28 February, 2023

Being No Kidding and Happy

I've been thinking a bit lately about healing, remembrance, and expectations of life. I know I've talked a lot here about turning away from the "what-ifs," about retraining my brain* not to think about the negatives of my life, about not tormenting myself with the things I have lost. But it's worth mentioning again, as I've been reading a lot about this recently. Chelsea Handler’s skit on The Daily Show about being happily childfree led to a lot of writing and commentary on being childfree vs childless vs parenting, about envy and pity. Writing elsewhere has reminded me of people who have always struggled to let go of their grief, the what-ifs, the things they’ve missed out on doing with their children. A woman twenty years ago who told me that, in her 60s, she still dissolved into tears at the doctor's office when she saw mothers and children. Others who admit to torturing themselves with the thoughts of what they have missed. And sadly, many more. And Mel asked if we would choose to forget the most painful times of our life. All this has led to this long-winded post. Apologies in advance.

Previously, when I've talked about people (in general) who might be stuck in their grief, those who almost seem to find comfort in the familiarity of that grief, some readers have become angry with me. They have challenged me, raging that I didn't understand, that I clearly had things easier, that I was insensitive to their grief, that it would never go. None of that was true. I am well aware of what they have lost, I have lost, what we have all lost, although of course each of our losses are very personal. But mostly those who were raging were still in the early, rawer phases of grief, when it seems like a betrayal to accept that life might get better, that they can be happy. Still, they needed to read this. And when I write, I also write for those who want and need to feel hope, and to see that happiness is definitely possible, and the grief doesn't consume us forever. Or it needn't. Because there are, of course, some who struggle to let it go, year after year, even decade after decade. And I feel for them so much. Because it seems that they haven't learned or accepted that they can still remember, and honour their struggle, even benefit from it, without feeling the pain and the loss all the time.

I can say that I am happy without kids. At the moment, not having children doesn't really affect me (though I know it will when I am older, and I am trying to plan for that). I am not confronted by it every day, although I do think about it every day through blogging, reading blogs, life, if that makes sense. It is a lens I see life through, and my life is changed and affected by it, of course. But I certainly don't grieve it every day.

That's the thing. If I continue to grieve it, to cling to that grief, I am simply torturing myself. And who would that hurt? Me. No-one else. It achieves absolutely nothing, except making me feel bad, alone, rejected, lost, maybe a failure, maybe resentful, or angry at myself. Moving on from that took time – I went through a process I call "retraining my brain." (I've blogged about it a lot - see the links below*) I just didn't let myself think about the what-ifs, and would consciously turn away, turn towards thinking about other things. It was hard. It hurt, and hurt a lot, because each time I changed the way I was thinking, I had to acknowledge why I had to do it. I had to remember that because I would NEVER have children, I needed to think about other things, think about the future. Those acknowledgements were painful, but I learned that by switching my thinking, the pain didn’t linger as long, and that I could open myself to feel excitement, enthusiasm, and joy.

It wasn't that I was hiding from my pain, or refusing to deal with it or acknowledge it. I had been through a lot already, and continued to do so. Talking to others, counselling# them and being counselled, examining why I was thinking and feeling the way I was, and whether it was valid. It was all hard work, but important healing work. And I realised I was getting nothing from my pain. I wasn't getting confirmation that I would have been a good parent (I would have been as good as anyone else!), and my pain was not an expression of how much I wanted or deserved it, because I came to realise that none of this deserving-vs-guilt thinking was true.

In going through this process, I was learning to challenge the negative voices and silence the inner critic, to recognise my own truths, to grow in confidence and compassion and awareness. And I have seen others go through this same process. Some quietly, some angry then letting go of their anger, some quickly, and some slowly but surely. And some of the people I have seen grow like this are on my No Kidding blogroll. It is so wonderful to watch. To remind people coming after us that it is possible. To see their worlds open and brighten. To find the joys and wisdom and understanding that is behind that dreaded door in the Infertility Waiting Room.

None of this means there aren't painful things that still arise, either. Reminders of the pride and joy of being a parent can both instil pride and joy in me, or pain, often both at the same time, depending on the day, the people involved, my mood, maybe even the weather! But last night I was mulling this over, wondering how I feel about not being a parent at this point in time. To be honest, I don’t really know. I don’t know how parenthood would have turned out, so it’s pointless to imagine the perfect life there. I have a different life now, and that’s all I know. I like my life. I’m happy. That’s the only thing I can be sure of. The lack of children, right now, do not make me feel so bad. The growth that eventuated from the loss - well, I'm glad I have it. When I think about it, it is really only other people who can do that; society, politicians focusing on families and only families, the Pope calling childless people selfish, those who pity us condescendingly, the parents who try to pretend that they are morally superior simply because they have children, former friends who ignore us, family members who never try to understand. Interesting, isn’t it? And why do I give them the power to make me feel bad? Increasingly, I do not. They are ignorant, that's all.

So I very much choose to make the most of the life I have, and to enjoy it. To celebrate the positives (the gifts) of my life, some of which are there precisely BECAUSE I don't have children. It's not a betrayal of the part of me that wanted to have children. It's a way of supporting that part of me, of nurturing the hurt Mali, of loving her, of acknowledging her growth. It’s not a betrayal or rejection of the pain I went through, it’s a remembrance of that and the knowledge that I emerged from it changed, wiser, but still me. It's not a betrayal of the pregnancies I lost – rather, it honours those tiny sparks of life. Because if I don't embrace this life, I will have lost two lives – the life I wanted, and the life I actually have.

 And wouldn’t that be immeasurably sad?



*  A selection** of previous relevant posts:

**   This is far from exhaustive. Exhausted, maybe, as I got distracted, and now I'm tired and it is time for dinner.  Apologies! I may add more later. ;-)

#    On the other hand, I make no apologies for NZ spelling, even if blogger doesn't like it. "Counselling" has TWO Ls and "instil" has one! 

20 February, 2023

Twenty years on: It gets easier

I recently realised that this time twenty (gulp) years ago, I was enduring one of the hardest times of my life. At Christmas the year before, I was newly, happily, but tentatively, pregnant for the second time. But even on Christmas morning, my temperature dipped, and I worried, despite the beginnings of morning sickness starting to appear. Driving home, up the island, there was a tiny bit of spotting. We got home before New Year, and it all began.

I knew I had lost the baby, but my body decided to be “interesting.” My HCG levels kept rising, too slowly, then disturbingly quickly. I was hospitalised twice, once for an operation, but as my levels kept rising, I was brought in again, for close observation and treatment, for days and days of waiting misery, with a baby crying down the hall, just in case I forgot why I was there. I endured a potential cancer diagnosis, fortunately cleared by CT-scans, though not helped with stupid questions (“is there any chance you might be pregnant?” the radiographer asked me) and waited some more, until finally the hormone levels plateaued. The pohutukawa trees were in bloom outside my hospital room window. It was warm, the windows were open, and summer was happening outside, but to other people.

My life and that of my husband was more waiting, along with endless hospital blood tests and scans to see what was going on, being thrown together with pregnant women at hospital, forced to see all the charts of a progressing pregnancy in the waiting room, and being the source of fascination to the doctors and nurses. And we waited.

I got through the time by sharing this with fellow ectopic sufferers on a message board, though they were almost all in the UK or US, and I was in a completely different time zone. But I wasn't sleeping. And they were there, when I was here in the darkest of nights. I remember being overwhelmed with loss when our internet went out for a day or two – these women were my life-line, and losing them even for a few days was hard.

It was discovered in a scan that I had grown a new blood vessel, one as thick as a ballpoint pen, and they made plans to deal with it, and I was admitted. Then as it seemed to grow, they cancelled those plans, and made new plans. I was admitted to hospital again, for an hours-long procedure called an embolization. I was lying for so long on my back that a disc in my spine distorted. It was my first experience of agonising back pain, but not my last. The doctor didn’t care, he just wanted to finish the job. I’m sure he thought I was exaggerating. But I wasn’t.

I then had to wait weeks more to see if had worked, and then given one final operation to remove what was left of the vein. By now it was April, and I had been under hospital care for four months. My friend had given birth, and I’d visited on one of my many hospital visits down in the Unlucky Women’s Clinic, as I called it.

From the outside, it looked as if our lives were the same as they had ever been. I was working (luckily from home, as I was now self-employed), and physically looked normal. But it was all consuming. I was now 40, and the clock counting itself down was deafening. It was another two months before I was given the all clear, and could start my final fruitless family-building efforts. 

Twenty years on, I can write this without tears. I want to reach back and hug that woman who felt so fragile, but tried so hard not to show anyone (except a few very important people) how much it hurt. I want to enfold her in my arms, and let her know that she will be okay. That things will change for the better, and that she will grow in confidence and compassion and wisdom. That writing things down helps, and will become part of her life. That she’ll come to love pohutukawa, despite or perhaps even because of their association with the loss of her ectopic babies. I’ll tell her with a wonderful smile that twenty years on, she will continue to be supported by the most amazing people that she will meet and get to know in the most unconventional ways. That it will get easier, and bring gifts she cannot expect. And that I am not kidding.


14 February, 2023

Monday Miscellany: No Kidding version

(albeit I am writing this on a Tuesday)

As I mentioned on A Separate Life, NZ is in the grip of a tropical cyclone at the moment. We are fine here in Wellington, but further north it is more difficult. I heard reports on the radio yesterday that on Sunday night, only a few people had turned up at emergency centres, though more were expected that day (and many more, following multiple evacuations, yesterday and today). I thought about the people who had gone early - maybe their houses had already flooded in previous events, or maybe they lived alone, or knew that they didn't have family around to help them. I can imagine being one of those people. Being childless does make us more vulnerable. But more aware of the risks, and the independence to look after ourselves. I hope the childless in the north of New Zealand are all safe and dry.

On a brighter note, last week I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Lilly (from a blank new page) and her husband who are touring New Zealand. (And I hope they are safe and dry today.) We hosted them on our deck for drinks, then dinner, then we talked and talked for hours, and farewelled them the next morning, happy that we had met, and made some new friends. What a delight it is to meet fellow No Kidding bloggers. We talked briefly about not having kids, but mostly we talked about other things. We met through childlessness, but we connected in many other ways. It was such a good reminder that we are all so much more than our childlessness. And Lilly and Mr Lilly (lol) were so much more - such delightful people, interesting, intelligent, thoughtful, active, adventurous. I am Not Kidding!

I am travel planning again at the moment - some of the final decisions to be made. It is interesting when I look at hotel sites. We're going to stay in a cottage that doesn't allow children, for safety reasons. That's a big plus for us. Hotel rooms noted as "family" suites often have a sofa bed. I like the look of them, because I like to have a sofa to lounge on after a busy day sightseeing, and when my husband is spread across the bed reading on his ipad. I think how cramped they would be with two parents and kids. I found a video of a panoramic route we are planning to drive. It was very informative, but was made by parents, who had to skip a lot of places because they had kids with limited attention spans. And as much as I would have loved to travel with children, I do have to admit that there are definite advantages to travelling without them.

A footnote: I love meeting fellow bloggers. There are a few who are serious about coming to New Zealand. I am happy to give advice in the planning stages. I'll try and help you see penguins. And I cannot wait to meet you!


07 February, 2023

Does it make us stronger?

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. A lot of people trot this out to either compliment people who are going through something tough, or give them encouragement or comfort that they can get through it. However, I know a lot of people really struggle with this sentiment, for several reasons.

How can it be seen as a compliment, when we have had no choice but to get through our infertility, loss, grief, or another life event (loss of a partner/relationship, serious illness, etc)? Not having a choice is not something to be praised! We hate this. Who wants to be stronger if we have to go through these traumatic and/or distressing events? It seems to us terribly unfair, but here the speaker is lauding the fact.

It feels as if the speaker doesn’t want to deal with the realities of the situation. That by making such a sweeping statement, they are in fact denying the emotions felt by the person experiencing them. It feels awfully dismissive of their experiences and emotions. When it is said to an infertility/loss patient, we feel as if the speaker doesn’t care, that they don’t want to understand what we are actually going through, and that they can’t really handle the idea that bad things happen for no reason. It feels as if they don’t want to acknowledge the loss that we might be feeling, and don’t even want to begin to try, or to help. It can be very hurtful.

It's not something I’ve ever said to anyone. (I hope!) However, it IS something that is fine to say to ourselves. Eventually. I know I’ve felt that I have come out of infertility and loss stronger than when I began. I think that is inevitable. I feel better able to cope with difficult situations, better able to deal with my own emotions, and those of others. I do feel stronger. But it took time. And it wouldn’t have been helpful when I was in the thick of my grief, my loss, or when I was still clinging on to hope. Because all it tells me is that the person saying this doesn’t really understand, or want to try. It means they don’t consider the fact that whatever it is might not kill you, but it might leave you maimed, scarred, damaged.

A key thing that came out of my own infertility/loss/childlessness experience is that at times I do feel more vulnerable, weaker, less confident than I did before. The damage and scars are still there, though they might not hurt as much these days. And so I am much more aware of my own vulnerabilities, of my mortality, of all the things that can go wrong. That makes me feel weaker, not stronger. After all, the old saying “ignorance is bliss” can be very true. (We probably all remember being ignorant about the risks and realities of infertility, don’t we?) Knowledge doesn’t always bring strength. It can bring fear, hesitance, and a lack of self-confidence. This is all very natural. I see it in myself.

However, at the same time, knowing all this can make me feel stronger, because I am more prepared for things to go wrong. It makes me stronger because, ultimately, I know I can be okay regardless of what I will go through. Even when I know that the experience itself might leave me feeling very vulnerable, distressed, hopeless, afraid – you name it. I’m not blind to the feelings that difficult experiences bring. I’m less afraid of them these days, because they are more familiar to me. I understand I can get through them. I know that I can still find joy, that I can feel delight in life and friends and family and nature, that happiness can return. Yes, there’s a strength in that. 

Indeed, the many gifts of infertility" that I have identified in my No Kidding series here have made me a different, hopefully better, person. Stronger? Perhaps. Maybe that strength was always there. Maybe it is already there in all of us, and only traumatic events bring it out when it is absolutely necessary. But is trauma a reasonable cost of seeing this strength?

Strength, compassion, awareness and acceptance of our emotions might be the byproducts of our experiences. This all comes at a price. One that we would like to be recognised. So it would still be a brave or foolhardy person who would say to me that “what didn’t kill me made me stronger.”