Friday, January 8, 2010

Childlessness, choices and resilience at midlife

ETA: This is post #350!

As I alluded in my New Year's Eve post, my birthday is next week. My (gulp) 49th. At this time next year, I will be face to face with the big 5-0.

If it hadn't sunk in before, that I will never have children, there's no denying it now. (Which doesn't mean that it doesn't still hurt.) Even with all the assistance that's now available for infertile couples, the fact remains that if you haven't had children by the time you're in your late 40s, it's highly doubtful that you ever will.

I'm sure the majority of people who stop infertility treatment & resolve to live childfree, at whatever age, actually do wind up living the rest of their lives without children, although I have no statistics to back me up on that. Although, while I'm not trying to extend false hope to anyone, judging from my own reading & real-life relationships, I know that things can & sometimes do change.

I know of couples who said "no more" but eventually wound up going back into treatment -- & meeting with success (sometimes months later, sometimes years later). Sometimes, after a break, they find new reserves of physical, mental & emotional stamina to draw upon and decide to try again. Sometimes, new financial resources become available -- a savings account that builds up nicely, a sudden gift from a parent, a bequest from a dead relative, an extra-nice bonus at work, a lottery win (…!). Sometimes, partners who once said "no" to treatments or adoption suddenly say "Let's talk about it again." Sometimes, hearts change, & couples that previously ruled out options such as adoption or donor gametes suddenly start thinking about them. And sometimes (sometimes, but probably not as often as mythology would have you believe), a miracle happens & a previously infertile couple can find themselves unexpectedly pregnant (particularly if they haven't taken any steps to actually prevent a pregnancy from happening, other than assuming their babymaking parts are permanently broken).

These things can & sometimes do happen when you are in your 20s & 30s. Once you enter your 40s, though, and particularly once you get past 45, it's a whole different ball game. When you're 40+ and make that decision to end treatment & live childfree, or even just take a break, you can't help but know that time is running out, & there may not be any second chances. The odds of conceiving (let alone bringing home a living, healthy baby), whether naturally or through treatment, which slide all through your 30s, go into freefall. Some adoption programs won't accept couples beyond a certain age cutoff. One reason (among many) why we didn't pursue adoption was I wondered how desirable we'd seem as parents when our profile was placed against that of a younger couple.

You do hear, occasionally, of women in their late 40s or early 50s giving birth. What you usually don't hear, especially in the case of celebrity pregnancies, is that most of those pregnancies resulted from fertility treatments and, specifically, donor eggs. Most of those who actually manage to conceive without assistance have already established some sort of track record. (I think of my own great-grandmother, who gave birth at 47 -- albeit after having five other children. She is still, 85+ years later, the oldest woman in town to have given birth.) There's a reason they are called "MIRACLE babies."

Yes, if you are REALLY determined, you can probably be a parent at any age. Somehow, some way. But the question becomes, at what cost? The fact is that, at (almost) 49, I'm not as young or energetic as I was in my 20s or even my mid-30s. The 35+ extra pounds that I managed to shed in my early 30s (& then regained during my pregnancy & the years afterward) are now stubbornly refusing to budge, even though I'm back at the same Weight Watchers program & exercising more than I did then. Over the last dozen years, I've developed a sluggish thyroid, low blood iron, high blood pressure & some puzzling symptoms that could be allergies, or could be hot flashes. (!) My knees sometimes creak when I get up from my desk at work. I haven't been sleeping soundly at the best of times, & I'm not even menopausal yet. (But I know it's coming. Sooner rather than later.) I'm up at 5 a.m. most days for work, & collapse into bed by 10 -- sometimes earlier.

Even assuming that I could successfully carry a healthy pregnancy to term, at my age & with all my health quirks, I try to imagine myself, now, changing diapers & doing feedings at 3 a.m. Chasing after a pre-schooler while going through menopause. Dealing with a teenager & then funding college at the same time I'm dealing with retirement.

Maybe some brave folks can do it. I know my limits: I can't. It's something I very much wanted for myself & dh, & we went through a lot to try to realize that dream -- but it just ain't gonna happen, folks. That ship sailed long ago.

*** *** ***

I've been writing this post over a period of days, and I was trying to think of a good way to end it, some tidy moral or conclusion that I could draw. ; ) I kept thinking about my New Year's Eve post, and Pamela's new blog, and a sense of new beginnings and new possibilities alongside that sense of regret and time running out.

Over a few nights this past week, dh & I have been watching parts of a special series on PBS called "This Emotional Life." It's hosted by Daniel Gilbert, a psychologist whose books include "Stumbling on Happiness." One night it was exploring fear; Wednesday night the topic was happiness. I found it all fascinating (& was sorry that I had to head off to bed in the middle of each episode -- although you can watch them online until around Jan. 20th, as well as shorter clips of the people interviewed) but my ears really pricked up about 25 minutes into the happiness episode & I grabbed for a pen & paper & started taking notes.

They talked about the studies (which I've heard about before) that show that people without children are actually happier than parents. Then they moved on to talk about happiness & choices, including an experiment in which students were shown works of art. Students in one group were told they could pick any poster they wanted, but they couldn't change their mind later. Students in another group were told they could each choose a poster too, but they were allowed to exchange their posters at any time during the session. The people who were told they couldn't exchange their posters were more satisfied with their choices than those who had more options. The conclusion was that people will find ways to like/make the best of things when they know they're stuck with them. We adapt. We learn how to make lemonade when life hands us lemons.

They talked to a paraplegic who lost the use of his limbs after a swimming accident (he did eventually regain use of his arms & hands, but is still in a wheelchair). He said something along the lines of, "I didn't want to just wither away... I wanted to live. What do I want to do with my life?" (Sound familiar?) He started a highly successful business making botanical skin care products. They talked to a cancer patient & how "illness can tear a hole in our identity and leave us wondering who we really are." (Also sound familiar?)

The comment was that people who suffer trauma & tragedies are often more resilient than anyone would expect -- resilience isn't rare; in fact, it's common. They then investigated why some people manage better than others, & talked about how social support is a key factor in gaining resilience -- you can't do it alone. (They used Alcoholics Anonymous as an example.) I thought about our ALI community, and the Stirrup Queen & all she does to invoke a state of kumbayaness among us : ), and the pregnancy loss support group dh & I have been involved with for the past 11 years.

So what (in a very long-winded way) am I concluding? I guess what I'm driving at is that as you age, your choices become more limited, especially when it comes to family building. I have the sad sensation that certain doors are closing on me forever, and even though I've been living childless/free for more than eight years now, I'm still a little sad about that.

But (given that we are resilient creatures), while I'll always be sad that a part of life that most people take for granted isn't going to happen for me & dh, I believe (& the TV show affirmed) it's still possible to be happy and have a good life -- even though (as I've said many times before), to some extent, I'm still trying to figure out what that life is going to look like.

Doors may be closing -- but there are others just waiting for me to turn the knob & peek at what's behind them.


  1. I think the point about limitless options is great, as humans, it seems as if we crave boundaries, even when sometimes the boundaries make us sad.

    It sounds like an amazing program, and it sounds even more like you reached some good conclusions.

    I'm still sorry Loribeth, I wish things had worked out differently, but the resilience bit is so huge, isn't it. Perhaps happiness does come down to what Elinor Roosevelt said, most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.

  2. What a truly heartfelt and honest post my friend.


  3. You've touched me so much with these words. I'm facing the same truths and go back and forth all of the time. Thank you, I was really moved to tears.


  4. I often wonder the 'what ifs' of my life if I could of been a mother. I think we will always wonder. For some reason our lives took a different direction in living childfee and the mystery remains. The best thing to do is to live well.

  5. Great post! And I couldn't agree more about the strength and resilience that comes in the wake of being tested in ways we never expected...

  6. This is one of the best posts I have ever read about how life happens and we just keep walking on.

  7. I wanted to comment on your New Year's post, and I didn't get a chance. I loved that post, as I do this one. Your ability to both acknowledge the sadness and grief, but also have happiness and hope of new (though different from imagined) adventures is extremely inspiring to me right now. I did get blessed with A, but I'm trying to adjust and make peace with the fact that she will be my only, and that my reproductive life ended in such a negative way. I love to read your posts, they help me see that maybe one day, I won't be bitter and sad.

    I caught the second half of the same show on happiness, and I loved it. I was struck by how much we have in common with people dealing with any struggle, even ones totally different from baby loss. One thing that really stuck with me was the bit on "positive pychology" finding your strengths and capitalizing on them in order to build your resilience. It inspired me to try to find my strengths somwhere in this muck.

  8. What a lovely and moving post, Loribeth.

  9. I think this is exactly right -- there are so many different paths to happiness.

  10. The worst part of infertility was that I lost my joy in living. I got by, I woke up and I talked and walked and carried on, but on too many days, it was like it was always raining in my heart. Throughout my long wait, I had to really, really try to find my joy again - in a walk with JuJu, cold, sunny days, etc.
    I will chant this year that you find even more joy, peace and happiness in your life.

  11. Happy Birthday Lori! I hope this is the beginning of a new, adventurous, fun chapter in your life!

  12. Thank you for sharing such a heartfelt post. I am here - at early menopause - after surviving cancer settling into my knowledge of being unable to have children. Most days I think I am "OK" with me as who I am ~ that I have accepted myself ~ other days it will whammy me out of the blue and I feel like I am starting all over with that acceptance.

    That said at 38 I completely understand what you were saying about wondering if I would now even have the energy to tackle it all - if my health would let me soar as a parent. And the one thing I keep coming back to? Do I want to be the "older" mom?

    Most days I don't have answers just the here and now. I am blessed to have a goddaughter who I adore and see almost daily and a 2nd niece on the way. My family is supportive and my brother and sister-in-law ROCK with letting me be involved and I love it.

    So I guess you could say I have the best of a bad situation. Thank you for sharing so much of your story. It is truly inspiring.