A reader emailed me with a suggestion for a blog post. They suggested that I write about the guilt they feel about being the one unable to have children. “If,” they said, “anyone else feels like that too.”
I am absolutely positive that there are other people who feel this way. The truth is, there’s a lot of guilt around infertility. I’ve written before about the guilt around healing, and wondering if that means I didn’t deserve children, or didn’t want them enough. But there’s another area of guilt I realise I’ve covered only rarely.Perhaps because it’s so close to home. That’s the guilt that it was my fault that we couldn’t have children.
I felt guilt for two reasons. The first was that I was the one who asked my husband to wait before we started to conceive. He would have been happy to try much earlier. But I was the first in either of my families to graduate from university, a young woman who saw a world open up to her (in the 1980s and early 90s) in the way it hadn’t to women at any time before in history, and I felt that I shouldn’t squander that. I wasn’t ready to become a mother in my 20s, and by the time we started trying in my mid-30s, there were difficulties. Difficulties, as it turned out, with my body, not my husband’s. So this was a second reason to feel guilt.
Guilt is a hard thing to feel, and it brings isolation and shame. I feared that I’d been the stereotypical “selfish” career woman, and I felt guilty for it. But I thought about my motivations. I had delayed trying to have a child because I felt that I should only become a mother when I could fully commit, when I could be the best mother I could possibly be for my future children. I didn’t ever want to feel resentment towards my husband or my children for having them before I was ready. That was a burden they didn't deserve. By the late 1990s, the promise of a genuine feminist revolution had faded, and I knew very well that as the mother, I would be doing the bulk of the care-giving. So it was not only my body, but my life that would be most affected, and would have most impact on any children we managed to have. So ultimately, I was making the best decision for my future children, for my husband (who wanted a happy family), and for me. This decision was no more selfish than my husband’s simple desire to have children. Fortunately, he accepted that it would happen when I was ready. He didn’t blame me – not outwardly at least.(He assures me now that he doesn't blame me, and never did. He sounded puzzled at the idea when I asked him.)
My decision to delay was made with the best of intentions, and on the information I had at the time, and so wasn’t a selfishly motivated decision. I genuinely didn’t realise (this was the 80s and 90s) that delaying conception might have such an impact. It wasn’t something I had ever explored, and there was little public discourse about the issue of delaying childbearing in the way there has been this last 10-15 years. Or if there was, I never noticed it. So if my decision was made with the best of intentions, and with the best information I had, then what was there to feel guilty about? I didn’t know this would happen. I didn’t know the pain it would cause either of us. And so, I realised there was no option but to forgive myself. In forgiving myself, in accepting that I wasn’t to blame, that I had done nothing to bring shame, in accepting the “why” of all this, I was able to let go of the guilt.
Forgiving my body (the second source of guilt) was I think easier. Guilt is a feeling of culpability, of blame, of responsibility for a choice or actions. Nothing I had done (apart from my earlier choice about delaying timing) had led to me having two ectopics, one of them resulting in blocked tubes, and then failing to respond to the drugs. Yes, it was my body, but was it really my fault? I hadn’t deliberately failed my husband, and he didn’t blame me. My body had failed both of us. He understood this well before I did.
The overwhelming emotion I felt was shame that my body couldn’t do what was so normal for other women. I felt embarrassed and inadequate and shunned, but I’m not sure I felt a lot of guilt. I never really hated my body for what had happened. That would have been a pointless emotion. Hatred, I think, is reserved for something that intends to do you evil. (Or spiders.) My body didn’t intend to hurt me. My body had just failed to work in this one way.
So it was easier to forgive my body than it was to forgive my earlier decision-making, which took some time. Still, because it was a problem with my body, a problem that I couldn’t change by changing my mind or my attitude, small tendrils of guilt and blame stayed with me.
I had those thoughts that I know are common amongst women in these circumstances. That it was all my fault, and that I was causing him grief, ruining his life. Would he be better off if he went and found someone who could give him children? But you know, after a while, I realised that by thinking (and by saying sometimes) that my husband could, would or should find someone else who could give him children was insulting to him, and his love for me. It was insulting, suggesting that he would abandon me in my grief, putting his desires above me. It was insulting, suggesting that he wasn’t in fact in it for better or worse. This belief became clearer when I saw other women experience this too, in relationships I had observed first hand. I knew their partners were there for them. How dare we insult them and suggest they would go off and find greener pastures!
I now have the advantage that I’ve observed other women going through similar issues, on the pregnancy loss board I frequented and volunteered for a decade, and more latterly, on infertility blogs (though to be fair this is a much smaller sample number). The key pattern I have seen over and over again is that our partners, husbands, wives didn’t blame us – either for the failings of our bodies, or any decisions we had made. Though they were sad about this, they were sad with us, for us, and never blamed us.
Isn’t that part of being in a mature relationship? We accept what happens to each of us, and we don’t blame. It might be more difficult when it comes to individual choices we have made, but even then, we have to accept that someone makes a choice that honestly reflects how they feel. We can’t force them to change their minds, their feelings, and if we love them, we can accept it, and vice versa. Our relationships are, in most cases I think, stronger than we know – just as we are stronger than we knew before we started all this.
I won’t lie. In my time, I have seen relationships end under the stress of IVF, infertility, and/or loss. But only very few — the exceptions that prove the rule. In fact, of the hundreds of women I’ve been involved with, I can think of only two or three relationships that have foundered. More often I have seen relationships grow closer (as ours has), and I’ve seen a number of relationships formalised – weddings or civil unions – only after the door has been closed on children. I think many couples valued the opportunity to be able to say, “it’s you I love, not your ability to give me children.” It is a way to show that their love is real and important, to renew their commitment to the relationships, to publicly prove that they mean what they say.
I believe that we can only honour our pain, our grief, our losses, by letting go of unnecessary and unproductive guilt. The guilt and blame (self-blame or otherwise) twists the context of our pain, and twists and damages our relationships. Forgiving ourselves, letting go of our guilt, honours us and the journey we’ve been through, and in turn, allows us to honour our relationships too.