Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Infertility and shame


Shame is a feeling familiar to many of us who go through infertility and loss.  Those who go on to have children, or to parent, may (I imagine/I deduce) feel somewhat vindicated (or feel shame for other reasons), but I know particularly that those of us who can’t have children often feel shame. 

But why is this?  It is not our fault.  It is not a moral failing.  It is not a failing of intellect, personality, motivation.  I would like even to argue that it is not a failing at all, except that so many of us do feel that it is a failing of our bodies.  We all have bodily failings – the older we are, the more we will be aware of these.  But the judgements that are made about our inability to conceive or carry to term seem more accusatory, and touch us more deeply, right in the heart of who we think we are, or we are supposed to be.  My mother-in-law accusingly asked me what was wrong with me.  (She’s always seen bodily failings as moral/personality failings – but don’t get me started!)  Another friend had to suffer a male friend/acquaintance telling her “my wife’s a real woman.  She’s a mother.”  Men “jokingly” tell other men to “show you’re a man.  Get her pregnant.”  As if you’re not a man until you have done so.  The expectations of who and what we’re supposed to be make us feel inadequate, unworthy, less than.

And so we, infertile men and women, feel shame.  When I was coming to terms with first infertility, and then not having children, I remember dreading the prospect of running into a woman I knew.  She had a very clear view of who and what a woman was supposed to be, and “mother” was right up there at number one.  And so I felt embarrassed, a lower species in her eyes, and I knew that I was feeling shame, even though intellectually I knew I there was no reason for this.  

The idea that I feel or have felt shame for my infertility has always made me uncomfortable though.  After all, it’s not as if, to quote the OED,  my “painful feelings of humiliation or distress” were “caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour.”  So why feel shameful?  Then recently, I saw a lecture (posted by Amel) where the speaker, Brené Brown, offered the idea that shame is essentially the fear of disconnection.  As she says, we are wired for connection.  So we feel shame when we are different from others, when we are not connected, when we can’t do what is considered to be normal.  

Suddenly, the emotions around infertility made complete sense.  That simple definition – the fear of disconnection - explained why we all feel shame.  It explained why the shame comes even though intellectually we know we have no reason to feel shame.  It explained why we felt so isolated, so lonely, so embarrassed.  It explained why there are so few women who are prepared to speak up about infertility.  It explained why I didn’t want anyone to know about my pregnancy losses and infertility.  It explained why I felt so exposed simply walking into the building with the fertility clinic.  It explained why many women who, parenting after infertility, might try to ignore their infertile past.  It explained why celebrities don’t admit they have had difficulties conceiving, needed IVF, or used donor eggs.  Human beings are tribal.  We like to belong.  And most of us don’t want to be the black sheep.  Even those who thrive on being non-conformist connect with other non-conformists.  It explains Stockholm Syndrome, and patriotism, and even bullying or enmity towards others.

So it makes complete and utter sense that we want to feel as if we belong, to connect to other people.  It also explains why we blog.  Because we want to speak to other people in our situation, we want to feel normal, and we want to help others feel normal.  It explains why, within the ALI community, there are different subgroups.  The drive to connect is so powerful.  The drive to avoid isolation, the fear of disconnection, means inevitably we seek out like-minded people.  And that’s not a bad thing.  Brené Brown says you need three things to feed shame:  secrecy, silence, and judgement.  Well, I certainly feed the secrecy and silence myself.  I still do in some ways.  And I know also that too often, we are on the other end of judgements, and so often we are the ones offering the judgements, with those insidious inner voices we have.

Is there a magic wand to help us shed our shame?  Perhaps it helps just knowing that by feeling shame, by fearing disconnection and isolation, we are connected with almost every other human being on the planet.  It helps knowing that our feelings of isolation and despair and humiliation are not unusual.  Knowing that we connect, both with others who are infertile, and others who feel shame for all sorts of reasons, might help us feel less alone.  Empathy, the empathy that I see around this ALI community and amongst those who read my other blogs, amongst friends and family, makes me feel I belong.  I may not be the best or brightest blogger.  But it helps.

Connection and empathy were integral to my healing after two ectopic losses and the end to my quest for a family.  Being (on-line) with a group of women who had been through the same things as I had, who understood what I was facing, or who were simply prepared to listen and say “I’m so sorry,” made me feel understood.  Connected.  There was no reason for shame then.  And as much as I was on the receiving end of empathy, I was also able to give it.  That was another very important part to my recovery.  I connected largely on another website, but I see it at work here in the blogosphere.  And so now, as acute as my shame was at one time, I don’t feel it that much any more.  Because I feel connected.  And so, as time passes, I speak more openly about infertility, about not having children.  I tell strangers.  I write a blog.  I’ve had a piece in the media.  I’m looking at doing more. 

I am encouraged by the possibilities emerging from this definition of shame.  I hope that that impetus to connect will also drive our own efforts to reach out to the wider community and encourage them to connect with the infertile, to connect with those of us who don’t have children, who follow the road less travelled.  And if they connect, if they start to see, and hear, and understand, and most importantly accept our stories, perhaps that is what will banish our shame, our fear of disconnection, in the end.  


* Thanks Amel for the link.  I have so many thoughts swirling around you’ll see at least one more post planned on Brené Brown’s research and thoughts and how I relate to them.

25 comments:

  1. What a fabulous, and important post. The pain-disconnection thing makes it clear to me why I felt such shame putting up a post on secondary infertility on my public blog and then sharing it on Facebook. It's not that I'm ashamed of our infertility. It's more that I'm ashamed I'm putting something like that up there on Facebook when everyone else just posts lighthearted bullshit and pictures. By putting something like that up I am different and I am requesting a connection that I know I'm not going t get. People just aren't on Facebook to hear about the truth. They was shiny and new and fun. And I'm not any of those things right now. And I'm ashamed that I'm trying to do something else because it feels wrong. So interesting.

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  2. Brilliant post, Mali! It's amazing to read what others glean from a lecture/an article/book/whatever. :-) I've been wondering myself why I'm so driven to connect more with those who've come to terms with life without kids. Now it makes all the more sense!!! :-D

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    1. Clearly we had the identical response. I wrote my comment before reading yours, Amel!

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    2. HE HE HE HE...that's COOL! :-D

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  3. Brilliant post, Mali. You have captured and explored so many nuances here, I am book marking this and will link to it in another related post later this month. I know how crucial it was for me to connect so that I could reduce the shame I felt in being different, Your words will open up the eyes of many just starting down the path to reconciling infertility and childlessness.

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  4. Wow, this post is bang on - all of it! Thanks for sharing!

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  5. Really interesting stuff! (the comments above, too) I've never quite felt that "shame" was the right word for how I felt/feel about my infertility, loss & childlessness... but your points about connection and empathy are right on the money.

    I know I've felt different or like an outsider for so much of my life... we moved around a lot, so I was always the new girl... and I was bookish and got good marks in school easily, which also set me apart from so many of my classmates. I married into an Italian family (& am STILL the only "mangiacake" (non-Italian) to marry into one side of my husband's family), so I felt different there too. Motherhood was supposed to be my connection to a "normal" life, something that would finally help me feel like I was part of the group... and of course, when that didn't happen, I wound up feeling even more different/abnormal than I already did. :p

    I find it difficult to talk about these things openly because of the discomfort it causes in others. There's a great piece on the New York Times right now about stillbirth that makes this point.

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    1. I can sooo relate to you on this Loribeth. (My life is really different from that of most of my friends in more ways than one.) I don't feel "shame". I feel disconnected, but I really do think this has a lot to do with "former" close friends and how much they changed after motherhood. Not all, of course, but a few just dropped off the planet. They have lots and lots of time to spend with new mother friends, but never or hardly call me anymore. Understandable in the sense that they can meet and have an adult conversation while their kids are entertained with their friend's kids. But certainly different from how I was brought up. My parents visited their friends and took us along. More often than not, there were no kids our own age. A few good friends that have kids have not altered their personality so much. We talk about their kids (which of course are a big part of their life), but we also talk about all sorts of other things. But quite a few are so changed that conversations feel weird. So, I say my disconnect has more to do with their behavior, not just the idea that my not having children makes me sooo different.

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  6. So interesting; that idea that having a connection in one place can help you get over that idea of shame outside that space -- drawing in that energy.

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  7. Thank you thank you thank you..you had nailed it.... For a long while I have struggled with trying to determine why my depression, why I keep seeing a line "invisible" between me and mother friends, why many folks (and me sometimes) are uncomfortable talking about IVF and childlessness- furthermore complicated with some 'close' friends, no longer being there- as if ashamed of me, or me ashamed of having friends who have children, while I don't. I would love to share this on my facebook page to explain this significant nuance...

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  8. I love that Brene Brown talk (the vulnerability one, isn't it?) have listened to it a couple of times before, and ull slightly different things from it each time. I look forward to your post on your thoughts on it.

    Sense of connection - sooo important, as social creatures (although I'm not always testament to that!). I too struggle with that word 'shame' but sense of disconnect has been huge at times through the last few years. Guess its whatever words you feel comfortable using - similar feelings ultimately

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  9. YES YES YES!
    thank you

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  10. Such a beautiful and well-written piece. you describe the problem of shame so perfectly. it is complicated, leaves one feeling vulnerable and lost and alone. beautiful, beautiful.

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  11. I love Brene Brown's work. She has talks on TED and a good one on Youtube 'Living Smart: Guilt and Shame'. A book I related too as well was "Unsung Lullabies by Janet Jaffe,Martha Diamond and David Diamond".

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  12. Oh yeah, Mali, looking forward to reading another post (or more?) on the lecture. :-) I'm glad that the link made you share all these thoughts (and more to come), 'coz then I'll get to learn even more things! :-D

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  13. So much truth in this post. Although we shouldn't be ashamed of our specific situations, it's almost an inevitable feeling. When you are confronted with the fact that you are the only person in your immediate group of family and friends who is going through infertility or loss it can be a pretty isolating experience, thus resulting in a mix of conflicting emotions. I haven't been able to connect with anybody from my real life regarding this topic so posts like this one make me feel like less of an outsider. Thanks!

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  14. What a touching post. I'm so glad you found Brown's words on shame. Her work is changing my life. You're not alone. ((((hugs))))
    Angie

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  15. I am just in the middle of Brene Brown's book "Daring Greatly" and working in the fertility field myself I was really interested to read what she says about infertility and shame. So I thought I'd see what I could find on the web about the links between those two things and up pops your post as hit #3. Very well written and elucidating. Thank you - it will help me improve the care I give to my patients.
    Dee Armstrong

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    1. Thank you so much. I'm honoured if I can help (indirectly) your patients.

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  16. I will be upfront at the start and say that I have three daughters, two of whom are identical twins.

    All were conceived naturally ..... eventually. There was no physical or biological reason why it took so long for us to conceive. That, for me, made it worse. I couldn't "blame" it on anything, it was just that I was crap at making babies. It was my fault. I look at the scars on my tummy from the endless tests and examinations and even now, 15 year after my youngest daughters were born, I feel shame that I wasn't able to just have babies the way other women "seemed" to.

    It has taken me 15 years to realise how many of my friends and acquaintances did not have babies at the drop of a hat. How many of them had assisted pregnancies and how many of them would have given anything for a child but did not have that choice.

    I listened to a discussion about the pros and cons of being an only child on the radio today. It was in the wake of the publication of a book about family size. I am an only child. I hated it. I longed for brothers or sisters. I spent hours inventing complex fantasies about my siblings. What neither side in the radio discussion seemed to take on board was that sometimes an only child is the biggest blessing a parent can have. The child they never believed they would have. My parents couldn't have another child after me. It was not their choice.

    Having suffered for years from unexplained infertility I now find it difficult in the company of a woman who has never been able to have the child for which she has longed. It feels wrong that I was able to have a child when she was not. So it seems the shame continues, even after conception and birth.

    I hope I haven't offended or upset anyone. I was very moved by your post.

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    1. Unexplained infertility must be very hard to deal with, and infertility does as you say leave us with a legacy that we don't want - including one of shame.

      But I know you know there's no need to feel shame (in the way we usually think of it) that you couldn't have children the way you wanted (or that most women do). And equally, there's no shame in having a child, when others (including me) could not. There's no reward or punishment or judgement. It's just how it happened. All you need to do for your friend, is listen and understand.

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  17. Hello! I found this blog when I was searching for ways to help my daughter and son in law. They are experiencing infertility issues. My daughter is extremely private about it. She does not wish to discuss it in any way, only to give me infrequent updates on minimal facts about their situation. I was thinking about why this is- and realized they are ashamed. This hurts me that she can't or won't confide in me because I want to help her- I want to minimize her pain, to encourage her, etc. I almost feel as though it is a failure for me as her mother that she can't share her grief with me. But I do understand that everyone grieves in their own way, and perhaps she wants to spare me from feeling sad. Also, because their fertility issues stem from male infertility problems, I feel she is somehow being protective of her husband, not wanting her family to judge her man, or her choice in a mate. The idea that the shameful feelings associated with infertility stem from a feeling of being disconnected us very interesting and insightful. I'm very glad to have read this. I will continue to search for ways that I can support my kids in this painful journey they are on. Any advice from someone familiar with this is welcome!

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    1. I run a support group for infertile couples, Julie, and different people have told me different things. Some want to keep things as private as possible because they just find it exhausting to talk about and they don't want to be subject to pointed questions especially around the outcome of IVF cycles, for example, or well meaning but misguided advice, often of the "just relax and it will happen" variety. Others want to talk to family and friends & find it hurtful when people close to them avoid the topic. Some women would love to talk but their men have asked them not to and they keep quiet out of respect for their partner's wishes. It sounds to me as though you have given it a lot of careful thought and you are feeling pushed away and therefore it's impossible for you to be the mother you want to be - how hard that must be for you. I know how difficult it is to see your child in distress and to feel powerless to help. I would say maybe just stay present, don't try to force the issue but from time to time remind your daughter than you are there for her if she wants to talk. And when she does start to talk it will be really important to just listen well and empathise rather than offer advice. You sound like a very considerate Mum - the very fact that you're here trying to find a way to help speaks volumes. Hang in there. This little video from Brene Brown is lovely and really nails it - I hope it helps (and also that I'm not trying to teach my grandmother to suck eggs !)
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw

      Regards
      Dee Armstrong
      Natural Fertility Coach and IVF Support

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    2. Julie, thank you for your comments. As Dee says, we all deal with this differently. I didn't share details with my parents - I may have only told them I tried IVF a few years later (if I told them at all - I can't remember). Why? Because I had two ectopic pregnancies. When I had the second, it took several months to resolve and for me to be in the clear. It was hard enough to deal with all the uncertainty, the endless blood tests and doctors' appointments and hospital visits and procedures and surgeries. What was harder was when people asked how I was, hoping I was better. And I could feel their frustration when I wasn't better. I felt as if I was letting them down, on top of all the other emotions. And it was hard. So when we tried IVF, it was easier not to tell them. (In fact, only one "real life" friend knew what I was going through.) Because one of the hardest things about this is that we end up feeling responsible for how everyone feels about our infertility. We have to take care of others' worries and concerns, when our top priority should be ourselves (and our partners). The pressure becomes enormous. So it may be shame that your daughter is feeling, and it may simply be that it is the easiest way for her to bear this.

      You say you want to be able to minimise her pain, to encourage her, etc. You can't minimise her pain. Not really. You can be there to listen, when she's ready to talk, and that helps us all to bear our pain. But you can't minimise it. And I've found that efforts to try to minimise pain can often come across as dismissive and insulting. All that is needed is for you to bear witness to their pain, if they're ready to share.

      You also said maybe you'd like to encourage her. I would suggest that the best way is to simply let her know you'll support them through this - whatever decisions they make, whether it is another IVF cycle, or to stop IVF, or to adopt, or choose not to do any of the above. Putting extra pressure on her - to feel better, to try another treatment, to "look on the bright side," really minimises the difficulty of their situation, negates any fears they may have, and diminishes their pain. The cheerful "it will happen" is always insultingly dismissive, and is often said to console the speaker, not the person it is directed at.

      I'm not suggesting you would do any of this though! You sound very sensitive and concerned. But ultimately it's about what helps your daughter and her partner get through this, not (to be blunt) whether you feel like a failure as a mother. What might make you feel better might not make her feel better. I'm writing this for others who might read here, as I can see that you are aware of this, and I commend you for it. I wish all mothers were so sensitive, and pro-active in terms of trying to understand what their infertile children are going through.

      I wish you all the very best.

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