09 November, 2014

The F Word

A continuing theme I read in other IF or No Kidding blogs is the shock of having to deal with failure. I’ve written about this before, but I always think it is worth it to revisit it, for the benefit of new readers, or to remind old readers (and myself) to practise some self-compassion.

So many of us believed that if we worked hard we’d achieve what we wanted. There is still a theme of this amongst IF blogs, both amongst those who had their children (“we stuck at it,” “never give up,” “I knew I’d never give up” (how can you possibly know that?), “my faith will deliver,” and other slightly superior/judgemental statements). Or perhaps we grew up in the “girls can do anything” age, and truly believed that we could have it all. Or maybe we grew up being told we were "special" and we believed that meant we could have whatever it was we wanted..

Now, with hindsight, I look at people who say, “if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything.” They’re always the ones who were lucky enough to achieve whatever is their anything. Yes, they may well have achieved their goal through hard work, but hard work alone doesn’t do it. You’ll hear others – particularly in the IF community – refer to “wanting it enough.” Wanting something, even coupled with hard work, doesn’t do it either. I really hate hearing the implication in that statement that perhaps I don’t have children because I didn’t want it enough. Or maybe my friends here didn’t “want it enough.” I completely dispute that.

The truth is that achieving anything in life is so often by chance - genetic, parental, circumstantial, geographic, and many other circumstances that aid or hinder us in our goals. Working hard, whilst it is good, isn’t going to overcome other problems that occur by chance (or genetics). We need luck, finances, energy, good health, talent, looks, speed, strength or a high IQ (or a combination of some or all of these) to be in our favour, as well as hard work (or wanting something, or believing in it) to get what we want. Example: I’m not pretty. I have to work at looking presentable, but I’ll never be beautiful. Chance. I’m tall and athletic, and was a talented netballer when I was young. Chance. I wasn’t tall enough to represent my country though. That wasn’t going to be alleviated through hard work. Chance. I have a high IQ. I can learn things easily. That’s not through hard work. It’s pure chance, in the same way that my eyes are green. And I feel it is less praiseworthy than someone who works hard to learn something that I would pick up quickly. How is that different to fertility and infertility?

And as we all know, being fertile has nothing to do with working hard or wanting something enough. We all hear of people accidentally getting pregnant when they’re using contraception. And we all know (or are those people) who have gone without contraception for ten years, tried ten rounds of IVF, and still never conceived. But likewise, conceiving through fertility treatments isn’t a result of hard work or even perseverance. Sure, some people might say that they’d never have had their children if they’d stopped after one cycle of IVF. That might be true. Others say – after having their children – that they would have done anything to get them. But they don’t know that, because they weren’t forced to follow through. Still others know that they could have done 20 cycles and never conceived. Wanting it enough and hard work aren’t always going to reward us with the result we want.

Still, it is hard to change the habits of a lifetime, and stop believing that we’ll get what we want simply because we want it, or because we have tried and tried and tried, because we have worked so hard to the exclusion of all else. So we berate ourselves, we feel like failures, and we find that hard to cope with. That’s why I really dislike the word failure in the fertility context. It brings a degree of judgement, as if it is a failure of character, or effort, or virtue. Being infertile simply is - as much as the colour of our hair, or whether or not we wear glasses, or how athletic we are - part of who we are. It’s not a failure.

Most importantly, it doesn’t mean I am a failure either. Because I am not. Neither are you. Far from it. Knowing this intellectually is one thing. Accepting it emotionally is another. But it is possible to get there. Accepting that I wasn’t a failure, that the outcome really wasn’t my fault, helped me go a long way towards accepting not only my no kidding lifestyle, but other things that have happened in my life since. 

I accepted I’d never be beautiful a long time ago. I have also accepted I’ll never have children. Neither of those are my fault. Neither of those make me a failure. However much society tries to make us think that.


  1. So true. And it is so engrained in the culture, that hard work and persistence will gain everything, when they won't. And that puts the blame for the "failure" back on the person, because they must not have worked hard enough/beleived enough.
    Thank you for articulating this!

  2. I was one of those girls who was raised with the "if you work hard, you can achieve anything" mentality. This sentence: "So we berate ourselves, we feel like failures, and we find that hard to cope with." describes the cycle that I'm in right now. I blame myself and I'm not very nice to me, even though every logical and rational bone in by body knows that I am not a failure, it feels that way. Thank you for this post!

  3. Lovely written post, as always.
    I also so strongly believed that one of the IVFs will work out, I just have to keep trying. Without this strong belief I wouldn't have 10 failed IVFs.

    PS: people who have heart of gold are beautiful. You are beautiful.

  4. I think what I don't like about the word failure is that it also looks at the situation from this black and white space where there is only one way forward. Whereas I think we know that all the options have the potential to bring you forward, just in different ways.

    Love this.

  5. Complex post. So appreciate the ideas. Lots to consider here. Like Klara I see beauty in your character, writing and commitment to those of us fortunate enough to know you.

    I also agree that there is misplaced judgement from many who succeeded in having children. The chance element that worked in their favor is often mistaken as a testament to their "efforts." I now accept that my inability to conceive is no more my fault than having blue eyes but it took a long time to get there, to turn off the ingrained narrative that my "efforts" over 10 years we're somehow lacking.

    While I shouldn't care what the rest of society thinks, I do feel this strong need to challenge conventional or magical thinking around the fertility industry narrative that if you keep spending $$ and putting your body through risky procedure after risky procedure you will succeed -- if only to help others who feel as if the F word (and the blame that comes with it) when successful pregnancy doesn't follow is somehow their fault rather than a spin of The Wheel of Fortune.

    1. Sometimes we have to care about what society thinks, and work to change it, to make it a better society. I'm so glad you are doing this so publicly, Pamela.

  6. This is a fantastic post, Mali. Your thoughts on failure are so easily universal as you point out in your post. They not only apply to IF, but other areas of life, as well. Your post is well timed because I have had so many questions and thoughts rolling around in my head--not only balancing living currently childless, but also in career and where my fiance and I want to live in the US.

  7. This is so spot on, and something I needed to hear right now. I didn't grow up with a silver spoon, or any sort of great advantage but I feel I've done pretty ok from my circumstances. I've worked pretty hard, but sometimes things just seem to work out for me. But with this, infertility, nothing I can throw at it seems to matter and I hate it. I know I can't will infertility into submission, but lately, through my frustration, the only thing I can seem to blame is my own body. Thank you for this, at this moment especially.

  8. Such an important post. Once again, you nailed it.

    The people who think that if you "just try hard enough" you will succeed in becoming a parent are the people who benefit from all kinds of privilege that they are completely blind to, be that the financial privilege of being able to pursue (or keep pursuing) treatments, or the age privilege of being allowed to adopt (or be more likely to be chosen by an adoptive family) or the socio-economic privilege of their desire to have kids being accepted and supported (poor people aren't supposed to be having their kids anyway, so no one is going to want to help them do so). The different kinds of privilege go on and on.

    I think the "if you try hard enough it will happen" narrative in this community (and throughout society at large) is incredibly damaging. It really needs to be addressed, and you're right that sometimes we need to care about what society thinks so that we can change that dialogue for the people coming after us. We need to talk about all the people who want children very much but don't have the money or socio-economic status or youth required to pursue alternative paths to parenthood. We also have to talk about the fact that some people may have the definitive resources (money, etc) necessary and still might not be comfortable pursuing certain paths. That doesn't mean they want parenthood any less than someone else who does pursue those options, it just means they aren't comfortable all the implications. It seems that if certain steps aren't taken (ART, pursuing adoption) a couple didn't "want it" enough. What a horrible judgement to lay on someone. We need to speak up and change the direction of conversations like this, otherwise the message is never going to change.

  9. I've failed at commenting here twice now (mobile devices do not equal ease of commenting). Here's hoping third times a charm.

    The way I view it, conception is linked to achievement in other aspects of life as most people just need to figure out the basics of reproduction in order for it to happen (temp for a couple of months to figure out ovulation time or actually stop the birth control). Similar to learning how to ride a bike when you have a bike that actually functions. What people fail to consider is that many times, there are other factors that can't be overcome with simply trying harder. It's like riding a bike that has no wheels: you can pedal all you want, but you're not going anywhere.

    Our culture loves the stories about those who reach the supposed unachievable. We like to think that hard work will overcome all. But many times, the harm that comes from killing oneself for the ideal is far worse than choosing to pursue other paths. In this baby-bump obsessed culture, we fail too often to acknowledge that choosing one's sanity and family over an ideal is actually admirable and can lead to an equally fulfilled life.

    And as far as beauty, I agree with all above. I've known some very physically beautiful women who are terrifyingly ugly people. Beauty comes from within. And you have it in spades

  10. I happen to think you are beautiful. :) Thanks for an awesome post. I don't have much to add to the other comments here, but as someone who achieved almost everything else she wanted in life (up to a point -- ahhh, youth...) -- and was then stopped cold in my tracks by infertility -- this really resonated with me.

  11. Very nice post, agree with everything. I am also the "if you work hard, you can achieve anything" raised girl. I think this is a pretty good mentality, though. Yes, it is hard to accept that I can't achieve anything due to physiological barriers but I can also apply this mentality to my moving forward, to my growth as a person and to achieving a fulfilled life without children. I still believe that strength of character is a virtue.

    Mali, I'm sure you are beautiful. I really haven't seen an ugly person in my life. Unkept - yes, ugly -no.

  12. Here from Mel's roundup. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. I really needed to read it this week. I am absolutely one of those people who has never failed at anything until I started trying to have children.

    I am still in a space where I do think of it as a failure, but I hope I'll be able to reimagine the decision at some point.

  13. This is so very true!!! I felt like a failure when I could not get pregnant, then definitely felt like a failure when my cervix gave way and I lost the baby at 20 weeks, then felt like a failure some more when I could not get pregnant or had chemical pregnancies, and then when I did have the baby I felt like a huge giant failure for not producing enough breastmilk. By the time I got to having the third baby and developed a rare case of severe preeclampsia, and on top of that had a placenta accreta, I was so used to being a rare bird kind of failure at the whole reproduction thing that I no longer felt ANYTHING about it and just got on with life. I think you have inspired me to write about my feelings and how they just atrophied with repetitive injury...

  14. BRAVO! I LOVE this post, Mali. Really do.