30 October, 2014

The miracles of modern medicine

I grimaced a little a week or so ago when I realised how old I am now. Then I put it in context. I am lucky to be here, to be this old, even though it is not old at all in the context of our life expectancies these days. But after two ectopic pregnancies and a hysterectomy (without which I was bleeding to death), the only reason I am still here is the miracle of modern medicine. If I'd been born 100 years ago, I might well have been dead three times over.  Or more, because I'm not counting the things I have been inoculated against.  Or  the illnesses I have prevented by wearing long sleeves and sunscreen and insect repellent!

Of course, I'm not alone in this.  It got me thinking about how many of my family and friends have also had medical interventions we just take for granted these days.  Without these, I wouldn't still have my husband, his parents, my sisters, my mother, my littlest niece, my sister-in-law, at least one brother-in-law, and many good friends, not least all those who had emergency surgery for ectopics. Of course, any infertility blog knows that there are many important children in our lives now who would never have made an appearance without modern medicine.  

My mother is struggling at the moment, and we're hoping her current treatment will prolong and improve her quality of life. But she had this cancer 28 years ago, and it has only just returned. She has enjoyed most of those 28 years and we've had her for so much longer than we would have had without modern medicine.   I'm out of town this week, supporting her through her radiation therapy, and writing this in advance, hoping it will go well.

It is all a good reminder to appreciate what we have, when we have it.  And to remember how lucky we are to live in these times and this place.

29 October, 2014

Gifts of Infertility Series - #17 – The joy of being an aunt

When I was growing up, I had five aunts living near me, one who I saw about once or twice a year, and another aunt who lived on another planet. (Actually, she lived for a long time in the Solomon Islands, which in the 1960s was like living on another planet, then she lived in the North Island of New Zealand, which was a long way from us). I saw the four who lived near me reasonably regularly, at family gatherings, and sometimes local or school events. But they were always relatively distant characters, organising the family gatherings, or taking a rare moment to relax and chat with their sisters and sisters-in-law, whilst my sisters and I played with their children. The same happened with my other aunts, on a less frequent basis. But as they were my mother’s sisters, they would stay with us, or we would stay with them, and we spent more quality time together. Still though, we were mostly the children who were better seen and not heard, playing or talking or reading or walking with the cousins, out of sight and earshot, as they had adult time together.

Now I'm an aunt. Actually, if I'm honest, I'm also a great-aunt. My first niece was born when I was 17 (my sister being quite a few years older than me), and many years later she was actually pregnant at the same time as me. (My great-nephew is always a reminder of how old our child might have been.) I've enjoyed being an aunt to her and her sisters. For much of their formative years though, I was the aunt living on another planet. But I always kept in touch, always sent them birthday and Christmas presents (even if they were never quite sure when these might arrive), and enjoyed spending time with them. I remember returning from Thailand, telling my littlest niece that I had met a princess on my travels. “Was she flash?” she asked, wide-eyed. That niece is now discovering the joys of travel herself. I like to think I might have had a little to do with that. One of the joys of FB to me is that I have been able to reconnect with my adult nieces, developing a closer relationship with them than I ever could without it.

I've had much more to do with another niece, who I sometimes mention. She grew up near me till age eight, and I loved having her close by, but then her parents took off overseas. I was lucky though, and my many business trips saw me able to stop by to visit her in Singapore several times a year, lavishing attention on her, snuggling with her in bed in the early morning before anyone else was awake, talking about school and books and friends. On her visits to New Zealand, her mother would send me shopping for clothes with her – it was something we both enjoyed doing, an annual ritual that only really ended when she lived in London at university, and no longer needed to shop in New Zealand. Since then we've maintained a close relationship, though these days at 23 she is a poorer correspondent with her old aunt than I would like! I have been a confidante to her in ways my aunts never were to me, and none of her other aunts have been, and I am pretty sure she feels comfortable telling me almost anything. (“Almost,” I said. I'm not blind or stupid!) I'm a non-judgemental ear, and I treasure being that for her - even if she did once describe me as her “eccentric aunt.” Despite that comment, or perhaps because of it, I love her dearly.

Other nieces and nephews are living overseas too, and I have much less to do with them. I’m sad about that – I talk about it often. But there’s little I can do. Their parents don’t/won’t skype, and we see each other rarely.

Then there’s my littlest niece. She is my younger sister’s daughter, and at six is a delight. I write about her visits on A Separate Life, in a series called “What Charlie Taught Me.” Again, this is a relationship that I treasure. Unfortunately she doesn't see me enough to know me well yet, but I (and her mother!) look forward to the days when she can be popped on a plane and sent down to stay with Auntie Mali for the school holidays, when we can develop (I hope) a relationship that is ours and ours alone.

Women who are mothers may I think miss out on these close relationships with their nieces and nephews. In my observations, they are busy and focused on their own children – parenthood is in so many ways (these days at least) a nuclear-family-focused activity. There is little time for other children, when time is already so stretched for their own. I've heard so many mothers say confidently that their child would never do X or Y, or declare with certainty that their daughters tell them everything, when I know for a fact that it simply isn't true. No kid tells their mother everything, certainly not as they get older. So they need aunts. After all, children know that their mothers will judge, will have expectations, might be disappointed, and they don’t want to be on the receiving end of those emotions. It’s natural, after all – that guilt-both-ways relationship between mothers and their children is pervasive throughout cultures, I think.

Whereas we, the unencumbered aunts, can spread our wings and be an alternative confidante, without obligation or fear, to another child, or teenager, or young adult. We don’t hear their stories with fear that our own children might do X or Y, we don’t react as a mother might, sometimes worried, sometimes defensive, sometimes judgemental. I've certainly seen aunts-who-are-also-mothers react this way towards their own nieces and nephews. I think that being a mother pervades many of their relationships, and influences how they think and interact. They mother the children who come into their houses, because that’s what they know how to do, and probably because that’s all they have time or energy for. But we are free of this.

We don’t have to be the “cool aunt” but we can be if we want to. We can also give gifts such as noisy musical instruments, or pretty clothes that are impossible to launder, and – my favourite - we can put ideas in their heads that make them see the world differently.

In the end, as aunts, we can nurture a relationship with our nieces and nephews that is very separate from that of their parents, yet one that is loving and growing and yet constant too. For that gift, I am very grateful.

27 October, 2014

#MicroblogMondays: From complete destruction

Much of my Gifts of Infertility series (not yet finished) is focused on the fact that though I went through some awful times, I have come through it better than I was before. The quote below really says it the best:
“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn't understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”
Cynthia Occelli
I would also add that when you are completely undone, it feels like complete destruction. We just don’t yet realise that something else is about to bloom that will be beautiful and strong.

22 October, 2014

Gifts of Infertility Series - #16 – Humility

Looking back at my previous posts in this series, I realised that you could look at this and be gobsmacked at my hubris. I sound as if I think I am awesome. (Actually, I am awesome. So are you. But recognising that and accepting it without apologising is still hard. We women are I think conditioned against this.)

The truth is that before infertility and loss I felt like many people do – indestructible. I wasn’t in perfect health all the time, but I was very lucky. I wasn’t the prettiest, or the thinnest, or the best at anything, but I had grown up lucky enough to take pleasure in being athletic, and academic, and being reasonably well adjusted socially. In other words, I was beyond lucky. I recognised this to an extent – I didn’t grow up with a lot of money, but I was lucky enough to travel as a teenager, and be exposed to many people who suffered from poverty and war and health afflictions that I never even saw back at home. So I knew I was lucky. Perhaps that lead me to thinking that because I had been lucky, I’d continue to be lucky. Deep down, we don’t really think it will ever happen to us, do we?

Until it does. And when it does, it is a shock. Infertility teaches us we are fallible in the most personal of ways. If we can’t fulfil what we think of as our most basic biological functions, we come to a place where we will either drown with the knowledge that we have flaws, or we learn to accept that we have these flaws and are far from perfect, and love ourselves anyway.

Accepting we are fallible is humbling. It is also, I think, liberating. Letting go of pride let’s us decide what is important to us, what we really want to achieve in the world, and most importantly, what we can achieve in the world.

Humility teaches us to consider others, to appreciate them for what they are – flaws and all - too. After all, if we can accept our own flaws and failings, we can accept theirs too.

I’ll finish with a couple of quotes I found: 
"Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real."
Thomas Merton 
"With pride, there are many curses. With humility, there come many blessings."
Ezra Taft Benson

20 October, 2014

#MicroblogMondays: Birthdays

On my birthday eleven years ago today, I learned I would never have children.  Since then, though, my birthdays have included: 
  • A weekend in New Zealand's Hawke’s Bay wine region with my sister and her husband
  • Dinner at most of my favourite restaurants in Wellington, often planning our next trip
  • A weekend away in Brisbane
  • A landmark celebration in South Africa
  • A dinner last year in London with family who were also there from Qatar, marking the end of our five months Lemons to Limoncello trip

This year it will be quiet, due to our impecunious state, but we’ll raid the wine cellar (okay, the cupboard off my office) for a good bottle of something, and my husband will cook a nice meal, and I might make a wicked dessert.

And the memory of 2003? That’s all it is now – a memory.

16 October, 2014

Shying away from exposure

Yesterday was Babyloss Awareness Day, and a lot of my friends have posted about it on Fb. I commented and appreciated these posts. But I didn’t post one myself. Which is not to say that I didn’t think about my own two lost pregnancies, or those of my friends and relatives who have lost babies – from young babies to still-births to early miscarriages.  We have all known the grief of losing a life we had such hope for, even if our losses and experiences were very different.  But this isn't something I talk about openly to all my FB friends. Or my family.  Maybe particularly my family.  Hmmm.

Now on the radio that is the soundtrack to my life, they are discussing the Apple/FB egg-freezing policy. They have a panel discussion, and invite comments. I wanted to get my two cents worth in, so I sent a comment. But I did it under a pseudonym. And not Mali either, because I've pretty much come out as Mali. No, believe it or not, my pseudonym has a pseudonym!

The weird thing is that I am perfectly prepared to speak out about infertility and my feelings about it. But on my terms. So I guess that I am still wary of being part of a public discussion. I feel exposed – but I think I might feel that way about any other topic too. New Zealand is a really small place, and the odds are that people I know personally and professionally will see/hear my comments. Well, that’s my excuse, and I'm sticking to it.

13 October, 2014

#Microblog Mondays: What’s the point?

All too often, when women (women in particular, but maybe men too) find out that they will never have a child, they feel useless.

“What is the point of my life?” we ask ourselves, we ask each other. And we shake our heads in confusion and grief.

But then time passes, and we talk to others and they help us, and we heal and in turn our experiences of healing, and an infectious enthusiasm for the future, help others too.

"No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another."
Charles Dickens

10 October, 2014

Gifts of Infertility Series - #15 – Self-compassion

A key to developing compassion and empathy was at the same time developing it for myself. I’d always been quite hard on myself. Anything else seemed self-indulgent and selfish. I’d been brought up to think of others and put others first. And as a result, at times I think I was a bit of a doormat, a pushover, and lacking confidence. So it was tough to allow myself to feel some self-compassion. But it made a huge difference.

The peace of mind that is possible after developing some self-compassion and self-acceptance was life-changing. Previously, I had spent untold hours, days, weeks feeling bad about myself, filled with guilt or imagining what others were thinking or saying about me. Of course, these were always the worst case scenarios. But when I learnt to be kind to myself, I learnt to deal with stress more easily, I learnt to relax, and I learnt to be kinder to others too.

“But that’s easier said than done!” I hear you say. So I'm going to share a mental exercise that helped me for the first time to feel some real self-compassion. It was at a time when I was weeping over the loss of my second ectopic pregnancy. I was in such pain. The pregnancy had come so close to the uterus, but not close enough. And it was now potentially life-threatening, or at the very least threatening to take many months to resolve. I was grieving and upset. And yet I found it hard to give myself any compassion.

Until I read or saw the advice simply to step outside of myself. To imagine the Mali who was sobbing on the floor as a child, as Mali-the-child. And as I did, I wanted to hold her, to tell her she was allowed to feel sad, to agree that life sucked, and to comfort her, to reassure her that it would get better. To let her know she was loved, and that she was enough as she was. I felt the love flow into me, and it helped. I was still grieving … but it helped.

Over the next months and years I needed to rationalise this idea, I needed to fit it into my real, everyday life. I couldn't go around treating myself as an eight year old! I realised that if I had seen any of my family or friends in the pain that I had been in, I would have stopped and comforted them. I wouldn't have told them that they deserved this, that maybe they weren't good enough, that maybe they were being judged. I would have held them and loved them and told them they were enough.

Logic of course brought me to this. After all, didn't I deserve to feel some of that love, some of that compassion? Why did I think that I deserved less than any other person I knew? Logic answered: I don’t deserve less. I shouldn't treat myself worse than I would treat strangers, people I was counselling on the ectopic site, friends, or members of my family.

And so I developed some self-compassion. Which is not to say I go easy on myself, ask nothing of myself any more, tell myself that any sort of behaviour or thinking is okay, let standards slide. No, sometimes still I am far too hard on myself. But I don’t beat myself up for things I can’t control any more, or for mistakes I might make. I practise self-compassion. It helps.

06 October, 2014

#MicroblogMondays: How things turn out

I like quotes. I’ve been collecting them for years, since my first loss when I was alerted to the Gertrude Stein quote “the answer is there is no answer.” I’m thinking of doing a series on quotes.

I recently came across this:

“Things turn out best for people who make the best out of the way things turn out.”
John Wooden

It reflects the approach of almost all the bloggers who have no children after infertility. We didn’t choose the way things turn out. But we’re embracing it – making the best out of the way things turn out. And hopefully helping those who come after us. I’m proud of us all.

01 October, 2014

Gifts of Infertility Series - #14 - Mindfulness

The emotional pain I felt during and after my ectopic pregnancies was acute. Everything hurt. Everywhere there were reminders that other people got pregnant, and had happy families. It didn’t help that I went through these losses at Christmas, when there is such a huge, inescapable emphasis on mothers and fathers and children. It hurt. Everywhere we looked, it hurt.

My second ectopic, almost exactly a year after the first, after we had dared to hope it was in the right place, after we had actually been brave enough to tell my immediate family that I was pregnant (I had to explain why I wasn’t drinking on Christmas Day after all), was a nightmare in endurance. The pain didn’t seem to end. I bled daily for close to seven months. I couldn’t begin to try to conceive again until this was resolved, and that required many more blood tests, doctor’s visits, treatments, hospitalisations and surgeries. And so much waiting. As a counsellor said, during that time, I experienced hundreds of little griefs. Each time I was reminded of my loss, it was another stab in an already painful wound.

I needed comfort, but nothing would really comfort me. Except the little things; the little things like the summer sun warming my back, hearing a tui call in the trees outside, or a joke on a sitcom that would make me laugh, for a split second allowing me to be happy and carefree. Or, when we escaped other people and sought out a remote cliff, I was in awe at the beauty of the deep blue of the Tasman Sea, white seagulls riding the wind, the contrast of the green hills and clear blue summer sky. Even the view through the windows of the trees outside my house could, in certain lights, make me smile. The sadness always returned, but I learned fairly quickly to take those moments of joy when they came. In fact, I learned to seek them out, because they made the pain bearable. They allowed me to breathe, to smile, and to relax.

I realised later that I was learning mindfulness. I was learning to appreciate the moment, not to think about what had happened, or what was about to happen, or what might never happen. I was experiencing the moment. I thought back to a book that a dear Thai friend gave to me when I was living there in the early 90s. It was by Thich Nhat Hanh, and talked about “doing the dishes to do the dishes.” I finally understood it.

Mindfulness is good for its own sake, to calm us and bring some peace to our minds and hearts. But mindfulness also taught me to appreciate what I have now.

"Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have." 
H. Schaatel