Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Barren B*tches Book Brigade: "The Empty Picture Frame" by Jenna Currier Nadeau

For those of you who don't know about the Barren B*tches Book Brigade, it's an online book club, organized by Melissa at Stirrup Queens & Sperm Palace Jesters, where bloggers sign up, read the book (usually, but not always, related to infertility and pregnancy loss), & submit a question. The questions are distributed among the participants, and we pick at least three to answer in our blog, then visit each other's blogs to comment.

This month's selection was "The Empty Picture Frame" by fellow blogger Jenna Currier Nadeu (with contributions from her husband Mike) who writes in the password-protected blog The Epi-Blog. Like many of us, Jenna & Mike fell in love, got married, worked hard, saved their money, bought a beautiful house in the suburbs & decided the time was finally right to start their family. During the four years covered by the book, they head down that slippery slope of infertility testing & treatment, including (as the back cover details) two IUIs, four IVFs, two FETs and one miscarriage (not to mention one appearance on the Oprah show, which was just rerun last week). It's a story that those of us who have trod similar paths will find totally validating -- but Jenna explains at the outset that she wrote the story with another audience in mind too -- fertile people (perhaps the family & friends of an infertile), to help them better understand what the rest of us are experiencing, feeling and thinking.

I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying the ending is left open. The story doesn't wrap up with the Hollywood ending of a baby in Jenna's arms, nor does it have her & Mike deciding firmly on what they are going to do next -- just her firm resolve that someday, her empty picture frames will be filled.

Jenna's story was not entirely new to me (although there were many things in the book I did not know about). I first encountered Jenna while lurking on an IVF "vets" board where she was a regular poster. I wasn't sure whether I met the members' definition of a vet, since I had never done IVF myself, so I rarely posted. However, having moved beyond treatment, yet still smarting from the after effects, I related much more to their cynical, worldweary view and humour than the naively optimistic "babydusting" on so many general infertility boards. Eventually, I found her blog, & when she went password protected, she graciously allowed me to become a regular reader. (So I know what's happened since the book ended!)

On to some of the questions:

Depending on where you are on your IF journey, how did this book affect you? For example, if you have a child/ren after IF was it easier or harder to read? If you are in the middle of your IF struggle did the book help or hinder? Give me your thoughts on how you were affected reading the book no matter where your IF journey has taken you so far.

I stopped infertility treatments seven years ago, & have been living childless/free ever since. This book brought back a LOT of memories about what it's like to be going through treatment (& of course some of it -- the emotional aspects -- continue to be valid to me today).

Even though I know what's happened since the book ended, & the book makes it clear that Jenna would not consider travelling down the same path I have, I found the ambiguity of the ending comforting, and I'm glad Jenna wrote it that way. I think that much as we all love happy endings, we also secretly wish for at least a few books or movies about infertility that don't end with a baby, yet make it clear that, whatever happens & whatever the couple decides to do next, they're going to be OK. Jenna's book gives me that feeling.

On p. 141, Jenna describes hiding out in the bathroom during her nephew's third birthday party but then realizes, "I couldn't even come close to having fun. I hate myself for that... I don't want to turn every moment into a moment about me and my sadness. It is never my intention, but it is always my impact." She describes how she doesn't like the person looking back at her in the mirror. Have you had a similar "mirror moment"? If so, describe it. Did this realization result in a lasting change in your outlook or relationships with others? How much of the responsibility for "impact" lies on the infertile person's shoulders?

This quote reminds me of how I've always said that I hate feeling that I'm being pitied, that people are talking about me & feeling sorry for me behind my back. I'm uncomfortable being the centre of attention, even behind my back, lol.

At the same time, though, I admit that I sometimes get pissed off when they talk about their pregnancies & kids and are obviously NOT thinking about how I might be feeling. Yes, I know we infertiles must learn to suck it up and realize it's not all about us. But at the same time, I do think that because we're usually in the minority, the onus more often than not falls on us, while everyone else goes blithely on their merry way without giving our feelings a second thought (if there was ever even a first thought). It would be nice to see our fertile friends & family make an effort to ensure we're included -- REALLY included -- whenever they're around us.

I'll admit there have been times when I've been sorely jealous of fertile/easily pregnant women & thought some nasty thoughts about them. I don't like being that person in the mirror when I do. It's not a nice way to feel. But it's hard not to have those thoughts sometimes.

At several points in the book, Jenna describes how she felt that motherhood was a "calling" for her -- the conviction that she was "called" to be a mother and that she would achieve that goal someday, somehow. Do you feel the same sense of "calling" in your pursuit of parenthood?

I have to admit, I never felt that sense of motherhood as "calling" or as something that was I would not rest until I had achieved. It was always something that I thought would be mine, & that I looked forward to (eventually!)... it was very high up on the list of things I wanted to do with my life. And not being able to fulfill that was crushing.

But motherhood was not the only thing I wanted to do with my life. (Secretly, I think I sometimes wondered whether I would really be any good at it.) I saw it as part of a bigger picture that included extended my husband, extended family, friends, an interesting job, travel & hobbies.

I have most of those other things -- just not the baby. Even so, the absence of a child leaves a pretty big hole in the life I had planned. I'm still trying to figure out how that hole should be filled.

What one line from The Empty Picture Frame did you identify with and why?

I have yellow post-it notes throughout the book, marking several passages that I felt "spoke" to me (although there isn't one single sentence I can point to in answer to this question). One part of the book that resonated with me (that nobody has asked a question about) & that I truly appreciated Jenna writing about so candidly in the book was her frank discussion about finances, and how hard it was for her & Mike to watch their hard-earned money disappear -- & then to have to ask their families for help. For example, on page 43, she writes:

"But there were still decisions to make. We had to consider the financial aspect first. It had taken us eight years to get to where we were. We were young, but ahead of the game. We had a dog, two cats, two cars, and a beautiful home in an upper middle-class neighborhood. Mike, being the financial guy, had started us on retirement plans through our first employment situations out of college. Now, slowly, aspects of that life were being compromised for a marginal chance at parenthood.

"...As we talked with the people closest to us, looking for some objective feedback, we would hear things like, "I would sell my house if I had to," or "There's nothing I wouldn't give and no price that I wouldn't pay for my child." [Editor's note: So easy for others to say in theory, of course...] So, how could we not try? It felt like the obvious answer. How materialistic were we being to even suggest that there wasn't money for the necessary procedures?"

I found this passage extremely compelling, because although dh & I ultimately did not do IVF, it reflected our own position (well, minus one of the cars, the dog & both the cats, but you know what I mean...). By the time we had decided to start a family, lost our daughter after several years of ttc, & moved on to fertility testing, we had worked hard to be "responsible" -- to establish our careers, pay off the student loan, find a nice house in a nice neighbourhood (at the peak of a ridiculously heated market) & then pay down the mortgage a little, and save a little in our RRSPs on the side.

We knew what it was like not to have money when we were first married, & we're generally pretty careful with what we've managed to accumulate in the years since then. We don't have a lot of "toys." We generally don't gamble, & the odd time we accompany my parents to a casino, I generally limit myself to two rolls of quarters for the poker slot machines & then I'm done for the night. It was hard enough to convince ourselves to lay down $3,000 an IUI cycle (at odds that would probably get us laughed away from the table in Vegas), let alone $8-12,000 a cycle for IVF. Finances weren't the only reason why we eventually decided to walk away from treatment, but they were certainly a factor that we took into consideration when making our decision. How much of our hard-earned money were we willing to gamble in pursuit of a dream, at very poor odds, especially at our ages, with retirement looming on the not-too-very-distant horizon?

The financial sacrifices that infertile couples make in pursuit of that elusive baby, whether through IVF or other ARTs, or adoption, is is an aspect of fertility treatment that is not well covered in the popular media &, I think, not well understood by non-infertile people. I mean, yes, every article usually notes that each round of IVF can cost X number of dollars -- but they never really talk about it in terms of draining your savings, racking up credit card bills, going cap in hand to your parents for (more) money after they just finished paying off your college bills & perhaps helped you with a down payment for the house too.

All for a good cause, of course -- totally worth it in the end if you do wind up with a baby -- but not everyone's odds are that good, and the reality is that pockets only run so deep. Money shouldn't matter as much as it does when you're trying to do something that most people do for free without a second thought -- but it does, and that's the cold, hard truth.

On page 134, the author talks about the failures bringing repeated pain to their families. In what ways did your treatment affect your extended family?

We did not tell anyone in our families about what we were doing, trying to have a baby (although I'm sure some suspected it). I know a lot of people feel sorry for us because we were never able to have a(nother) child. In the receiving line at the conclusion of dh's uncle's funeral a couple of years ago, his aunt (the widow) threw herself into dh's arms & sobbed some words in Italian. He got the weirdest expression on his face. As we left, I asked him what she had said. "She said, 'Your uncle kept saying, 'Oh, poor [dh] & Lori... they have no children,'" he said. Oh great... and of course, everyone standing there had heard & understood. I go to a funeral to comfort the widow, & instead become an object of pity myself.

I see the pain in my parents' eyes when their friends & relatives babble on about their grandchildren & how wonderful it is to be a grandparent (or, worse, when a casual acquaintance asks them about grandchildren), which, in turn, causes me immeasurable pain, because I wasn't able to give that to them).

On page 147, the author talks about being more aware of the pain of others. How do you feel your infertility has affected your relationship with others?

I absolutely feel this is true for me too. I like to think I was an empathetic person before, but having experienced loss & infertility has made me much, much more aware of the pain that others might be feeling. I don't like going to funerals, but I go, or I make sure I send flowes, a donation, a card with a note in it. I call up friends that i know are having a hard time & take them for coffee to listen to them talk. If someone I know has a miscarriage, I call or send a card, & offer to listen if they want to talk. Sometimes this reaching out is rebuffed -- which hurts a little -- but at least I feel like I tried. I made the effort.

Did your clinic have a Baby Day like Jenna described? Even if not, did you ever have a moment like that in the clinic, with newborn babies being brought in, or a woman cycling who brought her child with her? How did you deal with it?

I remember being at the clinic one day & seeing a woman waiting for an ultrasound with her toddler daughter. "The NERVE of her, bringing a baby with her," I thought. When I came out, I heard her talking to the little girl, who was getting restless. Something about her voice made me look at her again, & I suddenly realized that I knew her -- we worked for the same company & had once belonged to the same lunchtime group. I said hi to her & my name, & she remembered me too, & we talked a little. Between her husband leaving for work & her daughter's daycare, she had no way to bridge the gap in between when she had to be at the clinic, so she wound up bringing the baby with her. She had been doing this for years & had lost twins, & was now trying to get a brother or sister for her little girl. I asked if she wanted to have coffee sometime & she said she took no coffee breaks & had lunch at her desk, in order to shorten her work day to be with her daughter. All she did was clinic, work & child.

Running into her humanized the woman in the waiting room with the child for me. I realized that some people don't have any or many alternatives. At the same time, I think clinics, staff & former patients who are now parents need to be aware of the feelings of patients who are still trying, and just how difficult it is for them to see babies, particularly in the one place where their infertility is totally out in the open & impossible to avoid. Unfortunately, I know that the nurse who told Jenna that she shouldn't be jealous, she should be hopeful, is not alone in her way of thinking.

Jenna discusses how difficult it became for her to go to family events which centered on children while she remained childless. Have you had this experience too? How have you managed to cope with family gatherings?

With great difficulty. ; ) Dh has a large extended family, & we are the only married couple without children. Annual family picnics, showers, birthday parties & weddings are all reminders of what everyone else has that we don't.

Last year, a cousin's 23-year-old daughter got married. She's the oldest cousin of the next generation on that side of the family -- the generation that our daughter would have belonged to -- & it hit dh & I like a ton of bricks that day, watching her beaming parents (who are younger than we are!!) escorting her down the aisle of the church & standing beside her in the receiving line, watching her dance with her father at the reception that night, that this was yet another life experience that most people take for granted, & that we would never get to share with our daughter -- that this wasn't something that just applied to babies, but was going to follow us, our family & friends, & their families, through the rest of our lives.

(To make it worse, BIL & SIL were kidding each other at the reception that, because they had two boys, BIL would never get to dance with a daughter at her wedding -- but SIL would get to dance with her sons at their weddings, twice. All I could think was, "CRY ME A RIVER!!" I adore both BIL & SIL, & I know they would rather die than hurt us, but it obviously didn't occur to them in the least that dh & I might be having a hard time that day.)

As I've written in the past, I did used to have one other childless adult woman, the wife of dh's cousin, that I could chat with at family gatherings about non-kid-related stuff. About a year & a half ago, at age 43 & after 11 years of marriage, she had a baby girl (from IVF, or so it's rumoured). She's currently 44 & on pregnancy #2. I guess they somehow found the magic formula. I'm happy for them (they're a great couple) -- just a little sad for me.

I rarely bow out of these things... just grin & bear them. But I always find I'm incredibly exhausted from the effort after they're over.

Hop along to another stop on this blog tour by visiting the main list at Stirrup Queens (http://stirrup-queens.blogspot.com/). You can also sign up for the next book on this online book club: Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.

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An afternote: Shortly after I finished reading the book, I was off work & at home one day, puttering around doing a little of this & a little of that. Every now & then, I will get the decluttering urge & find myself rummaging through the nearest closet, sorting & tossing its contents. It sometimes sidetracks what I had originally planned to do, but nevertheless feels good when done. : )

On this day, I found myself in our spare bedroom/office closet, where I'd amassed a substantial collection of (wait for it) picture frames over the years. Empty picture frames, never used. Some I'd bought, some I'd been given as gifts, some I'd received as bonbonniere (party favours) at various weddings & showers for dh's cousins.

I realized that many of these frames (e.g., the cutesy ceramic teddy bear baby frame from the dollar store, received as a favour at a baby shower seven years ago) were something that I'd never use in a million years (even if I had a baby, which I don't & know I won't). Others might have looked great back when I bought them on sale in 1987, but didn't suit the decor of the house I had now or my current tastes in frames. I'd changed. I'd moved on to a different view of the way my home should look & how I wanted to display photos of dh, me & our extended family (if not the children we had once hoped for). I kept a few of the ones I like best & may yet use, but I've found some new frames that better suit me and the way I live now.

I put the old frames (& some other such knicknacks) in bags, and dh & I took them to Goodwill on the weekend. I didn't think about the parallels to the book, & to living childless/free after infertility until later. ; )


  1. Wow! There is so much I can relate to here, and so much I'd love to comment on, but alas, *too* much.

    I usually stay away from books on infertility, but I may just pick this one up. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this book.

  2. STE -- I was always the kid in grade school who, when asked to write a paragraph, would turn in a five-page story, lol. How can you tell?? ; )

  3. great responses, loribeth. there's so much here, I'll just note a few things.

    I so identify with what you said in response to the "mirror moment" question. I'm so tired of having to suck it up and play along, and just wish that people would be sensitive to my loss, infertility, and childlessness, for a change. but life goes on and we get left behind in that regard. the more time passes, the easier it is for others to forget... I hate feeling that way. I hate feeling stifled, like I can't participate, all those words I can never say, on top of all that I will never experience. worse, I hate feeling envious, and I can't feel hopeful anymore...

    about the financial aspect of treatment, it sucks that money is even an issue. I hate that we had to have money (disappear) for even the slightest chance of a child. and I hate that people (even infertiles) might assume we didn't want it badly enough because we could not afford more risk.

    excellent posts.

  4. Great review, Loribeth. I enjoyed reading your perspective as one who has resolved IF without children. I especially liked your comments about the wedding. Yeah, cry me a river...

    I could also relate to the financial worries Mike expressed in the book -- but I do wish he had spent a bit more time discussing how they went from this mindset to basically depleting their savings. D. and I are good savers and he only agreed to IVF with the strong caution that we would not spend more than X amount, or dip into retirement funds, or take out a second mortgage. And I knew from his tone, and an understanding of his financial psychology (why he saves the way he does), that these were absolutely nonnegotiable.

    We also had a wall that was waiting for family pictures. It bothered me every time I went upstairs. One of the last things I did before IVF was to clear out the few photographs and instead hang a large art print. The sense of relief was immediate.

  5. Lori - as per usual, you do a lovely job. How could I possibly expound on your thoughts? :0) I was very struck by the part you wrote about your parents when others talk about their grandchildren - I know that sometimes I forget that I am not the only one who **lost** my babies, and that even if their grief is somewhat attenuated from mine, it is still a loss for them.

    I am glad you added the addendum at the end about the picture frames - that really brought your whole review home for me.

  6. I liked the frank discussion Jenna had about finances, but like Ellen K., also wondered about exactly what happened to Jenna and Mike's financial situation. I felt I could really relate to their money situation in some ways. My husband is a real saver, and very cautious with money. We had a major adjustment period when we were first married, because while I was not a spendthrift, my cation certainly wasn't at his level. But we did do a good job saving, and we also got some money from a relative. In the end, when it came time to pay for IVF, it was doable from our savings, without touching retirement. I'm a librarian, he's an academic who spent the last 6 years in grad school. So I wonder, how did we get to be so fortunate with our savings? Was it no school loans (public schools and parental support), no car loans, careful with not taking too many trips or eating out? I would have liked to know a little more about that side of things from Jenna. I'm not trying to berate her or anyone else at all, but I would have been interested in learning a little more here.

    I also was really moved about your experience at the wedding. IF becomes the gift that keeps giving, as it hurts to see family members pregnant, but then it hurts each time their children reach development milestones that you will never see. My brother died when I was 18 and I know with every milestone that I've passed, I've felt sad to think he is no longer there and sad that he will never experience that milestone himself.

  7. Such a thoughtful entry. I skipped this stop on the book tour, but I feel like I maybe shouldn't have. Maybe I will pick the book up now.

    A lot of what you say here made me nod in agreement or shake my head in that "I can't believe it, but I completely believe it" ways. The one thing that annoys the crap out of me though is the financial question. We live in mandated coverage state, and I think everyone should. I think the whole country should be mandated coverage. It is just so cruel that on top of the frivolities of biology there is the huge financial burden for most people. Bloody cruel.

  8. Your answers are such good ones. When you talk about taking your picture frames to Goodwill - that just got me.

  9. I love that last note about taking the picture frames to Goodwill.

    I too was happy to read a book that didn't wrap up neatly. When I read the book the first time, she was in much the same place as she had when she finished the book. Obviously, this time around, I read that ending differently.

    And you are dead-on with the financial side of things. It is easy to hear $10,000 and say, "I'd pay any amount to have a child." It is quite another to spend your savings and lose that breathing space. The financial side is suffocating.

  10. I always love reading your reviews. Gosh, you are so eloquent you put me to shame!!

    One of the most frustrating thing to me about infertility has always been that money will dictate (partially) the size of your family, be in zero children to 15. Which is something that fertiles don't have to worry about. And I hate that. I thank the universe that my parents paid for our IVF, because I don't know that we could have afforded it otherwise.

    Thank you for your always interesting responses.

  11. Great post! So many things I can relate to in what your saying.
    I didn't read the book - but wish I had.
    What you wrote about the finances really struck me. Our decisions on how we pursued treatements were based largely on finances - they had to be as we had limited resources to work with. I hope someday no one in this country has to base family building decisions on whether they have enough money.
    Thanks for sharing.

  12. I agree with you about the ending not being what is usually expected. Although I don't know how Jenna and Mikes story has (or will) end I got the sense from the book that she will have her happy ending one way or another.

    I liked how Jenna was honest about the money issues that come up with couples during treatment also.

    Great review.