jerk objection to that suggestion is probably a serious warning sign). We need to be whole. Fertility clinics do not offer that. The blogosphere pays little attention to that. NaPro does not mention it. But it's the only thing that ultimately matters; the thing that makes any other things we may do possible; the thing that will make us happy without a baby, and the lack of which would make us unhappy with a family of twelve. It's the thing that will allow us to become heroes - as mothers or childless women - in the large and the small things in life; to look back at the end of our lives with joy and peace; and to fit our souls for heaven.
In other words, I'm starting to understand the deeper meaning in the idea that finally helped me quit fertility treatment: I don't have the right to throw away the life God gave me in pursuit of one He never promised.
Which should lead neatly into Part IV: Depo-Provera.