Monday, 22 April 2019

I'll never say never ...

There’s a phrase that is used, after loss, or grief, or infertility, that causes me to cringe. I’ve noted before that others use it to silence us, and ease their feelings of awkwardness. Yes, it is “getting overit.” But many of us continue to use it, using the instances where grief returns, or we feel isolated or hurt by comments years afterwards, to justify saying that they will “never get over it.” Personally, although I understand it (and I'm not criticising anyone who chooses to use it), I am not comfortable saying it and will, I promise, avoid it at all costs.

In the throes of loss or in the depths of infertility, or when facing that ultimatum that our quest for children is over, our feelings are intense, and getting over it seems impossible. I’ve seen many men and women object to the idea that they will “get over it,” because it seems as if that minimises their grief, and the extent of their loss. They feel, in the moment, they will never get over it.

But likewise, I imagine how it must seem to them in that moment, to hear someone else – five years or twenty years on – agree that “you will never get over it.” By saying this, I worry that we are telling those people, already in almost unbearable grief, that they will feel these intense emotions for the rest of their life, that they will feel this loss forever. What they thought was their worst nightmare will be, we are telling them, their worst nightmare. I don’t want to do that, because it not only adds to their grief, and it is just not true.

So ultimately I don’t think that it is helpful to say we never get over it. It needs to be qualified. What do we mean? That at times, it will hurt even many years later? Isn’t that different to saying we’ll never get over it? It may not feel that way to you. But for me it is. We’ll never go back to where we were before this all began, but that’s different to never getting over it.

So, given that I called my blog No Kidding, I feel a responsibility to be honest! Part of that honesty is admitting that pain over our losses – at some level, and often when we least expect it – makes itself known to us time and again. I’m not denying that, by any means. And I know that this is what most people mean when they say “I will never get over it.”

But I also feel a responsibility to be honest about the fact that we get better. We heal. We still have the scars, still feel the after effects of an injury, but still be healed. We can be changed forever, but still be healed. In healing, we accept these changes. In healing, we retake our place in the world. In healing, we refind joy.

So for me, it is simply this balance, that I am confident comes to all of us in the end, if and when we are ready. The balance between the past and the future, between pain and joy..

I think balance is admitting that we have changed, and that our changed circumstances will affect us every day until we die. It is admitting and recognising the pain when it visits, neither ignoring nor exaggerating it.

But balance also ensures that we are able to accept our new circumstances, and not be ruled by grief. It is in finding joy, choosing not to dwell in sadness, turning towards optimism and happiness,. It is celebrating when the pain leaves us as well, celebrating all the gifts of our life. It means embracing happiness, and sadness, and knowing it all passes, and knowing that we will be okay.

So you’ll never hear me say that I will never get over it.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Freedom from compulsory holidays*

I am sitting at my computer listening to the radio, where you'll find me most afternoons. They talked about the traffic building, as people try to escape the cities for Easter. It is particularly busy this year, because Easter is in the middle of the school holidays, and there is also a public holiday (ANZAC Day) next Thursday, which means that people can get ten days holiday but only need to take three days off work. (Easter is Friday-Monday off here, with some companies/institutions taking Tuesday off as well. What is the case in your country?)

Anyway, back to the news report of the crush on the motorways heading to seaside baches* or other holiday destinations. A feeling of peace came over me. We don't work in education, and we have no children, so we have never been tied to taking time off during the school holidays or public holidays. It's always given me a sense of freedom. This weekend, as autumn takes a tighter hold, we get to relax, hunker down, drink some good wine at home and eat hot cross buns (though not together - sacre bleu!), binge watch some TV, and start to get organised for our own trip next month. We get to choose the timing of our holidays, and we specifically** avoid crowded times. We get cheaper airfares, or smoother road trips. Destinations are pleasantly calm when we visit them. We take real pleasure in this. I mean, why not enjoy the gifts of infertility? It's not as if we have a choice! So we make the most of it. I hope you can do this too.



* I'm using holidays in the UK/NZ sense of the word, meaning vacations.
** Well, except when we spent a month in Rome in July. I wouldn't recommend doing that!

Monday, 15 April 2019

We are not alone

Last week a friend wrote a post that I could identify with, one hundred percent. I guarantee you could too. It wasn't about being childless. No, she has children, which I have been privileged to watch grow up on the blogosphere. She wrote about being divorced, and what it would be helpful for people to say and do, and what is NOT helpful.

Well, in some cases you just had to exchange a few words - replace "divorced" with "childless"/"divorce" with "infertility" and you'd be sitting there nodding. In particular, she talked about people asking her if she had considered marriage counselling. Replace "marriage counselling" with "adoption" and I could have written the entire paragraph. She ended by saying,
 "People getting divorced know about marriage counseling. Perhaps they have gone. Perhaps not. But it's no great secret that it exists."
She listed things that had obviously been said to her, things that were judgemental, or that assumed she hadn't thought things through. She had obviously been asked, "why?" This is such an invasion of privacy, and one that is familiar to many of us. "Why don't you have kids?" echoed in my ears. I've said once, I think, "if I wanted you to know I'd have told you." Or at least I've said it several times in my head!

She emphasised too the importance of listening, of staying in touch, and of not being scared to talk about logistics. This reminded me of many of us being dropped from invitations to children's birthday parties or school plays or baby showers, rather than being asked and given the chance to choose not to go.

And what S's post really reminded me was how similar our situations were. We are not alone in being on the wrong end of "those comments." So many people struggle to know how to provide support in a wide range of situations. So many people say the wrong things, are thoughtless or judgemental, and as a result, intentionally or not, cause us hurt. It reminded me that if we - the No Kidding - share this situation with the newly divorced, then we probably also share it with many other life situations too. That we all probably have more in common that we realise. And that our experiences can only teach us to be better friends, providing better support, for others, and hopefully, all of us, learn to spread love and understanding.


Note:  Edited to include the link above to her post, or just go here.


Monday, 8 April 2019

How infertility affects our world views

My writing today was inspired by Pamela's post on the 10th Anniversary of her book, Silent Sorority. It has also turned out to be an opportunity for me to think about some issues I've raised before, but relate them to my life today. It's why I love reading other women's blogs, because a few comments can inspire me to think further. And because writing posts can take me in directions I never expected - as in this post!

Pamela went back into the archives and looked at a discussion on Infertility Amnesia. She suggested three possible reasons for why some women who have children after infertility seem to suffer from a degree of infertility insensitivity.

I had one or two additional thoughts to - or perhaps expansions on - Pamela's three reasons (a variation on survivor’s guilt; denial; or ‘false sensitivity’) for infertility amnesia.

I know that some women think that we took the easy way out, and that in contrast they "hung in there" and endured additional hardships to achieve their children. Their pregnancies and subsequent children validated their efforts, and proved them "worthy." They then felt that they earned the right to fully join the "mothers" club, and participate in all the rites of passage of being pregnant and mothers (scan and bump photos, using photos of their children as their profile pics, etc). They defend their right to do this, regardless of the fact that they know from experience that in doing so, they will hurt some women who are either still waiting to be pregnant/have their baby, or some of those who, like us, will never do so. (I have covered this in a slightly different context before, here and here).

But rather than revisit their insensitivity (which I did in my draft just to get it off my chest), I instead want to think about the fact that despite going on the same journey, sometimes for many years, different outcomes can lead to such completely different outlooks. One group sees that effort, hard work and perseverance pays off, and they are validated by that. Another group sees simply that they were lucky, and remember that they could have easily not achieved their outcome. A third group, the No Kidding women, see the opposite. We see that hard work, effort and perseverance can often make no difference whatsoever to the end result.

It's a classic example of how our personal experiences shape our world view. But it is also an example of how we can, if we are not careful, use those personal experiences to justify our views. When, really, it would be more honest to continue to test our views against evidence, to question their premise, examine them with sensitivity and compassion from all sides, and be prepared to change them if we need. Rather than being defensive when challenged, we need to try to take into account different perspectives and experiences.

It has been timely for me to reread these posts and apply them to my life today, and my approach towards people in it. I guess it's another example of accepting and choosing to use the gifts of infertility - of empathy, and humility. A reminder too that, as a commenter on one of the earlier posts linked above pointed out, in the absence of it from others we need to practise self-compassion.

And that is not how I thought this post would end!


Monday, 1 April 2019

Recipes as legacy

A quick post today - the very reason Microblog Mondays is a thing - that grew from a comment I read elsewhere.

Someone noted (I've forgotten where) that would like to pass down favourite or family recipes, but because they don't have children, they were grieving about that. It's a legitimate sadness, and one I've noted before too. But I have an idea, one I've been thinking about for quite a while. These days, it is really easy to put together recipe books online. And one day, I intend to put my favourite recipes - some family recipes, some my own - in a recipe book, maybe even take photos of the dishes for illustration, and then give it to my nieces and nephews - and anyone else who might want it. Or maybe I'll just download them all on a blog sometime. I have to be a bit more creative if I want to spread the things I love. But that way too, more people get to try them. So it's a positive both ways.

We don't even need to be particularly creative. I make a recipe regularly, that I always think of as "Aunty Kenzie's" recipe, because that's how it was explained when my MIL gave it to me. I never met Aunty Kenzie, and I don't even know if she was related, or a family friend. Aunty Kenzie may not have known me, but her simple recipe has given me much pleasure. Our recipes - and legacies - get passed on sometimes in ways we never expect, or perhaps even know about. But not knowing about it doesn't lessen the legacy that is left. And I for one take comfort in that.

Monday, 25 March 2019

Important words: It is okay to grieve

I was hoping to write about something else this week, but last night I saw a video of our Prime Minister at a school in Christchurch last week, after the horrific mosque shootings. She spoke some very important words, words that are too often ignored in our society, and words which we all need to hear, to understand, to believe.

She told the students (I'm paraphrasing slightly):
It is okay to grieve. It is okay to feel sad. And it is okay to ask for help, even if you weren't directly affected.
On No Kidding and the other very important no kidding childless and infertile blogs and communities around the web, we tell each other these words regularly. Too often our society doesn't allow us to grieve - especially when our losses are invisible - and so we have to remind each other that it is okay to grieve, and to ask for help. But to see these words on national television? To hear them from the leader of a country? That's important. That's a step forward for us all. No, it isn't specifically for the childless community. It's for everyone. And that's perhaps an even more important message, and one that will benefit us too.

It's a reminder too to all of us, that loss reminds us of loss. That grief for one thing brings up grief for another. That's normal. But just by saying something is normal, I'm not saying it doesn't matter. It does. Grieving is important. Acknowledging our feelings is important. And as time passes, we are able to feel that grief, acknowledge the fact it is visiting again, and then allow it to leave too.

Sending love to all of you who might be feeling grief or sadness or fear at the moment. It will pass. You're not alone. And you always have a place here.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Speechless

I don't have a lot to say this week. I've said enough over on A Separate Life, because I knew I couldn't, shouldn't, keep silent. So this Monday, I'll just refer you to that piece.

This week in New Zealand, the question of whether we have children or not seems to be irrelevant. We have all come together. And we've come together with the support of most of the world. And I'm very grateful for that.

Sending love and strength.
Arohanui
Kia Kaha.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

A state of grace

I read a post from a member of the ALI community who now has children. She was reflecting on her reactions to a pregnancy announcement. As is probably inevitable after infertility, a pregnancy announcement is never really just a pregnancy announcement. We all know too much now to simply let it go. So she thought about the ages of the couple and whether that had made it easier for them or not, and then hoped that they hadn't had fertility issues. It was only after going through all the different permutations of how they might have got pregnant that she realised she did not feel jealous about the pregnancy

"Well, of course," some of you might be saying. But I know that not all parents after infertility are able to feel this way. Those who used surrogates, or donor eggs and/or sperm, or those who adopted all have their own issues around pregnancy announcements. But even those who seem to get pregnant more frequently can find such news tough. I remember a woman on the charity website where I volunteered ten years ago who, despite some pregnancy losses and a PCOS diagnosis, still managed to have a child a year, and at last count (to my knowledge) had eight children. She had declared that even with all those children, she still felt jealous when she saw a pregnant woman, as she always assumed they had an easier time of it than she did. Perspective was not her strong point !

It is harder, I think, for the No Kidding to find that they don't feel any jealousy or little twinges when we hear pregnancy (or birth) announcements. After all, we're not grieving just the lack of pregnancy announcements or births, but that entire life with a child that we had once hoped for. So I think jealousy is perfectly normal, or if not jealousy, simply a twinge of pain hearing of other's success can hurt a lot, reminding us of what we have lost, of what we weren't able to achieve.

But, as the years pass, and as we pass through menopause and enter different phases of our lives, this happens less and less often. I believe we can reach the same calm, relaxed, accepting state that Isabelle has found. Gradually I have grown able to simply shrug if the newly pregnant person/couple is not close to me. Or I can be genuinely happy for others, regardless of their fertility journey to get there. And perhaps most important, I can do that largely without pain now. The whole process seems separate from me now. So I embrace that. Sure, sometimes there might be a twinge. But I think that grows to become the exception rather than the norm. I know it will pass. And I like being able to join in on celebrations, or simply being able to move on after hearing the news without it affecting me. I am grateful for that. I am grateful for this very welcome state of grace.

Monday, 4 March 2019

Issues from all sides

In recent times, I've read two posts from No Kidding bloggers taking opposite positions on an issue that comes up from time to time. Are our pets our children? I'm not going to enter this debate, but it is an example that, as there are more No Kidding women writing and speaking out, there will be a wider range of opinions about what life is like for those of us who are living No Kidding lives without children. And perhaps we should be a wee bit careful when we try to speak for our group. We're not all the same.

I know that it is very easy for us to take offence at words or behaviour that feel unkind or pointed. After all, it is kind of funny that I'm writing this post when only a week ago I wrote about some comments that I felt were meant to hurt me. It is, of course, particularly easy to be hurt and offended when we are still hurting ourselves, when we are vulnerable, when every nerve in our body (and brain) is sensitised, when we have that distorted view that half the world is pregnant or has a baby, and that the rest of the world is against us. Whilst I won't criticise anyone for feeling this way at such a difficult time, it is good too to gently put an alternative point of view, or offer reasons why someone might have said something or acted in a particular way, without denying the person the legitimate reaction to something that hurts.

Gradually, though, as we heal most of us become better able to distinguish between genuine, if  misguided, attempts to be kind, and those comments or behaviour designed to put us in our place, criticise our situations or decisions, and make us feel lesser. Or to recognise comments or actions that were thoughtless but innocent, and shrug or laugh at the ignorance behind them.

In the two posts I'm thinking about, offence was taken for opposite reactions. One person commented that nobody would ever say "your pets are your children" if they had been through what we have been through. Yet another blogger, who was also childless not by choice, did indeed feel that their dog was their child, and was upset that family members weren't treating the dog accordingly. Interestingly, both posts felt that these comments and behaviour were an example of discrimination against their No Kidding status, and were an example of being ignored and dismissed.

However, I personally know people who do not share our No Kidding status but who refer to their pets as children, and would be only too happy to refer to my pets as mine. Who always included our cats (when they were alive) on our Christmas cards, and their pets as well as their children. Their reactions weren't a case of being condescending towards a childless couple, but rather of acknowledging the importance of pets in their and our family. Likewise, I know No Kidding people who would not treat a dog as a child, or make concessions for a dog's behaviour in the way they might for a child, and mean no offence. It's not necessarily an issue where the lines are drawn based on your childless or parent status.

So thinking about these posts reminded me to question motivations (my own and others) before taking offence. Now that I'm comfortable in my No Kidding life, it is easier to do this. I'll feel pain when it is warranted, but understanding someone's motivations means I can take offence with a grain of salt, and not feel the pain so acutely, if at all. I find too I can dismiss some assumptions, forgive some, and laugh at others. Or I can choose to genuinely try and educate. Importantly, I can laugh at myself too, if I am at risk of taking myself too seriously. I think it's a valuable skill, that helps me live my life. And I probably need to employ it more often!

Monday, 25 February 2019

Perpetuating the stereotype

Right now, I’m working on one of the stereotypes of the No Kidding. You know the one, that because we have (ahem) “nothing else in our lives” (apologies) we just travel the world. The words in quotation marks are so obviously wrong, when I look at my life and the lives of all the women I know who are in this No Kidding community, but they are so often behind the subtle digs of others.

I recently was on the wrong end of a subtle dig from someone in my life. She’s said openly and pointedly to me before that when old and dying, no-one wishes that they had travelled more. (I haven’t had a chance to point out that our FIL has openly said, now that he is unable to travel, that he wished he had done so much more in the thirty years since he retired.) This time, she noted that the only photos that matter are the photos of family and social get-togethers. This was after I had praised her for being good at her photos of people. Maybe I was being over sensitive, but it felt as if she was getting a subtle dig in at my nature (not high on her list of important things) and travel photography.

Comments like this have made me think about travelling and question why I like it, and what the point is of exploring the world. And I’ve come to the conclusion that it takes me out of myself, which is something this person could usefully try once in a while! Okay, that might not have been nice, but sometimes …

Anyway, my photos remind me, and others, of the beauty in this world, of our impact on others, on how lucky we really are, and of how important it is to be grateful for what we have, and where we live. I have no reason to be ashamed of that. In fact, I’m very proud of it.

So back to my first point. I’ve written before why I love travelling. Yes, my husband and I are that stereotype of the childless couple who travels. But here’s the thing. I would have travelled if I had had children too. It’s one of the sadnesses of my life, that I haven’t been able to share my joy in new places and new things with my children. I would have loved to share my love of Thailand with children, to have spoken Thai to them and introduced them to the country, the food (especially), and some of the culture and philosophy of sanuk (similar to joie de vivre) and sabai (calm and gratitude when everything is good). I don’t travel just because I am childless. I travel despite being childless.

So I try to share my love of travel indirectly with others. A friend went on safari with her boys after I had raved about it to them, and after they had questioned me and asked to see my photos, and at the age that I thought they would love it. They did. I think about families and their kids, and what the children would love or not love about particular locations. I would dearly love to travel with some of these families to see the look in my nieces’ and nephews’ eyes as they see something new for the first time. But they travel with their friends, or with people who have children who can play with their children. Not the boring old childless couple.

And so we travel alone. There's no alternative. Which is fine. I’m lucky though. Tremendously lucky. I have a husband who enjoys travelling, and is as enthusiastic about it as I am. (Though we do have different travel preferences!)

So this afternoon I have been furiously planning our next trip. There’s a lot to do. I need to make some bookings. I'll let you know when I have.

Monday, 18 February 2019

When talking helps

One of the gifts of infertility, as I have written, has been awareness and knowledge of what people go through when they grieve. I had a conversation about this with a niece over the weekend. The sister of the one who got married (I wrote about that at A Separate Life here) split suddenly from her husband last year. Shortly afterwards, her sister announced her engagement. So, although she didn't show it at the wedding, and although she was the life of the party at the dance that night, the last months haven't been easy for her.  We sat and chatted about this, and about what has helped her (and the unhelpful comments that haven't helped her) at the relaxed post-wedding day barbecue. There were, of course, so many similarities with infertility and No Kidding childlessness.

And the thing is, she is suffering from this too. She is at the age when fertility starts to plummet. She suffers from PCOS. In the last year or so she's been working with a nutritionist, managing to improve many of her symptoms, and she's even started a small Facebook group talking about her PCOS journey. So we had a lot in common, and I opened up about my No Kidding childlessness, which we haven't really touched on much before. (Usually we joke together about the trials and tribulations of being the middle child.)

During our chat, sitting next to us and undoubtedly within earshot, was her nephew (my great (!) nephew) who also had mixed emotions surrounding the wedding. The day before he'd seen his mother marry another man, and at that, he grieved the loss of his father anew. So, as my niece and I chatted about mindfulness and unhelpful comments and grief, I was conscious that he was there too, and perhaps, as he played around on the computer, also listening to our conversation. I hoped our open discussion helped. All I know is that when we left shortly afterwards, I got the hug of the century from my usually-reticent (in his teenage years) great-nephew!

Grief. It affects so many of us. An openness about our own grief undoubtedly helps others. It was a good reminder to me, and our interaction makes me as happy, in a different way, as the wedding did the day before.


Monday, 11 February 2019

A teaching moment

I was really pleased to see that my No Kidding menopause series - or for search engine purposes, my Childless menopause series - sparked a discussion around the internet. It wasn't my first foray into the subject, but it was my wordiest! Just to remind, here are my posts.

12 Things I wish I'd been told about the Big M (posted back in 2014)
A No Kidding Menopause: The Bloody Version
A No Kidding Menopause: The Emotional Issues (Part 1)
A No Kidding Menopause: The Emotional Issues (Part 2)
A No Kidding Menopause: The Emotional Issues (Part 3) 
A No Kidding Menopause: Some Final Thoughts

Having written so many pieces on this issue, I've taken a break from thinking about other childless things. But there's always something, or someone, who reminds me. I was at a function over the weekend, filled with in-law relatives. I got chatting to a woman who was the wife of a cousin-in-law. I've heard about her for years and years - her many children, her personality, her relationship - via her mother-in-law and my mother-in-law - so although we didn't know each other, we knew about each other. Or so I thought. No, in a conversation about all the elderly relatives and getting them organised when they could no longer do so, and the general difficulty of decluttering their houses, she asked me if I had children. (An aside: given that I knew that she had six, I had assumed she would have known we had none. But apparently not. It shows that people are only really interested in themselves!)

"Well," she says, "you won't have nearly as much junk at home than if you had had children."

"No," I acknowledged, "that's probably true." And - thinking fast, deciding should I or shouldn't I? - I added, "but all our rooms that were intended for children have still ended up filled with junk too."

I said it without emotion, simply stating a fact. The message got through, I think, because she hesitated. I could see her thinking. I hope so anyway. One of many teaching moments?




Monday, 4 February 2019

A No Kidding menopause: Some final thoughts

My menopause series was not meant to be comprehensive, as far better writers have covered this issue. I know it is prompting others to share their experiences (see Bamberlambs’ post here), and I am thrilled about that. Starting the conversation has been important.

I rambled on with another post or two in draft only, and in the end, I don’t think that they say anything significant. I know there were things I didn’t really touch on, so maybe I’ll just wrap them up here:

Hormones and our emotions

I mentioned the hormonal changes post-hysterectomy that threw my emotions out of kilter, plunging me into full menopausal-symptom mode. The power of these emotions was surprising. Even though there is very obviously a chemical reason for them – given that now I am on HRT I am back on an even keel – this is still a taboo subject. Taboo because it is a mental health issue, taboo because it is a women’s issue surrounding menopause (literally the ending of menstruation, which is doubly taboo), and taboo because it is a women’s issue. It infuriates me.

Like PMS, men don’t understand it. I fully expect a study come out denying the existence of emotional fluctuations due to hormones around menopause, as there was around PMS. My husband, who was incredibly supportive during my pregnancy losses and the time of grief that followed the end of our family-building efforts, did not understand this. (Though his patience was, once again, exemplary. Most of the time.) I think many men have always struggled to differentiate between what might be a genuine reaction and what they can dismiss as “hormonal” reactions (ie, those that they think can be ignored). I knew when my hormones were distorting my emotions. And I knew when they weren't. He didn't. So once I had begun taking HRT and it was doing what it was supposed to do, if we were having an argument, or if I was upset at something, he would ask if I had taken my pills, implying that I was being over-emotional and irrational. (Sound familiar? Ever hear men suggest that women who are angry are suffering from PMS?) That infuriated me more than whatever we were arguing about in the first place. Don’t worry, he pretty soon learnt not to do that!

This dismissal of women’s views happens in the wider societal contexts too. The idea that our ideas, comments, complaints etc are irrelevant and trivial because they are hormonal and therefore “unstable” has been around for centuries, probably millennia. Likewise, women’s medical issues and pain have been and are still devalued and treated differently. All I can say is that in a one-on-one basis, I find it exasperating, and on a societal basis, even more enraging. And yes, I took my HRT this morning!

The Crone Age

I have real discomfort with this terminology, and have always disliked of the implication I am now in the “crone” age. I know that it really just refers to a third stage in the life of a woman, but I find it hard to reconcile with its many other, derogatory connotations. However, in just one search from writing those two sentences, I have learned new things. I’ve learned that the word “crone” actually comes from the word “crown” and refers instead to the crowning wisdom we reach in our post-menopausal years. Okay, I like that. I particularly like the definitions along the lines of a “woman with valuable experience, sound judgement, and wisdom.” This is more reflective of how I actually feel about myself now. (No, I’m not modest!)

But I have to say that I don’t feel that this has come on post-menopause. No, it is a result of my No Kidding life, of battling infertility, of accepting my No Kidding childless life, of working with many women during this time, and of learning from others. Most importantly, it is from learning more about who I am, what I value, and who I want to be.

Still, please, couldn’t we find a better term than “crone?”

Monday, 28 January 2019

A No Kidding menopause: The emotional issues (Part 3)

There can be so many emotions involved around menopause. We are all different. For many women, the end of menopause is a time to grieve. It’s the loss of something that may have defined them – their biology, their ability (perhaps theoretical) to give birth, their lives as “productive” women in society. Women who identified themselves as mothers may feel bereft, because they don’t know who they are in this new phase of life.

As childless women, we have been through this before. For some of us, menopause may bring more grief. A double whammy, whilst we have already had to come to terms with the idea that we would never be mothers, for some, this is the last straw, the definitive end to the possibility that might have, for some, lingered. Jody Day wrote this in her article about The Childless Menopause:

“I call the childless menopause a ‘death you survive’ as it’s the end of our biological line as well as the end of our dream of motherhood. It can be a real dark night of the soul. And the transformations of passing through this ‘gateway’ can be profound and rather wonderful.”

But this isn’t how I have experienced it. I experienced that “death you survive” back when I first knew that I was never going to have children. I grieved then the end of my biological line and my dream of motherhood. It was, as Jody said, a “real dark night of the soul.” I know that many of you have already experienced this too.

I suspect we’re all different, having come to our No Kidding childless lives in different ways. Perhaps having that cut-off on my 41st birthday, when my tubes were blocked and IVF was not working meant that I was able to grieve what I had lost there and then. If I’d been through a different process, maybe I wouldn’t have felt that it was over so definitively.

For me, menopause (once the physical issues were dealt with) did not cause me to grieve. Instead, it brought freedom. It brought the obvious freedom of no periods. As Pamela mentioned here, the absence of periods is simply “BLISS!”

But it brought more than a physical freedom. (Four years on, that is still blissful!) Menopause also brought me a freedom from any obligation to have children. It brought me the freedom of not feeling biologically different from my peers. We are all (mostly) unable to conceive. It has brought me a freedom from hearing pregnancy announcements from my peers. It has (largely) brought me a freedom from hearing “you could always adopt.” Age has definitely made things easier.

Of course, it isn’t all bliss and freedom. The stigma around menopause is not dissimilar to that of infertile women. There is a stigma about menopause, and the stigma teaches that we are old, pointless, no longer relevant. No Kidding childless women can well relate to that feeling. Likewise, women in menopause complain about feeling invisible. The childless amongst us are also well acquainted with that situation.

And so I wonder if, because we have been through similar circumstances, are we better able to cope with the changes of menopause?

For example, many women talk about the sense of losing their attractiveness after menopause. You don’t see many images or hear of the desirability of older women, of women with grey hair, for example. (You can either embrace this change, or fight it, or – probably the answer for us both – do a combination). For women who may feel that their appearance and desirability define their femininity, this can be an unpleasant change. Outwardly, I am sure, we all go through this to an extent, whether we have children or not. The attractiveness of youth is pervasive throughout our cultures.

I think that there is an added dimension for those of us without children. We have (probably) questioned our femininity, our place as women, when we knew we would not have children. I know I did. A lot of women write about feeling that they are “not a real woman.” I also know that one horrible person actually said those words to a friend of mine. So is this another loss for the No Kidding? That our identities as women are being further eroded? Or have we already done the work and defined for ourselves what it means to be a woman? And so does the (perceived) loss of desirability do less to our own sense of self-worth, our sense of what it means to be a woman, that it would to others who haven’t had to deal with this before. Does our history as No Kidding women who could not have children make this aspect of menopause easier?

The invisibility of older (post-menopausal) women is well documented. (Though that may be changing, as posited by this article that Loribeth highlighted on social media.) Even within the menopausal category of women, childless women are frequently invisible. We are not, and never will be, mothers and so we are not, and never will be, grandmothers. I’m lucky that only a few (so far) of my friends and family are grandparents, and they can and do talk about so much more than that. It might change, of course. But I know many people are not so lucky. Bamberlamb has written recently about being surrounded by women talking about their children and grandchildren. Social interactions remain difficult if we are ignored and invisible. Governments, too, assume that ageing men and women have family around them to assist in their care. They even develop policies on this basis, ignoring the situation of people who don’t have younger family members who can help. Invisibility is real. And it is painful.

But I wonder. Do our experiences as childless women make us stronger and more inured to the invisibility and judgement of menopause? Women who are accustomed to being feted for their biological ability to reproduce, who are used to being the centre of the cult of motherhood, deemed essential to society, might find it harder to find themselves on the periphery of society as they age and their children leave home. It will be more of a shock to them perhaps, to find that they no longer hold such a special place in society. Whereas we have already dealt with that. Does it make us doubly invisible? Perhaps. I’m sure we all feel that way at times.

But I would prefer to ask whether it also makes us doubly strong? We have already dismissed society’s expectations, their judgement and norms, and have decided that they do not matter. That we cannot accept the premise of that judgement. We’ve decided that we will forge ahead living our lives the way we want to live them. We have already been through fire, and have come out stronger. And we are Not Kidding.

Friday, 25 January 2019

A No Kidding Menopause: The emotional issues (Part 2)


(Part Two: Emotions around my hysterectomy)

When I finally sought help, and needed to undertake investigations then surgery, I wondered how I was going to feel about still more scans/procedures etc focused on my reproductive system. The first step was another scan for fibroids, ten years after my last, traumatic scans, and as I’ve only ever had bad news from an ultrasound, I was ready for any emotional reaction. But I actually found it a routine procedure. I had much less emotionally invested in this scan than I did for my ectopics. For once I did not hope for good news, and the news I received was, on the scale of bad news, actually fine. These scans are never pleasant experiences, but at least in this case, I wasn’t beset with wild emotions.

The OBGYN’s office with the Wall of Babies, on the other hand, was like a slap in the face. After the most unpleasant and humiliating pelvic examination I have ever had (and I’ve had quite a few in a teaching hospital), I stood up to put my clothes on, and was confronted with the sight of all these babies. The timing of it was awful. My guard was down, because I’d been dealing with this issue in a very matter-of-fact way. As I mentioned in Part One here, I had been deliberately not thinking about it in fertility terms. But then, suddenly, I saw the wall. Not only was I reminded that I had been through great trauma and loss when I’d been trying to have children and had last been through some of these traumatic pelvic examinations, but I was reminded that I was not in the club of grateful mothers sending photos of their babies. After an examination that had made me feel vulnerable, the Wall of Babies made me feel even more so. I immediately felt “less than.” I hadn’t experienced those feelings for a long time. (I wrote about it here, and the comments section has a lot of interesting points. I was particularly appalled at the doctor who not only has a Wall of Babies, but a Ceiling of Babies too!) I wish I’d said something. I still think about sending a note to him, or a copy of my previous post.

Once I recovered from that moment (and it did take a while), the news that I was to lose my uterus was not devastating for me. It was a means to an end, and there was no doubt this was necessary. I’d said good-bye to my once-hoped-for fertility over ten years earlier, and my uterus was just an anachronistic remnant of that. As I said to a nurse, it had never been any good to me, so it may as well go. I didn’t mourn its loss, and perhaps because I’d never blamed my body for my infertility, I didn’t hate it either. It was simply a problem to be solved.

However, that doesn’t mean that emotions weren’t involved. I remember lying in the hospital a few days after my hysterectomy, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, after my husband had visited and gone home, and everything was quiet. I had the window open, heard people in the distance, and thought about all those mothers celebrating Mother’s Day. Feeling alone, feeling the absence of children, is common on this day for many of us. Usually I manage to arrange the day so I can ignore it. But that afternoon in hospital I felt doubly low, briefly resentful that my uterus had neither delivered children, but had also caused me to be lying alone  in hospital.

That feeling didn’t last long, thankfully. And ultimately, I had fewer negative emotions around my hysterectomy than I had perhaps expected. Part of the reason may have been because I knew I was lucky. After all, I had my hysterectomy at an age which was unsurprising. But it was all a reminder that our equilibrium can be lost, even for a short time, because of our past experiences. Fortunately, it was also a reminder that we survive these episodes, that they don’t last long these days, and that equilibrium returns. 

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

A No Kidding menopause: The emotional issues (Part 1)

After my quest to conceive was over, I had mixed feelings about my period. It was insulting and pointless to have it every month when I couldn’t conceive,. But at the same time, that wasn’t unusual for me, or for all the women my age (and that would be most) who were, for whatever reason, not trying to conceive. I had tried to conceive for several years, but had not tried to conceive for decades. So it actually made me feel normal, for a change. It was, for all of us, a waste of time and money, and was a huge inconvenience. For a while there, I liked just being normal for a change.

Likewise, as perimenopause came along, cycles became erratic and symptoms began to make themselves known, I at least knew that this was normal and to be expected. I could join in on conversations – though to be frank they were few and far between – with women my age and it was irrelevant whether we were mothers or not. Perhaps I was lucky, but I didn’t have to listen to any of my friends rue the loss of their fertility. By our mid-late 40s-early 50s, these issues were in the past for us all. The reasons why were irrelevant.

I remember taking a pregnancy test at about 45, after an unusually long cycle. I knew that, with two blocked tubes, pregnancy was physically virtually impossible. But still. After two ectopics, I did not want to risk ignoring a potential third ectopic. The thought of being pregnant filled me with dread. Because I knew that in the unlikely even that I was, it would a) most probably be another ectopic, b) if it wasn’t ectopic then a pregnancy at that age would bring higher risks of miscarriage and foetal abnormalities, and c) I realised that, at 45, I didn’t want to become a new mother either (and my husband, at several years older than me, felt the same).  It’s a weird feeling realising that what I had wanted so very much only five years ago was something I would not welcome now.

Time helps. Yes, it’s a cliché, but in those four to five years, I was able to recognise and almost even celebrate that what would have been right for me back then was not right for me now. So it wasn’t a contradiction to not want it any more. Still, I can’t hide the fact that the relief I felt at the negative test result was punctuated by some tiny little questions in my head. “Maybe you didn’t ever want it enough?” It can be hard to escape those thoughts. And I still missed the four and five-year-olds I would have had by then had my pregnancies worked out.

Perimenopause inevitably continued. However, as the physical issues became more complicated, I experienced a lot of frustration. None of my friends were experiencing quite the same level of inconvenient symptoms. Was my reproductive system once again letting me down? Was I having these problems because I - or my body - was abnormal, in the way my ectopics and infertility weren’t “normal?”

I tried not to dwell on this, and for the most part I succeeded. Fortunately, infertility and coming to terms with having no kids had taught me how to shut down some of these doubts, self-accusations, these unhelpful negative thoughts. I liked to think that my reproductive status was irrelevant to this situation, and by experiencing these issues I was simply being normal for a woman my age. (Though again, taking that point of view did mean I didn’t seek help early enough.)

Still, I did experience anger and frustration at once again being inconvenienced by my reproductive system/body. It wasn’t a self-hate issue, but just sheer frustration at the injustice of these issues. And yet, because of the experience of childlessness, I’ve learnt that even when I say “its not fair” it’s more a general complaint than a question of “why me?” I know the world is not fair. I accept that.

And if I’m honest, and put things in perspective, for most of my life my cycles had been reasonably well-behaved, with the exception of regular cramps one or two days a month. I know a lot of women haven’t been so lucky. And so I realised that feeling frustrated at the bleeding, at the menopause that wasn’t coming when I was well and truly ready for it, was probably not an unusual emotion for women. After 30-40 years of monthly periods, pretty much every woman on the planet would welcome their cessation, surely! In that, I was part of a much bigger group. Part of the majority. Normal, for once.

Friday, 18 January 2019

A No Kidding Menopause: The Bloody Version

Menstruation and its cessation at menopause are “things that shall not be named” or discussed. I have discussed it occasionally with friends and less often with family (perhaps simply because I don’t see them as often), let alone openly and casually. I was talking about it briefly with a SIL recently, when my BIL heard us speaking softly, and demanded to know what I was saying.

I sighed. “I said,” I said loudly, “that because I do not have a uterus, I do not have to take the combined estrogen/progesterone HRT.”

My elderly FIL, who heard this, quietly got up and left the room. Men don’t want to know about these things, but they don’t like us talking quietly either! BIL looked slightly uncomfortable, but knew he’d asked to hear whatever I was going to tell him. I spared him the blood-and-guts version. I shouldn’t have. He didn’t deserve to be spared!

But again, the level of shame that I felt talking about this in front of them was, of course, totally ridiculous when it is part of life for half the population. In that way, it is very similar to the feeling of shame many of us have felt when talking about infertility, or not having children. There is nothing to be ashamed about.

And so I have decided to do a series on menopause. I’ll give my own experience first, which is specifically of menopause and hysterectomy, then I’m going to talk about the emotions of all this for the No Kidding / childless / childfree amongst us in another post. Settle in, it’s going to be long. And I apologise too. I’m not sparing you the blood-and-guts version, because I wish someone had told me what I might have to face.

Menopause for me began in my mid-40s. Periods started becoming more erratic. I remember having six or seven weeks between a cycle and feeling both grateful that I didn’t have to deal with periods, but also wondering if I might be pregnant, even though I know it was almost an impossibility, with two blocked tubes. I also didn't like the irregularity. But everything then strangely settled down, with fairly regular periods. They did however get increasingly heavy.

This, I have since learned, often happens. In fact, “increasingly heavy” is an understatement. Effectively, the floodgates opened. I’m not exaggerating. Heavy pads AND multiple tampons at once didn’t stem the flow. Older friends shared stories of bleeding through their clothing, but at least one shrugged and said, “ride it out” as I was dashing back and forth to the toilet to deal with the floods. I remember my aunt being unable to make an appointment with me because she’d had to go home from work to change, as her period had arrived when she had thought (hoped) it was gone forever. I have a story that is so embarrassing I can’t bring myself talk about it (but I am pretty sure at least one reader of mine knows what it is). Yet once again, I wonder why I should feel so embarrassed, when this happens to a huge proportion of the population. I had a nightmare nine-hour flight to Singapore once when I was bleeding heavily. Thank goodness for an aisle seat! I went on safari for my 50th birthday, slightly worried that if I had my period, the lions and leopards and hyenas would smell the blood!  I also spent a week in Rome pretty much trapped in my AirBnB (fortunately we were there for a month), despite the previously-helpful medication I'd been given. So, on my return, I talked again to my doctor. Her horror at the idea of being unable to explore Rome for days finally prompted her to investigate! How I wish I'd asked earlier if this was normal.

First step was a blood test, which seemed to show I should have entered menopause by now (at 51). I was a bit peeved, until I realised that 50 or 51 is the average age of menopause (when there has been no period for a full year). It was time for it to end!

Next step was a scan, to ensure there was nothing sinister going on. Heavy bleeding in perimenopausal women is common, and fibroids in perimenopausal women are common too, but it doesn’t always mean the fibroids cause the heavy flow. Apparently, there are three different types of fibroids, and only one of these cause heavy bleeding.

The scan showed some large fibroids, and so a visit to an OBYN surgeon delivered, along with the most humiliating pelvic procedure yet (and I’ve had a few), the news that fibroids had set up shop, grown profusely, and were causing this heavy bleeding. There was no doubt, he said, that they needed to come out. And my uterus with it. By now, I had expected this result.

I was started on medication that was supposed to stop the bleeding and shrink the fibroids. The surgeon’s nurse manager kept in touch with me, and I told her that I was still bleeding heavily, and even worse than usual. I must have sounded calm, because she didn’t seem to think it was that unusual. I didn’t want to be over-dramatic, so failed to note that I was losing perhaps 1-2 cups of blood a day, if not more, and that I was feeling breathless when climbing the stairs in my home! So, when three days before my scheduled hysterectormy I had the required blood tests, the panic button was pushed. My red blood cell count was dramatically low. (Normal haemoglobin levels are 120 to 180 g/L, and mine were about 80!) Within two hours of the blood test I received a call from the surgeon, whisked into hospital, and given a huge blood transfusion that day, and another one the next morning!

After that, the hysterectomy was able to proceed on schedule, and was largely routine. Once I stopped bleeding from that – the freedom from my period was … well … bliss. I wished I had sought assistance several years earlier, and not downplayed what I was going through. So the moral of the story is that if you’re bleeding heavily, you should have regular blood tests, express clearly to your doctors what is happening, and ask for scans to ensure everything is normal.

Whilst a hysterectomy is quite a common operation, and I was lucky enough to have a laparoscopy, with an improved recovery time, it is still a major operation. I was quite surprised that it took me so long to recover. Equally, my surgeon was very strict about what I should and shouldn’t do. (He was appalled that I had so many stairs in my house, as usual advice is to avoid stairs altogether.) He was very clear that the women who developed post-surgical problems were the ones who tried to do too much. So I recovered on the couch, reading and snoozing and binge-watching.

What I didn’t realise until later was that the removal of large fibroids (and mine were large!) through the vagina is similar to the passage of a baby’s head. So kegel exercises became important for me. Another message for the childless. Whilst we might not have (mostly) given birth, we are not immune to the fall in (o)estrogen in menopause that affects our pelvic floor health. I was appalled when I first realised this!

So the absolute freedom from cycles and bleeding was the major advantage of the onset of my official menopause. Even now, almost four years later, I find it unbelievably liberating. But there are, as you will know, a number of downsides to menopause or perimenopause. Men really don't know how lucky they are. And I admire, more and more, women who go through this and run households and companies and countries at the same time.

After my hysterectomy, my hormones went crazy. Even though they did not remove my ovaries, the hysterectomy still delivered major hormonal effects. This isn’t unusual, apparently, although I can't tell you why. I hate to imagine what would have happened if I had lost my ovaries at the same time, and have real sympathy for women who suffer this. I don’t recall being particularly forgetful (ha ha) – a common symptom – but I know I was irritable. Very. It was like having PMS (or even IVF drugs/clomid-induced PMS) all the time, on steroids. I became a person I didn’t like very much. Sometimes, a person I didn’t like at all. After finally learning self-acceptance in my 40s, this loss of equilibrium was a major blow.

It was the onset of the hot flushes which drove me to seek treatment, however. Prior to this, I had begun experiencing hot flushes (flashes, to North Americans) occasionally, but they had been more gentle. I would throw off the bedclothes at night, and might be forced to remove a jacket or cardigan in the midst of a hot flush, but it was bearable. I remember joking to my sister-in-law in Doha, when the temperature was 40 degs C, that at least I couldn’t tell if I was overheating because of the temperature, or because of peri-menopause. But post-hysterectomy, the hot flushes became extremely intense. I didn’t really sweat badly, but my face would become red, and I felt as if I was burning from the inside. I counted that I was getting at least 25-30 hot flushes a day, and was woken by several a night.

I discovered a lot of anti-HRT articles and discussions, until I heard an interview of Jean Kittson, an Australian comedian who wrote a book aiming at “breaking the cone of silence around menopause” called You’reStill Hot to Me. Immediately I bought the book. At my followup appointment, the OBGYN surgeon prescribed me a non-HRT medication as a first step. It didn’t help at all. I researched it extensively, and found that whilst some studies claimed it should help, others said it would provide no more relief than a placebo. (It was a form of Black Cohosh, for the record.) I felt as if I had been victim to the idea that “it’s only in her head.”

So I headed back to my trusty GP (as in NZ, we don’t see OBGYNs for routine issues), who had a long discussion with me about the options, gave me all the necessary information, including risks and benefits. As I had had a hysterectomy, I did not need the combined oestrogen/progesterone pill and would rather take oestrogen-only HRT, which dramatically reduces the risks, and in fact improves general health in other areas. I had already determined that for me the benefits outweighed the risks. So my GP prescribed a low-dose HRT. It helped, but I was still getting about 15 hot flushes a day, which is one-two an hour when I’m awake, and so she increased the dose. It was extremely effective, the hot flushes ended, I began sleeping much better, and my mood improved and equalised.

Yes, one day I will need to come off HRT, and may then experience these symptoms again. I will do so very gradually to avoid this as much as possible, but I cannot report what it will be like. Not yet. I’m giving myself several more years, and I’m not looking forward to the process!

And so, because I am on HRT, I cannot give a full account of menopause. But then, neither can any woman, as we are all so completely different. Some of my friends had no symptoms whatsoever. Another – well, I just realised I’ve never asked her! Another is also on HRT, after experiencing a horrible buzzing throughout her body which is another, less-known, symptom of menopause. We all have a range of experiences. Still, I hope my story might have helped inform you of what might come, gets you thinking about issues before you (may) need to confront them, and prepares you to ask for investigations and help if you need them.