Thursday, August 21, 2014

"Mastering the Art of Quitting" by Peg Streep & Alan Bernstein

"Quitting" is a word I have long avoided when talking about my infertility journey. I stopped fertility treatments, I ended them, I left them, I made the decision to stop/end/leave treatment and live without children, I chose to take my life in a different direction. 

Why quibble over "quit"? It's not hard to understand why:  in our achievement & success-oriented culture, quitting has a negative connotation. Nobody wants to be thought of as a quitter -- and certainly not in the infertility & loss community, where people don't seem to want to hear any story except one with a conventionally happy ending (i.e., a living, healthy baby, no matter what the costs or what you had to do to get him/her).

Well, fellow travellers on this less-travelled road, it's time to embrace "the Q word"  ;) (as my sister calls it -- only in her case, she's talking -- or rather, avoiding talking -- about quitting smoking, lol)(as the book says, "the only kind of giving up we collectively accept and support"). And there's a new book to help us do that.

"Mastering the Art of Quitting:  Why it Matters in Life, Love and Work" doesn't mention infertility at all -- but I saw myself and other infertile women I know throughout its pages. I believe its message totally applies to those of us who are at a crossroads in our journey and trying to decide if we should continue treatment or follow another path (and if so, which one).

The book is slightly academic in tone with lots of psychological terminology and studies quoted (I'll admit this did bog me down a bit in spots).  And yet there was something on just about every page that I could relate to or that gave me food for thought. My copy is full of dog-eared pages.

"Quitting not only frees us from the hopeless pursuit of the unattainable but permits us to commit to new and more satisfying goals."  This, in a nutshell, is the message of this book. (You can probably understand why I found it so appealing...!)

So why does quitting have such a bad rap?  "We've all been taught that quitting is a sign of weakness and that quitting is for losers,"  the authors bluntly note. (p. 3)  Persistence and positive thinking, we are told from the time we are children, are the keys to success. Moreover, the authors demonstrate that human beings are hard wired to persist in pursuit of a goal -- even when the goal is unreachable or no longer satisfying.

The book not only promotes quitting as a valid option, it discusses why and how we should quit when something is not working for us. (The trick is to disengage from old goals while setting new ones.)  It includes helpful quizzes and tips to help us make better decisions and to set and pursue new goals in a more realistic way. 

If you are struggling with decisions about whether to stay on your current path or take a completely different direction in your life, this book would be an excellent resource. 

This was book #11 that I've read so far this year.

Monday, August 18, 2014

This sounds familiar... (part 2)

(Continued from yesterday's Part 1...)

After hearing a little Kubler-Ross and discussing the SCARF model, our facilitator offered some tips for dealing with transitions -- in this case, moving forward after job loss, but also applicable in many cases (I thought) to surviving pregnancy loss, infertility and the decision to remain childless/free: 

1)  Accept that bad things can happen. Develop resilience.  Become an expert on your situation.    (For most of us who have lost a pregnancy, dealt with infertility or childlessness, this has probably meant devouring books, blogs and other information to help us deal with our new reality.)  Wallowing in our grief may have a certain appeal at first, but after a while, we need to start focusing on what our next steps could be. We may not have chosen what happened to us, but we can choose how we respond.

2)  "Preventative medicine."  Avoid negative individuals who might push you to play the role of victim ("poor you"). Some people need to confirm to themselves "so glad it's you and not me" and don't really bring anything of value to the relationship.  Also avoid situations you don't like and that you know will make you feel unhappy (e.g., baby showers!). 

3)  "Healthy schizophrenia."  Try to detach or distance yourself from the situation. (This is admittedly hard to do when you've just lost a baby.)  In the case of job loss, try to avoid thinking of your former company as "we" and "us."  Become a reporter and try to view the situation objectively.  What should a person in this situation do? What would you advise a friend in a similar situation to do?

4)  Change the meaning of what is happening;  try to look on the bright side. (Again, perhaps not really applicable when you've just lost a baby.)  This is not always easy to do.  Your brain needs time to think and process what's happened. We can't work full tilt 24 hours a day;  we'll burn out. We need rest, we need sleep, we need to take vacations, we need to take breaks and do something different. That's often when the best ideas pop into our heads. Now is the time (we, who had lost our jobs, were told) to do some of the things you wanted to do when you were working -- and that you won't have time to do when you start working again).

In the same vein, taking a break from fertility treatment can bring a fresh perspective and new energy to whatever you decide to do next.  If you decide to continue to live without children, look at it as an opportunity to do some of the things you didn't have time or money to pursue when you were in treatment -- and wouldn't be able (or might find harder) to do if you had children.

5)  Focus on your strengths.  What are you good at doing? What do you enjoy doing?  Write them down. (In handwriting, not on the computer -- handwriting helps us absorb messages better than typing them into a computer.) 

6)  Create an identity map.  In the centre of a bulletin board or a big sheet of poster board, place your favourite photo of yourself.  Around it, place photos or magazine pictures or other visual reminders (e.g., restaurant menus, theatre tickets) of the people and things you love and enjoy:  family, friends, hobbies, celebrations, travel, music, art, sports, achievements. Jobs. 

This reminded me of a collage exercise we used to do in our perinatal bereavement support group:  we'd bring in stacks of old magazines & give everyone half an hour to go through them and rip out any images & words that reminded them of their baby(s), of what had happened, and how they were feeling now. Then we'd hand out sheets of poster paper and glue sticks, and after another half hour or so, we'd all share what we had created and talk about what the words & images meant to us.

This was always a powerful exercise and it was amazing to see what people would come up with.  Along with photos of babies, pregnant women and moms with kids, I remember one mother had the image of a knotted in a length of rope at the centre of her collage, another had a picture of a big bolt of lightning cutting across a dark, threatening sky.  I did the collage exercise along with the group every time it came up in the topic rotation, and I still have every one I made. It was interesting to see how my collages evolved and changed as time went on.

7)  Energy balance exercise.  What people, places and activities in your life are sources of energy for you? Which ones are energy suckers? (Try to avoid those.)  Which are a mixture?

8)  Apply the Stockdale Paradox.  We heard the story of James Stockdale, who spent eight years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam in the 1960s, where he was brutally mistreated. Said Stockdale later of the experience:  "You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end -- which you can never afford to lose -- with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be." 

In the context of infertility & childlessness, to me, "faith that you will prevail in the end" doesn't necessarily mean that "you will have a baby, somehow, some way." This is where "the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality" comes in. I suppose dh & I could have scraped together more money and more energy to continue with infertility treatment, or try donor eggs or adopt, etc. But the reality, our reality at the time, was that we were completely burned out. The reality was, we were in our 40s, with medical issues that made the likelihood of a successful pregnancy highly unlikely. The odds were not in our favour.  

It was hard to face the brutal truth that we were not going to be parents (to a living child). But we had faith that we could still have a good life anyway as a family of two.  And I think we've been able to do that.

It's not a perfect life, it's certainly not the life we imagined when we got married, almost 30 years ago. But it's the life we have, and on balance, it's not a bad one.  And we're doing our best to make the most of it.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

This sounds familiar... (part 1)

This past week, I spent an afternoon at a seminar on neuroscience -- how the brain works -- and life transitions, and how we can use this knowledge to help us adjust faster to our new reality. 

The life transition in question for most of us present, of course, was the sudden loss of our jobs -- but having previously been through pregnancy loss, infertility and the transition to permanent childless/free living, there was a lot that sounded VERY familiar & applicable. I thought I'd do a Coles notes version (Cliffs notes, for you in the States, lol)(in two parts, since this was starting to get lengthy): 

After walking through a slide on Elizabeth Kubler-Ross & the stages of grief (of course!) we talked about the SCARF model of how people interact -- including five areas that affect our behaviour during a life transition:

Status: Our "rank" or position in relation to others -- how important am I?  This area is influenced by things like title & salary;  comments, criticism or recognition, being included or excluded (or feeling that way).  Obviously, when you lose your job, your feeling of importance to others, to the team you worked with, takes a real beating.

Now -- for those of us who have lost pregnancies -- think back to when you were pregnant -- and then when you suddenly were not. I think most of us realize that pregnant women hold a particularly hallowed place in our society at the moment -- pregnant celebrities & their new babies dominate magazine covers, every other commercial on television seems to feature a pregnant woman or new baby -- and if you (and your extended family) have been waiting to become pregnant for a long time (as I did), your pregnancy becomes extra-special.  For those of us who dealt with infertility before seeing those two lines on the pee stick, pregnancy was not just special -- it was something we'd been craving -- not just a baby, but NORMALCY. We'd finally been admitted to the club that everyone else seemed to join so easily, that had been barred to us for so long.

And then (as my support group facilitator so aptly put it), we "got kicked out of the club."  :p 

And if it hurts to be admitted briefly to the club that most women join without a second thought, and then rejected, think of how it feels for women without children (for whatever reason), who never even managed to get a foot in the door. 

Certainty:  Most of us crave a certain degree of certainty or security. When things are certain or predictable, it's easier to plan for the future and control what happens to us (or so we think).  When things change, when we lose our jobs, the future suddenly becomes uncertain.  We've suddenly lost control of our careers, of our future. 

In one sense, having a baby is the ultimate loss of control.  ;)  But in another sense, when you have a baby, you know there is a certain template your life is about to follow -- a measure of -- certainty -- that the path you're following has been trod by many other parents. BILLIONS of parents.  This is how life is meant to unfold, we think. There is a certain rhythm & predictability to family life for most people. Breast or bottlefeeding is followed by solids;  crawling becomes walking and then running and riding a bike (and then driving a car).  Daycare turns into nursery school, then kindergarten. September means back to school, October means Halloween costumes and trick or treating. Etc. etc. etc.

Losing a pregnancy forever destroys any sense of control that you might have had.  And realizing that a baby is not going to be a part of your life -- ever -- destroys the life plan most of us have had since we were children, and blurs our image of what the future should look like. We suddenly realize that our lives are never going to resemble those of many of the people around us. We have to figure out what our lives are going to look like now, if we're not going to be parents. We have to rethink -- sometimes dramatically -- our life plans.

Autonomy:  Autonomy reflects the need to have control over our lives and our choices. When we lose our jobs, we lose control and the choice of if/when we want to leave our workplace is taken from us. 

On the other hand, with the future wide open ahead of us, we may suddenly find ourselves faced with too many choices:  I can do anything with my life now!  What should I do??  This is also the dilemma facing those of us who find ourselves facing a childless/free future. If we're not going to be moms, what are we going to do with our lives?

The prospect can be exhilarating. It can also be terrifying.

Relatedness:  "Relatedness" refers to the need to belong to a group and receive their support. When we lose our jobs, we're suddenly cut off from the people we've been working with every day, in some cases for years. We were part of a team -- and now we're not. Now, there are insiders and outsiders.

As I mentioned earlier, getting pregnant means admission to the Mommy Club. Everyone is anxious to rub your belly and give you tips and tell you their birth story and throw you baby showers and pass down their baby clothes and paraphernalia. They want to know what you're going to name him/her, breast or bottle, cloth or disposable, and if you're going to take the full year of mat leave.

Losing a pregnancy means getting kicked out of the club. Suddenly, nobody is anxious to talk to you. Nobody has tips to offer on how to organize the baby's funeral or what you should put on the cemetery marker.  Some will call -- once -- or send a card or bring over a casserole, but very few will offer to sit at the kitchen table while you cry & hold your hand, or ask to hear your delivery story. (Hang onto those people!)

Being childless means you'll never be part of the club, period. But people will still ask you when you're going to join, because having kids is one of the easiest, no-brainer ways to relate to other people, and when you don't have that common link between you... well... sometimes they just can't relate, can't fathom what your life must be like, can't think of anything else that you might have in common to talk about (try: the weather, sports, your latest vacation, your aging parents' health, work, the latest movie or Downton Abbey....). 

It's hard not to feel like an outsider sometimes.

Fairness:  We all have a powerful need to feel that we are being treated fairly.

Losing our job for no good reason offends our sense of fairness and justice. 

Losing a baby REALLY offends our sense of fairness and justice.  :( 

Being involuntarily childless while other parents complain about their kids -- or worse, mistreat or neglect them -- also makes the universe seem unfair and unjust.

Coming next:  transition tips.  

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Scene at the supermarket checkout

Recently, at the supermarket checkout: 

Me (pointing to tray of meat on the conveyor belt):  "Could you please wrap that up separately...?"

Clerk (nodding & smiling at me as she puts the meat into a separate plastic bag, and then into the reusable tote with the rest of the food):  "I know, hon... I'm a mom!"

(Me, thinking: "I'm NOT a mom, but I still thought of it. Should I NOT know this because I'm not a mom?  Is motherhood a prerequisite for knowledge of food safety practices? Shouldn't you know this because you handle food as part of your job?  Isn't it really just common sense?")   

Oy. :p 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Childless/free living in the news

Childless/free living has been in the news lately!

The past two Fridays, I've enjoyed two really great recent podcasts with some excellent spokespeople from this community:
And in today's Globe & Mail, Leah McLaren discusses "No-Mos" and Melanie Notkin's latest book in "There are other options to motherhood."  I don't always like McLaren's stuff, and the last line made me cringe (so who cares if we don't have kids? we look hot!!)(she obviously hasn't seen the number on my scale lately... :p). But on balance, she brings up some good points, and I appreciate the column space given to this topic. And I found myself nodding as I read:
"That growing sense of emptiness you feel in the pit of your stomach? No soulmate or cherished baby is ever going to obliterate it for you. The only person who can content with the deep-down scary you-ness of you is yourself."
Yep.

As always -- beware the comments section. :p  (I love how they always degenerate into a "have kids or don't have them, don't whine to me" rant.  Ummm, you all kind of missed the whole point here, lol. I often wonder if the people commenting actually read the articles or listened to the podcasts.) 

Monday, August 11, 2014

A kindred spirit


Back in 2008, I wrote about a new biography of Lucy Maud Montgomery that had recently been published, which reminded me that "Anne of Green Gables -- and her author -- were stillbirth mothers."  I STILL haven't read the book (erk!) -- but I was reminded again this past weekend that LMM was "one of us" -- or, as Anne might say, "a kindred spirit."

Dh & I spent Saturday afternoon in Leaskdale, the tiny Ontario community where LMM lived between 1911 and 1926, and where her husband served as the Presbyterian minister.  Leaskdale is a little off the beaten path (albeit not terribly far from Toronto -- about an hour's drive north and east of the city, perhaps a little more or less, depending on your starting point) and certainly not as well known a LMM destination as Cavendish, the Prince Edward Island community where she grew up and where so many of her novels are based. (She also lived in Norval, northwest of Toronto, and spent her final years in Toronto itself.) 

But in recent years, Leaskdale has begun to assert its connection to Montgomery. The Lucy Maud Montgomery Society of Ontario has taken ownership of the historic Leaskdale church, as well as the nearby manse where LMM and her family lived.  The manse has been restored and redecorated with period furnishings to match how it looked when LMM lived there as closely as possible. Both buildings are open for tours during the summer & early fall months, and for special occasions and by appointment at other times during the year. The society receives no government funding, relying on private foundation grants, donations and fundraising.

After taking the tour (for which we were charged a mere $5 each), and a look around the well-stocked gift shop in the church basement, dh & I headed upstairs for an afternoon performance of "Maud of Leaskdale,"  a two-hour, one-woman show based entirely on the journals LMM kept during her years in the community (i.e., every word uttered onstage comes directly from the journals).  The young actress (from nearby Uxbridge) playing Maud (as she preferred to be known) is absolutely wonderful in the role ("Sometimes we think she really IS Maud," the volunteer who introduced the play told us, laughing, and it was easy to see why). Dh, who basically came along to humour me, admitted he thoroughly enjoyed himself, far more than he expected.

I think both of us visibly winced when "Maud," confiding to us her delight in finding herself pregnant for the first time in her late 30s, commented, "I always thought a childless marriage was a tragedy." (Ouch.)

But I forgave her, because (a) at that time, it WAS a tragedy for many women, who had no other outlet in their lives beyond family, and (b) I knew what was to come.

Her first son, Chester, arrived safely in 1912.  A while later (fall 1914), Maud told us that she was expecting Chester's little sister or brother... and shortly afterward, her face contorted with grief, cradling a small empty wooden cradle in her arms, she sobs as she tells us about how her baby (another son, Hugh Alexander) was born dead, how she never ever imagined this, how much she wanted and would have loved this child, while so many other children in the world go unwanted and uncared for.

As tears welled in my own eyes & I squeezed dh's hand, I marvelled at how, despite the century between us, the words Maud wrote/spoke could so easily have been written by any stillbirth mother today.  I knew about little Hugh; I had read the journals the play was based on. But there was incredible power in hearing those words spoken aloud, in having Maud's experience -- my experience, your experience -- given voice.

Hugh's death coincided with the beginnings of World War I, and both events cast a dark cloud over the next several months for Maud. No doubt she worked through some of her feelings as she wrote "Anne's House of Dreams," in which Anne & Gilbert suffer the loss of their first child, a little girl they name Joyce -- but as she finishes the novel, she admits to us that it has taken a lot out of her. (No kidding!!)

Maud refers to Hugh several other times during the play, including on his 9th birthday, wondering what he would have been like. (She had one other son, Stuart.) 

I was so pleased that the producers chose to include so much about this part of Maud's life in the play. It's not the only aspect of her life explored, of course, and there is laughter as well as tears to be had.  If you are in the Toronto area and are a LMM fan, it is well worth the trip -- but note that the play is only on through the end of August, and only on certain days.  See the society's website for further details. This is the third summer the play has been performed at the Leaskdale church;  with any luck, it will continue in summers to come.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Summer reading

Besides finishing off the previously reviewed "A Man Called Destruction,"  I finished off three other books while on my recent vacation. Here are some thoughts on each of them: 

While enduring yet another bout of perimenopausal symptoms recently, I spotted "The Madwoman in the Volvo:  My Year of Raging Hormones" by Sandra Tsing Loh at the local bookstore, and immediately snapped it up.  

By the time Loh was 49, her life was a mess: she was juggling two pre-teenaged daughters, an aging (and eccentric) father, a career, and a  messy divorce, following an affair with her business partner. A perpetual cloud of gloom and irritability seemed to hang over her.  She was gaining weight.  After breaking down over the death of her daughters' pet hamster, a friend pinpointed the root of her problems: menopause.  The book follows Loh over the next two years to her milestone 50th birthday party, and mixes her personal story with humour and with some great nuggets of information about women, aging and menopause. 

I am not menopausal (yet -- although I am definitely getting there). I'm not a mom (and I did roll my eyes at Loh's portrayal of her friend Judith:  "Oh, the lightness of step of the child-free!" -- seriously??), and while my parents are starting to slow down, they are nowhere near 90 yet, let alone in need of the kind of help Loh's father required. I don't even have a job to worry about anymore (who would have thought that retirement would come before menopause??)(and I'm actually kind of grateful that when Aunt Flo is paying me a particularly nasty visit, I can now just pop some ibuprofen and take refuge on my couch, instead of slogging my way through the workday).

But there was still a lot here that I could relate to -- and I suspect many of you can, too (or will).  Consider this: by 2015 -- next year -- half of all American women will be menopausal. HALF!!  Moreover, Loh points out, we are menopausal women like no others in history. Long ago, many women died before they ever reached menopause. These days, we may live longer, but we're also taking longer to reach certain life milestones. While our mothers and grandmothers had their children in their 20s and sent us off to college when they were in their 40s, many of us delayed having children until our 30s & 40s.  These days, menopause often coincides with our children's adolescence -- and our parents' aging -- at the same time we are juggling the most demanding years of our working life.  Sandwich squeeze, anyone?

I was especially intrigued by Loh's point that, with menopause, we are returning to our pre-teen, pre-fertility years. Our fertile years are actually the aberration, not menopause... and "crazy menopausal women" are actually reclaiming a part of themselves they had long put on hold.
"If, in an eighty-year lifespan, a female is fertile for about twenty-five years (let's call it ages fifteen to forty), it is not menopause that triggers the mind-altering and hormone-altering variation;  the hormonal "disturbance" is actually fertility.  Fertility is the change. It is during fertility that a female loses herself, and enters that cloud overly rich in estrogen. Due to lifespans being as long as they are, thirty years of addled fertility in the middle isn't the "norm" for a woman, that almost sixty years of the relative selfishness of prepubescence and menopause are." (p. 237) 
The book ends with Loh's tips on how to survive menopause. (She is a big fan of Dr. Christiane Northrup & her book "The Wisdom of Menopause.")  I can't say I related to everything in this book, but it did give me a few laughs and insights, and you may enjoy it too. 

*** *** ***

WAs someone who is forever making to-do lists (often on post-it notes) and loves my yellow highlighter, I was drawn to the cover of "Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time" by Brigid Schulte.  When I started reading the reviews, I knew this was a book I had to read. And I am very glad I did. It is a must-read for anyone who is feeling time challenged and overwhelmed by modern life -- and I suspect that's most of us, at least in North America.  

Yes, I know -- I don't have kids;  supposedly I have oodles of free time, right? I suppose some people (parents) think I have no right to feel overwhelmed (how dare I??). And while I recognize that I DO have more free time than the average parent (and certainly now that I am unemployed/retired), there have been many times when I too felt "overwhelmed" by all the demands on my time and attention, and by a to-do list that never seems to get any shorter. 

"I think of confetti," writes Schulte, a journalist with the Washington Post. "That's how my life feels. Like time confetti -- one big, chaotic burst of exploding slivers, bits, and scraps. And really, what does a pile of confetti ever amount to?"

Schulte was late for her meeting with a time management expert -- who confounded her by claiming that women had an average of 30 hours of leisure a week (!). (Personally, I thought his definitions of "leisure" were really stretching it at times:  exercise is leisure?? Waiting for a tow truck is leisure?) 

But if we really have 30 hours of leisure time a week, why do we all feel so tired and stressed?? Schulte set out to find out, and the result is this well-researched and well-written book.

I particularly loved the section of the book set in Fargo, North Dakota -- an area of the country near & dear to my heart -- where Schulte found people are just as time-stressed as anywhere else. A UND researcher shared her collection and analysis of holiday family letters (of all things), which demonstrate a dramatic rise in busyness in American families in recent years -- or at least the appearance of busyness.

Because while there are any number of valid factors we can point to as to why we are so time-starved these days (and Schulte investigates all of them -- the rise of working mothers, the cult of intensive motherhood, the lack of supportive government and workplace policies...), the truth is that, in part, it is our own darned fault. We don't manage our time as well as we might, or set boundaries as well as we should. And even if we aren't that busy, we dare not admit it. "Busyness is now the social norm that people feel they must conform to... or risk being outcasts," Schulte writes. When everyone around us keeps saying they are "busy, busy, busy," do you want to be the one person to say you're not?  

Schulte looks for "bright spots" where it's easier to balance work, love and play, and travels to Denmark for an eye-opening contrast in cultures. She details her own efforts to take back her life and find time to truly play.  And she winds up with a list of suggestions on how we can do the same. 

Highly recommended. :)

*** *** ***

Confession:  I have never read the blogger known as "The Blogess."  But I heard enough about her through the blogging grapevine to recognize the name(s) on the cover of "Let's Pretend This Never Happened."

The Bloggess's real name is Jenny Lawson, and "Let's Pretend" is a memoir following her from her bizarre childhood in Texas to present day.

Frankly, I found the first few chapters, full of dead animals and live ones, to be slightly offputting.  Caveat emptor if you have any phobias about snakes, scorpions, stuffed dead squirrels, chupacabras (?? -- you learn something new every day...).  I was seriously considering throwing in the towel & moving on to something else.

But I soon found myself chuckling in spite of myself. And also sniffling.  Jenny is "one of us" -- she too survived infertility and pregnancy loss before finally surprising herself by giving birth to her daughter Hayley. She writes warmly about the blogging world and about the bonds she's formed with other bloggers. She also writes frankly (and humorously) about her struggles with mental illness, including anxiety.

This is a book that's probably best consumed in small doses -- I found myself exhausted at times from the frantic style. On balance, it was an enjoyable read. But as I said, caveat emptor... ;) 

*** *** ***

These were books numbers 8. 9 and 10 that I've read so far in 2014. (I'm currently bouncing back & forth between 11 & 12.)  ;)