19 December, 2010

All those questions

I am a strong believer in self-protection, perhaps because I have little faith in others being able to be sensitive enough to protect us when we need to be protected.   Even when they are well-intentioned, even when they know our stories and would never ever want to hurt us, insensitive things are said and done.  I know how easy it is, because I’ve done it myself.  I said something thoughtlessly in front of someone, and I know it upset her.  Later that day, we had a good cry about it together, and I believe she forgave me.  I still feel awful about it, and I have never done anything similar, and I’m very cautious about what I say.  Others are not, unfortunately, and don’t learn.

I approach insensitivity in two ways.  If they are people I think will learn, will listen, or simply need a bit of a shock, then I will tell them why they’re being insensitive.  Not in detail.  I don’t go into detail, because I really don’t want to share my private feelings with insensitive clods.  I don’t want to give others the power of knowing how vulnerable I am.  But I do speak up occasionally when I think it’s needed.  My most commonly used comment is this one:

I’m not the person you should be complaining to/ showing this to /telling this to.

But I’ve also had to say this:

I’m sorry, I don’t really want to hold other people’s babies.

The second group are the insensitive clods or people I don’t know.  I ignore them.  I give myself permission not to respond to rude, prying, insensitive people.  I feel good about that.  It allows me to protect myself, and keep my dignity and self-respect.

If someone wants to ask personal questions, I simply won’t answer them. Since I’ve faced infertility, I’ve been surprised at our automatic inclination to respond honestly to questions, no matter who asks them.  We need media training by the people who teach politicians never to answer questions, so when we’re asked “why don’t you have children?” we can either change the subject completely, or turn it back on them (“why do you?), at the same time avoiding giving any meaningful answer ourselves. 

I’ve used this answer:
If I wanted you to know, I’d tell you/have told you.

And this one:
You’d run a mile if I told you.

But I really want to use these ones  (found on a “comebacks” webpage years ago):

The cats (dogs) turned out so well we didn’t think it was necessary.

The dog’s allergic.

04 December, 2010

Reclaiming Christmas

Christmas is a time full of memories of loss for me.  It begins in November, pauses today on 4 December to remember my Dad who would have been 82 today, and then builds up steam as I remember the diagnoses of my two ectopics in December and January.  Christmas carols bring back memories.  Old repeats of corny TV programmes (Mr Bean's Christmas for example) bring back painful memories, and the brilliant red blooms on the pohutakawa trees (often called New Zealand's Christmas trees) never fail to transport me back to the Women's Hospital at this time of year.

But I've always loved Christmas.  Over the years I've heard a lot of women - usually those who are worried about their fertility or are going through loss - say that "Christmas is for children."  They're grieving the loss of Christmas as well as the loss of their children, their future.  And I understand that.  I had collected cute knitted Christmas stockings from markets when I lived overseas.  I ended up with multiple stockings, imagining a house full of our children and their cousins at Christmas. And the year my last IVF failed, and I knew I would never have children, I looked at those stockings and cried.  I've since given one to all my nieces and nephews.  I hope their parents use them.  I hope they make them happy.

But understanding the grief that we won't ever celebrate Christmas with our own children, doesn't mean that Christmas has to be lost to us.  If it was important to you before children, it can be important to you afterwards.  It might not be what you always wanted, but let's face it, what in life is exactly as we had envisaged it, or just how we always wanted?  And so I stamp my feet a little, and say "Christmas is NOT just for children.  It's for all of us, to make our own." 

And so I do try to make Christmas my own.  If family are visiting my city, then I insist on hosting Christmas dinner, both to save my mother-in-law from the effort (she hates cooking), and also to claim it for myself.  I keep it simple, but have traditions that are mine.  And to be honest, one of the traditions I like is that I keep it simple, and sophisticated.  Sure, kids are catered for, and have a good time.  But this is not just about them.  It's about all of us, family getting together, or simply my husband and I, celebrating our love.

My own losses have made me much more aware of how difficult Christmas is for so many people.  We may think that others are happy, but there are people without families, others who may be going through things we don't know about, hiding behind seemingly happy family photographs, or busy Christmases, as their hearts are breaking, as they struggle with illness, or financial difficulties.  Our culture's emphasis on being happy at Christmas is cruel to a great many people, and they all need our help and support, so much more than any child needs a new playstation (or whatever the latest "must-have" present is).

My friend is about to go through her second Christmas separated from her husband.  Last year she was hopeful they could reconcile.  This year she knows they won't.  It's difficult for her, her parents, her children.  They're all grieving.  But she's making it her own, and I applaud that.

I guess I'm saying we should reclaim Christmas.  Get our own happy memories.  We never forget, of course we don't.  But it doesn't mean that we can't welcome Christmas or other holiday traditions with peace and joy.  And that is what I wish everyone.  Joy and peace and love.

30 November, 2010

November seven years ago

In October 2003, I learned I would never have children.  On my birthday.  Although this was not entirely unexpected, the finality of the verdict was a shock.  And it took some time to sink in.  Understandably.  After all, the majority of people, men and women, spend their lives assuming that if they want to they can and will have children.  For some of us, it takes longer to decide to try than others.  But even so, the realisation that it will not happen for you, that you will be one of those in the minority, one of the ones who cannot, this realisation is very difficult. 

At first my brain could not accept it.  But gradually, as October turned to November, each time I remembered, my brain began to adjust.  When I found myself thinking “when I have children” or “my children would never do that,” my brain remembered, and reminded me.  These things were no longer an option. And each reminder was painful, and each pain on top of the previous pain hurt even more.  The wounds were still raw, and the pain got worse and worse.  November 2003 was a difficult time.

But then my logical brain won the battle.  I stopped thinking the painful thoughts, and was able to start looking forward.  November makes that easy for those of us in the southern hemisphere.  We can look forward to the end of the year, to a break from work, from people, from putting on a brave face.  We can look forward to summer and blessed warmth, and the unknown, untarnished future of a new year. 
That dark month is now a distant memory.  I remember, but no longer feel the pain.  Instead, I feel excitement at what is to come.

21 November, 2010

"As a mother ..."

Lisa at Life Without Baby wrote about her initial response of wanting to help a motherless young girl.  I often feel that way when I hear about abused children, or see abandoned children on TV.  "I could help them!" my mind screams. 

I was sad that Lisa felt her response was irrational.  She said “just that second I wanted to take that little girl home with me.”  I don’t think this response was irrational at all - I know she never thought of kidnapping, she just wanted to mother and comfort the child - but it has got me to thinking.

There was an article in the newspaper earlier this year about a little girl who got stranded on a commuter train. A woman cared for and comforted the child, returning her - by an expensive taxi trip - a very long way back to the original stop where the distraught mother was waiting.  The good samaritan was quoted as saying "I just did what any parent would do." The headline said "What any parent would do."

As a childless mother, a woman with no children, one of the most insulting and isolating phrases I can hear is a woman saying, “as a mother, I ...”  So often this comes with the inference that “only a mother/parent can be compassionate/feel this way/react kindly/understand.” 

I accept that I don’t have the same experiences as a mother.  But I resent the implication that only a mother can feel for a child, only a mother (or parent) can understand that the mother in the article would have been terrified, that only a mother can be relied on to help.  I get so angry when I hear this.

Of course I know what the rescuer was saying - if her child had been stranded she'd want a good samaritan (like she was) to look after them. That she could imagine what the child's mother was feeling.  But would she want just a parent good samaritan?  Wouldn't I do?  I get so insulted when I see someone say this kind of thing. As if people without children don't have the capacity to imagine the terror of the little girl and her mother. As if we wouldn't look after the child.  As if we don't have compassion, or commonsense.   

The comment "as a parent" or "as a mother" implies too that these people wouldn't have had this compassion for the child before they had become parents.  Really?  I doubt that.  And what about the parents that are so awful that you wouldn’t want any child to be in their company for ten seconds, let alone 30 minutes? Are they better just because they can say "as a parent ..." and nod smugly?

Of course people who use these phrases don't intend offence.  But it offends nonetheless, and hurts to the bone. "No," I feel like saying. "You didn't do it 'as a mother.'  You just did what any decent human being would do."   What Lisa wanted to do to comfort the child in her class.

But it still feels as if parents think we - the childless - are not decent human beings because we don't  have children. 

18 November, 2010

More history

I know this is repeating my earlier post a little, but I wrote this recently for another purpose, and I think it says something new too.  

About this time, nine years ago, I learned I was pregnant for the first time.  Stunned with the test result, I was more than a little scared.  We had thought it wasn’t going to happen.  But once we recovered from the shock, we were excited.  The next day, my husband sent me a huge bunch of flowers, with a note that simply said “You know why.”  I was filled with an unnatural feeling of boundless energy.  I didn’t think pregnancy would be like this.  I felt good.

But within a very short time, it was over.  We learned new words:  ectopic, laparoscopy and methotrexate.  We learned about life-threatening conditions.  I learned to hate Mr Bean, the Christmas show now forever a reminder of that night in the hospital, when my unviable and dangerous pregnancy ended.

Just over a year later, as Christmas approached, we were again filled with optimism, cautious, but hopeful.  After all, the odds were in our favour.  This time I felt tired, and nauseous.  How I loved those feelings.  We even had time to tell a select few the happy news.  We talked about names, imagined soccer-playing boys, and netball-playing girls.  But Christmas morning brought fear.  And again we were disappointed, grief-stricken.  This time we learned words such as trophoblastic disease, metastasize, cornual, and embolise.  We learned that one of us, at least, was mortal, though thankfully a reprieve was given at that time.

Since then, though, we’ve also learned about healing, support, and recovery.  We’ve learned about the importance of living our lives, the joy of giving back, the depth of friendships forged in pain, the truth of friendships made over the internet, the strength that results from surviving pain.  And so, at this time of year, I also give thanks.

13 November, 2010

History now

I posted this back on 31 December 2007, on a now defunct blog.  It seems appropriate to post it again here, not least because December is coming and memories are returning, but also because it backgrounds some of my infertility experiences.

I heard today that Sophie, Her Royal Highness the Countess of Wessex, this week gave birth to a baby boy.  It seemed appropriate.  I often think of Sophie in December, remembering that she had her ectopic pregnancy in 2001 about the time I found I was pregnant for the first time.  Perhaps my only royal connection, I too suffered an ectopic pregnancy just a few weeks later.

A year later, December 2002, I was pregnant again.  But waking on Christmas Day I knew things were not quite right, and before New Year I knew I had lost the baby.  Another couple of weeks of poking and prodding, tests, scans, medical and surgical treatment, hospitalisation and suspected cancer, it was finally diagnosed as a cornual ectopic pregnancy.  It took five months three surgeries five hospital stays countless blood tests and specialist appointments before I was given the all clear.
About 1 in 80 pregnancies are ectopic, which means they are outside the womb.  The baby will not survive.  If left untreated, in many cases neither will the mother.  Ectopics are often misdiagnosed, and every year women die as a result, even in the richest countries of the world.
About 1% of ectopic pregnancies are cornual.  I was told that about 1 in 400,000 pregnancies were in the position as mine.  Suddenly I realised what it is like to be on the wrong end of the odds.  When you’re the 1 in 400,000, and that is 100% of your experience, the odds become meaningless.

You realise you are not infallible; things you thought would come easily do not; things which everyone assumes would be yours simply by right of existence are not.

You come face to face with your own mortality.  Life seems more uncertain.

You endure invasive medical or surgical treatment, sometimes both, often on an emergency basis.

You have concerns about your future fertility – some women lose their tubes, sometimes ovaries, and cornual ectopics such as mine run the risk of losing part or your entire uterus.

Saddest of all, you lose a baby.

Pregnancy, which everyone else takes for granted, becomes something that can kill you.

So now (when I can) I try to help the Ectopic Pregnancy Trust.  It raises awareness of ectopic pregnancies, supports research into causes, treatment and prevention, and improves the diagnosis and treatment.  Literally, the Trust saves lives.  Just as importantly, as far as I am concerned, it saves spirits and relationships as well.

But every year at this time, I remember.

12 November, 2010

Double-edged sword of spring

In New Zealand, November means spring.  Officially, September or October are spring, but they are unreliable months, when winter still has us in its grip, teasing and taunting us with the occasional fine day, with the bloom of flowers, with pink blossoms and buds turning into delicate, pale green leaves on the willow trees that edge the Hutt River.  September and October still have the power to force us back into our winter coats, to wear scarves and gloves.  This year was particularly cruel, as we watched a late snowstorm in the south of the country arrive in September, bringing the sheep farming industry to its knees, its icy ferocity killing thousands of newborn lambs. 
But by November hope has returned.  Even though there might still be a chilly bite in the wind, the sun warms, and we begin to believe that warm temperatures will return, that long holidays, barbecues, trips to the beach, swimming, and the end of a rough year are almost within reach.  

November sees hope for the future for most New Zealanders.  November celebrates new life.  But for me, November signals a different time.  It signals a season of memories.  Memories of  loss, of disappointment, of the loss of innocence, of fear for the future, and of coming to terms with my own mortality.  And each year, although sharp pain has faded, although acceptance and enjoyment in life has returned, each year we remember the pain.

In my house in New Zealand, even seven years later, November is a double-edged sword.