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.