One of the joys of being young, for most of us, is that we think we are invincible. We are vaguely aware of hard things happening to other people, or in other countries, but we come through unscathed. We cannot imagine these bad things happening to us. We live, happily, in denial. Then, of course, something does happen. For many of us, infertility might be the first indication that bad things can happen to us. To anyone. We were all, no doubt, aware of infertility, or aware of the fact that we might not find the partner we want to have children with. But again, it seemed to be something that happens to others.
Very early this year, I heard or read (I can’t find the reference, I’m sorry) an expert talking about this. Even when bad things happen, our brains automatically reset to “it won’t happen to me.” I guess this is understandable, or we would all live in a state of hyper-vigilance, one that our bodies and brains are not built to endure. But hearing it made me nod, explaining perfectly how infertility seemed so unreal to me, even when I knew time was clicking on. It also explains the need we have to search for a reason why this happened, even when we know there is no reason why. (Which I’ve written about before, here and here.)
Perhaps New Zealand culture accentuates that feeling too. There’s a common phrase here that sums up a large part of our culture. “She’ll be right,” is the refrain, meaning that everything will turn out fine eventually. “No worries” is another version of it. It has both positive and negative connotations, depending on circumstances. So it is no wonder that so many of us don’t predict our own infertility. I’m sure there are other examples in other cultures. In the USA, perhaps, the belief in the great American dream implies that everything is within your reach, and discourages an attitude that maybe things won’t work out for you? I’d be interested to hear whether others have seen cultural beliefs that encourage them to ignore risks. Or am I really stretching things here?
Regardless, this view that bad things won’t happen to us colours many of our societies. Even when we begin to face the fact that infertility might mean we will not get the children we want, we are bombarded by messages from society, from family and friends, that tell us to stop worrying. “She’ll be right!” in fact. We’re told to have a positive attitude, or to keep trying, to try just one more time, or to “just adopt.” IVF is waved as a solution even when statistics don’t back this up. (Read Pamela’s latest piece about messages about IVF here.) We are urged to “never give up.” We’re often not allowed to even contemplate the fact that this IS happening to us, even when it is obvious to ourselves, if not to everyone else.
Anyway, since infertility and loss, I noticed a distinct change in the way I felt about my own vulnerability. Perhaps part of that is just age and experience, but I definitely feel my experience of infertility and pregnancy loss influenced my new feelings about risk. Before then, I used to travel the world on my own (for business) and felt confident and safe. Since then, I have been much more aware of things that could go wrong. I’ve had a diagnosis that have accentuated my feelings of vulnerability, and a niece was born with a genetic condition that has reinforced my view that the world is random (the odds of two healthy people with a rare gene falling in love and having a child, which even then has only a 25% chance of developing this condition is surely random), and so by definition, it is unfair. Since infertility and loss, I’ve felt my mortality much more keenly, and feel very far from invincible. I’ve lost my default setting.
No doubt, our brains’ default setting (that it “won't happen to me”) evolved in humans as part of a survival technique. After all, if you were going out to hunt for food, you had to believe that you would survive the hunt. However, that doesn’t help us now, either in infertility terms or with the onset of the COVID pandemic. Initially, my reaction was “I’ll be fine.” But then as it became more serious, I realised that I was not immune to risk (ie I am not in my healthy 20s or 30s, even though they are not immune either), that I often had more severe respiratory illness than my husband (for example), and that my history of being on the wrong side of the odds (a 1 in 400,000 chance of having a second interstitial ectopic, and 0.3% chance of development TN). As we learned more about COVID, I started to feel more vulnerable too, so felt very comfortable with a lockdown and taking safety precautions, and followed the rules assiduously.
What we are seeing in so many countries around the world is the prevalence of this belief that “it won’t happen to me.” Vulnerability is scary to feel, and it is easier to take the attitude that everything will be okay. I can relate to this. So many of us felt this way about our own fertility. But as we all sadly know, everything will not necessarily turn out as we want. I think knowing too that we don’t always get what we want has made it easier to accept that I am not travelling internationally this year, or – most likely – next year or maybe (gulp!) ever again. I’ve accepted that my life was forced to change at least once before. I can do it again. I may not like it. I may even have to grieve. But I know I’ll get through it.
With COVID – and fertility – the evidence now seems very clear. But too many people are denying the evidence. Some of that is the fault of politicians and messages that have been delivered. But some of it is just our brains resetting to our “it’ll be okay” default. As I once said to a friend about her soon-to-be-ex, when people stick their heads in the sand, all you can see are a$$holes. It made her laugh, which was much needed at the time. It made me feel better about my own vulnerability. Losing this default setting, accepting and not fighting the idea that “maybe it will in fact happen to us,” has actually made me feel more content with life, accept my mortality, and go with the flow a little more than I might have otherwise. It has helped me be a bit more adaptable.
Has your knowledge that anything CAN happen to us helped you in the current circumstances?