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.