01 March, 2021

Labels, judgement, and justification

Sue on Childless by Marriage wrote about being blamed for her situation, and how that makes her feel, as well as the differences in the labels of childfree and childless, and how she feels about that. It’s a good read – you can find it here. But I had some thoughts that belonged here rather than in her comments section. Because just as I wrote last week – that for much of our lives we havemore in common with parents than we realise – I think those of us who are No Kidding because of infertility have more in common with the childless by circumstance or childless by marriage and even the childfree than maybe any of us realise.

Firstly, I feel that those of us who suffered infertility often have to justify why we don't have children, just as the childless by marriage, though often with different questions, and for different reasons. "Why did you wait so long to try to have children?" they ask. "Was your condition age-related?" “What did you do wrong?” or even better, “what’s wrong with you?” or the insensitive “you’re not doing it right” or (the insensitive male) “I’d get you pregnant,” etc. The variations we’ve all heard are endless. And of course, the perennial "why didn’t you adopt?” The questions are intrusive, impolite, often unthinking. The situation is complicated. As well as infertility, many of us may share some of the same issues as those who identify as childless by marriage. After all, negotiating whether to venture into IVF or donor cycles, or whether to adopt, are variations on the question of whether or not to have children. The decisions are just taken at different stages in the process. Whatever and whenever decisions are made, we have one thing in common. Our reasons are personal.

However we have become childless/childfree, prying questions or throwaway remarks like this irritate me. As I’ve said before, and as I’ll say many times after this, I don’t feel that any of us (childfree, childless, or alone by <insert reason here>) owe anyone an explanation for why we don’t have children. And I’m quite happy not to answer people, divert them in some way, joke about it, or otherwise convey that it is none of their damn business! Politely, of course. In the main!

Time changes how we feel too. When I started this blog, I had in my About section that I sometimes felt childlLESS, and sometimes childFREE. But I removed that a while ago, because I don’t like the feeling of being defined as either of these labels, or both, and besides, I dislike the fact that any label like that invites judgement, in the same way that whatever answers I might give to why I don't have children can invite judgement.  As I wrote almost ten years ago in November 2011 in Childless, childfree … or what?,

“The problem is that the labels childLESS or childFREE automatically convey additional information about our history, and our feelings about our situation. And (as you may have guessed) I don’t always want to share that information. These labels make a point of telling people we either feel a loss and that we are living in sadness, or that we are delighted we don’t have children and celebrate it daily. Some people are very comfortable with those labels, and that’s fine for them. I can certainly understand that some people might choose to use the label childless because they don’t want to be grouped in with all the negative accusations that are (sadly) often directed at the childfree. At times I have felt that way too, particularly in those immediate years after we learned we would live without children.  In those years, I certainly felt child less. But, even then, that is not how I wanted to portray myself to the world. I abhorred the idea of pity, and I hated the prospect of successful parents looking down on me, having achieved something I couldn’t. My situation was private, and my feelings about it were private. And so the label childless felt too defensive, too negative, and I’ve never comfortably used it."

In 2011, when I first wrote about this, I was already eight years on from ending my quest to have children. Now, it has been 18 years. Today, in 2021, I mostly just feel like me. Not having children is part of who I am, but by no means wholly who I am. I use the label childless here on this blog because I know people use it to search to find our community, because it is how so many of us feel when we are in pain and are trying to figure out what the future holds, and because we lack any other word for those of us who never had children. It reflects who I was, rather than who I am now. I don’t like labels. It's not that black and white. I explained further, in a little rant, in 2011:

“The problem I have with both of these labels is that they allow others to make a judgement about our choices, and invite an emotional response (pity, superiority, horror, disbelief, etc). And that isn’t fair. After all, the words parent or mother don’t have any such connotations to them, do they? They don’t say “mother by choice” or “mother not by choice” or “parent by accident” or “mother by drunken binge on a Friday night in the back seat of the car of a guy she’d just met in the bar” or “parent by broken condom.” They don’t say “parent after ten years of trying to conceive and thousands of dollars of fertility treatments” or “mother who thought kids would save her marriage” or “ happy mother who always wanted kids and got everything she wanted” or “mother who thought she always wanted kids till she got them and now wishes she didn’t.” The words parent or mother are just factual statements.”

As I said then,

“Fact: I’m a woman, first and foremost.
Fact: I don’t have children.”

But there’s much more to me that that too. And just as I don’t defend my hair colour (though actually, sometimes I do have to defend my grey hair since I let it show through last year), where I live, my career choices, my fear of heights, my love of reading and walking and travel, etc I don’t feel I need to justify why I don't have children. And I don't feel the need to have a label on my No Kidding status. It’s nobody’s business, unless I choose to share. That is one thing I am happy to tell anyone who asks!

22 February, 2021

What we share

A week or so ago, a friend posted a pic of her eldest son, moving into his university halls accommodation. Between my two ectopics, my friend invited me to lunch, and told me she was pregnant, and would be telling our bookclub the following week. I appreciated that so much. At the time, I was hopeful I too was pregnant, but it took a few more months until I was, this time with my second ectopic. When I was in hospital for a week, waiting to see whether my ectopic pregnancy was a trophoblastic cancer or not, and not being allowed home in case it burst and killed me, she visited, heavily pregnant, joking that she thought that alarms might have gone off at the door to stop her getting in in “her condition.” I appreciated that joke, and the visit. 

When she had her son a few months later, I popped up upstairs in the women’s hospital to leave her some magazines and a note, after I had yet another consultant’s appointment downstairs to see how to resolve my ectopic. And afterwards, I remember walking with her along the beach, pushing the pram, as she asked about ectopics and IVF. She was there for me when I needed her, and was always easy to talk to when we did get together, despite a gap in ages, her easy fertility, and her always active social life. I’ve been lucky, because she made things easier. (Not all my friends were able to do that.) When I’ve visited her house I’ve seen the boys grow up, and knew that her son was going to university this year (though I didn’t know he was leaving home and going to another city), so the passage of time itself wasn’t a shock to me.

Still, it gave me food for thought. In some ways that time in hospital seems like another life. But in other ways, it doesn’t feel that long ago. 17 years went in a flash! In a year or two, her youngest son will be away too. Then she’ll be an empty nester, along with all the rest of us from that bookclub. Her day-to-day life will be, essentially, the same as mine. (Except it will be far busier, because that’s just who she is!) Of course, long term she will probably become a grandparent, and (barring a tragedy) her boys will be there for her when she’s elderly, or needs them. I’m not forgetting that. But there will be a period of time – maybe 10, maybe 20, maybe even 30 years, when her life won’t be all that different to mine. It’s useful to reflect on that. Sometimes it really helps to focus on the similarities between us. There are far more than we might think.

15 February, 2021

Misunderstandings: Pandemic and No Kids version

Ironically, given last week’s post, the pandemic and my No Kidding life clashed last week and is still making me think. It was the first week after school went back following the summer break that began in December. My husband and I had a day off from working on the in-laws’ house, and we decided to go out for lunch, a rare treat this summer. The roads were clear, there were tables available at the café we chose, plenty of parking spaces, and the beach across the road was relatively empty. We had a lovely lunch overlooking a beach, and the harbour channel. The sea was a deep greeny-blue, the wind had whipped up white tips on the waves out in the channel, yet in the bay the water was calm and clear around the rocks, the sand was golden, and the sun was shining. It was gorgeous. I posted about it on Fbk, mentioning that the kids were finally back at school, and declaring, “I have my city back!”

It was a statement that many No Kidding people would understand. We avoid the crowds at malls and movie theatres and museums etc during school holidays, knowing that we can visit when there aren’t families on holiday crowding our city. My sister (whose child was back at school herself) laughed, and wished she could be with us. But I was initially confused when there were responses praising our PM, and even more so when I found myself being accused of crowing about our good fortune, and given the usual excuses why NZ had been successful in dealing with the pandemic (“such a small country” etc). Another person also seemed to want to point out how well their area was doing. (I bit my tongue and refrained from pointing out that 700 deaths in a single US county with the same population of my city -  was not “doing well.”)

The misunderstandings were multiple: 

First, I didn’t realise that my friends in the US and UK would not realise that our summer school holidays occur … well … in our summer! They know it is summer here, if they follow me at all. So that surprised me, and reminded me once again of the tyranny of the north, and that being in the southern hemisphere makes half the world outliers from the dominant culture!

Secondly, my social media friends didn’t seem to realise that I was celebrating a city without holidaymakers – because of course, when the schools start, the parents get back to work too. So celebrating a city without kids means a much easier city to navigate. Perhaps they’ve never felt the need to avoid children and families because life has been easier for them. I don’t do that now through pain or envy, although that hasn’t always been the case. Avoiding children and families used to be an act of self-protection, to avoid the ouch moments we all know so well. But now I avoid them if possible simply because I don’t like crowds, and prefer to wait till the families have resumed school and work before I voluntarily visit certain places. After every school break, I rejoice when the schools open again, and I reclaim my city! But this simple state was completely misunderstood by some of my friends.

Finally, my simple statement about a kid/family free city  – or at least, what I thought was simple – became a trigger and hurtful to others, who are so focused on the pandemic that they immediately assumed that was what I was talking about. It reminded me again about infertility. How many times has someone made a simple statement that we have taken the wrong way? I’m sure I have at times, when I was deep in pain. Were my casual comments about going out and eating lunch the equivalent of fertiles talking about their kids? Perhaps. What I do know is what I didn’t say. I didn’t say, “I am blessed,” or “it wasn’t meant to be” or “some people/places aren’t meant to have this luck.” Because I know how pointless and hurtful and simply untrue those comments can be. So I’m still thinking about it. Those who responded badly were more politically supportive of administrations that have performed poorly in the pandemic, and perhaps feeling defensive. So I'm trying to be fair. Trying to be sensitive. Trying to do better.

 An aside: The woman who told me it was “distasteful” to “crow about” NZ’s pandemic (relatively) free status, which I was not doing, was someone I knew through the ectopic online support group. We had commiserated and comforted each other together, I met her in real life, and I was supportive and happy when she went on to have a child. I discovered some years later that she already had two much older children, and I remember feeling duped and betrayed. I don’t know the story around that, and there obviously is one. But I did think it was a bit ironic that she, who is a fervent poster about being a mother and now a grandmother despite pretending not to have children in the first ten years of our relationship, objected to my innocent comment. I remind myself. Try to do better. Bite my tongue!

08 February, 2021

A Pandemic and Infertility

I’ve been watching many of my international friends struggle the last few weeks. They are struggling with winter, with the pandemic, with the lack of hope, even though they know theoretically that there is hope that this will end. It is piling in on them, winter doesn't help, and it is really tough.

It strikes me once again – as it did last March when we all started going into lockdown – that there is much about the pandemic that is familiar to those of us who have been through infertility.

The lack of control is very familiar. The uncertainty and fear. Living in a state of limbo. Even the unhelpful and unscientific stereotypes that abound.

The exhaustion also seems prevalent, after 10 or more long months of this. I remember a former blogger, Beef Princess, commenting that she was Childless by Exhaustion. I suspect some people have caught or spread COVID-19 by Exhaustion too.

I shared the fears and uncertainty of you all in March and April when I was in lockdown. I used lessons I’d learned from infertility to help me through it, in the same way IP is using her hard-won wisdom here. But that has not been so necessary since then. I know I am lucky, through no effort of my own (other than following the rules). And so by now, I am well and truly on the other side of this pandemic. Not immune. Not cured. Simply not really affected day-to-day. I’m not truly experiencing this pandemic, in the way that some people never experience infertility, or think about it only as a future but unlikely possibility.

So I am having to learn something new – how to sit with you, to listen to your frustrations and fears without dismissing them. I say things like, “I can only imagine …” rather than “I can’t imagine,” and then I actively try to imagine what it is like, to understand what you are all going through, and to try to help in whatever small way I can. But I don’t really know how to do that.

I have one friend who tells me she wants to see photos and stories of life “as usual” in New Zealand, because it gives her hope and reminds her that life can be good. But that reminds me of hearing all those "success stories" and really not wanting to hear any more! So I fear others think that I am being unkind, or smug. So I try to stay alert to that. It’s a good reminder to me that those people who said insensitive things to me during infertility might have been trying to help, but – like me now – didn’t know how. I know they needed me to help them help me, even though at the time I was too exhausted and couldn't face or even resented the need to educate them. 

I'm trying to understand. I want to be able to help. I know nothing I can do though will change things. So I'm here, with you. Listening. Ready to talk if you want to talk. You're not alone. You'll get through this. You are resilient, even if you don't feel resilient, and don't want to have to be resilient because it sucks and it is hard work! You are strong, even if you don't feel strong right now, or because you are tired of being strong. Letting yourself feel vulnerable and rolling with your emotions is in itself resilience, and a how of strength. I hope you know that. And remember, too. You are loved.

 

01 February, 2021

Shared experiences in beauty and grief

 Last week, I went to the very fabulous Van Gogh Alive exhibition. If you haven't seen it, I hope that one day you get the opportunity to do so. I've seen Van Gogh paintings in museums around the world, including the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which has wall-to-wall originals of his various sunflower paintings. But this was something else. They take paintings, and parts of the paintings, and project them on screens to music. Some aspects are moving - clouds or trains or birds. When Starry Nights is shown, or a forest scene, you feel as if you are immersed in the forest.

Accompanying the beauty and anguish of the paintings are quotes from Van Gogh's writings and letters. He could paint, but wow, he could write too. I started photographing so many of the quotes, because they spoke to me, and because they seemed so appropriate to this blog. It was just a reminder of the experiences and thoughts and growth we share with others going through hard times, who feel isolated or "other" or misunderstood, who feel alone, sad and depressed. 

I'm just going to put up some of the quotes and paintings, and let you decide if they fit with your life or not.


In an artist's life,
death is perhaps not the most difficult thing.


I will not live without love.

I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic
than to love people.

The beginning is perhaps more difficult
than anything else, but keep heart,
it will turn out all right.

I wish they would only take me as I am.

Though I am often in the depths of misery,
there is still calmness, pure harmony,
and music inside me.

It is looking at things for a long time
that ripens you and gives you a
deeper meaning.