20 January, 2011

Insensitivity goes two ways

I've been thinking a lot lately about whether it is fair to expect friends and families to be sensitive to our situation.  Initially, after my ectopic pregnancies and finding out I'd never have children, I encountered some unthinking reactions.  We've all come across these, but for the record, I'll include some of them:
  • "What's wrong with you?" my mother-in-law asked after my second ectopic pregnancy.
  • "Sorry to hear of your ectopic pregnancy," emailed a (male) friend I'd emailed to tell about it. "But guess what, we're pregnant, and attached is our scan photo!!!"
  • "Oh yes," said my mother knowingly, as I explained that I'd been given a single room at hospital, after becoming upset at visitors coming in with newborn babies.  "It's like when I was in the nursing home, waiting to have my baby, and all the other women already had theirs."  ("No Mum, it's not like that at all!)
  • "But you never lost anything because you never had anything," said a friend after I'd sobbed that we'd come so close to having the baby, only to lose it in a second, almost-in-the-uterus-but-not-close-enough ectopic pregnancy. 
     etc etc etc

But it's seven years now since I found out I would never have children. I'm doing well apart from the occasional "ouch moment."  I enjoy my life, I'm excited about the opportunities for my husband and I for the next few years, and find it very hard to imagine having children. So is it fair of me to expect friends to be sensitive?

Recently, when on holiday in Thailand, a friend texted me to say she'd become a grandmother.  She's always been one of those women who get very clucky (whilst I hate that phrase, it's probably the best way to explain her) over babies, any babies.  I knew it was coming, but I noticed that the text had a photo attached.  Thankfully, due to problems with the roaming network, I couldn't download the photo.  I was relieved, because I was feeling a little fragile (see my previous post), and knew that I didn't want to see the photo.  I was a little annoyed too, because my friend - perhaps more than any of my "real life" friends (as opposed to my virtual/internet friends who totally understand) - usually makes a real attempt to understand how I feel.  I complained to my husband.

"But she's excited," he said.

Yes.  She is so excited at becoming a grandmother, at the journey her son is embarking on, at the new, gorgeous member of their family who arrived right on schedule.  And it got me thinking.  Here was I, on a holiday in Thailand, putting Facebook updates about drinking berrytinis at the bar on the 64th floor, or adding a photo of our resort pool, complete with palm trees and cocktails.  She would love to go on a holiday like this, but can't afford it right now, having made different financial decisions over the years (and admittedly, having had children).

How fair is it of me to show photos of my travels, if I can't look at photos of her first grandchild?  Do I have double standards?  Is there a "use-by" date around our childless state, and after a while we should just shut up and get on with it?  Am I any different from my robustly healthy mother-in-law, who annoys the entire family by gloating about her good health in front of her husband who is quite infirm and increasingly immobile?  Am I just another insensitive clod?

I don't talk about my "ouch moments" except with online friends who truly understand.  I don't let people know that they're hurting me.  I went to drinks with my friend last week, and looked at the photos of the new parents and their baby, and the new and ecstatic grandparents. She laughed and thanked me for being polite and looking.  I objected.  I want her to know that I'm interested in all parts of her life. I don't necessarily want her to know that sometimes it hurts, because I know she makes a real effort to understand.

I don't brag about my holidays, and only provide photos or information if people ask.  My friend asks. She puts in orders for pxts from the beach before I leave.  She's interested in where I go.  I don't think I forcefeed her with boasting photographs or stories.  I try not to.  I think she does the same with me, by and large, about her children and now grandson.  Unfortunately, not everyone is as considerate as her.

And if I'm honest, my husband and I have thrown ourselves into our travels in recent years to fill that void that should have been filled with children.  But perhaps noone else understands that.  Perhaps they just think we're boastful and extravagant?

So is my infertility and childlessness really different?  If I find I can't afford overseas holidays, I'm still childless.  My friends might or might not be able to travel overseas, or might choose not to, but they'll always have their children, and now their grandchildren.  The world expects you to have children and grandchildren.  There are daily reminders that I am different.  The world doesn't remind you daily that you're not travelling overseas regularly.

Is that really a difference?  think there is. But as time passes, I find it harder and harder to justify.  Perhaps I am just using it as an excuse?


  1. The whole time reading this, what is said in your last paragraph went through my mind. I understand the thought, but again, they have that lovely full family with children and now or soon grandchildren to enjoy daily. Childless and infertilite couples only have small moments, a few days randomly through the year to fill that daily void with get-aways or full events. The two don't compare; not to me but again, maybe I am bias in that I have struggled with conceiving too...

  2. Well, the fact is that just about every one in life has some sorrow. I've a cousin who had a child when she was very young and that child committed suicide at age 12. I can't imagine the pain. She was blessed with the "mommy moments" but now they are gone. When she had the child i was so envious. Someone else i know with a daughter nearly 2 and another one on the way speaks of fatherhood in glowing terms, and yes, it hurts me to hear it. (We lost our last one when they were pregnant with their first.) But they also have the exhaustion and frustration. They do have disappointments in their lives, too, just different from the ones i have.

    We are "mentoring" the children of a family in difficult times. We get to spend precious time with those kids, having fun, while mama and daddy are struggling to make ends meet and pay the rent. They get to be called mama and daddy, but they also have the pain of not knowing if they can put food on the table. We are able to use a little of our surplus to give the kids a fun time.

    My sis is mama of 6. We had one of her girls with us for 10 days this summer. My sis expressed envy that we would get to spend time with her daughter one on one. I was rather hurt that she kept telling me, "She's such a neat kid! You're so lucky to spend this time with her." What about the "neat aunt"? My sister has this child every day, but she is envious that i get 10 days with the kid alone? I can understand it on one hand, but on the other i think she's just clueless.

    I guess it comes down to we all have hard things and i guess they can't be compared. I think i have it the worst (most of the time) that i was never able to be called "mama." But there are worse things. I try to be sensitive to others on some issues (not talking about the great bonus my hubby got, for instance, to the family that is struggling). But the fact is, i think we all hurt others unintentionally, from time to time.

  3. I'm in a similiar place at the moment. A and I have just come back from a week away but I didn't tell a close friend we were going and I am wary of telling him where we have been because he has no money for foreign holidays and I know he gets envious when he hears about mine.
    On the other hand, he has an awesome son and I would give up all my holidays abroad in a heartbeat if I could be a parent.
    It's a balancing act, on both sides.

  4. No comparison what so ever.

    You return from holidays and you're still infertile. They return from holidays and they still have their children.

    Holidays are fleeting moments of happiness. Children are moments of happiness that last a lifetime.

    I actually think it's rather insulting to try and compare going on holidays to having children - I'd never set foot out of my STREET again if it meant I could have a child that would be mine for life - I'm not sure parents would give their children up in order to GO on a holiday.

    [not having a go at you, just saying it's like comparing apples with oranges]


    p.s. You have a new follower!

  5. My goodness how words stay with us. I know I did go on to have children, but after my miscarriage, before I had children, my mother said to me, "It's not like it would have been a baby worth having" (her opinion was that miscarriages happen for a reason, and in my case, that was probably the truth but STILL). You just don't say things like that.

  6. I've been reading this over the course of today (trying to catch up), and I really appreciate this post. Reading along, insensitivity is a big theme, and it's made me think about "human nature" and what each individual may or may not be sensitive to. We all need to be more aware, we all need to try to not make assumptions. But we also can't be aware of everything in every moment, and it may take us a bit to learn about what we HAVEN'T been aware of before a certain moment. I would agree that going on holidays/having children aren't the same thing at all, but I think it's good that you consider how you as a frequent traveler might come across, whether others perceive you that way or not.

    Fantastic post. Fantastic blog. I'm still trying to catch up and am deliberately not commenting on every single post...