12 July, 2015

Letting go of the guilt

A reader emailed me with a suggestion for a blog post. They suggested that I write about the guilt they feel about being the one unable to have children. “If,” they said, “anyone else feels like that too.”

I am absolutely positive that there are other people who feel this way. The truth is, there’s a lot of guilt around infertility. I’ve written before about the guilt around healing, and wondering if that means I didn’t deserve children, or didn’t want them enough. But there’s another area of guilt I realise I’ve covered only rarely.Perhaps because it’s so close to home. That’s the guilt that it was my fault that we couldn’t have children.

I felt guilt for two reasons. The first was that I was the one who asked my husband to wait before we started to conceive. He would have been happy to try much earlier. But I was the first in either of my families to graduate from university, a young woman who saw a world open up to her (in the 1980s and early 90s) in the way it hadn’t to women at any time before in history, and I felt that I shouldn’t squander that. I wasn’t ready to become a mother in my 20s, and by the time we started trying in my mid-30s, there were difficulties. Difficulties, as it turned out, with my body, not my husband’s. So this was a second reason to feel guilt.

Guilt is a hard thing to feel, and it brings isolation and shame. I feared that I’d been the stereotypical “selfish” career woman, and I felt guilty for it. But I thought about my motivations. I had delayed trying to have a child because I felt that I should only become a mother when I could fully commit, when I could be the best mother I could possibly be for my future children. I didn’t ever want to feel resentment towards my husband or my children for having them before I was ready. That was a burden they didn't deserve. By the late 1990s, the promise of a genuine feminist revolution had faded, and I knew very well that as the mother, I would be doing the bulk of the care-giving. So it was not only my body, but my life that would be most affected, and would have most impact on any children we managed to have. So ultimately, I was making the best decision for my future children, for my husband (who wanted a happy family), and for me. This decision was no more selfish than my husband’s simple desire to have children. Fortunately, he accepted that it would happen when I was ready. He didn’t blame me – not outwardly at least.(He assures me now that he doesn't blame me, and never did. He sounded puzzled at the idea when I asked him.)

My decision to delay was made with the best of intentions, and on the information I had at the time, and so wasn’t a selfishly motivated decision. I genuinely didn’t realise (this was the 80s and 90s) that delaying conception might have such an impact. It wasn’t something I had ever explored, and there was little public discourse about the issue of delaying childbearing in the way there has been this last 10-15 years. Or if there was, I never noticed it. So if my decision was made with the best of intentions, and with the best information I had, then what was there to feel guilty about? I didn’t know this would happen. I didn’t know the pain it would cause either of us. And so, I realised there was no option but to forgive myself. In forgiving myself, in accepting that I wasn’t to blame, that I had done nothing to bring shame, in accepting the “why” of all this, I was able to let go of the guilt.

Forgiving my body (the second source of guilt) was I think easier. Guilt is a feeling of culpability, of blame, of responsibility for a choice or actions. Nothing I had done (apart from my earlier choice about delaying timing) had led to me having two ectopics, one of them resulting in blocked tubes, and then failing to respond to the drugs. Yes, it was my body, but was it really my fault? I hadn’t deliberately failed my husband, and he didn’t blame me. My body had failed both of us. He understood this well before I did.

The overwhelming emotion I felt was shame that my body couldn’t do what was so normal for other women. I felt embarrassed and inadequate and shunned, but I’m not sure I felt a lot of guilt. I never really hated my body for what had happened. That would have been a pointless emotion. Hatred, I think, is reserved for something that intends to do you evil. (Or spiders.) My body didn’t intend to hurt me. My body had just failed to work in this one way.

So it was easier to forgive my body than it was to forgive my earlier decision-making, which took some time. Still, because it was a problem with my body, a problem that I couldn’t change by changing my mind or my attitude, small tendrils of guilt and blame stayed with me.

I had those thoughts that I know are common amongst women in these circumstances. That it was all my fault, and that I was causing him grief, ruining his life. Would he be better off if he went and found someone who could give him children? But you know, after a while, I realised that by thinking (and by saying sometimes) that my husband could, would or should find someone else who could give him children was insulting to him, and his love for me. It was insulting, suggesting that he would abandon me in my grief, putting his desires above me. It was insulting, suggesting that he wasn’t in fact in it for better or worse. This belief became clearer when I saw other women experience this too, in relationships I had observed first hand. I knew their partners were there for them. How dare we insult them and suggest they would go off and find greener pastures!

I now have the advantage that I’ve observed other women going through similar issues, on the pregnancy loss board I frequented and volunteered for a decade, and more latterly, on infertility blogs (though to be fair this is a much smaller sample number). The key pattern I have seen over and over again is that our partners, husbands, wives didn’t blame us – either for the failings of our bodies, or any decisions we had made. Though they were sad about this, they were sad with us, for us, and never blamed us.

Isn’t that part of being in a mature relationship? We accept what happens to each of us, and we don’t blame. It might be more difficult when it comes to individual choices we have made, but even then, we have to accept that someone makes a choice that honestly reflects how they feel. We can’t force them to change their minds, their feelings, and if we love them, we can accept it, and vice versa. Our relationships are, in most cases I think, stronger than we know – just as we are stronger than we knew before we started all this.

I won’t lie. In my time, I have seen relationships end under the stress of IVF, infertility, and/or loss. But only very few the exceptions that prove the rule. In fact, of the hundreds of women I’ve been involved with, I can think of only two or three relationships that have foundered. More often I have seen relationships grow closer (as ours has), and I’ve seen a number of relationships formalised – weddings or civil unions – only after the door has been closed on children. I think many couples valued the opportunity to be able to say, “it’s you I love, not your ability to give me children.” It is a way to show that their love is real and important, to renew their commitment to the relationships, to publicly prove that they mean what they say.

I believe that we can only honour our pain, our grief, our losses, by letting go of unnecessary and unproductive guilt. The guilt and blame (self-blame or otherwise) twists the context of our pain, and twists and damages our relationships. Forgiving ourselves, letting go of our guilt, honours us and the journey we’ve been through, and in turn, allows us to honour our relationships too.


  1. ARGH... I had a long eloquent comment & Blogger ate it. :p Trying again...!

    As we've discussed before, you & I are of a similar age & grew up in the same era, Mali. I couldn't have explained my own reasons for delaying starting a family any better than you just did (although I would add in financial concerns and the fact that we had little family support around us to help with a new baby). And I agree with you on the subject of guilt re: spouses. I felt a bit of guilt around that, but not a lot. Dh was agreeable to waiting too -- he knew our situation as well as I did. I always felt that we'd promised to love each other "for better, for worse, in sickness and in health" and I firmly include infertility in the "sickness" category. We'd condemn a spouse for leaving if his/her wife/husband got sick with cancer or some other disease; why should infertility be different? I know most of us get married with the expectation of having a family, but presumably there are other reasons we got together that count for something.

    My main guilt around my childlessness is related to my parents. They would have been wonderful grandparents, and I know it was something they looked forward to. My only sibling, my sister, has never wanted children, so I knew the onus was one me, and I've always felt (still do, to some extent) that I failed them miserably in this sense. :( I feel fortunate that they are, at least, "honorary grandparents" to some of the neighbours' children/grandchildren, & get to enjoy watching those little ones grow up.

    1. Actually, you have a point about finances, and family support. I didn't think to mention them.

      I find the "grandparent guilt" interesting. You've got me thinking some more about that.

  2. I think you make an excellent point that if we make our decisions to the best of our ability in the moment (obviously without the benefit of knowing what the future holds) we can own them as good decisions. Or the right decisions for that time. Retrospect can't trump the current moment.

  3. I read this post this morning and have been thinking about it all day. I've felt so much guilt about my body's failings, much more guilt than waiting too long.

    Hubs truly has taught me the meaning of unconditional love by his actions. Even though my body was the reason that we couldn't get pregnant, he has always viewed it as our problem, not mine. Our relationship was pretty strong before infertility, but it tested us to the core. Thankfully we came out of it so much stronger because what we have was worth fighting for. I think the healing process for both of us has been "easier" because we're so supportive of each other.

    I'm working on letting go of guilt. Right now it serves no purpose except a security blanket, one that isn't helpful or productive at all. Thank you for this post.

  4. Beautifully written.

    You make excellent points about guilt, and how it is about culpability.

    I have blamed my body, desire to take contraception. I have been through it.

    Today, I do have children, but blaming never stops.

  5. In my case it was my partner DP who wanted to wait. I warned him, was afraid to turn 35, but still he needed that time. And when I did have IF I was Furious with him for having wasted time. It took a lot of therapy and blogging to let go of that anger, to not self destruct or sabotage the relationship. Had he not wanted to persue donor eggs I'm not sure I could have stayed with him, watching his children grow up.... Now that Suzy is here I rarely think back to those unhealthy emotions.

  6. Food for thought...I think we are slightly different in this case because the both of us didn't go through any tests and we don't know of any known causes that can possibly make us infertile. There was, however, the feeling of "being less than a woman" because I couldn't get pregnant and have children, but because there was no specific knowledge of any causes to it, I guess it sort of softened the blow (read: shame) a little?

    The guilt I felt was mostly the feelings of not being able to turn my husband into a father and not being able to give grandchildren to both sets of parents. I've never told my husband about this guilt, but I reckon he felt the same way at some point (he did say he was worried about being an infertile at some point, whereas I was so sure I was fertile). I shared my feelings briefly with my MIL via email once and she said that there was no need for me to feel guilty because she could tell that infertility was really tough on me, though I rarely shared anything much with her about it afterwards (I only wrote the email to ask her to stop expecting any grandchildren from us). I've also shared the same feelings with my mom through my long letter, but due to the length of the letter she never really talked about it (though I'm sure she was really surprised at the depth and breadth of my feelings).

    I need to ponder more in case I have other type of guilt involved hmmm...when it came to my feelings on being "less than a woman", though, I did feel anger towards my body (though I only realized it much further along the way). I felt that during TTC I had prepared my body as best as I could (exercising regularly, healthy diet, vitamins) but nothing happened, so there was a period of time when I used food as comfort as well as a way to punish myself. I felt that if I couldn't produce any human being, at the very least I could enjoy the food and I could eat all the junk food that I loved (that I had avoided during TTC).

  7. great post!! guilt is such a thing that plagues infertiles. You are right, I feel like I see guilt come up very frequently on almost every infertility blog I read. It does always involve blaming oneself for things you couldn't control/couldn't know.

    I sometimes blamed myself for getting cancer... HPV comes from having sex and so it was my fault. (despite the fact that 90% of humans have HPV). I've felt very guilty for this. I've felt guilty for my body being a useless vessel... I've felt guilty for not giving my parents grandchildren.

    I've felt guilt about weighing down R with me and my hormonal problems, taking away his opportunity to be a parent, etc. It's a lot to get through.

    I think you are right though, partners are typically not blaming us. We are way harder on ourselves than anyone else will ever be.

    When I have a friend who faces infertility, I tell them "Be nice to yourself! Do not blame yourself!" because while i know they will and that they will not always be nice to themselves.. I want to plant that seed. I want to keep bringing it up to help them to a healthier place.

    Thank you for sharing your story. Posts like this make us all feel less alone in our emotions/guilt.

  8. Thanks everyone - its not till you read through posts such as this that you see it clearly. Its mostly ourselves who actually see us as less than. So much guilt for not giving my husband a child and our parents grandchildren. I forgave myself only this year after 18 years in the waiting room. It took alot to realise that there is far more to us and our relationships than an ability to bear children. Unbelieveably sad but we are important - forgiving myslelf and my body has allowed me to truly see how much my husband loves me and how much my parents love me. They have no grandchildren as my brother never wanted children and I feel sad they don't have that espeically with my Dads Alzhiemers - he relates well to children as he is not able to get words out these days. However, I recall a conversation with him a decade ago and I know he would not want me to be sad for him - he only ever wanted me to be happy. The more I accept my sad moments and days and do not question the "why" but simply this is how it is - the more I see the joy in the simple things in life. It takes alot though to change the conditional thinking we have mostly all be raised to believe in and desire. Its hard to let go of the dreams and the guilt .......