It was a Friday evening in April, 1999. Sarah* and her husband Paulo were out for their regular Friday night “date” night. Sarah had started her cycle that morning. It was two weeks after undergoing what was now an obviously unsuccessful intrauterine insemination, four months after Sarah and Paulo had begun working with a fertility specialist, 24 months after they had consulted a gynecologist and a urologist, 36 months after they had expressed concern to their general physicians about their inability to conceive a child and 60 months after they had stopped using birth control with the excited yearning of a young couple in love deciding to start a family.
“I don’t want to try anymore,” Paulo said, peering over his menu, sitting across from Sarah at the restaurant. “Our relationship is starting to suffer,” he continued, “and I don’t want to go crazy or lose what we have over this. We’ve been happy for 12 years. We can focus on ourselves. Our travel. It’s too emotionally painful for me to try any more. That’s it. I won’t go through this anymore. That’s it.”
Sarah remembered retreating inside her head as he was speaking. She knew what he was talking about—the pendulum of her own emotions had continued to grow from excitement at the beginning of the month, to imagining physical changes in her body that certainly must indicate pregnancy mid-cycle, to a deep sadness when her “friend’ came to visit yet again at month’s end.
She looked at him as though through a tunnel, miles away, ears ringing. “This is big,” she thought. “I’m not going to have children. I’ll never be pregnant.”
She glanced at the other tables. Surely there must be some sort of huge visible transformation taking place in her external appearance for something so significant to her life to be happening. “He’s my husband,” she thought. “My desire for children isn’t separate from him—we wanted to create a child that was ours. He’s my partner and we’re staying together. I’m not having children.”
She got up, excused herself and went into the bathroom and cried. “I’m not having children.” She wanted to announce the fact to strangers at tables she passed, to the woman brushing her hair in front of the mirror in the bathroom, to their server as she ordered a stiff drink.
And everyone around her kept on eating and talking, as though nothing had happened.
Feelings that Accompany Infertility
It’s hard to separate the emotions that ensued. Deep dark depression. Crying when she saw women with young babies. Trying to be positive and control feelings of jealously when she heard of other friends getting pregnant.
She was concerned that this could be the one event in her life that she could not get over, regret and yearning boring an inconsolable hole in her heart. She visited a counselor that she and her husband had once seen together, who suggested she come up with a vision of who she would be when she was “over this,” and to look at how she would get there. She read books, such as “Conversations with God,” by Neale Donald Walsch. And although she was not yet ready to envision the future, all of her readings and searching seemed to tell her that she should focus on releasing the desire for a baby.
The Dreaded Question…Do you have children?
Slowly, from May and into the summer of that year, Sarah began to tell people. Sometimes it came out rational and assured, sometimes it came out abruptly and to the wrong audience when she snapped at people who innocently asked, “Oh, do you have children?” As people close to her and others she hardly knew began to offer unsolicited advice or to have opinions on her and her husband’s choices, Sarah began to withdraw from others. She also withdrew from herself, stopped writing in her journal and began to use crutches such as food and alcohol to numb her feelings of anxiety.
Whose fault is it?
Anxiety was caused by guilt that this was somehow her fault. Her husband had undergone a procedure to resolve one condition that was partially contributing to the problem, and she too had undergone treatments, but there was never a definitive diagnosis of a specific cause. They were both healthy, compatible and interacting. It just wasn’t happening. She remembered a business trip that she hadn’t rescheduled that conflicted with ovulation. Would that have made a difference? She remembered watching as a teenager when her sister was very ill and thinking “I wouldn’t want to have children if it would imprison me like this.” Was that outdated thought somehow controlling her body now?
One of the strongest emotions Sarah felt was anger. She realized it was less anger at not being able to have a child and more anger at what she felt was society’s judgment of her as a woman, and the unfairness of the questions she was forced to ask herself: such as having to put a price tag on how badly she wanted a child.
To her, the active choice would have been NOT to have children. It was just supposed to happen. Everyone had an opinion on it, and most said if you really want one, science can make one. But when it didn’t happen naturally for her, Sarah realized in her gut that she didn’t feel it was morally right to manufacture a baby. It felt like the dark evolution of a capitalist society, that with money and technology you could produce a child—that just seemed wrong to her.
And, what if after all the time, money and energy, the child had a severe mental or physical disability? Again, it forced Sarah to have to put a value on how badly she wanted a child.
By summer’s end, Sarah began to feel that if she could develop a definitive opinion that she could articulate clearly about how she felt, it would help her to fend off the value judgements of others. So she tried, mostly on her own, to sort out her feelings. This led to her sense that she believed having a baby was an unalienable right of a woman. Therefore, rather than not ‘getting something that she wanted,’ she had actually ‘lost something she already had.’
Mourning the Loss of my Unborn Child
That September, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in the Jewish religion, Sarah spent a cathartic day of fasting and praying at temple. At the day’s end, during the Yizkor memorial service, when the rabbi asked congregants to call out the names of loved ones who had passed during the previous year, Sarah heard the name Leah Bonaventura come audibly and unexpectedly from her lips. The “L” was for Lydia or Lou, her grandparents who had died in recent years. Following Jewish tradition her child’s name would have begun with that letter to honor and remember them. She felt a huge relief as she symbolically mourned the death of her unborn, unconceived child, and felt that she was ready to move forward. The change was over.
Applying a Change Process to Infertility for a New Reality
Or so she thought. Until she was forced (technically the topic was her choice) to write a paper about it nearly seven months later for an “Organizational and Personal Change” class that she was taking as part of her graduate studies at DePaul University. Within five minutes of starting to write she was crying. Halfway through the assigned reading, “Life Changes,” by Sabina Spencer and John Adams, Sarah realized that she had gotten stuck in Stage 5 (testing the limits/establishing a new identify).
But it was one of the suggested exercises that made her realize why she was stuck. It was the image she was asked to create of herself on her ideal day after the change was complete. In that image it was bright and sunny, Sarah was standing tall, outside with nature, and she was vibrant and glowing in her confidence. Feminine and exuding energy. The image hit her like a brick in the head.
In severing any emotional ties to her womb, she had also cut off any connection to creativity and sensuality.
It was so clear now that for nearly a year, despite any real evidence from her husband or anyone else, she had felt unfeminine and unsexy, fat, clumsy, formless, blobbish, old…that being an attractive woman was no longer an option for her. She didn’t realize until that moment that she had tied fertility to being a vibrant, sensual woman, and that in trying to overcome her desire for a child she had unconsciously convinced herself that she was undesirable.
Over the course of the next few days, Sarah felt a physical transformation in her posture, from trying to stand slightly curved forward as though to hid her abdomen, to feeling upright and lighter. The following weekend her husband was away and she had the weekend to herself. She took time for herself; she took care of herself and relished her clarity of thought in doing so.
Managing Infertility as Personal Change
What might she have done differently, to “manage” this personal change process? It’s hard to say. She had tried to look forward, but with the wrong image. She had kept a journal, which is recommended, but had not been able to write once she was in the midst of the change. She hadn’t wanted to talk to others and didn’t set up a support system. She reached out to people sporadically, took comfort from these “guerilla emotional sharing attacks” to move forward ever so slightly, and then retreated again. She had lost any will to resist cookies and other forms of refined sugar, and relished any opportunity (fortunately it was mostly confined to weekends) to indulge in alcohol.
What would she do differently? For this particular change, Sarah made a silent commitment to work through the final two stages of the change process (searching for meaning and integration) that Spencer and Adams had outlined in their book. As good as she felt with her new revelation, she didn’t want to get stuck for another year, and then find there was yet another rung on the ladder that she needed to climb.
Overall, despite the uncomfortable angst and uncertainly that had been following her since she had begun reflecting on change and changes in her life, Sarah made a commitment to try not to run away from introspection. She also vowed to be a better friend to herself and to value the people around her, particularly her husband and family. Sarah wished she could say that she would be more open and sharing the next time. But, change is a process, and, at least, she was relieved to know she would not, could not, climb back into her cocoon.
*Not my real name, which is Deanna…it was easier to write this in third person at the time when the feelings were still raw. While technically not “intercultural” I posted this piece here 1) because I have offered or been asked for it from time-to-time by someone facing infertility and I can never find it…now I know where it is, and 2) It is intercultural in the sense of compassion, understanding perspective between people who sneeze and get pregnant and those who struggle.
And, now, the addendum. In the fall of 1999, part of the “letting go” process, I said a silent prayer to God, something to the effect of “Dear God, I accept it’s not my story to have a baby, but I know I have love in my heart and if there is a child who needs care, I am open and available.”
A few weeks later my sister-in-law called from Brazil, looking for help after her husband had passed away. I realized that technically my prayer had been answered; I had just forgotten to specify age. In January of 2000 our 13 year old nephew came to live with us and go to school. Six months later I was pregnant with Lucca, who is now 15 and a sophomore in high school.
I’ve yet to read one of these where a woman finds peace with being single and/or child-free and remains that way. The message is always that we are never complete until we have a partner and children in our lives.