28 April, 2014

The injustice of being a woman

I've always hated injustice, especially an injustice that I felt helpless to change.  And right at the moment, I am feeling the injustice that is dealt to women, and I am feeling it quite acutely.  Not just the injustice of sexism – although that is something I am always aware of, and feel acutely in itself.  (For example, just yesterday my FIL referred to a niece as “pushy.”  He bristled when I said that he would never describe a boy as pushy.  “Of course I would!” he countered, annoyed.  But the truth is he doesn't (and wouldn't) talk that way about his grandsons.  And she isn't.  Just another example of the “girls are pushy, boys are strong” injustice.)

I am feeling (perhaps for obvious reasons) the injustice of our biology, of evolution.  Women have it rough.  We do.  For decades of our lives most of us have to endure inconvenient monthly bleeding, cramps (sometimes mild, sometimes crippling), and soldier on pretending nothing is wrong, lest we be called weak.  We hide the fact we have our periods, we hide the pain, the disgust, the inconvenience.  Yet over half the world’s population endures this.  And yet we still hide it.  Pretend that nothing is happening to us, even if we’re fainting and anaemic and in serious pain.  We all know the jokes that note if men menstruated, there would be a compulsory 4-5 days off work once a month.  These are not jokes.  They’re truths.  And then the sexism comes into play - jokes (by men) about women’s hormones, our “time of the month,” all give them a convenient opportunity to dismiss our opinions simply because they put it down to PMS.  (There’s an interesting study that suggests PMS may not exist as widely as believed.  But that we may note negative emotions at particular stages of cycle, and put them down to PMS rather than for other legitimate reasons.  It also suggests that maybe men dismiss our opinions and concerns simply because they are a "result of PMS" rather than treat these concerns as real and valid.)

Then there’s endometriosis and infertility and pregnancy and childbirth and cancer screening for breast, ovarian, uterine and cervical cancers.  The procedures, the pain, the indignity.  That’s without touching on emotions and how it affects our lives.  Not to mention menopause, and all the physical symptoms we have with that.  And the financial price we pay for these in addition to the physical and emotional price must add up over our lifetime.  And men … well, they get to coast through their lives with little to compare our physical trials.  And get paid more.

Women are accused of being the weaker sex, yet we cope with all this without complaint.  We deal with all this, and still go to work and look after households and families and run companies and countries.  We are not weak.  We are so strong.  And because of that, I've decided that right now I'm going to complain. Just for the sake of it (because we can't fix it).  Physically, women get a raw deal.  It’s unjust.  It’s a serious design flaw.  It’s crazy.  It's messy.  It sucks.  And I am completely and utterly sick of it.

17 April, 2014

Out of touch ... or free and easy?

Last Friday, my husband and I slept in, and got up for a lazy day.  Lazier than usual, given that we don’t have much (or much that is compulsory) to do every day until we find jobs.  When I looked at the newspaper (and realised that there was a newspaper), it dawned on me that we were a week out!  Easter, and the long lazy weekend, is this week.  Doh!  The false start was due to the fact I was too lazy to look at a calendar, and had based my assumptions on something a friend had said.  Oh well, we had some nice hot cross buns for lunch.

Of course, the fact that we're still "self-employed" at the moment contributed to the fact we were out of touch.  But mostly, I think it is because we don't have children.  If we had kids at school, there is no way we wouldn't know which weekend was Easter, or when school holidays begin.  The calendar would rule our lives.

I kind of like the fact that we are free and easy, and not enslaved by the calendar.  And it means we can have more hot cross buns tomorrow too!

15 April, 2014

Taking a middle path to save the world?

I wrote a whole post talking about population control and climate change.  But nervousness about the reaction I might get has stopped or delayed (I haven’t decided yet) me from posting it.  And as I was contemplating this issue, one of the comments I got on my Saving the World post made me think.

Amel noted that she had, in the past, bristled when someone (with no kids) said to her that the world had too many children anyway.  And I can understand that.  Because I see that reaction all the time in people who have kids.  They get defensive.  It’s natural.  And those of us who tried to have children could also feel that way, if we saw our choices as under attack.

Then I thought about the childfree-by-choice, who often (as Loribeth pointed out) use the environmental impact of having children as one of the reasons you might choose not to have children.  They are absolutely right.  I wholeheartedly agree with them.  But sadly sometimes some of the more vocal childfree-by-choice risk antagonising those with children.

And it struck me that there could be a leadership role on this issue for those of us who at one time wanted to have children – often wanted desperately to have children – but who now find ourselves without children.  We can relate to the parents, in terms of the desire to have children, and the choice to begin trying.  And we can relate to the childfree-by-choice, because we are living the same lives as them, without children.  And - after a bit of time (as Amel pointed out) - because we can step back a bit and look at the consequences a bit more objectively. 

Perhaps we could help forge a middle way, one that we could all support, whether we have children or not.  One where we were prepared to talk about population growth, and how it is killing our planet.  Where as a start we were prepared to examine our own desires and the ethics of that, had we been able to realise our dreams.  Because I think that is what is needed.  An honest examination of our motivations and the implications of those.  A start to the discussion (because it is not being discussed).  Without being defensive.  With our family and friends and (most importantly) the next generation. To save our planet.

Update:  I'm not going to raise this again here, as I don't think it really fits with what I want to say in this place.  I may discuss it elsewhere.

08 April, 2014

12 things I wish I'd been told about the Big M

I was going to title this “For Women of a Certain Age” but I realised that that was making assumptions, and the one thing we've learned about assumptions in the reproductive health sense is that we cannot make them.

I'm writing this nervously too, knowing that anyone googling my real name (potential employers, for example) could in fact find themselves here, men or women.  I hope that the fact that I'm writing under a pseudonym, and that I'm writing about intimate women’s issues, will let them know this is not for them, and turn them away now.  NOW!  Because this is a warning of TMI (Too Much Information) for pretty much everyone.  When I tell my husband what I'm about to tell you, he covers his ears and makes loud noises.  So hopefully, that warning will turn anyone else away too.  Though my husband isn't usually so lucky, as my response is “if I have to live it, you at least have to hear about it!”   These are things women share, privately, in the kitchens during dinner parties, or in cafes, or on the driveway after lunch, or in the bathrooms at work amongst other women of or approaching a certain age.  These are not things we share with men.  They know it happens.  But they don’t really want to know.  Consider yourself warned.

I know this isn't a No Kidding related post.  But I feel it sits better here, in a community that is predominantly women, that is knowledgeable about our reproductive systems, and that is accustomed to talking about things that are generally considered to be TMI.

Twelve things I wish someone had told me about the lead up to menopause:
  1. Men don’t understand what you’re going through.  They’ll have a rough idea, based on general knowledge and bad jokes on American TV sitcoms.  And the truth is, they don’t want to know what you’re going through.  I try to tell my husband some of the TMI details, and he covers his ears and makes loud signs.  My response is “if I have to live it, you have to hear it.”  Don't get me wrong, he is sympathetic.  But until it happened to me, he had no idea.  And would rather not know.

  2. Weight will arrive.  It will sneak up on you, and it is difficult to shift, even though I exercise regularly at the gym.  I always thought that was a cliché.  Um.  No, it’s not.  Don’t let it sneak up, and don’t assume you will be able to get rid of it in the way you did even a few years ago.

  3. Emotions will go up and down like a yo-yo.  Again, because you’re feeling them, they sneak up and don't seem so unusual.  I - finally - managed to recognise the mood changes, and reel them in a little.  Fortunately, this aspect seems to have abated recently.  All I’ll say is that my husband’s a saint.  (Shh.  Sometimes.  Don’t tell him.)

  4. Our reproductive parts, having already caused many of us such grief, might just quietly go to sleep and turn out the lights without a word.  But equally, as a dear friend commented to me recently, some of us might find that our parts are not dying down quietly, they're going out screaming. Loudly.

  5. And this is the thing no-one ever tells you.  Well, no-one ever told me.  I wish women were warned, because I have tolerated this for too long.  I have been dealing with regular chainsaw massacre-like events.  The nine hour flight to Singapore was no fun, and I was nervous for weeks in advance that on our South African safari the lions would smell blood and attack!  (Fortunately, for once, timing was on my side and attacks were averted.)  Having googled a little, I tolerated this because I thought it was normal.  It is common.  But it is not necessarily normal.  And there are degrees.  So talk to your doctor, because …

  6. There is medication that can reduce the carnage, and make your life more tolerable.   Actually, this is relevant for anyone, no matter what age, who might be similarly inflicted.  I am going to talk to my niece about it.  I don't think she knows.

  7. Living in a hot climate might help.  When I was in Qatar and Jordan last year, at 40-plus Celsius, I didn't even notice if I was having hot flushes.  (OK, that’s not a serious one, but it was good not to notice them!) There are degrees of hot flushes too.  Sometimes they're just a gentle flush of heat.  Other times, it feels as if you're suddenly thrust into a sauna.

  8. They estimate that up to 80% of women have fibroids by the time they reach menopause. Many women have them, but as they have no symptoms, they're not even aware of it. Fibroids can cause major problems - heavy bleeding, pain, frequent urination, etc.  We've all heard of the stories of people growing huge basketball-size fibroids.  But what I didn't know was that even one or two can do a lot of damage.  And they grow and multiply quickly in those last ten years before the Big M. That pregnant-looking belly may not just be down to mid-life weight gain.

  9. Most importantly, if I was back in my early 40s now, I would do things differently.  In particular, I would get my FSH checked every year or two, to see where I was in the process.  I would certainly get it checked if I noticed disturbing changes.  Why didn't I? Because I didn't realise that it would help me know if my symptoms are normal, or whether further investigations are necessary.  My gynaecologist said that my FSH indicates that everything should be over by now.  Yet, up until about six months ago, I was still reasonably regular.  But apparently that wasn't normal.

  10. Talking is good.  In fact, talk to your older female friends, your mother, your aunts, older sisters.  Find out what was normal for them, so you get an idea about what might or might not happen. Some of them will tell you just to wait and it will be over.  Don't listen to them.  Talk to your doctor instead.  It might be the case that you can just wait.  It might not.  (Not, in my case it turns out).

  11. Listen to women who are going through this, understand, empathise, and learn.  But please don’t compare your own sterling health/regularity with theirs, even if you want to be over it too.  (I'm not sure if I did this myself or not, but I wish I'd thought about it).  If you’re not having difficulties, don't be pleased with yourself.  I've had a number of people do this and it makes me feel broken and judged and old before my time (even though it is not, apparently, "before my time") all over again.  (One woman's comments - about how "normal" (or the implication being, exceptional) she was because everything was continuing without change at a couple of years older than me - took me right back to the dinner table conversation we had had years ago when she and her husband were asking about my ectopic pregnancy, and he said proudly, smugly even, "my wife, she has no problems.")  The best reaction was from a friend who said "I want to hear it all.  I'm following you in a year or two, and want to be prepared."  She may not have any issues (she's not that much younger than me, and so far so good).  But she listened.

  12. Remember that ultimately, it’s just another transition in life.  One I was not looking forward to, but one I realise now is no big deal.  One that will give us more freedom than we, as women, have ever had.  Think about that freedom, what it means, what we've put up for months, years, decades, and what we can - when we’re ready - cast aside, both physically and emotionally.  It is not an end, it is a beginning. I am now ready, and I am welcoming it. Nothing is ever simple though.  Changes for me, it seems, will come surgically next month. To be honest, I can't wait.

03 April, 2014

Pick a point and grieve?

Mel at Stirrup Queens has posted on an interesting question asked of a Washington Post columnist.  The reader asked why the longing for a partner, and the longing for a child through infertility, should be treated differently.  They felt that infertility is treated with compassion, but that those longing for a partner are essentially (my words) told to “get over it.”

Not knowing anything about this columnist, I admit I was quite surprised to find that there might be a view that infertility is treated with more compassion than being single.  I haven’t seen this myself, having felt considerable judgement about my infertility, and having seen the compassion given to friends who have become newly single when relationships have broken up. 

So I wonder, how would I respond to this question?  Is there a difference between the two situations? I’m going to prevaricate.  Yes, and no.  The two situations – longing for a child and longing for a partner - are both different and the same.  And sadly, both can lead to the other, which is of course a difficult double whammy.

Suggesting, as the columnist went on to, that there are significant differences between the two, is entering into a dangerous game of the Pain Olympics. 

You can know you’re infertile, but you don’t know if you are going to be single forever, she said.  So that makes it easier?  I don’t know. It might make it harder.  I've seen lots of people going through infertility torn apart by the uncertainty, tearfully confessing that they are sure it would be “easier if they only knew.”  I can understand that, the stress of ongoing efforts, of waiting on adoption matches, etc.  This is the case of being in the waiting room, with all the fear and uncertainty and grief that entails.  But there is a waiting room when you’re single too, and that is also full of fear and uncertainty about what the future will hold.  And maybe you never fully get to leave that waiting room.

The difference, as Mel noted, is that most of us in that infertility waiting room, are holding the hand of someone else, someone who has promised to be with us, someone who we hope will be with us even when we leave the waiting room, through any of the doors offered.  

That said, there is also real judgement about those of us who can’t have children, or who don’t have them.  That it wasn't “meant to be” – implying that someone/god/the universe has come down to judge us as unfit to be parents.  And that judgement and condescension and pity is hard to take.

You see the danger of entering the Pain Olympics?  There are always cases of “on the one hand” and “on the other” that make this an impossible question to answer, other than to say, both situations should be treated with compassion and empathy.

Ultimately, at the end though, the columnist advises the single person to "pick a point, and grieve." She argues that the infertile can do this, that infertility allows a logical grieving point, and that it helps us heal.  But this is very simplistic.  What is the “logical grieving point” for someone who was infertile and adopted, never going on to have the pregnancy or birth or breastfeeding experiences they dreamed of?  Or for someone who was infertile and went on to have children, or for someone who had secondary infertility then completed their family, or for someone who did all these but the experiences were not what they had imagined?  They're all grieving losses, not specific points; they grieve the process, the loss of innocence, the way it changed them even if they've gone on to the “happy ending” of the fairy tale. 

And what about me?  I don't grieve a specific moment.  Which one would I pick?  My first ectopic or my second? My first failed IVF or my last? Or the moment when my doctor said he wouldn't support any further IVFs? Or the day when I discovered my tubes were blocked and trying again naturally, even with the risk of ectopics, was ruled out?  Or the day /days /weeks /months when we realised that donor egg or adoption weren't possible?  I don't have a specific point of grief.  Grieving those individual moments, any of them or all of them or the last of them, still pale into insignificance when I see what I really grieve.  And that is a lifetime of experiences that I won’t have.  And is that different to a person who is single?  No, it isn't.  The reminders are always there.  The grief can return at any time, though usually less and less.  So grief isn't something you deal with and “get over.”  It is a process, and whilst I think I am well through it, and out on the healthy side, I know that the process itself will never end. 

And as I move into a different phase of life, I know that at least for infertile women, our old friend called "Hope" who we know so well leaves us   – regardless of our diagnosis - quite definitively in our 50s, if not much earlier.  Yet a single person might always be tortured by her.  Hope might always be around the corner.  And that can be a good thing.  But it can also torture us.

So I think the columnist was too simplistic with all her “grieving” advice; simplistic and a little impatient.  I bristled at her comment: 
 “But keep letting grief make your decisions? No.”
No, I can’t really disagree with the sentiment.  But it is advice that has to be carefully given, and smacks too closely of the “get over it” advice given to those of us who have been through infertility or loss over the years. It smacks of a lack of compassion, and ultimately, both situations deserve compassion.  But not compassion with a time limit.  We’ll figure that out ourselves.  Time heals.  You don't need to push us on it.  Compassion, I believe, shortens the time limit and makes the process easier.  Tough love does not.  It just deepens the pain, and denies us our feelings.  But that’s another post for another time.

I’ll give credit where it is due though, and agree with her final comment that we all have to learn to want what we have.  But that’s the same for us all, single, childless, both.  In fact, that advice is right for everyone – those who couldn’t complete their families, whose children weren’t quite as they had dreamt, whose careers didn’t work out exactly had they had envisaged or hope, whose relationships (family/ friends/ lovers/ partners etc) became complicated, who didn’t win the.  Wanting what we have.  That is the pathway to joy and contentment and happily ever after.  And if we can do that, then we are lucky.