Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The next big thing

“My life is over.”
“What’s the point of living?”
“My life has no purpose.” "
"It’s all downhill from here."

These thoughts, or a variation, are common in those of us who come to face life without children. They are what I will call the first, transitional thoughts. It’s what we think when we are closing in on a final diagnosis or decision, it’s what we dread when we are in the midst of infertility, and it’s the view of the No Kidding door from Infertility's Waiting Room, and those first steps through it. So many of us really can’t see any joy in the life that is ahead of us. Maybe we don’t want to, because we’re still grieving, and feel that looking forward would be a betrayal of ourselves, and our losses.

But of course, time passes, and we walk through the door, and eventually into the light. Because there’s no other choice. Because human nature says that we adjust to our realities. Even if we don’t believe we’re going to get past this phase, we do.

The second line of thought  looks for the next big thing. “Well …” we say, wiping our hands of our lost dreams of parenthood, “what’s next?” I have seen this in many people. They feel that if they’re not going to make their mark on the world by producing children, then they need to do something else. Something big. Or that they have a big hole in their lives, and they need to fill it with something important.

I have thought this myself. I wanted to do something big, something different. I felt that our future was a blank slate, and that we should actively choose what we write on it. Part of this was fear. Fear that life as it had been would be too miserable without children. Fear that those initial, transitional thoughts would be proved right. I wanted to escape. Escape for me meant skipping the country, and going somewhere far far away. I looked at international language programmes, and imagined going somewhere where no-one knew me, and my non-parent state would be irrelevant. I was keen to plan a different life with my husband. I didn't know what we would do.  I just wanted to do something different, somewhere else.

You see, I think I thought I could escape the grief, escape the fear, escape the hard work of healing that I was going through. But if there's one thing I know now, is that all of that will come with you, wherever you are. I knew though, that I couldn't force my husband to do something he wasn't ready to do. I'd begged him to move to Bangkok in the early 1990s, and I couldn't do it again. Anything we would do needed to be a joint decision.

As it turned out, in that first year or two after my diagnosis, my husband had a new job, and I took on a new role as the Chair of the Board of Directors of a state company. Though I would have dropped the role like a hot potato if my husband had said, "let's move to <insert exotic location here> and let's go tomorrow." I got work as an independent consultant, and in due course I found enormous satisfaction from working as a volunteer online. I got my fix of travelling by trips to places I'd always wanted to visit, and managed to meet some of my closest online friends. It was a compromise, undoubtedly, but it worked for both of us. I'm sure my life looked as if it hadn't changed since before we'd tried to have children. But it wasn't the same. It felt different. Initially, as I was grieving, it was of course worse; but eventually, it felt better. Much better. The difference, I think, was in my attitude, my approach to life, my acceptance and understanding. Maybe that was wisdom that comes with age, or maybe it was wisdom that comes after infertility.

What I’ve learned, eleven years down the line, is that maybe we’ll find our next big thing. Or not. Maybe we’ll find our purpose and not even realise it for a while. Or not. Maybe we’ll find the next big thing and realise that it doesn’t need to be earth-shattering, momentous in impact or scale, to be important and of value. Maybe we’ll realise that living a good life is enough of a purpose. Maybe we’ll realise that there doesn’t have to be a next big thing. 

The interesting thing I find is that this is not necessarily the easy option. We might have to fight that yearning for the next big thing, and justify our lifestyle to ourselves. Or, we may have to justify our lifestyles to others. I’ve often heard bloggers and others complain that people think they should be doing something big, or travelling the world, or going out every night to the latest restaurants or clubs, or driving that red convertible or skydiving, to take advantage of that no kids lifestyle. They feel pressured to be doing more, to be doing something bigger or better. But why? Living a fulfilling, normal life – isn’t that enough? It should be.

Sure, maybe we are able to do things we wouldn't have done if we'd had children. My husband and I have travelled a lot, and we love that. But that was always going to be our thing, children or not. It's simply been easier without children. I wanted to be dramatic, and get a bright red convertible (convertibles are extremely uncommon in New Zealand), something that I absolutely couldn't have done with children. But you know what? I still don't have a bright red convertible. And frankly, I don't want one any more. I've never been skydiving either. (And I never will!) I'd still love to live overseas for a few years (I've always wanted to do it again), but no longer need to do it as an escape. Sadly, in recent years, elderly parents have made that impossible too. So I haven't found my next big thing, but I've found lots of satisfaction doing a lot of next small things. I believe that part of the fun of life is looking for that next big thing. For me it's the fun of the chase; the journey is more important than the goal.

If we find our next big thing that is great. But there doesn’t have to be a next big thing to replace having children. Life will fill up that hole, often to overflowing, with love and fun and new experiences and knowledge and people. Eventually, for me at least, it brought a sense of deep contentment. We don't have that gaping wound for the rest of our lives, we have rich, satisfying lives. Even if at first we couldn't have begun to contemplate that this would be possible, let alone achievable.

Monday, 29 June 2015

#MicroblogMondays: Don't waste our lives

Some of our ALI friends - those who either went on to parent, and those who are still hoping – can’t understand how we have embraced our No Kidding lives. We may well have felt that way when we were still hoping, too. Actually, if we’re honest, we probably felt that way too when we walked through that No Kids door in Infertility’s Waiting Room, and it shut forever behind us.

But we knew there was no choice but to look into the future. After all, if we spend our lives wishing we were parents, we forget to focus on what we do have in our lives, on all the good and wonderful things and people we share our lives with every day. To do otherwise would be to lose far more to infertility than we have already lost. To do anything other than accepting our lives, and embracing them, would be such a waste and a betrayal. A waste of our potential, a waste of our love and humanity, and a betrayal of our grief, of ourselves, and of those very special people who want to spend their lives with us.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

If we are childless, what is our legacy?

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the issue of what we leave behind. I’ve been prompted by reading someone else’s thoughts and fears on this matter for the past few months, as well as visiting my mother and looking at family trees and old photos.

When we are childless, what is our legacy? Do we even have one? Why do we want one? Is it important? And how do we think about ourselves when we think of the idea of “legacy?”

Of course, we don’t have a biological legacy, and our line ends on our family tree. We’re never going to be at the head of a family tree. Ouch. That hurts. But family trees are also always going to be flawed documents. Secret adoptions, mother and child raised as siblings, and illicit relationships all may alter the gene pool unbeknownst to anyone except the mother of the child (and maybe not even her). These days with donor egg, sperm and embryos there is even more scope for genetic inaccuracies to find their way into a family tree. What we think of as someone’s genetic legacy may not always be reliable.

But even if it is accurate, what does it really mean to us? I barely remember the names of my great-grandparents, let alone my great-greats. What is their legacy to me? Maybe I have their curly hair or green eyes or too pale skin, or their intellect or compassion or musicality, or an unknown language ability, or their height or fear of heights. But the point is I don’t know any of that. I know I have my grandmother’s musicality, but apparently not her reputed (but unheard by me) singing voice. I know more definitively that I have my aunt’s diplomacy (though clearly not her modesty!) and love of travel and unwillingness to conform, and another aunt’s love of books and teaching (which maybe we both got from my great-uncle). I hope some of my nieces will have some of my attributes, and can remember that. Beyond one or two generations though, memories fade, and we become just a face in a photo album, or a name on a family tree.

So I wonder, what is a legacy besides genes?

A legacy can be so much more. It can be big, impacting the world, with our names unlikely to be forgotten … not least in the short or medium term. We might be Margaret Cruickshank, New Zealand’s first woman GP whose statue was also the first of a woman in our country, and stood on the main street of our town, inspiring me to know it was okay to fill roles others might think of as “just for men.” We might be Nelson Mandela, teaching others to forgive, or Jane Austen or Katherine Mansfield, writing books that will be read and loved and remembered hundreds of years later. That’s big, and for all of us but a select few, it is unlikely that we’ll have this kind of legacy. I certainly don’t feel the pressure to do something “big” simply to be remembered.

(Note: It is though quite common for those of us who can't have children to look for the next big thing. I have a follow-up (or maybe it's a prequel, or duplicate of some of what I'm saying here) post drafted on this, and will post it soon. )

So if we're not leaving our genes, and we're not going to be Mandela or Einstein, we can still leave a legacy that makes the world a better place. Whether it is because of children we mentor, or lessons we teach, or characteristics we role model to others, or the help we give the less fortunate, maybe our contributions will benefit the wider world. Perhaps we change the world through policy or ideas or actions, or perhaps we just make the world a better place by helping one or two people, helping them live life more easily. A legacy of simply helping one person at a time, one day at a time. This is the kind of legacy I think we can all aspire to – whether as a parent (biological or not), or an aunt or uncle, or friend, or stranger on the internet. It is within our reach – we can all do this. I suspect that those of us who blog in this field all do this to a greater or lesser extent. People read our words, and feel less alone. That isn’t a small thing. To ignore this is, I think, to ignore our humanity, to turn our backs on what we can achieve, and to squander what is good in ourselves. We are more than just our biology, and this proves that. Regardless of what we tell ourselves. Maybe the first and most important step is simply to be more aware of what we think, and what we do?

Will we be remembered for what I do? Probably not. But as I pointed out earlier, after a few generations, we are all – parents or non-parents - forgotten. Time passes, and memories fade. My littlest niece was born after both her grandfathers had died. They are just names to her, and always will be. As we will be to others. Yes, maybe we will be forgotten a little before those who are parents. But this isn’t something that really vexes me. I’ll be dead after all! Wanting to be remembered is, I think, simply ego. (As is the need to leave a biological legacy, although that is also driven by biological and societal imperatives.) It may be natural, but I think ultimately, once we have to give up on the biological factor, it is much easier to give up on our egos. And this is easier as we start – necessarily, in this no kidding life - to see the world with different eyes.

I don’t care if I’m remembered, though I suppose (provided the memories are positive) it would be nice. I’ve never wanted or needed to be famous. And I don’t need to be given the credit for something I’ve done or said or written, if– by the end of my life – it has influenced someone in a good way, someone who then might pass that on to someone else, who might repeat it to friends or relatives or future generations. If that happens, then I can be proud of that legacy. Whether or not anyone knows I did it, it has still happened, and perhaps I was the catalyst, or perhaps I just passed on something someone had sparked in me. If I’ve done or said or written something that has made people feel better, then I don’t know how that might have changed their life, or even the world. I believe in the butterfly effect - I don't think we ever quite know how we influence people, or what changes other people might make in their lives, after even a brief interaction (positive or negative) with us. And whilst I’d like to know if I had made a positive impact, however small, I don’t really need others to know and remember I did it. I still had the impact. I still changed the world, or someone’s world, for the better, and my legacy will live on.

And maybe that’s better than simply possessing the biological ability to pass on genes to a future generation. I think leaving a legacy in thoughts or deeds or emotions is harder though. It takes more effort (even though we all know how much effort so many of us have put into trying to become a biological ancestor). It requires character, goodness, energy, and insight. Leaving a legacy in thoughts and deds this way is not the short end of the stick. It isn’t lowering our expectations, or lowering the bar. It's raising it.

Monday, 22 June 2015

#MicroblogMondays: Open for requests

Last night, I received a truly lovely email from a reader, who said some very nice things about my blog. (Apologies for the bragging, but thank you again to my too kind reader!)

She also suggested a subject which is difficult for her, and wondered if I might considering writing a post on my experience of this. Coincidentally, I have been mulling over a suggestion from another ALI (though not No Kidding) blogger that maybe I should begin an advice column on my blog, answering questions in response to reader requests.

I don't pretend to be an expert or a therapist. All I can do is talk from my own experience, and from that of others I've worked with and talked to over the last ten years. So although I won't call it a regular column, I hereby renew my invitation to readers to email me (or make suggestions in the comments) and ask questions or suggest issues that you would like covered on my blog. I hope it might be helpful.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Gifts of Infertility #21: Embracing the unknown

Growing up, and even as a young adult, I hated uncertainty, and loved to plan. I hated waiting for things, even though I was relatively patient in other respects. I hated waiting for exam results, I hated waiting to find out if I was accepted for my student exchange, and I hated waiting to see if a boy liked me. I liked certainty, as I am sure we all do. In my 30s, one of the main things I disliked about all the international travel I did for business was the uncertainty it imposed on my life, and my lack of ability to plan. Maybe that’s why we all assume that we’ll be able to have children? Because we want to feel that life is certain, and that our futures can be known. Is the idea of not knowing just too hard?

Infertility, of course, was nothing but waiting and uncertainty. Waiting to find out if we would conceive, waiting to even be able to take a pregnancy test, waiting to find out if my pregnancies were viable, waiting to find out if I had an ectopic or trophoblastic disease, waiting to be allowed to attempt IVF, waiting between cycles, waiting to see if I responded to drugs, waiting to see how many eggs there were, waiting, waiting, waiting. Everything about our future was unknown. Everything, until that last fateful day, was uncertain.

But finally the certainty that I had craved had arrived. But it wasn’t the certainty I wanted. Getting that certainty in the knowledge that we would never have children – well, it was very difficult. Because it opened a world of uncertainty, of not knowing what was down that road less travelled. It meant that the direction of the rest of our lives was still unknown. I wanted a plan, but we didn’t have one. I felt rudderless and cut adrift.

The thing is, we still don’t have much of a plan. Life gets more uncertain as we age. We have responsibilities – not children, but elderly parents – and we can’t plan our lives the way I’d like to. We know too that we are very mortal. Who knows if we’ll be healthy this time next year, or in ten years, or twenty years? We’ve lost jobs. We don’t know what will happen to the economy, to our finances, to our future. We live on a major fault-line. Life is constantly an unknown. That’s for certain.

Having learned this one thing – that life is uncertain, and the future is unknown - I had no option but to accept it. And I realise now that I no longer mind this. We never know what life will deliver. We don’t know what tomorrow holds, let alone what we’ll be doing, and how we will feel, years in the future. And you know what? I’m okay with that.

It turns out that the unknown doesn’t really bother me any more. In fact, it even excites me. There could be something wonderful just around the corner. And even if there isn’t, looking for that something wonderful is exciting and a gift in itself. The unknown is worth embracing. Let’s do it together!