Thursday, 8 January 2015

Childlessness, pain and healing: the early days of life after infertility

I’ve been thinking the last few days about those very early days of learning we will have a life without children. First, infertility, then childless. I remember those days, even though they were many years ago.  I felt as if I had been slammed into a brick wall.   

Those first days and weeks were awful. There's no other way to say it. At first, the truth of my situation hit more and more deeply. Each time I would think “when I have a baby ...” or “my children will ...” the truth and the pain hit anew. I would not be having a baby. My children would never ...  never … This hurt more and more, as the realisation set in. It was as if I was repeatedly punching a bruise that was already very painful. I had struggled under the stresses of trying to conceive, of repeated losses, of pregnancies that turned lethal, of IVF and IVF failures. But I had always, even at the worst, had some hope. Now, though, all hope was gone. It was final. There would be no children, ever.

I could not imagine ever feeling better about it. I was exhausted at the thought of having to navigate my way through a new future, a future that seemed to me to be pointless, without meaning, without joy, filled with nothing but pain and darkness and regret. Along with hope, the light had gone, and I could see nothing but sadness, pain, guilt, and hopelessness. Briefly, I even imagined the relief of not having any future at all.

I felt a failure as a woman and a wife and a human being, and thought that I would never be whole. I felt isolated, that I didn't belong anywhere. And I avoided people, except for one or two special souls. I stopped going places I might meet someone I didn't want to see. Even trips to the supermarket were torture; hoping to go when it was emptiest, but finding it was filled with old folks and young mums; the cashier cheerfully asking how was my day, and my mumbled reply.

But it did get better. I quickly realised that punching the bruise was pointless, and so made efforts to train my brain not to think about the babies I didn't have, would never have. It worked. I stopped thinking of myself as a potential mother. It took a little time (weeks/a few months), and I slipped often. It was a struggle and painful in itself, consciously turning away from those thoughts and dreams. But this was really my first step to healing. 

The other feelings – pain, anger and guilt – lasted longer. The shock ended, but turned into a year or two of, I think, a very low-level depression. Tears were close to the surface. So too was envy, for those who had what I would never have, and for those who still had hope. They were reminders of my failures, of what I couldn't achieve, of what I would never have, reminders of what I couldn't give my husband too, an additional pain. Sure, I had good days and bad days, two steps forward, one step back, and sometimes it felt as if I was back to square one. But gradually the good days outnumbered the bad. I found joy and fulfilment in helping others. But still, I was grieving, and grieving takes time. Trying to imagine a new future, a future different to the one we had imagined and longed for, takes time. You think infertility is tough? Coming to terms is tough too.

There’s a phase we go through when we are angry, when we believe we will always feel angry, when we refuse to accept our situations. How dare someone suggest that I accept, that I “move on,” that I forget? Didn’t they know how much I wanted this? How much it hurt? How could they suggest this? They didn’t understand. Their suffering wasn’t as strong as my suffering! It couldn’t be!

I worried that it would look like I was wallowing in my grief, that I was self-pitying, or self-indulgent, so I hid it. After all, most people thought that I hadn’t lost anything, because outwardly, nothing had changed for us. But the pain I was feeling from that lost future was real, like the phantom pain of an amputated limb.  I remember how much it hurt, how angry I was!

In particular, I resented the idea that I should or would accept my childlessness, and all the negatives I saw in that life. (Yes, though I don’t like the term now, I very much felt childLESS in those early days.) I fought against acceptance, because acceptance seemed like betrayal - of ourselves, our pain, our grief, our dreams, and those two babies we lost. Acceptance implied that we didn’t want it enough, that it was okay we couldn't have children. Yet my whole being was screaming silently, "it was not okay!"  Likewise, after any feelings of happiness, I felt guilty. Did that mean I hadn’t loved or wanted my lost babies? Did that mean I didn’t really want it after all? 

Acceptance (and feeling joy), though, is none of these things – it’s not a betrayal, or a shameful admission that it was our fault for not trying hard enough. Acceptance is simply an acknowledgement of the situation we found ourselves in, the situation where we had no children, and would never have children. And there was no denying or changing that.

So I healed. It took time, there are many ups and downs. But if there is one message I want to convey in this blog is that it gets better. Now (11 years after learning I would never have children), I am no longer in the trenches; I climbed out and put my face to the sun a long time ago.

I hope that this gives hope to any of you who are struggling to imagine a future without children. I know that some of you will not believe my words. That you cannot imagine feeling anything other than the way you feel now. I can’t convince you that you will be happy, that you will heal. You probably feel that my words of hope and promise of a good life are as empty as those people who tell us to “just relax” or  that “miracles happen.” Maybe, for a rare few, they will be so immersed in their grief that they never come out of it, never let themselves imagine a life that they did not choose. 

But over the years, on blogs and messageboards and in personal life, I have seen so many people come through this. I think it is human nature to move on, survive, and thrive. Life is a joy, not a struggle. I'm not kidding.





Note: I've linked in the text to several of my posts which go into these feelings, and perhaps how I feel now about these issues, in more detail.


37 comments:

  1. This is such an important post, and I wish there was some way to pin it to the front of Google, figure out some way to SEO it so it always popped up when people went searching in their darkest days. Because to see someone felt as you do now, but there is a possibility that you won't feel this way forever -- that is priceless.

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  2. I second what Mel said. This post is something desperately needed, both for those who survive infertility but are not parenting after, for those supporting them and for everyone in the world so that they can better understand. Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this.

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    1. A great addition to the Creme list!

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  3. I needed these words today. Thank you.

    I'm slowly but surely getting past punching the bruise. Yes it still hurts but I don't need to remind myself of that. I'm trying to be nicer to me. The low level depression is where I'm at right now. Tears are always near the surface. Some days I barely hold it together. Other days I am ok. I don't like this process one bit but I know I'll get through it. What other choice do I have?

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    1. You're right - we don't need to remind ourselves all the time. And you're right, we have no other choice but to get through it. (A dear friend told me that when I had my second ectopic, complaining that I had already been through this once, how could I go through it again?)

      I wrote this about tears being near the surface. http://nokiddinginnz.blogspot.co.nz/2012/06/closing-floodgates.html

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    2. I can definitely relate to that post! Before infertility I rarely cried. Almost never, in fact. Now the waterworks start for next to nothing (good, bad, happy, sad, etc.). Sometimes my husband just looks at me, smiles, and shakes his head.

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  4. Can you work the words "childless" (yes, I know you hate the word, but people are going to use it as a Google search term) and "infertility" into both the title AND first paragraph? That will help boost on the SEO front. Don't change the post URL, just the title and a line in the first paragraph.

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    1. Thanks Mel for the suggestion (and kind words). Yes, I've done that now.

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  5. Who would have thought you would be getting comments about search engine....
    I was thinking that writing this post might have hurt, going back to all those feelings, the dark days. Reading your old posts, finding which ones reflect your feelings best....
    Or maybe you have gone through this before often enough that it is now more like tracing the old scars? Anyway, thanks for putting it all together, I'll forward this post to a friend of mine.

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    1. Tracing old scars, yes. I remember, but your comment has made me realise that I remembered this without pain. I wrote it hoping to help some people in pain right now, people I've been thinking about a lot the last week or so. I like that I can remember how I feel, the emotions and fears and anger, but without feeling it all again.

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  6. Hmmmmm...reading this post actually made me think of my own journey and how unique our journeys are, but also how similar they are in some ways. Thanks for this lovely post, Mali.

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  7. I didn't start blogging until 9 years after the loss of our baby & six years after we decided to move on from infertility treatment. Sometimes wish I had been blogging back then so that I had a record of my complete journey. I did post on a message board in those early days & years, but it & all the archived posts are sadly long gone. :(

    It DOES take time for healing and acceptance to happen. I think Pamela mentioned 3-5 years in a recent blog post (which I think was a figure from Dr. Marni Rosner's dissertation), and that sounds about right to me. I've often said, you've spent the last 30-40 years, since you were a little girl, assuming you would be a mother & building your life around that assumption. It's impossible to shift your thinking, your mindset and your entire life structure overnight or without a lot of bumps along the way.

    Aging out of my fertile years was a help, in some respects... for one thing, some clinics won't touch you if you're over a certain age, and the older you get, the more it's obvious that (a) a baby is no longer biologically possible & (b) even if you COULD physically have a baby, you realize that new motherhood in your late 40s would be quite a different prospect from your 20s or 30s.

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    1. Love this - "It's impossible to shift your thinking, your mindset and your entire life structure overnight or without a lot of bumps along the way." So true.

      And you're right again. Aging does help. The reminders aren't there as much either. Though I had someone say to me just last year "why don't you just adopt?" !!!

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  8. What an incredibly important post. Thank you for writing this. As Mel said, it's so important for people in the depths of that despair to read the words of someone who has been there and survived and eventually thrived.

    I recently watched Broadchurch (the original BBC version, not the US remake) and there was one scene that really struck me, when the mother of the boy who was murdered meets with the mother of a girl who had been murdered the year before. They are immediately drawn to each other and struck by how the other is the only person who knows what to say and can relate to the feelings of losing your child to a violent act. The mother whose son has just died finally admits that she wanted to get together because she just wants to know what is going to happen to her, what her life is going to be like. "I don't know what to do, what am I supposed to do?" she keeps saying over and over. I imagine you feeling that way in those first days of trying to move on and I imagine so many other women feeling the same on their journeys. Hopefully they can find this and it can be like sitting with someone who knows not only how they feel now, but how they may feel in the future.

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    1. We often saw this at the support group dh & I ran for bereaved parents... our clients were allowed to come & go as they pleased (no set time limit on how long they could attend -- although if they became pregnant again, they were asked to join a subsequent pregnancy group until after their baby was born). I would often say when opening the meeting that just because dh & I were facilitating the group did not mean we had "the answers" -- we were just willing to listen and to share our own experiences from a point further down the road. Many of our clients often remarked that they didn't realize how far along they had come until a new couple arrived & reminded them of where they had been.

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  9. Mali, this is an amazing post. I am so very glad you wrote and shared it. Our situations are not the same, but there is so much in this post that echoed how I have been feeling over the last few months. This will sit with me for a long time. Thank you.

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  10. I agree with @rescogitatae's comment, there is so much in this post that many of us can appreciate and hold on to, even in different situations.

    This is an incredible piece of writing.

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  11. Thank you for writing this. I'm still in the midst of infertility, but so much of what you wrote touched me. I needed to hear your words about acceptance and coming to terms, especially. Thank you, thank you.

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  12. here from the round-up, and really appreciated reading your perspective. "Life is a joy, not a struggle. I'm not kidding." It is a great privilege to be able to come through a shattering experience whatever it is, and say that. Thank you for the reminder.

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  13. While I appreciate this post and you putting it together Mali, I do think that it needs to be recognized that everyone is different. By everyone's different I mean not just how we process things but what our circumstances were and what we experienced. There are some couples that experience miscarriages, some that pursue adoption and have failed matches, others that have surrogacy attempts fail and people who experience a combination of those things or none of those things. Also, don't forget the situations where couples aren't on the same page. All of it shapes how a couple processes it.

    I don't think you are being fair by saying that those who don't come out of it is because they are "immersed in their grief" when we don't know what their experience was. Just because you ended up happy living childless/free after infertility doesn't mean everyone else should. Your experience is your own. What you experienced is different than everyone else will have experienced. Rather than imply that others who aren't happy is their own fault cause they're doing it wrong, we should be supporting these people.

    I understand you have good intentions with this post but I think you are looking at things from what your experience is only.

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    1. I'm sorry you feel that way, but far from basing this on my own experience, I am basing it on over a decade of experience in the infertility and loss community, and years of experience and hundreds (if not more) of women and a few men. I volunteered on a UK charity website for six years, almost every day (7 days a week), worked with hundreds of women (and men) privately as well as on the site, and received a lot of training and support from other volunteers.

      I saw some people (only one or two) who were indeed "immersed in their grief," not just for a month, or a year, or even two or three or four years, when I believe that we are all still going through that grieving and healing process, but for years and years. By that, I mean that they focused on their grief, identified themselves by their grief, and refused to accept that life could be good. As I said in my post, "they never came out of it." And I felt (and continue to feel) very sad for them.

      But the vast majority of the hundreds of people I worked with did. And that is my message. Even when we don't and can't believe it will get better, it does.

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    2. How do you know the reason they were never able to live a happy life because they were "immersed in their grief"? Did they tell you that or is it your opinion that is why they weren't able to live a happy life? Because there is a big dfference. If it's the former then that is the truth. If it's the later that is strictly an opinion that should not be stated as a fact. I don't think you are being fair to those people.

      I'm not going to sit here and tell you that I don't believe that you've lived a happy life. I do believe you that you've managed to live a happy life. That's your experience and its not up to me or anyone else to tell you that you are wrong about your own life. The same logic should be applied to others. That's all I am saying.

      For me personally, I do have some happy things in my life that keep me going. It's not all doom and gloom. But there is always going to be something missing. In 2013 I didn't live my life after first finding out about our infertility. However, in 2014 I did live my life. I made positive changes and did some things I never thought I'd be able to do. Nothing held me back as it did in 2013. Yet despite that something is missing in my life and I recognize that it always will be. But that's just me. I know others will have different experiences and I'm not going to sit here and dismiss those experiences just because my experience was different.

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    3. I am not dismissing anyone's experiences. Quite the contrary. Those who were stuck said openly that they were unhappy, and that their overwhelming grief was the cause. They were desperate to find a way out, a way through their grief. That's one of the reasons why I blog - to try to help everyone who wants to be helped, who is ready to be helped, by being honest about my own journey (with the benefit of hindsight) and through sharing what I have learned personally and by interacting with many others. I know I won't be able to help everyone, but at least I try.

      And I think we should leave it there, unless you want to talk privately. I stand by my post, and my belief and observation that by far the majority will go on to live happy lives.

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  14. Mali - isn't it possible that many of the people with different experiences and circumstances haven't tried to access the services you've worked in? As Greg mentions, there are couples who weren't on the same page re their infertility journey and perhaps split up afterwards. Maybe also people from cultures in which a childfree life is considered less valid and who have therefore lost support or contact with friends and family (or maybe were abandoned by their partner for not being able to 'provide' them with children). I think these sorts of people might go under the radar as they might be dealing with other issues that make it difficult for them to reach out and tell their story. However, they might still read infertility / childfree blogs and never comment. I am not sure how these people can be supported if they understandably don't speak out, but they certainly deserve to be acknowledged.

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  15. Anonymous, I have met and talked to people in most, if not all, the circumstances you or the previous commenter mentioned, from all over the world. I completely acknowledge their experiences, and I would certainly want to support anyone who faces a life without children when it is not their choice. It's why I blog and why I wrote this post. I sincerely hope they will find acceptance, and believe that, in time, most will go on to do so, and live good and happy lives.

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  16. Mali, I think this is such an essential point of view. As someone who has spent quite a bit of time roiling around in the deep, dark bowels of depression, it's important to hear someone speaking from wisdom and experience say, 'My life is great.' Once I recognized that I wasn't emotionally built for donor or adoption, and the prognosis for my eggs was grim according to some of my doctors, I felt so lost in a place of inescapable grief and fear and emptiness. It would have helped to hear this.

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  17. Beautiful, beautiful post with such a message of hope and an acknowledgement of the deep pain but that it gets better. I love the phrase "punching the bruise." And also that you've had your face to the sun for a long while now. I love how you put this experience to words, and I am so glad it got better and that you can share this so honestly, because it definitely, definitely helps.

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  18. dear Mali,
    thank you for writing this post. It is and will be a comfort for many of us.
    I am now three years and a half after I stopped all infertility treatments.

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  19. Chiming in late here. What a dialogue. I am struck by the passion and, in some sense, the rawness of the emotions in the comments. It takes me back to when I was in the worst of my pain and torment and darkness...long before I could see there might actually be a light at the end of the tunnel.

    I remember, years ago, lashing out and verbally taking on someone who dared to suggest maybe those who were stuck in sadness might be the architects of our own darkness -- that we who didn't succeed in creating children were, perhaps, prolonging our suffering by not openly embracing another more joyful way to live.

    In some sense it felt as if the person (who, by the way was successful using fertility treatment) was diminishing or dismissing the very real anguish I was still very much processing.
    The last thing I wanted to hear in my aggrieved state of mind was that it might or would get better -- from anyone.

    Her comment, I see in hindsight, was meant in a 'tough love' albeit, clumsy supportive way to say 'buck up' but that's not how it landed. In truth I wasn't in the frame of mind to hear anyone suggest a life after infertility losses might actually be joyful. I wasn't ready. I hadn't hit bottom and I really needed to mourn and wail and have my suffering heard and validated.

    I guess this is my long way of saying what you've said many times over: the healing process is unique for each of us. The challenge in being further along is that our words may strike those earlier in the process as too tidy. Unless someone has read from day one every post we've ever written it's hard to appreciate how long and winding the path has been. Perhaps this post might need to include a warning for those still in the early days of coming to terms...

    What I do know, Mali, is that you've always honored all and been supportive wherever one might be in the healing process. As many of us have learned the hard way ..there is no one size fits all and we each arrive at our destination in our own unique way.

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  20. Wow. I really needed this today. This is *exactly* where I am. Thank you for reminding me that there is a life of hope and meaning on the other side of this!

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  21. Popped over from another blog. This reflection is wise. I have come (and/or am coming) to a place of acceptance of my situation. But I still harbor anger at other IFers who told me I didn't have a right to be angry (and, in one case, that maybe my anger WAS the problem - i.e., childlessness was actually a spiritual consequence of my bad attitude). I find it very, very hard not to want there to be a special punishment for people who say things like that. Something still on the to-do list in letting go. Thank you for your words :)

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I find it very frustrating that there are people who imply that your anger was the problem.These are people completely lacking empathy or compassion, people who maybe are uncomfortable with your sadness/anger/pain and want to dismiss it or wish it away to ease their discomfort. Letting go and forgiving statements like that takes a lot!

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  22. So well said. Now 5 years in to being infertile, I feel so much better. Those first couple years were so hard. The first six months, I hated looking at Facebook, was so tired of baby announcements, etc. But now, it is an entirely different story. My best friend is having her 2nd child in May, I plan to go take care of her first child. I can't be happier to see this soon to be baby and help her out in this exciting time. 5 years ago, I wouldn't have been able to be this happy. I feel so good about the healing that's taken place. And it is important to reflect on how far we've come.

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  23. Learn to flow like river, that's how to heal your anger
    www.bellofpeace||gede prama.org  

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  26. I was diagnosed with poor ovarian reserve and very bad prognosis of having a baby with my own eggs. I was even given the option to consider donor eggs. That was around july 2014. I was absolutely devastated with the news and I arranged an IVF for November 2016 and it failed also, given that I had nothing to lose, I contacted ( agbazara@gmail.com ) i meet online and he send me his herbal product,. Believe it or not... I am already pregnant within few week after his help. contact him today with any kind of problem and be happy like me on:

    agbazara@gmail.com

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