Friday, September 27, 2013

The sameness of stigma

I was reading an article on Slate tonight about cancer stigma... and certain passages had an oddly familiar ring.  I figure you could very easily substitute "infertility" or "pregnancy loss" for the "C" word in several places and it would still make sense.

Does any of this sound familiar?
Judgments about behavior not only unsettle and stigmatize the patient, but reflect the interrogator’s own insecurities. Frequently, those disease detectives are attempting to regain a sense of control amid the inherently random and sometimes unjust world that we all reside in, according to researchers who have studied stigma. Psychologists refer to this as the “just-world hypothesis,” a bias in thinking and perception that was first described by psychologist Melvin Lerner and colleagues more than four decades ago, and which has since been documented in numerous books and articles. 
“I think that in one part there is a fundamental assumption in our society that the world is a just place, and that bad things don’t happen to good people,” says Gerald Devins, a stigma researcher and senior scientist at the Ontario Cancer Institute in Toronto. “And I think when bad things happen to good people, it’s threatening to everybody.” 
“Secondly, you can say knowledge is power in a sense,” Devins says. “If we feel like we understand something, it gives us the illusion of control.”

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Bagging my fears

(Alert:  Potential spoilers!)

Dh & I are big Woody Allen fans, and a couple of weekends ago, we went to see his latest movie, Blue Jasmine, with Cate Blanchett in the title role.

The performances all round were excellent -- Blanchett is a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination -- but it was NOT a comedy. By the end of the movie, Jasmine, the once-pampered, now-penniless ex-wife of a Bernie Madoff-type financier, has been abandoned by her friends and family (or what's left of it), and is left sitting alone on a park bench talking to herself, popping pills and clearly on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Jasmine is not a particularly sympathetic character and, as we come to realize, she is (at least in part) the author of her own misfortune. Still, dh & I walked away feeling rather stunned and unsettled.

In a recent Sunday New York Times Magazine article, Lisa Schwarzbaum suggests one reason for our reaction -- or, at least, mine:
...Allen deposits Jasmine in financial and psychic limbo, offering no clue as to what her fate will be. No clue, that is, except to me, and to every woman of my (baby boomer) generation or older who can read the signs in a fibrillating heartbeat: Jasmine will become a bag lady. 
She will wander the streets — poor, homeless, alone, unable to earn a wage or survive on her own. She will be shunned as crazy even when she’s not. She will become invisible. And she will be forgotten.... 

Jasmine is my secret nightmare made flesh. I have no heights of luxury to fall from, no jewels to lose. But I do have the nice, self-sufficient little life that I have worked to put together for myself: the funds allocated for rent, for food, for clothes and tickets to Woody Allen movies and a little bit allocated for old age. What if I lost that security and with it my standing in the world? “Blue Jasmine” hit me hard and depressed me silly. There but for the grace of a Chanel jacket go I.  
This is true of so many women I know. We can intuit Jasmine’s fate because ending up a bag lady is our darkest and clammiest fear. The possibility of falling into bag-ladydom is a terror so deep, so longstanding, so embarrassing to admit yet so matter of fact that we accept it as simply a part of being a woman. I joke with these friends — “I don’t want to end up like one of those, ha ha” — and they comprehend the confession behind the nervous laugh immediately. I also know that our shared dread has little to do with rationality and everything to do with what we understand about how we precariously bagless ladies get by in this world.
It IS irrational. I realize that by virtue of being born Canadian in the 1960s, I am among the most fortunate creatures on the planet. Growing up, my family was far from wealthy -- we ate a lot of fried bologna & Kraft Dinner when I was growing up -- but most people we knew in the small towns where I grew up were in a similar situation, so we seldom felt deprived. The gap between rich & poor at that time & place was much smaller, and with just one TV channel in my pre-teen years and no social media, there were fewer visions of a different lifestyle to aspire to.

The affluence of the 1960s gave way to the economic & political uncertainty of the 1970s and early 1980s -- energy shortages, the Cold War, high unemployment, skyrocketing lending rates (I remember when mortgages were 21%!!). Maybe that's where this lurking uncertainty in the back of my mind (and probably many others') has its roots? I know much has been said & written about the rotten job market facing today's millennial generation, but things weren't that great when I graduated from high school in 1979 or from university in the early 1980s either. I knew several kids who were engineering students at school;  at the time we entered university in the early 1980s, business was booming and there were three jobs waiting for every engineering graduate. By the time we graduated a few years later, though, things had reversed and there were three engineering grads for every available job.

Somehow, dh & I managed to finish school, get married, find & hold onto jobs, buy a house and pay off a mortgage, sock away some savings, carve out a reasonably comfortable life for ourselves and even consider early retirement.  And even though dh lost his job earlier this year, and even though the message is that more and more of us will need to keep working until 65 or longer, it looks like that dream is still within our reach. After going over the numbers ourselves (& over... & over... & over), we consulted a financial planner last month who assured us that it's still do-able.   

I did feel better after that. And yet there is always this small nagging voice of fear and doubt at the back of my mind... What if we're wrong? What if something happens to our health, to our pensions, to our savings?

Even if we're not just one paycheque away from disaster, there's always this nagging feeling that one wrong decision -- one bad investment -- external forces beyond our control -- and we'll be screwed and all our carefully honed plans will be for naught.

I can't help but think that being childless has something to do with this too. (In the movie, Jasmine has no children of her own, although she does have a stepson that she helped to raise -- who now rejects her.) Having children is no guarantee that you'll have someone to look out for you in your old age, of course -- there are an awful lot of lonely aging parents out there.

But it helps.

Of course, so many of us don't live anywhere near the people and places where we grew up, the support networks that families of the past relied on -- and even if we do, everyone is so wrapped up in their own lives and families these days.  And of course, when you're not a parent, you're not plugged into those parent networks. Even then, it's hard not to feel like an outsider sometimes. I was reading Peesticks and Stones' recent post about loneliness and there was a lot there I could relate to. 

Dh gets exasperated with me -- he's run the numbers over & over again, taken me to a financial planner -- and I can still write about my lingering fear of being left alone and in poverty.  He likes to joke that, should I ever be left alone, he'll come back & haunt the nephews to make sure they take good care of me. ;)

Reading this article brought those old fears to the forefront. At the same time, it confirmed for me that I'm definitely not the only woman who thinks about these things, at least once in awhile.

What about you? 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

"Cracked Open" by Miriam Zoll

I ordered "Cracked Open" by Miriam Zoll from Amazon, & began reading it after Pamela mentioned she had included it on her summer reading list.  And I am glad I did.

(Spoiler alert!)  While Miriam's story does end with the arrival of a baby (via adoption), this book is not one of those "my story had a happy ending and yours can too, so don't ever give up hope, because it was all worth it" sorts of infertility memoirs. Yes, it's an infertility memoir, detailing her personal story -- but it's also a cautionary tale of sorts, a critique and a call to action.

Many of us will relate to Miriam's story, or at least some aspects of it. She and I are of the same generation -- born in the late 1950s/early 1960s at the tail end of the post-war baby boom, grew up in the 1970s (right around the time the first "test tube baby," Louise Brown was born in 1978, bringing new hope to infertile couples everywhere) and entered the workforce in the 1980s at a time when everyone was assuring us that we could "have it all."

Like many of us, Miriam spent her 20s getting an education and establishing her career.  She had an on-again-off-again relationship with Michael, the man who eventually became her husband when she was 35, and was largely ambivalent on the subject of motherhood. By the time she finally felt ready to tackle parenthood -- realizing that it was now or never -- she was 40.  By the time she and her husband decided it was time to consult a fertility clinic, she was almost 41. Over the next several years, as they progressed from IVF to donor eggs to contemplating surrogacy, Miriam & Michael endured one setback and indignity after another -- including a miscarriage, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder -- before finally becoming parents through adoption when Miriam was 46.

Most infertility memoirs would end right there. In the Afterword, however, Miriam admits:
"Alongside my overwhelming feelings of gratitude and wonder toward his birthmother and the miracle of this new life, I reluctantly admitted that I was still grieving over what hadn't happened through fertility treatments... and as I wrestled with my lingering demons, I sensed I was not alone... just because the doctor appointments, the injections, the egg transfers and the dashed hopes are over, it does not mean that the trauma is over." (pp. 185-87)

It's Miriam's hope that sharing her story, and encouraging others to share theirs, will help to spark consumer-driven improvements to the way that fertility clinics interact with and support patients, donors and surrogates, and a broader and more balanced understanding of reproductive technologies and the challenges facing those who seek treatment.

I could relate so well to the rollercoaster of emotions and the downward spiral of depression that Miriam describes with raw honesty in this book.  The drive to become a parent -- the willingness to submit our bodies, spirits and pocketbooks to all sorts of beatings, even in the face of overwhelming odds -- and the endurance of the human spirit through all kinds of trauma -- is an amazing thing.  

The only part of the story that I found myself skipping over had little to do with fertility -- it was a chapter titled "Living on the Wild Side," about the critters she & Michael encountered in the old farmhouse they bought.  When she got to the rodent infestation, I though "Next!!" & moved on to the next chapter, lol.  If you're squeamish like me about these things, you may want to skip it too.

This past week, an article co-authored by Miriam & Pamela of Silent Sorority appeared in the New York Times that called for a more inclusive, supportive and realistic approach to infertility treatment. Miriam will be one of the featured speakers at the forum Pamela has been helping to organize in New York City on Sept. 27th, "The Cycle:  Living a Taboo," which will further explore some of the themes presented in the article.

It's an exciting and hopeful time for those of us whose infertility stories didn't have the "happily ever after" ending -- at least, not the one that we've all been conditioned to expect. Slowly but surely, questions are being asked, assumptions are being challenged and a broader and more realistic picture of infertility, both the possibilities AND the limitations, is beginning to emerge.  Miriam's book is an important contribution to that conversation.  I'm looking forward to seeing what comes next!

(This was Book #20 that I've read so far this year.)

Friday, September 13, 2013

My new heroine

I had no idea before yesterday who Aisha Tyler was. I STILL don't know who she is, other than that she is on the TV show "The Talk" (no idea what she did to merit that job).

And I don't really care. All I know is that she did something incredibly brave yesterday, speaking tearfully but openly -- on national television, in front of millions of viewers (and probably millions more since then via Internet replays) -- about her struggle with infertility and how she is coming to terms with the fact that, at 42, she is done with treatment and will never have a biological child.

My heart sank when she started speaking about trying to get pregnant and I saw the looks on the faces of her co-hosts. They were clearly expecting a pregnancy announcement, a stereotypical happy ending. I think they truly were stunned when they realized this was not the case -- quite the opposite, in fact.

I don't often cry over infertility these days, but she had me in tears, particularly when she started talking about what a great dad her husband would have been. I hear you, sister, I hear you.

Aisha Tyler, I salute you for your courage, your openness, and your willingness to say that it's OK to say "no more."

Others saluting Aisha Tyler:

Tracey Cleantis on Huffington Post
Barbara Collura on Huffington Post
The Not Mom 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

GRAB(ook) Club: "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins

Over the last few years, my reader friends (both online & "in real life") have been raving about three series of novels:  the "Twilight" Saga, the"Fifty Shades of Grey" books and "The Hunger Games" trilogy

A few of my friends adored "Fifty Shades" -- but several others (including my sister) warned me that the writing was atrocious and the books were basically Harlequin romances dressed up with leather & chains. As for "Twilight," the vampire thing has never appealed to me. SIL tried to get me to read Anne Rice, more than 20 years ago. Just couldn't get into it.

On the other hand, I do enjoy a bit of dystopian fiction/alternative history now & then. One such book that springs to mind is "Fatherland" by Robert Harris, which I read some years ago. It's set in early 1960s Germany, but the twist here is that Hitler won World War II, Joseph Kennedy (father of the real-life President Kennedy, who was opposed to the war) is now President of the United States, the Jews have disappeared from Europe and the Holocaust has been covered up. (Or almost.) There's even a moptop quartet from England that makes a cameo appearance in Hamburg. ; )

Another is "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood, which we covered in an earlier version of Mel's book club. (I actually noticed a number of parallels between that book and this one as I read.)

So I figured I might actually like "The Hunger Games" if I ever got around to reading it, and the GRAB(ook) Club offered the perfect excuse to put it next on my list. ; )

"The Hunger Games," if you haven't heard by now, is set in a future United States, now a totalitarian nation known as Panem, divided into 13 districts. Our heroine & narrator, Katniss Everdeen (one thing I did NOT particularly like in the book were the characters' rather ridiculous names), lives in the poorest area, District 12, once known as Appalachia. Each year, the children aged 12-18 in each district gather for "The Reaping," in which one boy & one girl are chosen by lottery as "tributes," then whisked away to the Capitol, where they will fight to the death in the annual Hunger Games until just one warrior is left standing.  The Hunger Games serve as a sort of sick form of reality entertainment for the wealthy citizens of the Capitol, and also as a reminder to the rest of the country about the power the Capitol holds over them. And when Katniss's younger sister Primrose in chosen in the Reaping, Katniss volunteers to fight in her place.

This was a good book, and a quick read (I put it on my e-reader and read it on the commuter train to & from work last week).  I wouldn't say it's the best book I've ever read, as my nephew (age 20) did. Perhaps the whole idea of children being forced to kill each other is just a little too barbaric for my tastes. It's certainly nothing like the books I would have read as a young adult, but I can see how it would appeal to a generation raised on violent video games (not to mention episodes of "Survivor").

But I did enjoy it -- enough that I was tearing up in the last 15 pages, and enough to download the other two books in the series, and to think about seeing the movie. (I like Jennifer Lawrence;  I thought she was brilliant and deserved the Oscar in "Silver Linings Playbook.") ;) 

It made me think.

*** *** ***

My question: 
I've mentioned that the book reminded me of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Survivor and other reality TV shows, and violent video games.  What if anything about the book reminded you most of our life in the here & now, and why?

After you answer my question, please click over to read the rest of the book club questions for The Hunger Games.  You can get your own copy of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins at bookstores including Amazon.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Pre-vacation reading

I actually read these two books before my vacation, and before reading the four books I recently wrote about here.  By all rights, I guess I should have reviewed these two first. (Not to mention that a lot of what I had intended to write is fast fading from my memory. :p)  But hey, it's my blog and I'll do what I want. ; ) 

Total number of books read YTD, including these:  18 -- almost double my total for all of 2012. Not bad!!

*** *** ***

I finally got around to reading Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In" -- I figured I'd better make it a priority, since I actually wrote about the book (here and here) before reading it. ; )

I liked this book  (with a few caveats).  And I found myself liking Sandberg, too.  I do wonder if a lot of the people who have been criticizing the book, and Sandberg, have actually read the thing.

I liked that Sandberg is not afraid to call herself a feminist, that she considers Gloria Steinem a role model and mentor. I like that the book has been meticulously researched, with an extensive notes section. I like that she told relevant, personal stories that any working woman (mother or not) could relate to. And I very much liked her emphasis on the fact that, while women should be leaning in more in the workplace, men also need to do more leaning in on the home front.

At the same time, I do think some of the criticisms of the book are justified.  While Sandberg is careful to emphasize that she recognizes how privileged she is, the fact remains that she IS privileged, and the vast majority of working women do not enjoy the same advantages that she and some of her peers do -- money, power, a supportive husband,  a Harvard MBA & a mentor like Larry Summers behind us. There's a lot in the book about what women can do -- and her advice is worthwhile -- but I would have liked to have heard more about what men and the corporations they are still largely in charge of running can do to make the workplace better for all their employees. The onus for adtion and change shouldn't entirely be on women.

Sandberg does touch on the topic of work-life balance... but I wish she had spent a little less time talking about working mothers & given a little more recognition to the fact that her all of us, men & women, parents or not, could use a little more work-life balance. 

Granted -- I was surprised & pleased to read (on page 132):  "It's not only working parents who are looking for more hours in the day;  people without children are also overworked, maybe to an even greater extent."

However, she then goes on to relate a story about a single woman on a panel discussion she attended  who argued that her need to leave work to go to a party was just as legitimate as parents' need to attend their kids' soccer game, "because going to a party is the only way I might actually meet someone and start a family so I can have a soccer game to go to one day!"  Some of us may never have that soccer game to attend -- but we may have other priorities and responsibilities and interests outside of work that are just as important to us -- and I believe that our need for work-life balance is every bit as "legitimate" as parents or would-be parents.

Despite its limitations, this is a valuable book worth reading, thinking and talking about. 

*** *** ***

I picked up Marie Osmond's latest book, The Key is Love, because (1) I'm a longtime Osmonds fan;  (2) I've read her other books so I figured I might as well read this one too ; ) & (3) I was curious to hear what she had to say about recent events in her life, including her son Michael's suicide, and her decision to remarry her first husband (!), 25 years after they were divorced (& wearing the same dress she wore at their first wedding, some 30 years earlier).

Ostensibly, Osmond wrote this book as a tribute to her mother, Olive Osmond, but it also updates fans on recent events in her life.

As you might expect from a devout Mormon girl, Osmond delivers platitude after platitude about the glories of motherhood -- and, as a childless-not-by-choice woman, I found it a little hard to swallow at times.

But there are some surprises along the way. Some of what Osmond writes is platitude, true, but there actually is a lot of good old-fashioned wisdom in her mother's words & advice.  And although Osmond extols old-fashioned ways & values, make no mistake, she's a thoroughly modern working mother. 

While Osmond believes there is no higher calling than motherhood -- and she's got 8 (!!) children to prove it -- she's also a working mother (whose office just happens to be a stage in Las Vegas), the primary family breadwinner for most of her adult life and, at times, a single mother.  In her own way, she's been leaning in for the past 50 years, since she started singing with her famous brothers as a toddler.

And the show must go on (eventually) -- even when your beloved son commits suicide. As a bereaved parent, albeit of a slightly different variety, my heart went out to Marie as I read this section of the book. This woman understands grief & loss.  She is also frank about her own problems with getting & staying pregnant, and her struggles with postpartum depression.. At least half of her eight children are adopted, and she writes about how many of those children came to her.

There are certain details Osmond declines to reveal, citing her children's privacy.  She writes about the failure of her second marriage, and while she doesn't tell us exactly what went wrong, she does say that her children, and her one daughter in particular, were well aware of what was going on and urged her to leave. She also mentions that her son chose to sever ties with his father completely, and both he and her daughter changed their last names. Hmmmm.    

If you're not as Osmonds fan, you probably won't be compelled to pick up this book... but if you were to do so, I think you night enjoy it more than you might think. ;) 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Podcast re: Gateway Women

Count me among the many fans of Jody Day & Gateway Women... I have never quite been able to figure out how Google Plus works to take part in the online community :p  but I enjoy reading Jody's blog posts -- and I especially enjoy listening in whenever she's interviewed in an online podcast. She's an incredibly articulate spokesperson for our corner of the community. Perhaps it's because she's British and so many of them seem able to express themselves so well (love listening to the accents...)  ; ) or maybe she just happens to get some very sympathetic interviewers -- but I often sense she has really opened their eyes and made them consider things from an entirely different viewpoint -- and that is a true gift. Listen in to this podcast from a program called Radio Gorgeous (!) and you will see what I mean.  Jody's segment starts around the 22-minute mark.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Grade 10

Today was the first day of class for most schools across the province. (Not So) LGND was starting Grade 9 today -- high school, hereabouts -- and apparently was not looking forward to the transition. I kept thinking how nice it would have been for her to have a neighbourhood friend -- i.e., Katie, who would have been starting Grade 10 -- to show her the ropes. ; )

Today was not as hard as the same day last year was for me -- the day Katie would have headed off to (gulp!) high school for the first time. Most of my immediate coworkers either don't have kids, or their kids are older & attending university (another story altogether...!).  Several are also on vacation at the moment. So I didn't have to listen to too many stories at the office.

Nevertheless, the annual flood of first day of school photos on Facebook started to wear a bit as the day went on -- I counted just under two dozen photos or school-related posts from my friends & relatives today, not to mention others posted over the past few weeks by those in the States, where school seems to start earlier -- and the promise of more to come tomorrow (seems some schools don't start until then).  Drip, drip, drip, like water wearing away at a stone. :p

Was today difficult for you?