Tuesday, March 25, 2014

"And rest in unvisited tombs"

At the grave of my childless spinster great x3 aunt last fall.
"But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs." -- George Eliot, Middlemarch

I owe the above quote -- and inspiration for this post -- to Brooke, who included it as part of her comment on my recent post about the classic Victorian novel "Middlemarch" by George Eliot and the new book that it inspired Rebecca Mead to write, "My Life in Middlemarch."

Coincidentally, dh & I were visiting Katie's niche at the cemetery this weekend -- as we do most weekends -- and talking about who's going to come to visit us there when we're gone.

Our reluctant but realistic conclusion: nobody. Maybe the nephews once in a very great while, but it's an hour's drive for them, so I doubt they will make the trip very often, if at all.

It's kind of sad to think about. But it's true. And, if you think about it, realistically, how many graves are being visited regularly by relatives 10, 20, 50, 100 years after a person dies (if not for the immediate time afterward)?  (Especially when they don't have any direct descendants -- as will be the case with dh & me.)

Case in point: while dh is happy with our weekly trips to Katie's niche, he rarely visits the grave of his mother, who died more than 30 years ago (before I ever met her).  Part of it is distance -- it's about a half hour drive away, not an area of the city we often visit these days. I also suspect that visiting brings back some painful memories that he still has difficulty dealing with.

As another example, my grandparents are buried in a family plot with my great-grandparents & my grandmother's younger brother. But I -- one of the family genealogists -- had NO IDEA until about 15 years ago that both sets of my grandmother's grandparents -- i.e., my great-great grandparents -- as well as grandma's uncle -- were all buried together in yet another family plot, not far away. My mother & I found this other plot almost by accident. My grandmother had always made a fuss over her parents' graves, cleaning and planting around them on the U.S. Memorial Day weekend, but I don't ever recall her mentioning this other family plot or showing it to us. Go figure.

I know a lot of people -- even the other bereaved parents we know, online & "in real life" -- are surprised that we are still visiting Katie at the cemetery every week, almost 16 years after her stillbirth. The only weeks we've missed have generally been when we're away or when the weather has been really bad.  It's just a habit we've gotten into. The cemetery is a 15-minute drive away, more or less along the way to our usual weekend shopping, dining and movie spots. We'll stop by on our way to dinner &/or a bookstore visit on Saturday night, or en route to a movie on Sunday afternoon. We don't usually stay very long, but we miss it if we don't go.

We've brought other family members to Katie's niche over the years. FIL used to come occasionally by himself, in the beginning, but I don't think he has in many years now. Occasionally, our bereaved parent friends from support group, whose children are buried nearby, will come by to visit, just as we will occasionally stroll over to visit the graves of their children. Once all of us are gone, though....

But sometimes, people do visit.  

I've written before in this blog about my fascination with genealogy.

(As an aside -- I've often noted, and wondered, how it is that so many people who are keen on genealogy have no children themselves. I suppose the smartass answer would be that we're the only ones who have time for such things. I like to think that we're still contributing to the family history and growing the family tree... just in a different way. Most people add branches by sprouting new ones of their own.  People like me go looking for branches that have been lost in the mists of time, and reattach them to add to the fullness of the family picture. I find myself wanting to know more about these people, who they were, what they were like, what their lives were like;  what, if anything, of them, has lived on in me & the family members I know today.)

Last fall, we drove an hour & a bit north to enjoy the spectacular autumn colours and visit the graves of my great x3 grandparents & their daughter -- my grandfather's great-aunt -- the younger sister of my great-great grandmother, or, I suppose you could call her my great x3 aunt. I first visited there 30 years ago with my parents and, since it's really not that far from where we now live, dh & I have gone back several times since then -- often in the fall, when the leaves are at their prettiest. (My great x3 grandparents aren't even listed in the cemetery records as being buried there -- but my great x3 grandfather's newspaper obituary says he was buried there -- and there is enough space and, half buried in the grass, two tiny marble corner plot markers bearing the family name, which tells me they are indeed there.)

My great x3 aunt  -- unmarried & childless -- has been dead almost 65 years. I am willing to bet that my parents, dh & I are the only relatives to have visited her grave in the last 30 years. She's someone who could so easily have been forgotten, fading into the fog of history. And yet, as we (or at least my genealogist cousins & I) have come to realize our family, and our knowledge of our family's history, owes a great, great deal to this woman.

(Perhaps even more amazingly, as we have learned through our research, she was not actually related to us by blood at all, but was taken in as an infant by my great x3 grandparents and raised as one of their own.)(We've even managed to hazard a pretty good guess as to who her birth parents might have been.) 

While my great x2 grandmother and her family moved west in the late 1870s, great aunt x3 stayed on to care for their aging parents. After their deaths, the western branch of the family urged her to join them -- but she chose to stay in the little town where she had spent most of her life. She lovingly saved the letters that my great-great grandparents sent to her and her parents over the years -- letters that would be found after her death, copied and circulated among the extended family, pique my interest in the family history and provide invaluable information and clues for further research. 

She lived to be a very old woman, almost 90 years old, outliving most of the family members who knew and remembered her. She lived by herself, in a simple wooden house with dirt floors (!), supporting herself by weaving rag rugs for the townspeople. It's sad to think that she might have felt forgotten by her family near the end of her life. The letters she had once received from the west dwindled as the generation who knew her passed on;  occasionally, a great-niece or nephew would make a special trip to visit her.

But one of my cousins has a letter written by a neighbour (and sent to my cousin's grandmother), providing the details of great x3 aunt's death. She had reluctantly closed up her little house, moved into a care home for the winter, and became ill.  The neighbour wrote that she had been at great x3 aunt's bedside when she passed. The funeral would be held from the parlour of her own home, and how sad the community was to lose one of its oldest and most respected citizens. The neighbour later wrote a history of the town, crediting great x3 aunt in the introduction for her invaluable assistance. Apparently, the community owes great x3 aunt a great deal too.

I cried when I read that letter.  Great x3 aunt hadn't been alone in the end, but surrounded by neighbours who loved and respected her. 

Did she understand the positive impact her one, quiet life would have on so many people? Did ever imagine that, some 60 years later, her great x3 niece would be standing by her grave? Probably not.

Before dh & I left town to make the drive north that day, I asked him to stop off at the supermarket, so I could pick up a chrysanthemum plant to take and leave at the cemetery. He grumbled, impatient to be on the road -- but as I placed the pot beside the headstone, patted the granite & said, "Thank you, Aunt M.," he gave me a hug. "I'm glad you brought flowers," he said.

Unvisited tombs? You never know.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

"Otherhood" by Melanie Notkin

Melanie Notkin, founder of Savvy Auntie, has a marketer's knack for identifying and catering to a neglected market segment -- in this case, the growing number of women who don't currently and may never have children -- and coining catchy new terms to describe them/us -- including "PANK (Professional Aunt, No Kids)" and "circumstantial infertility."

Now Notkin has coined another catchy new term for those of us who are not moms. If you're a PANK, and not experiencing motherhood, you're part of the "Otherhood."

"Otherhood" is also the name of Notkin's new book. In her own words:
"We have gone without definition or visibility for too long. I am offering "Otherhood" as a name for our misunderstood group of women doing our best to live full and meaningful lives despite the frustrations of some of our most cherished longings. We, the Otherhood, who have yet to find our rightful, equitable, requisite place in society, deserve one....  
"Otherhood uncovers, explores, and examines this overlooked and misunderstood segment of contemporary women. Part anecdotal storytelling, part inspiration, part reportage and part manifesto, Otherhood sets out to get to the heart of the issues, enliven the societal consciousness, and trigger conversation in and around our tribe."

(Ironically, I found this book in the bookstore on a shelf along with "The Mom Shift" by Reva Seth and "French Parents Don't Give In" by Pamela Druckerman. ;)  )

I really wanted to like this book. I was predisposed to like it. After all, I'm part of the Otherhood.  It's a subject near & dear to my heart. And overall, it's a good book that makes some important points.

But I have a few reservations.

First: Notkin uses composite characters throughout her book -- "women and men whose identifying characteristics have been modified or blended with others to protect their privacy" (with the exception of the experts quoted). Some experiences and events have also been modified, compressed or out of chronological order. Notkin is, at least, upfront about her use of this literary device -- there's a note about it at the very start of the book. Even so, perhaps it's the journalist in me, but this does tend to make me a little uneasy.

Second, while Notkin's description of the Otherhood is inclusive of all childless women, and the book's introduction talks about the rise of childless women generally, the book is primarily directed to Notkin's own particular segment of the Otherhood -- women like herself, who are not just childless but childless because they are single and looking for love and marriage before motherhood (even if that means they never become a mother at all). If you're single, childless and hoping to be a mother, this is definitely the book for you. If you're married, some of the content might not be quite as compelling. 

That said, the final third or so of the book does move beyond the problem of finding a man to procreate with and delve into other reasons why women might find themselves childless as they enter their 40s. 

Third, the book isn't just heavily focused on single women, but on a very particular subset of them. As Publishers Weekly noted in its otherwise positive review: "the affluent Manhattan-centricity of the author's cohort may alienate less-privileged readers."  Even though Notkin laments that "'Sex and the City' remains the dominant pop cultural portrait of our supposed lifestyle," many chapters of the book read like... episodes of "Sex and the City," revolving around Melanie and her 40-something single friends -- who invariably have fabulously glamorous-sounding careers (there's Wynn, a fashion PR executive;  Rachel, a beauty industry executive; Stephanie, founder and CEO of an advertising agency;  Meredith, an Ivy League-educated attorney... you get the idea...) -- meeting at a lengthy list of chic Manhattan bars and restaurants (the book could also double as a NYC bar & restaurant guide) to sip cocktails, eat brunch, and talk about the men they've met and why they won't take responsibility for planning a single date, nevermind committing to a serious relationship.

I suppose she is just following that old piece of writerly advice, "Write about what you know" -- but the Otherhood isn't just a neighbourhood in Manhattan. It might have been nice if she had gone slightly outside of her comfort zone and made an effort to talk to childless women elsewhere in the U.S. (and in the world, for that matter) -- maybe in some smaller cities or even rural communities, where the pool of eligible men is a lot smaller. Maybe a few more secretaries, teachers, human resources managers, accountants, retail clerks...

With these caveats aside -- the book is worth a read. While some of the content is narrow in focus, it covers the issues facing single women who want to be mothers quite thoroughly. The introduction sets the stage well, outlining the reasons why so many 40-something women today find themselves without the children they wanted, and the final few chapters move beyond discussions of finding a partner to other issues such as infertility, egg freezing, single motherhood and dealing with partners who are reluctant to have children, or more children (as is often the case with men on their second or third marriages). 

With women like me, Notkin is obviously preaching to the choir. Hopefully her message will reach outside the Otherhood and provide some food for thought.

If you read "Otherhood," I'd be curious to hear what you thought of it!

This is book #3 that I have read in 2014 to date.

Article: "The no-baby boom"

This week's issue of Macleans, Canada's national newsmagazine, features a story called "The no-baby boom" by Anne Kingston -- illustrated with a large photo of everyone's favourite "will she or won't she (procreate)" poster girl (or, as the article dubs her, "the mother of all non-mothers"), Jennifer Aniston.

Macleans has run previous articles on pregnancy loss and childfree living that set my teeth on edge. This time, though, I think they've (finally!!) got it right.

Recent mainstream media articles on childfree living have tended to focus on the childfree by choice (case in point: the infamous Time magazine cover story from last summer). The Macleans article actually shines the spotlight (for once!!) on those of us who are childless/free-not-by-choice. It also talks about the often-neglected matter of "social infertility" or "circumstantial infertility/" (I don't particularly like the term -- I think it's hard enough to get people to take true medical infertility seriously as a problem without muddying the waters.  But I do agree single women who want to be married and have children are a segment of the childless/free world that tends to be ignored or left out in the kids/no kids discussion.)

For the most part, I think our stories have been presented thoughtfully and with respect. Maybe that's because the author has consulted and quoted some of the leading spokeswomen of our community -- including Jody Day of Gateway Women, Melanie Notkin (the Canadian-born founder of Savvy Auntie), and Lisa Manterfield of Life Without Baby, as well as francophone blogger Catherine-Emmanuelle Delisle of Femme Sans Enfant. She also mentions bloggers Pamela Tsigdinos & Tracey Cleantis.

Topics covered include:
  • The lack of positive role models for childless women.
  • There are many reasons why women might end up without children.
  • Childless women are a large and growing segment of the population.
  • The impact of "social infertility."
  • PANKs (Professional Aunts, No Kids) and their growing economic clout.
  • Some choices (to become a solo mother, freeze your eggs, rely on IVF, etc.) aren't true choices and are more complex than most people realize.
  • Discussion about childlessness is framed in terms of personal choice, failure and medical infertility, as well as cultural narratives of motherhood and womanhood, which tends to shut down conversation.
  • Women outside the maternal matrix are suspect, a threat to the status quo.
  • Things are changing and childless women are becoming increasingly vocal.
  • Rising childlessness and the fetishization of motherhood are linked, and the result of fundamental societal shifts. New models are required and being shaped.
Read it and let me know what you think!

Friday, March 21, 2014

My life & Middlemarch

I was introduced to "Middlemarch" by George Eliot nearly 35 years ago, by my favourite English prof. I had never heard of it before, but he told us it was his all-time favourite book, and quite possibly (he thought) the greatest novel ever written in the English language.  His own well-worn copy had underlining and margin notes in several different colours -- a different colour for each time he had read it (and this was not his first copy).  It was a huge thick book, slow moving, but I ultimately did enjoy it.

I hadn't thought much about "Middlemarch" until just recently. Rebecca Mead has written a book called "My Life in Middlemarch," about the novel and her own experiences reading it. I've read several reviews (mostly good) & articles about the book. And then in today's Globe & Mail, this interview with her. I was particularly struck by these two paragraphs at the end:
Through her examination of the hold Middlemarch has over her, Mead – who has three children, including two step-children – reconciled her own feelings about ambition and the idea that it can, indeed, be too late to be the person you thought you might be. When she started the research, she was in her early 40s, in that uncomfortable place of new middle-age, realizing that doors of opportunity were closing. 
But now, she is more hopeful about the happiness and satisfaction that lie ahead. Middlemarch attaches more beauty and romance to the accomplishment of enduring love rather than to the follies of young love, even though that’s what preoccupies many. “Whether we are married or have kids or not, most of what we do is humble and small, and yet it has a kind of incredible grandeur,” Mead says, offering a quote that Eliot herself might have spoken.
So I haven't read the book (yet) -- but those last two paragraphs have got me thinking. Is it too late to be the person I want to be? It's definitely too late for me to be a mother. Yes, I know there are those who would argue that it's never too late, if I just persevere and never give up and spend enough money, somehow, somewhere, some way, I could be a mother... 

Well, call me a pessimist or a quitter (I wouldn't, but that's your prerogative) -- but I think it's true that, as we age, we start to come to terms with the fact that we're just not going to get to do everything we ever wanted to do or thought we would do. There are some doors of opportunity that are indeed closing -- and, once closed, will never open again (or will only be pried open with great difficulty and at great cost).  Our time, money, patience and other resources are limited, and that becomes more & more evident the older we get.  It's up to us to decide how we want to spend those resources, where our priorities are -- and those priorities often change as we age & evolve.  I am not entirely the same person I was when I first read read "Middlemarch" in my early 20s -- or when I was 37 and pregnant with Katie. or 40, when I decided I had to stop infertility treatments for the sake of my sanity. And I'll probably have changed again, in big or small ways, by the time I'm 60 or 75 or older.

That said, while it may be too late to be the person you once wanted to be, it's never too late to try to be a better person, to strive for something better. We might never reach that goal, but isn't the fun in the trying? The journey, vs the destination?

Our lives may not be the ones we pictured for ourselves when we were younger... but yes, there can be happiness and satisfaction and even grandeur sometimes (and I love that she mentioned "whether we have kids or not" -- it was probably that one line that provided the spark for this blog post). 

Thoughts? Anyone else read "Middlemarch," Mead's book, or both?

I have to admit, I went out & bought a copy of Mead's book (I have "Middlemarch" on my e-reader, and put it on my to-(re)read list). I don't often re-read books these days, but I might have to make an exception here. I'll let you know if/when I get around to reading either or both. ;) 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

"It's like I'm my own shrink"

The other night, I watched an interview that George Stromboulopoulos -- the CBC television star we memorably encountered at LaGuardia last fall, en route home to Toronto from our whirlwind chicks' weekend in New York City -- recently did with Randy Bachman, classic rock guitarist extraordinaire for both the Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive -- and, I might add proudly, a fellow Manitoban :)  (albeit now living on Saltspring Island in British Columbia).  Bachman hosts a weekly radio program on CBC radio called Vinyl Tap, where he plays classic rock records and tells stories about the people behind them. He's written a memoir & a collection of stories from his show, and was on Strombo to promote a second story collection, Tales From Beyond the Tap.

The entire half hour is worth a listen if you're a fan of Bachman or his bands, or classic Canadian rock, or just classic rock generally. The man is a great storyteller, and he has some wonderful stories to tell and observations to make, about a lot of names you will recognize, Canadian & otherwise.

But if anything, just listen to the first five minutes. As a blogger (and before that, someone poured her heart out on various online forums -- and who attended and then facilitated a support group for 10 years, where we encouraged members to tell their stories every time they attended as a way of healing), I was fascinated by both George & Randy's observations about the cathartic and healing power of storytelling, and the new perspective you can gain by doing so -- so much so that I went back & transcribed their conversation, starting around the 2:10 mark [emphasis mine]:   
George: You're in an interesting place now, because you spend much of your time telling stories of stuff that's happened to your or experiences you've had...so you're really living in this... you're not living in the past, you're reliving your own history, and I wonder what you think the impact is on you?  
Randy: (pause) Umm... it's cathartic... it's like I'm my own shrink! (laughs) These are my shrinks (gestures to the audience) -- every Saturday, Sunday, I talk to them,  and I tell them when I met certain people and huge, fun, great things that happened, and also some disappointments that happened. So it is cathartic -- I found in doing this book and the previous book, I felt compelled ... I was sleepless at nights, because when you relive a story and when you write it down, it's quite different than telling it... and a lot of (word?) will say "Write it down, you've got to write down what happened." And I found myself calling a lot of people -- and apologizing for what I did...  
George: ...that's interesting!  
Randy: ...10, 20, 30 years ago, that I didn't realize their side of it. And then I read it in their book. Hopefully they read it in my book. Because when there's this thing and you break up with a girl or a guy or a band or a team or your family, you leave home, you don't really know what they're saying, and they don't know what you're saying after you leave. And you don't know what brought you there, even.  
George: And you don't know what they're feeling on any level.  
Randy:  No...
What do you think? Is telling your story -- through blogging, or otherwise -- cathartic? Is it like being your own shrink??

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Miscellaneous mid-March odds & ends

  • (I have a thing for alliteration, lol.)
  • (I guess it's not QUITE mid-March... but almost...)
  • March started off somewhat sadly. Within the same week, two dear friends -- one from my junior/senior high school days and one a longtime online friend -- each lost one of their parents. A reminder that our time here together is precious, and that none of us are getting any younger. :( 
  • March also started off more or less like a lion. Maybe not so much in terms of storminess (although we did get more snow that first weekend), but very cold (again)(at least -- bowing to my friends & relatives on the Prairies -- cold for southern Ontario).  This has been a very long, very cold and very snowy winter -- one of the coldest & snowiest in many years.  Even dh -- who hates the summer heat & humidity, & is generally "Mr. I Love Winter" -- is thoroughly sick of it and ready for spring.
  • MORE changes have been announced at work. (And possibly more to come, including ones that might affect me & my job directly.) I just try to keep my head down and do my work as best I can.  23 months... 23 months...
  • Next week is spring break here in Ontario. I think a lot of local schools were already off on Friday, though, because there were already scads of parents & kids wandering around downtown and at the train station that afternoon. This will continue throughout the next week. :p
  • I can tell I am doing much better with childlessness than I used to. At one time, just walking past a Baby Gap store would bring tears to my eyes. These days, I am there (or The Children's Place, or Gymboree) just about every week, looking for good deals on cute outfits that I can buy & send to the Princess (and soon, her little sister or brother). Tonight, at the bookstore, I was looking at children's Easter-themed books for her.  It is fun to have a little one in my life to spoil -- and to be able to enjoy doing it.
  • I will admit that every now & then, I do get a pang of wistfulness. Especially when I see a really cute little dress. I don't know why the dresses in particular affect me, but they do. :(  (Maybe (in part) because the Princess rarely wears dresses, lol -- I have yet to buy her a dress, because I know it will MAYBE get worn once before she grows out of it.) But it happens far less frequently these days, and is far less painful. Progress!!
  • I picked up & started "Otherhood" by Melanie Notkin of Savvy Auntie this week. I'm currently juggling a couple of books (along with newspapers & magazines -- not to mention blogs, lol) but I will let you know what I think of it when I'm done.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

"Infertility: The longest journey"

I recently stumbled upon this article, a first-person account from the Hamilton Spectator published in January.  It's actually an abridged version of a longer article that ran in the United Church Observer.

There was much here that I could relate to, and I thought the story was well told, with some sharp insights into infertility and why it is such a painful experience. I also appreciated the author's willingness to discuss the possibility that her story wouldn't end happily. Sample quotes:
...infertile women and men do have a story to tell, one that's important to share in our baby-obsessed culture. And it doesn't always have a happy ending. 
(Spoiler alert: Hers does.)  
I genuinely tried to envision a meaningful life without children. I would become a radical environmental activist. I’d move to New York City. I’d travel. I’d throw myself into my career and work my way to the top of a major magazine. I’d move to Africa and work for a good cause.  
Was there a niche in this world where few people would have children, want them or even talk about them? I could imagine only one: the adult film industry. Unfortunately, I’m woefully underqualified.
(OK, I've never heard THAT one before...!)

And, towards the end (added emphasis mine):
At a recent retirement party for one of the nurse practitioners at his Hamilton office, Dr. Stopps — who has worked with thousands of prospective parents over the past 38 years and knows pretty much everything there is to know about infertility — admitted to me that the one thing he doesn’t understand is the persistence. Why do people keep trying? Why do they put themselves through so much?

My answer: It’s more than wanting a baby. It’s wanting to fit in, wanting to graduate through the stages of life, wanting to fulfil the dreams of marriage and family, wanting some piece of yourself to remain after your death. It’s also about being caught up in the medical regimen — remembering to take your medication, give yourself an injection, drink your tea, chart your temperature, make an appointment. It’s the buildup, the effort, the letdown. It’s the biological time bomb ticking away, threatening to blow up the entire plan, hammering its steely message into your head: you can’t, you can’t, you can’t. It’s holding on to the hope that maybe if you persist, maybe you still can. 
The stigma of infertility is still with me. I am haunted by what would have happened if our third IVF had failed. And although we have a baby, as a couple, we are still infertile. But I think the experience has also deepened my compassion for others who feel isolated, set apart from the course of “normal” life, unsure how to get back on track. Divorce, illness, depression, addiction, death of a loved one — infertility is a snap compared to some of these challenges. But in my own way, now I get it.
This has been my experience too. Thank you, Jocelyn Bell.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Welcome to our world, guys...

While infertility, male or female, is no joking matter, I have to admit I got a chuckle out of Elizabeth Renzetti's column in today's Globe & Mail, which starts with reports about how male fertility, too, declines with age, and then continues:
Imagine a world in which it’s no longer women who are reminded at every family gathering that biology’s Big Ben is sounding just for them. Hey men – you, too, can join in the fun as society keeps a close watch on your gonads, and asks when, exactly, you plan to use them.
And then Renzetti does imagine that world, to amusing effect. (I got a particular laugh out of the point about George Clooney & Ryan Gosling.) Have a read.