Thursday, February 21, 2008

A "telling" post

Over at the Stirrup Queens site, Mel has asked us to tell her about... telling:

"...the topic I'm posing today is telling people that you're infertile, doing treatments, using donor gametes, using surrogacy or adopting..
"Some people go through treatments privately, without revealing to any friends or family members what they are experiencing. Others choose to tell a select few and still others tell everyone about their E2 levels, including the random woman buying Doritos in line behind them at the supermarket.
"There are also people we weigh and decided to not tell and other people who are told despite the fact that we are trying to keep the journey private. Everyone has personal, unique reason for why they do or don't tell.
"If you have told anyone, how did you broach the conversation? Did you wait for an opening or create it yourself (and if you created it, how)? Do you tell more than one person at a time or do you like to find private moments where you can talk about it one-on-one? Do you prefer to tell people in a written medium--email, letter--or face-to-face? Why did you tell them and how did they react? Were you disappointed or grateful, and did the telling make a difference in your life the day after and the day after that (in other words, did the telling do anything to change your daily existence either positively or negatively)?"

** ** ** ** ** **

I've always been a very private person, especially when it comes to personal matters. When all the other little girls at school got together to talk about boys -- & who they liked -- I would keep my mouth resolutely shut. OK, my very best friend probably knew which guy I secretly fancied, but I would never take part in the general giggly, gossipy give & take of who-likes-whom. I knew (from experience, & watching others) that the minute I confessed, it would be all over the schoolyard, & my life would be hell for the next God-knows-how-long.

Likewise, dh & I knew we were getting married, long before we actually told people of our plans. We both still had to finish school & find jobs, etc., & I knew that the minute we started telling people we were engaged, a big white tulle cloud would descend upon us, and that would be all anyone would want to talk about.

After we got married, I braced myself for the inevitable questions, hints & jokes about pregnancy & babies. When dh & I returned from our honeymoon, one of his aunts had a "welcome home" party for us to celebrate our wedding (since most of his relatives did not travel to attend). I was absolutely stunned (& silently furious) when they brought out a cake with one blue, one pink and one small yellow candle on it, to much laughter & nudging -- it was starting already!

Then as now, I identified myself as a feminist. I knew that I was so much more than my ability to reproduce. I refused to be painted into a traditional corner so quickly, & resented people trying to do so. I believed (then and now) that when, how, why and even whether we decided to have children was a strictly private matter between dh & myself. Questions & hints about our family plans would be dismissed with an evasive, "Oh... someday... eventually... one of these days, maybe..."

As the years went by & there were no babies, the questions & hints began to dwindle. We finally decided to take the ttc plunge after being married for 10 years -- by which time I think most people had written us off in the babymaking department, perhaps assuming that we didn't want children. I've known some people who announce excitedly to all & sundry, "We're trying!" No way, not me.

So there was a lot of surprise & delight among our family members when we finally announced our pregnancy in the spring of 1998. FIL even confessed, "I didn't want to ask..."

After our daughter was stillborn, I got murmured comments along the lines of "You'll have another baby someday" & "You ARE trying again, aren't you?" Never mind that I was in my late 30s & this pregnancy took 2.5 years of trying (13, if you thought we started trying the night of the wedding). I would generally answer "I hope so," because I knew another pregnancy (let alone a successful one) was definitely not a sure thing.

So when we began infertility testing and then treatment, we kept it to ourselves. Why? Well, as I've already described, it's just not in my nature to blab about intensely personal matters to all & sundry. And there's certainly no subject more intensely personal than trying to conceive. And I was having enough trouble coping emotionally as it was. I felt I couldn't handle the weight of other people's excitement, expectations, disappointments & sympathy/pity on top of my own feelings of stress, hope, disappointment, failure...

And GUILT. Guilt for waiting as long as we did to ttc. Guilt for being so smugly confident that of course WE would never be one of those couples I read about in the women's magazines -- infertility was for women with irregular periods & sexually transmitted diseases (which of course they got from having multiple previous sexual partners, unlike moi...). Guilt, guilt, guilt for not providing my parents with a (living) grandchild to spoil long before this (particularly when I knew my only sister was childfree by choice and it was all up to me). Guilt for not making my own fabulous grandparents great-grandparents, even though they both hung around until I was 37 years old (how many 37-year-olds are lucky enough to still have a complete set of grandparents living?). Guilt that any children I ever did manage to have would never know personally just what wonderful people they were. Guilt that my dh would never get to be the fabulous daddy to a (living) child that I knew he would be.

I did have two friends at work that I confided in (one of them with her own fertility issues), an e-mail list for ttc & subsequent pregnancy after a loss (then, as now, I somehow find it easier to spill my guts to total strangers on the Internet...!), and people in our "real-life" pregnancy loss support group, many of whom were also struggling with infertility issues.

Admitting failure -- at something that just about everyone else took for granted (heck, at something that far too many people in my family had happen "to" them, as an "accident") -- to myself was one thing. Admitting such failure to others... well, you can imagine. I'd always succeeded in just about everything else in my life that I had done (well, outside of phys ed class & organized recess sports, where I was a total, utter failure). For the most part, school came easily to me. I landed jobs fairly easily. I just took it for granted that if I applied myself & worked hard, success would be mine. Infertility was a huge blow to my self-esteem & the capable, accomplished image of myself that I liked to project to others.

My dh encouraged me to tell my mother about our difficulties in getting pregnant again -- especially after she called one night (a few years after we'd stopped treatments, when I was in my early 40s), her voice full of excitement, to tell me about a neighbour's daughter who had just adopted the cutest baby through an agency in the city... "and I just thought I'd mention it to you..."

I got off the phone & cried for two hours. My mother was never one to hint too openly about her desire for grandchildren, especially after our loss (although I knew it was there), and her previous comments about adoption had always been tinged with ambivalence -- which probably contributed to my own ambivalence about it as an option for us.

"Well, you know, she's adopted," she would say, sotto voce, when an acquaintance was having problems with her teenaged daughter (something I heard her say more than once about more than one adopted child). "And she's mixed race. That's a lot of baggage to be carrying around." When a friend's marriage broke up, Mom wondered whether the stress of adopting twin boys -- who turned out to have behavioural issues, possibly related to fetal alcohol syndrome -- on top of the mixed-race girl they had previously adopted -- had contributed to the breakup of their marriage. If I adopted, would she be saying the same things to me, about me, about our adopted child (even though I knew she'd love that child to death)?

And now here she was, blatantly hinting that *I* should consider adoption!! I felt the weight of my mother's desire for a(nother) grandchild in that moment, & it nearly crushed me.

Several years after we finally abandoned treatment, I finally did tell my mother what we'd been through. We were home during the summer for a visit, and she & I went for a walk at dusk. We ran into someone she knew, with a cute little girl who was hopping with excitement about starting junior kindergarten in the fall. As we continued on our way, I found myself remarking that Katie would have been starting junior kindergarten that fall too. My mom said she knew, & we both got choked up. Then, hesitantly, my mother said, "Have you ever thought about adopting?"

"Oh Mom," I said, "I just don't think I have it in me. Not at this point in my life." She conceded that adoption was not for everyone.

But then I found myself adding, "But we did try, Mom, we really tried!" I told her everything. (Well, not everything. But a lot.) I said we hadn't tried IVF, but we had tried other things. I told her about the drugs & how they'd made me feel. About being poked & prodded and getting up at 4 a.m. to get to the clinic by 7, and then heading to the office for a full day of work.

I told her about the failures. I told her about the anxiety attacks I'd had, how I just couldn't continue living with the stress. I reminded her of the time she came to visit us in the spring of 2002. I had another major anxiety attack the night before she arrived, & had told her about that when she arrived (but not the whole story behind it all). She & I had planned a trip to explore Montreal together for a few days while she was here, & we'd had to cancel because I was just too unwell & afraid of being sick in a strange city.

She said, "I wish you'd told us. You shouldn't have had to go through all that by yourself," & I explained to her that I found it hard enough living with my own disappointment, let alone hers & Dad's -- knowing they would be waiting anxiously to hear the results of the latest cycle.

By then, we'd reached the corner of our street & were just standing there, talking & crying. We knew my dad & dh would be waiting inside the house to play cards. She told me she had to water the flowers in the garden, & to go on ahead & clean myself up. I managed to get past dh & dad (already dealing the cards) & upstairs to the bathroom to splash my swollen red eyes with cold water & compose myself before facing them, and she followed a few minutes later.

I still don't regret keeping my mouth shut while we were in treatment. But I'll admit that I felt an immense sense of relief at having finally come clean with my mother, after the fact.


  1. I sent my story to Mel via email, since I don't have a blog ... but plan to start one someday (soon).

    So much of what you wrote is true for me as well - finding success pretty easily in many areas of life, and feeling like such a failure in this area. Not wanting my parents' hopes along for the ttc rollercoaster ride - so not telling them anything.

    I did tell a couple of close friends, who were wonderful. (plying me with red wine adn junk food when the BFN's came rolling in). What was especially interesting in my "telling" though was one friend I chose not to tell. She had had 1 baby, then 2 m/c, and then 2 babies with the help of meds. So she'd been through her own journey of preg loss. You'd think I'd have felt I could talk to her but that wasn't the case. First she had young children and that was just too hard. Second, she and her dh had started ttc right away whereas dh & I had waited - so feeling like you did, that we were dumb to wait so long (although our issues would likely have occured anyway, and really I don't at all regret waiting because it was important to our personal growth & growth of our relationship). Also for some reason I felt competitive with this friend.

    OTOH, another friend (about 7 years older than me) was a fertile myrtle - she & her dh got pg in the first few months of their marriage accidentally. Yet I felt I could confide in her freely, and she gave empathy, support & encouragement. Her kids were older so taht helped. But I still can't figure out why I could confide in one and not the other.

    I'm glad you & your mom were able to talk and cry with each other, and you could let that go. I wish you didn't have this sadness to carry with you. Although, I would never wish Katie to have not been. She is so loved.


  2. What a moving story.

    My mom and dad have known we were TTC and have really been there for us emotionally. But it is hard, dealing with their disappointment, as careful as they are not to overburden me. And now that we are doing IVF, I have to carve out extra space and privacy.

    The adoption comments played a role in our decision not to adopt... especially as regards our extended family.

  3. One of the nice things about the online email support group we both belonged to was that I could get the support/understanding/validation I needed and still retain some anonymity. Over time I found friends there that I became closer to and opened up more about other aspects of my life and confided in more. :0)

    I also found too that there were times when I needed that privacy and other times when I needed to not be so alone and had to tell someone, anyone - even if it was the butcher at the grocery store. In fact, in someways it was easier to tell strangers, because then I didn't need to worry about "disappointing" them and if they said something stupid - I generally never saw them again anyway.

  4. Thanks for this moving post. It gave me a lot to think about, how and if I want to tell people as we move along the treatment train.

  5. Mmmm. My life is pretty much an open book cause I was certain I would have a happy ending... but when the BFNs came in, I learned to use discretion. One of our neighbours called on the day of our first negative result (to find out the result!) and when I told him it wasn't a good time to call, he actually called back! We were so devastated that we avoided people for weeks. And then as our friends got pregnant and had kids, it just got more awkward.

    Anyways, thanks for sharing your story. I could relate to it on so many levels.

  6. thank you for telling your whole story, lori (and for posting a comment to my blog -- you're right about telling strangers on the Internet. it helps, knowing we are all out there, going through our own versions of this...).

    i *am* one of those blabbermouths you mention. i resent the feeling that going through emotional difficulties related to childlessness is somehow worthy of secrecy and shame. if i *were* having a child? everyone would know! it wouldn't be a secret. i would like to be as open about childless/childfree issues as parents are about their children.

    the delights of childfree living deserve appreciation, as much as everyone cooing over baby's first word. the miseries of childlessness deserve airing, as much as a new mom's sleepless exhaustion warrants sympathy.

    i don't always mention it, of course, but i feel like being "out of the closet" on this issue helps raise awareness in general. most people simply don't think about what childless women might be going through. i'd like to see the subject become as comfortable in conversation as kids are.

    --magdalen from Nymphe blog

  7. this is such a sad yet beautiful and touching story. I'm also such a private person IRL, it's amazing the stuff I share online! I'm sad that you had to go through it all on your own, yet so glad that you were finally able to share your sorrow with your mom, and share such a beautiful moment. I imagine that maybe along with the flowers in the garden, she had to water her eyes too... ~luna

  8. I haven't gotten to meet you yet (yet--because there will be a trip to Canada one day!) or your mum, but I bawled reading the end of this story. What a beautiful connection between you and I'm glad you got that release as you told your mum and hopefully let go of some of the guilt too.

  9. When we first began TTC I told no one. Then around the time my husband nicknamed me his "peestick princess" I told my sister. When we began ARTs I told my parents. After a few years, I told my husband's parents. A bit later I told a few friends. When we did our IVF I told a few more people. There are few people in my personal life who do not know at this point. My story IRL has been like a leaky faucet, dripping out a bit at a time.