Thursday, November 20, 2014

Recent reading

A couple of interesting recent articles that I thought were worth sharing:

*  "No, you don't have to "move on." It's okay to grieve forever." (Washington Post)  Love, love, love this essay, written by a PhD student who lost her little brother when she was 5. Sample passage:
Like many therapists, I get a lot of people who come through the door thinking there’s something wrong with them because they’re feeling the loss of someone who has died, left or disappeared long ago. Often they ask me why they still sometimes cry.  
Sometimes I ask them to tell me why they think they shouldn’t still be sad. And most of the time we come to the conclusion they’re in my office so I can somehow put a cork in it for them so they can stop upsetting their families and the rest of the world.
Isn't that so often the case?

*  "The Science of Suffering" (New Republic)  Fascinating study of post-traumatic stress disorder and how it affects entire generations of families and cultures (Cambodians, Jewish Holocaust survivors, Native Americans...) -- and may, in fact, become hardwired into our DNA.  Coping mechanisms and treatment are also discussed, including whether it's better to remember or forget/supress memory.

*  "Tim Cook brought uncles and aunts into the limelight" (SFGate via Gateway Women) Not only did the Microsoft CEO recently come out of the closet as a gay man, in the same article, he also proudly and prominently identified himself as an uncle -- a role too often neglected when it comes to discussions about families.

"By putting “uncle” up high, he outed a huge group of us who are unduly proud of our roles as uncle or aunt, an accomplishment rarely noted by famous people," writer Tori Ritchie notes.
...aunt- and uncle-hood classically has been portrayed as a byproduct of suspicious childlessness, as in eccentric Auntie Mame or foppish Uncle Arthur on “Bewitched.” In the conversation about family values, aunts and uncles are rarely mentioned. There are no Happy Aunt’s or Uncle’s Day cards in the Hallmark aisle. It’s not one of those things you put on your Twitter tagline or brag about at office parties. It’s something you go about quietly, without public fanfare. 
Yet we live in an era when there are probably more devoted aunts and uncles than ever...  Until last week, we had no public voice, but now we have someone powerful and famous who has outed us and proudly claimed membership in our club: Uncle Tim Cook. 
Read the whole thing -- I thought it was sweet, & pays well deserved tribute to the unsung yet vital relationships so many childless/free aunts & uncles enjoy with their nieces & nephews.

I choose

A find from Facebook.  "Choice" can be a loaded word in the context of infertility -- childless/free life was NOT my first choice, although t's the life I wound up living. But I can choose how I deal with the hand I've been dealt, and how I want to spend the rest of my life.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Loss, childlessness, and midlife crisis

I was in an online discussion recently among a group of loss moms (most of them in their late 30s & 40s -- some who have living children, some who don't) debating whether the funk some of the group members are in at the moment can be blamed on loss & grief, midlife crisis, or a bit of both. (And perhaps a dash of perimenopausal hormones as well?) 

So it was timely to find this article from The Atlantic, which puts forward the theory of the happiness U-curve. The data is more or less the same in every country researched: overall life satisfaction generally declines as young adults begin to age, bottoms out somewhere in the 40s or early 50s, and then begins to increase with age again (declining again somewhat in extreme old age, particularly if ill health is involved).  A few excerpts: 
Long ago, when I was 30 and he was 66, the late Donald Richie, the greatest writer I have known, told me: “Midlife crisis begins sometime in your 40s, when you look at your life and think, Is this all? And it ends about 10 years later, when you look at your life again and think, Actually, this is pretty good.” In my 50s, thinking back, his words strike me as exactly right. To no one’s surprise as much as my own, I have begun to feel again the sense of adventure that I recall from my 20s and 30s. I wake up thinking about the day ahead rather than the five decades past. Gratitude has returned...
Midlife is, for many people, a time of recalibration, when they begin to evaluate their lives less in terms of social competition and more in terms of social connectedness. In my 40s, I found I was obsessively comparing my life with other people’s: scoring and judging myself, and counting up the ways in which I had fallen behind in a race. Where was my best seller? My literary masterpiece? Barack Obama was younger than I, and look where he was! In my 50s, like my friend K., I find myself more inclined to prize and enjoy people and relationships, which mercifully seem to be pushing the unwinnable status competition into the background... 
In my own case, however, what seems most relevant is a change frequently described both in popular lore and in the research literature: for some reason, I became more accepting of my limitations... For me, the expectation of scaling ever greater heights has faded, and with it my sense of disappointment and failure.
Nowhere is infertility or pregnancy loss mentioned, although some of the interview subjects mention the stresses of dealing with children, aging parents, and marital, career, health and financial problems. But I find that a lot of this article resonated with me.

I don't know whether it's the passage of time (16 years) and that time really does heal all wounds (although the wounds do still ache, now & then), whether I've just done my grief work really well, or if grief just exacerbated what would have been a midlife upheaval anyway?  I spent most of my 40s coming to terms with both my daughter's stillbirth and the hard reality that I was not going to be a mother. (And if you haven't figured that out in your 40s, turning 50 really brings that particular reality home...!) Having succeeded in just about everything else I'd set out to do in life, this was a tough, tough pill to swallow.  And it's really, REALLY hard not to compare yourself (and find yourself wanting) when everyone else around you is raising (seemingly) happy families (that they seem to totally take for granted), and there are pregnant women all around you, and baby bumps on every magazine cover. My career, such as it was, was no substitute, and it stalled, as the managers who had known and supported me left the organization (culminating in my termination this past July, after 28 years). 

Turning 50 was a milestone -- and while I've had my ups & downs since then (losing my job, for one), for me, I think the U-curve theory fits. I can feel that upward swing of the curve. While I am sad that my daughter is not here and that I never got to be a mom (to living children), I am grateful for the life that I have right now, and feeling happier and more excited about the future than I have in a long time. My life doesn't include children, but it's still a good one. Yes, I've had to deal with some crappy stuff in my life -- but everyone does, at some point -- and do I really want that to define & set the tone for the rest of my life? 

There will no doubt be more challenges ahead in the coming years. (I still have to go through menopause, for one...!)  But right now, overall, I like my life, and I am hopeful for the future.

Monday, November 17, 2014

#MicroblogMondays: It's beginning to look a lot like...

This (photo below) is the scene dh & I woke up to this morning. Not a lot of snow, and we've had some flakes in the air before this, but this is the first real accumulation that we've had this season (and it's still coming down as I type). 

Note that there are still leaves on the neighbour's trees that overhang our yard, and leaves on the ground (even though dh has been raking diligently and already filled 7 big bags).  There are just two yard waste pickups left this season, including one tomorrow. Yikes! 

I know it's mid-November, and my family & friends out west would roll their eyes at this photo -- they've already had to dig out from several major dumps of snow. And I have to admit, snow helps make things feel a bit more Christmasy.  The first snowfall always does look pretty, especially when it sticks to the branches, as it's done this morning.  

But yikes -- I am really not sure I am ready for this. :p

(On the other hand -- I did not have to battle my way on slippery roads to the commuter train station this morning & stand freezing on the platform, waiting for the train. Small victories...!)

You can find more of this week's #MicroblogMondays posts here  

Looking out my back door (window).

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The search for meaning

I remember a time at our pg loss support group where everyone was discussing what "meaning" we could derive from our babies' brief existences, and how they had changed us for the better.

My dh said he wanted to think that losing Katie had turned him into a better, more noble person -- but he'd come to realize that he was still pretty much the same person he'd ever been. Needless to say, his was a minority view.

A couple of years later, though, when the evening's discussion was heading in a similar direction, our longtime co-facilitator said reminded him of that conversation. And she said (something to the effect of), "You know, when you said that, I thought you were so wrong, that of COURSE I'd been changed profoundly by my daughter's death. But as time goes on, I have to admit -- I think you were right. Life goes on much the same as it ever did, and I'm still basically the same person I was before my baby died."

I thought about that conversation as I read this essay from the New York Times's Sunday Review:  "I Nearly Died. So What?" After her brush with death, the author discovered that her friends & relatives were "hungry for evidence of my spiritual or moral transformation... My stable of petty complaints and shallow concerns, most of them having to do with some combination of unsteady cash flow, real-estate dissatisfaction and constant low-grade career anxiety, would surely be dwarfed by my gratitude just to be alive."
Please don’t misunderstand me. I was grateful to be alive, physically and cognitively — and, to be honest, even more grateful not to have emerged from the coma alive but with severe and irreparable brain damage. 
But I also knew myself well enough to suspect that after a few months of smelling the metaphorical flowers, I’d probably go back to being the whiny ingrate I was before. And as friends came by with meals and groceries and showered me with well wishes and all manner of questions about my state of mind, the more it occurred to me that their hunger for stories of my cosmic transformation was rooted less in their concern for my soul than in their culturally ingrained need for capital-C “Closure.” Because they wanted this chapter to end for me, because they wanted me to go back to being as healthy as I was when I was a whiny ingrate, they wanted to make sure I was sufficiently transformed so as to never whine or be ungrateful again. It was as if the only way any of us could be sure that my body was clear of infection was for me to officially become a better person. 
Americans have always been suckers for stories of triumph over adversity. But increasingly, we’re obsessed not just with victory but with redemption...   
Crises, by definition, are chaotic. They don’t always impart lessons and, contrary to what we like to tell ourselves, they’re just as likely to bring out the worst in people as the best. But the redemption narrative, along with its corollary, the recovery narrative, is so beloved in our culture that even rational people tend to glom onto it — if only for the sake of making polite conversation. Equal parts bedtime story, love story and horror story, it’s a perfect example of the American preference for sentimentality and neat endings over honesty and authenticity. 
What do you all think? (I would encourage you to read the whole article -- and there are some interesting comments too.)  I do believe that going through loss & infertility has made me a more empathetic person. Death & grief are never things we want to deal with, but they no longer frighten me in quite the same way they once did. I think I have a much better sense of what to say & do and how to support a friend who is grieving. But I don't think the essence of who I am has changed much.

Beyond the debate of whether we are changed by what happened to us, I love what this article has to say about others' eagerness to derive some meaning out of our situation -- how we feel compelled to come up with narratives to make others feel better & tie up all that nasty, scary stuff with neat, pretty bow. (I'm reminded of Barbara Ehrenreich's wonderful book "Bright-Sided," which I reviewed here, as well as "Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What it Costs Us" by Nancy Berns (reviewed here).  

I think this pressure to come up with "meaning" and to fashion a story for public consumption that has a happy ending is why so many of us who are living childless/free after loss & infertility feel we need to "compensate" in some way by changing our lives in some dramatic way. What's wrong with deciding that (if you can look past the absence of the children we once assumed we would have) our lives are pretty good more or less the way they are right now?


Friday, November 14, 2014

Bittersweet sixteen

"Bittersweet Sixteen," the headline on the New York Times' Motherlode blog read today.  A post from a mother whose son is 16. And, as you might guess, she is mourning the fact that he is growing up -- and away from her. "This is just as it should be, yes, but my pride in his growing independence is mixed with a very real sense of loss."

And then it dawned on me.

Bittersweet 16?  A "very real sense of loss"? 

Oh, I'll give you "bittersweet 16" -- and loss that's very real, not just in a "sense."

Today is -- was -- is -- my due date. November 14. 1998.  One of several due dates I was assigned -- it kept getting revised as her growth rate kept falling further & further behind the norm.  But this was the first one I was given, so I always think of it as the "official" due date. 

My daughter would/should be having a sweet 16 party this weekend.

And (even worse) I almost forgot about it until I saw the header on this article. Bad Mommy. :( 

In my own defense -- I do find the due date, the might-have-been birthday, generally takes a backseat to the date of loss for many loss moms. (And having three of them kind of complicates the matter. ) I thought it might be different this year, since I am not working & would supposedly have more time to think about these things.

Oh well. :( 
Happy birthday, sweet baby girl.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Recent reading

Crosby, Stills, Nash (& sometimes Young) were part of the soundtrack of my growing-up years in the late 1960s and through the 1970s.  I still thrill to the sounds of their amazing harmonies on songs like "Suite Judy Blue Eyes" and "Teach Your Children." 

Back around the time I got married in the mid-1980s, David Crosby's drug use and multiple arrests were in the news, and I read his memoir "Long Time Gone" when it came out in paperback. So it was interesting to read a slightly different take on some of the same people and events in "Wild Tales" by Graham Nash.

Nash comes across as affable and balanced, and probably the most sane member of CSNY.  He unabashedly loves Crosby, tolerates the prickly but immensely talented Stephen Stills, and admits to a mutual love/hate relationship with the quirky Neil Young.  Nash admits to his own excesses of sex (Joni Mitchell and Rita Coolidge were his lovers before he met his second wife of 35+ years, Susan), drugs and rock 'n roll. Fortunately, he quit cocaine cold turkey in 1984, in part after seeing what it was doing to Crosby. 

Before Nash became part of CSNY, he was a member of The Hollies -- part of the British Invasion sound that formed another important part of the soundtrack of my life. (I loved their tight harmonies on songs like "Bus Stop" and "Carrie Anne," and a friend & I saw a Nash-less version of the group in concert in the late 1970s.)  I especially enjoyed the earlier part of the book where Nash describes his growing-up years in Manchester, his early encounters with the Beatles (competing in the same talent shows!) and the Everly Brothers, and his rise to fame with the Hollies, who included his best friend from his schooldays, Allan Clarke. 

I was also interested to learn that Nash is an accomplished photographer -- the cover photo is a selfie of him and his camera taken the old-fashioned way, in a mirror -- as well as a painter & sculptor and an entrepreneur.

If you are interested in CSNY or Sixties music, this would be a good choice.  It's not a difficult read.

***  *** ***

There's a well-known little piece of Canadian poetry that goes, "Toronto has no social classes/Only the Masseys and the masses."  The Masseys were among the wealthiest and most influential families in Canada in the late 1800s and early 1900s:  the patriarch, Daniel Massey of Newcastle, Ontario, invented the mechanical threshing machine and founded Massey Harris (later Massey Ferguson), which was at one time the world's largest manufacturer of agricultural machinery. One of Daniel's grandsons, Vincent Massey, became Canada's first Canadian-born governor general;  Vincent's brother, Raymond, became a famous actor.

In February 1915, another Massey grandson, Bert, was murdered -- shot on the steps of his Toronto home by his housemaid, Carrie Davies, who claimed he had tried to "ruin" her. It was a shocking event and irresistible fodder for the city's newspapers, particularly the Daily Star (which still exists today as the Toronto Star) and the Evening Telegram.

In "The Massey Murder," award-winning writer Charlotte Gray explores the murder and Carrie's sensational trial (which all happened within the same month!!), in the context of the times -- the changing face of Toronto's social order, the influx of immigrants, the growing movement for women's rights and their expanding role in the workplace, and the impact of the First World War.  Gray's previous books on Canadian history themes have tackled figures such as sister-writers Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill, inventor Alexander Graham Bell, poet Pauline Johnson, and events such as the Klondike gold rush.

The book was well written, well researched and interesting overall -- albeit just a bit flat. I got to the end and was left with the distinct feeling of "is that all?" Perhaps this is because we know so little about Carrie, the central figure in the drama -- she left no letters or diaries and her only words on record come from newspaper reports from the trial.

It would be an interesting read if you're into vintage true crime stories, upstairs/downstairs relationships, and/or social history (particularly related to Canada and, more specifically, Toronto). 

These were books #15 & #16 that I've read so far in 2014.