Never would I ever?

I take dares.
I’m not terribly discriminating about the dares I take if there’s money involved. Some people think of it as gambling. I think of it as making $600 an hour if I could just get consistent dare-type work.
So far the work hasn’t been consistent.

There is a mass of people that look at a dare and furrow their brows and think to themselves, “No way I’m doing that.” That’s not me, obviously.  I will consider anything as long as there’s no moral shame involved and a minimal chance of arrest or infection. The way I see it, this is my opportunity to rise above a life of status quo. Of mediocrity. It is my chance to grossly exceed expectations. When a person dares me to do something, they are really saying, “I’ll give you x to do y, because I don’t think you’ll do it.” It’s my chance to do it with gusto and make a little something on the side. It’s an honest living.

I was trying to sleep in the middle school car line, with my car seat fully reclined and my alarm set for 3:18 p.m., so there’d be no honking horns or embarrassing moments, when I began thinking of the trail of dares that stretches out behind me. I have some moments of radiant glory. I also have some moments of regret.

A couple of years ago at our annual famping trip, my friend, Brent, was suffering with plantar fasciitis, as I am now. He spent a fair amount of his porch relaxation with his foot stuck in a white, plastic cooler that was half full of ice. Over the course of a couple of days, that ice melted to ice water. And by the end of the third day, it looked every bit of the foot water that it was. That’s when the dare came to life. I normally work for about $600 an hour, which breaks down to $10 per 60 seconds. How much I charge depends on the length of time a task will take and the level of intensity or disgust.

Approximately 20 years ago, the lobby of our local Red Lobster contained a lobster tank that was situated between the bathrooms and the maître d stand. I don’t know what possessed my friend to think of this, but upon standing there too long as we waited to be seated in the middle of a Sunday lunch crowd, she said, “I’ll give you ten bucks to put on the mask and snorkel and wear it for a full 60 seconds.” I looked over at the lobster tank to see what she was talking about. The tank was decorated with a dingy looking snorkel set, which was perched and hanging over the side.

“Deal,” I said without much delay. I mean, it was 60 seconds. ONE MINUTE. That almost felt like I was stealing from her.

“I’ll start the timer,” she said as I walked over to the tank. Todd became a tad alarmed at this, as he doesn’t share my love for getting rich by taking dares. But it got away from him before he could reel it back and I was standing at the lobster tank before anyone realized what was about to happen.

I leaned over the tank, pulled the mask over my eyes and put the snorkel into my mouth. Elaine started the clock.

I got this, I thought to myself. 60 seconds. The moment that timer started, my friends scattered. Todd, Elaine, Brent. I was left there with my thoughts, which were darker than I expected. My head was tethered pretty tightly to the tank, but I managed to look toward my right. When I did, there were two Red Lobster employees at the maître d stand staring back at me. Their looks were a cocktail of confusion and contempt. I looked away as quickly as I could.

At this point, I considered bailing. I could take off the mask and snorkel and be done, but then I’d have to live with the knowledge that I did something really disgusting and received nothing in return. I couldn’t go back now.

How LONG is 60 seconds? And where did everybody go? I wonder who the last person was that put this snorkel in their mouth. I hope they didn’t have tuberculosis. Maybe it’s never been in another mouth. Maybe it was bought new for the sole purpose of hanging over this tank. Or maybe it was taken off the dead body of a shallow diver. It tasted way too old to be new. I couldn’t believe how alone I felt in that lobby and how long it seemed that I stood there. The smell of murky fish water was curdling in my stomach. The only thing that could make this worse would be throwing up into the tank of live lobsters.

When it seemed like I was halfway into a life sentence, Elaine walked back over and said, “OK, you’re done,” and I yanked my equipment off and placed it carefully against the side of the tank again. Then I attempted not to make eye contact with anyone who had watched this go down. That night at church, I passed Elaine on the way to my pew and held out my hand. She slapped a crisp $10 bill into my palm and said, “You earned it.”

And that’s why I like dares.

Getting $10 to soak myself at Busch Gardens was a much lower-paying, higher-suffering gig. I was forced into the fountains of Jungala wearing jeans and sneakers and forced back in when I was deemed “not wet enough yet” by the friend who was paying. I was cold for the next 3 hours and had to eat at Taco Bell, still fully drenched from a bet that wouldn’t even pay for my dinner. Although I made $600 per hour with the snorkel, I was reduced to about $3.33 on the Busch Gardens water stunt.

But back to the white cooler and the foot water.

A bet was forming that weekend on that porch that was going to be a pretty lucrative situation. When it began to take shape, I was a hard no on the matter. It was a lot of water. Flavored by feet. But there were others involved that wanted to see this happen and a pool began to form. Before I knew it, that pool was up to $200. I mean, that’s a lot of money. But Todd has suffered many times in the background of my shenanigans. And this time, he was very much on top of it.

“Wait a second, what is this?” he asked, as he caught wind of the dare and the cash reward.

“I’ve offered Missy $200 to drink this cooler of foot water,” Brent said. Others chimed in that they were helping with the financial portion.

“No,” Todd argued. “NO.” He looked at me with a hint of exasperation. “I’ll give you $200 NOT to.”

Aww. Man. It was really important to my family that I not take this dare.
But $200.
But also, foot water.

Ultimately, I did not take that dare. And no one paid me $200 not to take it. So of course, I sit here in a middle school car line with an aching right foot, thinking about foot water, and planning what I would do with $200.

I like to think I would make a hefty deposit on a new mountain bike.
But I think it’s more likely the money would go toward something practical. Like a new cooler, because I’ve been told I need to ice my right foot. If I do, I’ll end up with my very own vat of foot water—which I would tell you to dare me to drink except that I’m pretty sure you can’t afford me.

But if you can,
I will.


First Day Jitters

Every May, I find myself gasping for air as I dry-heave my way through a maze of paperwork, final exams, piles of clothing in which there could be a lost library book, and graduation requirements.

And I’m not the one in school.

School was always my thing, though. I was good at it. I wasn’t the smartest kid in class by any stretch. But I was a kid who had a knack for figuring out the requirements and meeting them. Now I’m navigating that territory as a parent. I think it would be far easier to just take the classes for them.

After my desperate sprint to the end-of-school finish line last May, we flopped down in our favorite spots and celebrated the onset of a well-deserved period of relaxation. Summer.

This particular summer flew away faster than any in recent memory. It was perforated with so many camps, trips, weekend events, etc, that the little blocks of time between seemed to vaporize before we could react.

Today, summer officially ended.

I mourned for about 15 minutes. And then I thought about the things I love that follow a new school year.

  • High school football on Friday nights with a kid on quads in the marching band.
  • College football on Saturdays.
  • Pro football on Sundays. (I really love football.)
  • Sub-88° temperatures.
  • Long shadows falling across the back yard as the days get shorter.
  • Being shoved ridiculously and aggressively into every holiday by retailers.
  • The holidays.

This year, I have kids in grades 6, 8, 10, and 12. It is only a transition year for the youngest. It is always a transition year for someone. When I found myself expecting my fourth child, my hairdresser spoke about my future with doom and disdain. Just wait, he told me. The boys will play baseball and the girls will be in cheerleading and you’ll have to divide and conquer. You and your husband will never be at the same event again. Ever.

I fired that guy. I couldn’t afford him anyway.

I got around the baseball thing by convincing the boys that our family wasn’t athletically gifted. I got around the cheerleading thing, because I hate cheerleading. The girls didn’t know it was a thing until it was far too late.

I haven’t figured out how to get around the back-to-school stress.

It’s easier with no one in elementary school. The supply lists are less of a problem. Instead of a list being the length of 3 CVS receipts, they are more like 6 or 8 items long. But the problem with the lists now is that I don’t get them until 2 days before school starts. That’s what led me to Walmart at 2 p.m. yesterday. The day before school started.

There were a lot of people at Walmart. Most of them were shopping for school supplies. I had already decided that I was not going to stress about anything I couldn’t find. I was not going to fight for a parking place. And I was not going to get mad. At anyone or about anything.

It actually went pretty well. At one point, I made eye contact with a boy who looked to be about Jenna’s age. He was on a cell phone and pushing a cart one-handed. There were a few spiral notebooks and a binder in his cart. I had a fleeting thought that he should hang up the phone and put two hands on his cart, but I forced the thought away and kept moving. As I was checking out an hour later, I saw that boy again. He was standing one cash register over, counting some money for the cashier to pay for the things I had seen in his cart. He had bought his own school supplies. I have no idea where his guardians were. Maybe it was someone sitting out in a car. Maybe a handicap person. Maybe a person who is rightfully terrified of Walmart the day before school starts back. All I know is that he stood there alone doing a job that could unravel the best of adults. And I wish him the best first day of school ever.

Toward the end of yesterday, I was on the phone with a friend checking in to see how her kids were handling the night-before stress. I had not finished my sentence that mine were handling it fine when a text came in from a child requesting permission to shave their arms. Since I was sitting in the driveway in my car, I texted back NO and ran inside to head off the beginnings of the first and only crisis.

“My arms are so bad,” she said. “They are so hairy.” She was crying. It might have been funny if it hadn’t been so pitiful.

“Your arms are perfectly normal,” I said. “And let me assure you of something: arm stubble is a heap worse than arm hair. Even if you looked like a yeti, which you don’t. You want a 5-o’clock shadow on your arms?”

We got through the crisis by pointing out that I survived middle school and my problems were far greater than a little arm hair. I had enough hair on my head to stuff a household of straw mattresses. It was like the nest of an osprey. My eyebrows were a burly affair and were competing for attention just north of my very large duck lips and a mouth full of braces. Honestly, I don’t know how I got through that. My mother sent Christmas card photos during those years.

“So, see?” I said to Jenna as she smiled and wiped her nose. “It could be so much worse. Compared to me, you got it going on.”

“Yeah,” she agreed. “You were pretty bad.”

For every parent and every kid out there starting school this week or soon, I hope it’s fantastic. It won’t be perfect. If your arms are a little hairier than you would like, be thankful you have arms. If your supplies are a little bulky in your backpack, be grateful you didn’t have to one-arm a cart through a maze of shoppers and pay for them yourself.

And if you look in the mirror on your way out the door one of these mornings and you don’t like what you see, I still got you beat.
And you’ll survive.
But I think we can all do a good deal better than that.

The Mundane and the Middle

There are plenty of mundane things in an otherwise exciting and fulfilling life like I consider mine to be. And these things may be mundane, but you still have to do them. I’d rather sustain a goose egg to the forehead than go back-to-school shopping. But the kids are going back to school. And they can’t go naked. So we shopped.

And speaking of goose eggs, about the time I got stupid and bought Vans, which are clearly designed for flat-footed 15-year-olds, my feet got old. Like Plantar Fasciitis old. Like compression sock/brace-wearing old. Ordering special insoles is mundane. But this week, I had to do it. Because I’m not going to stop running around Busch Gardens with my kids, even if it hurts to do it.

And speaking of Busch Gardens, we were on our way out the door on Monday night. Not to Busch Gardens, but to Skate Night. Skate Night is a thing where a whole bunch of nice nerds get together every Monday night from 7-10 and skate. Kids from 2 years to 20 years are out on the same rink. Some parents join in. I did on occasion until a 5 year old took me out (years ago) from behind. My behind was 4 weeks recovering from that. Now I just watch.

On Monday night we were leaving for Skate Night particularly early to meet some friends for dinner. I was having a little trouble with my right foot and had to think through my footwear a little more than usual. Because I’ve been purging every corner of the house, I don’t own very many shoes these days. I had two pair of Vans that were cute as buttons, but I gave those to my daughter. Because pain. So I’m down some shoes. And something made me throw on my old Crocs on my way out the door, because Crocs are back in. And I like to be in. Except for Vans. I was crossing the garage in my Crocs to get in the car when my 15-year-old who is too cool for school and many other places stopped in his tracks. And he gestured so that I would stop in my tracks also.

“Uh, you can’t wear those out,” he said, very politely and matter-of-factly.

“Why not?” I asked genuinely. “They’re back in.”

“Not those,” he answered. “Not for you.”

Ouch.
Ouch.

My self-esteem has taken quite a hit lately. I manage it okay. I embrace the nerd part of my personality that still relishes in the long-deceased authors of my youth. I know my kids’ friends like me enough to come around. I don’t care too much what they think about my outfit choices. But I’m not dead. I do care a little.

It’s the middle kids giving me trouble. They live together in the Middle. The conspire together in the Middle. They fight with each other in the Middle. And they come at me from the Middle. The Middle is a whole thing. I think it’s probably a hard thing in some ways. And I’d be tempted to feel sorry for them except that I don’t have time for that. I’m too busy dodging what they hurl at me from the Middle.

As I stood there in the garage, reluctantly accepting that the Crocs were a mistake for Skate Night, I had to come up with an alternative.

“Listen,” I responded. “It’s this or my Keens.” Clearly that wasn’t the right answer, because the female Middle said,

“What about your black flip flops?”

I have been trying to avoid flip flops this week.

“Those are up in my room and I don’t want to go back for them,” I answered. We were in a hurry. Tampa traffic was a nightmare on Monday.

“I’ll grab ’em for you,” my son said and dashed back in the house like he was being chased. I’ve never had a child run an errand for me with more speed or enthusiasm. He returned 40 seconds later with my flip flops. They aren’t the coolest things around, but apparently they are far and away better than my Crocs or my Keens.

“You know what? We gotta go shopping,” he said on the way to dinner. “For shoes.”

“What? You have so many shoes!”

“Not for me,” he clarified. “For you. I want to go with you.” I glanced at him in the passenger seat. This was not a favor to me, but because I think he believed it was, I went along with the conversation. “What are you looking for?”

“Cool and cute but super supportive. Maybe we could go to Rack Room this weekend.”

“No, no, no. You aren’t going to find cool and supportive at Rack Room.” At this point he began to search for shoes to show me. He found a subset of what he thought I might like as we pulled into the restaurant parking lot. “How ’bout these?” He asked. They were ok.

“How much?” I asked.

“$165.”

“A hundred and sixty-five dollars?!” I guffawed. “That’s a hard no. Those shoes would need to be made of precious metals or have a method of generating their own source of income for me to spend that.”

“What’s your limit then? $100?” he asked, refining his search.

“Probably. Even that makes me uncomfortable.”

At that point, we had to drop the conversation for the evening activities. Since then, I have run all over Busch Gardens in my Keens, worn my dirty light blue Nikes to church, and ordered a brace and some insoles. I still don’t have new sneakers and I’m still not traditionally cool. But on Tuesday night, a mere 24 hours past the unfortunate Crocs incident, when it came time to take a 200-foot nose dive from the front row of Sheikra, I was good enough and cool enough for that. And nobody cared what was on my feet when they were dangling from the track of an inverted roller coaster.

And speaking of inverted roller coasters, I’d rather be wearing red Crocs as the baby of the family than wearing Sperrys in the Middle.

And that’s about as mundane as it gets.

For the Suffering

Since I started this series of posts, I have had several people reach out to me, apologizing for anything insensitive they may have said to me during my time of darkness. I don’t hold grudges. I don’t remember most of who said what and it wouldn’t matter if I did. That’s over. Though there are always scars from loss and trial, I wear them with contentment and gratitude now. They are a badge of honor. A part of my fabric. Without them, I would not be me.

My last post addressed the “helpers” and what they could do to avoid causing damage and to promote healing. This post is for the suffering. Because looking back, I can see what aided my healing and what was only a distraction.

My long bike rides and college classes were distractions. They diverted my attention for the exact amount of time I was physically engaged. But the moment I arrived back at my house from either, I was empty again. My distractions did nothing to help me heal. Maybe some people get results this way, but I did not. I did spend a lot of money figuring that out, though.

Looking back, here’s what helped me. I’m sure the internet has broader and better ideas. These are mine.

  • Look for the helpers. Mr. Rogers was once quoted as saying that his mother told him to “look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” I agree. There will always be people doing the right thing, saying the right thing, and waiting to embrace you without you having to tell them how. Surround yourself with those people. Build that cushion and then fall back on it as often as you need to.
  • Follow the signs. As I coped with infertility, there was a path I was forced to walk. I was trying to get from Point A (Working Missy with no kids) to Point B (Missy staying home with a gaggle of kids) with no idea how to get there. There wasn’t only one path. The path was unclear. There were decisions to be made. Rabbit trails to follow. Big forks in the road that felt like game changers. None of it was clear. None of it was obvious. None of it felt comfortable. Along the way, people approached me with bits of information or advice that felt like signs. Signs pointing a certain direction in my path. Signs of things I needed to do.  “Here’s the name and number of my therapist. He’s good. He can help you. Call him and set something up.” / “My friend, Michelle, just adopted a little girl from an agency in Gainesville. She has a lot of knowledge about the subject and she would love to talk with you. Here’s her number.” / “Here’s the name of a good support group. They meet Tuesday and Thursday. You should go.” I don’t like talking to strangers on the phone. I don’t even like calling the cable guy or a school secretary. I don’t like receptionists. I don’t know why I hate it so much, but I can go to great lengths to avoid a phone call to a stranger. Even so, I did it during my infertile years, because those were the people who helped me heal. I got skilled at recognizing what might be a step forward and I made myself do those things, and make those calls, no matter how uncomfortable I felt. Sometimes strangers became unexpected helpers. If you see a sign, pay attention and follow.
  • Educate where appropriate. I did a poor job with this one. With some years and wisdom and distance, I see now where I could have done better. You may have someone walk up to you and say something damaging to you, your spouse, or your child. In that moment, you may bristle, or tear up, or fake-laugh it off. But you’ll likely go home and replay the conversation in your head 59 times in one afternoon, wishing there were something different you could have said or done in that moment. Instead of permanently stewing, as I often did, you could educate where appropriate. Let a little time pass. Get a little perspective. Think through what you really want the offender to know. Push the snappy comebacks away. And then contact them. Maybe by text. Maybe by email. Maybe by phone (not me, man). Maybe in person. And tell them what you have dealt with and what grief their comment caused you. Teach them better, with kindness. It isn’t an easy thing to do. It certainly has the potential to score high on the Awkward Meter. But it is guaranteed to make them think the next time.
  • Give grace to others. Along the way, you’ll encounter unexpected helpers. You’ll also encounter people who set you back three steps in your progress or healing. Give people grace. They may not ask for it. They may not deserve it. But you’ll benefit from giving it anyway. Give people permission to say stupid, hurtful things. Whether they are ignorant or whether the motivation is something more sinister, the only way past it is to forgive and let go.
  • Give grace to yourself. There are so many hard things crowding together under this umbrella. Unmet expectations. Delayed dreams. The unknown. Emptiness. The loss from an early miscarriage. The loss from a late one. The loss of a baby. It’s all loss and it can be excruciating. Sometimes we don’t acknowledge that it’s really, really hard. Don’t feel like you have to put on your dry-cleaned skirt and show up in the hard places and wear a stiff smile and make yourself look like everybody else. You can’t skip a step in this process. You can’t pretend it didn’t happen or isn’t still happening. It’s okay to be sad. I was. Unapologetically.

Give grace and let yourself grieve. But don’t stay there forever. There will come a time when you come to a turning point in this process. You’ll see a fork in your road. For you, it may be a support group*. It may be a therapist. It may be pursuing a new phase of treatment or adoption. You may see it before you are ready to lean into it. When it’s time, you’ll know.
Be on the lookout.
And then get ready, because life is waiting.
And it’s going to be amazing.

_________________________________________________________________

*For those who’ve suffered the loss of a baby, many area hospitals have meetings for the AMENDS group (Aiding Mothers Enduring Neonatal Death). These meetings come highly recommended, but I never went to one myself. I opted for a higher priced therapist closer to home.

For the Helpers

I have hesitated to write this post, and struggled in the writing, because it can become a toe-stomping hoedown. I’ve had infections that hurt less than some of the things that were said to me during the years we were trying to find our family. I know friends that have experienced the same thing. There was no place where I was immune from the inappropriate questions and remarks. But there was one place where I was especially exposed. One place worse than all the others. One place where all the questioners seemed to gather with dry-cleaned clothes and journals full of great ideas.

Church.

As I type, I can feel the deep sigh escaping my chest. Church is where I was first asked if Todd was shooting blanks. Church is where the young mothers stand at the back bouncing their “misbehaving” babies on their hips. Church is where the raw wound of infertility and the deep longing for relief was in my face, no matter who I was talking to or what corner I tried to stand in. Because church was where the families gathered. Where the pregnant people waddled in with their husbands. And where the small talk abounded before and after the assembly. Church was where a person leaned down to a 3 year old, the mother of whom had just miscarried, and said, “Tell your mom YOU want a baby.” Another person elbowed that same mother and said, “You don’t know what it’s like to be a parent until you’ve had your second one.”

Ah, that was helpful, wasn’t it? SO helpful.

For me, church was full of loving, caring friends. But among them, there were a few problematic clumps of people:

  • Those who had never been through the challenge of infertility. They simply didn’t get it. Therefore, they had no idea how their questions and comments would injure me.
  • Those who didn’t have a filter. If they thought it, they said it. That was their gift to the world.
  • Those who thought they were close to everyone. They knew everyone by name and would pat them on the back, which to them opened the door to extremely personal topics. Anything was fair game. To them. Not to me.

Before I say any more, I want to be clear. Church is not the problem. I am a Christian. I love the church. And I’m certain that I contribute to other people’s pain on occasion. I am as often a part of the problem as I am a part of the solution. But regarding a person’s family, I am very, very careful.

Church wasn’t the problem.
Church was simply the place where the problematic people tended to open their mouths most freely.

And whether people are well meaning and just ignorant or whether they really know better and forge ahead anyway, it still needs to stop.

So this will be a short post (Todd read it and said it most certainly wasn’t short. Agree to disagree, I guess.) with a few observations about how NOT to be a part of the problem.

  • Less is more. Sometimes less is more. Fewer words means fewer mistakes. My mother always taught me to simply say “I’m sorry” when someone was suffering or had lost a loved one. It was the most awkward sounding thing to my ears when it came out of my mouth. We think we need to offer something pithy or novel. Something creative. Something smart or deep or interesting. A suffering person doesn’t need smart or deep or interesting. When in doubt, say less.
  • Unless it’s YOUR business, it’s none of your business. A friend recently wrote me something pretty good. “When and if a couple has children is an intensely personal decision and not up for public discussion.” Public is anyone. Parents. Best friends. Anyone. If the suffering person or couple comes to you, then they’ve invited you in. That’s different. If they didn’t come to you, walk away. It isn’t your business. Don’t ask. Don’t tell.
  • Don’t joke. Infertility is never funny to someone dealing with it. If you simply must joke about it, do so privately with your buddy who is reproducing like a family of rabbits. I’m sure he’d love it. I didn’t.
  • Reach out/Reach in. If you’ve been invited into a situation and you know what’s going on with a couple, offer what you have. Maybe it’s just sympathy. Maybe it’s a hug. Maybe it’s the name of a good therapist (I was thankful for this. I wouldn’t have known how to set that up on my own). Maybe it’s dropping by one morning with Starbucks. Maybe it’s leaving a small token on the porch with a card. Maybe it’s texting your friend on a day you know is hard and telling them you love them. Maybe it’s dinner. Which brings me to…
  • Be gently forceful and very specific. Most people like free food. Exhausted people love it. This is an easy way to reach out, but if it isn’t done right it adds an extra burden on the one suffering. Don’t side hug your friend as you are walking past and say, “Let me know if I can ever do anything,” or “Let me know what I can do to help.” Those statements won’t bring results. Those types of offers make the recipient come crawling to you, which they likely won’t do. It forces them to think and, I assure you, a person suffering isn’t doing their best thinking. Their brains are already working at capacity. A better offering is, “I’m bringing you dinner this week. What night is best for you? Italian or pot roast?” Now you’ve let them know that you are already on board and you’ve given them a couple of easy decisions. A suffering person doesn’t have the energy to deal with non-specific, open-ended offers.
  • Think. Be sensitive and think ahead. The person you are talking to may have just had a miscarriage. Maybe they’ve been trying to figure things out for 2 years. Play it safe if you don’t know.
  • Pray. Really pray for these people. And if you are praying for them, tell them.
  • Approach privately. If you are in that inner circle with a person suffering from infertility, stay in touch with them and ask them privately how they are and how you can help. Sometimes it’s all a person can do to just go through the motions of a public situation, whether it’s church or work or a social gathering. There were times when I wanted to know someone cared, but I could not discuss it in public without breaking down.
  • Be patient. No one wants a fast fix more than the person walking this road. But unfortunately, sometimes this road is very dark and very long. Grab and hand and hang in there for however long it takes.

I know from experience what it’s like to want something you may never get. It’s painful and often directionless and you don’t know if or when or how relief will come. It’s hard to be that person. I also know it’s hard to love that person. It was hard to love me during those years. My husband tried to help me, but I was helpless. My friends tried to console me, but I was inconsolable. My doctors tried to fix me, but my body had other ideas.

It wasn’t easy to love me.
I’m thankful they kept trying.
Nobody stopped trying.

For all the helpers out there, dealing with someone like me, keep trying.
And I hope this helps.

Finding Peace

It’s funny what the brain chooses to retain or cast aside as unimportant over time. Mine must have a method, but I never do know what it is. I’ve always remembered my phase of infertility as being 3.5-4 years. That’s what I have always told people. That period defined the time from my first thought of having a child in 1997 to the moment we adopted Andrew in 2001. I forgot he didn’t come out of me. And his birth did not end my infertility. It went on for almost another 3 years. Only today did I realize my math was bad.

I remember sitting at a stoplight on Busch Boulevard. An Amy Grant song was playing and I was crying over the latest bad news. I wondered what the guy next to me at the light would think if he glanced over. And I remember the color and design of my friend’s comforter as I stood at the end of her bed watching her bald, chubby baby flail and screech like infants do.

“It’ll happen for you, Missy,” she said. She had seen a look in my eyes and knew what I was thinking without my saying it. I remember that on that day I believed her.

And I remember being in Bowling Green, Kentucky, when a friend said, “I want you to meet my friend. I think you could help each other.” What she meant was, “I think my friend can help you,” because I was in no position to help anyone at the time.

That introduction led to my seeking therapy, though I do not remember what was said to prompt it.

A few weeks later, on a random Tuesday evening, I sunk into a brown couch in a brown room, across from a brown-skinned man with a heavy island accent and watched his fish swish around in a small corner aquarium.

I remember those fish.

I don’t remember every conversation we had–or even that first one in much detail–but I remember why I was there and the very specific process Dr. MJ taught me that changed my life.

“I used to be peaceful,” I told him. “I remember what it felt like to be at peace. I don’t have that now and I want to get back there.”

In my first statement, I addressed what had driven me there, to his office, in that moment. In a follow-up comment, I addressed something else: the stigma.

“I’m embarrassed to be here,” I began. “I feel like I shouldn’t need to be here.”

“Why’s that? What do you mean by that?”

“Well,” I explained. “I have a lot of friends. And family. And I have my faith. I just feel like I should be able to pray myself out of this one. But I haven’t been able to do that.”

“Let me tell you a little story,” MJ said, leaning forward and folding his hands on top of his desk. I tried to settle back in the couch a little more, but I was barely staying afloat inside the cushions as it was. “Let’s imagine that you are on your way to a job interview. You’ve left yourself plenty of time to arrive and you have done everything right. But on the way to the interview, your car breaks down. You try to get it going again with no success. Now. Your stress level is going way up as you picture yourself being late to your meeting. It’s hot. You don’t have a cell phone. You can’t contact anyone. At the height of your stress, a friend recognizes you as they are driving by and pulls over. They get out and ask you what’s going on. They agree to wait with you while you try to solve your problem. With your friend there, you suddenly feel a little bit better. Now you have someone there with you. Now you have someone to talk to. You aren’t alone. But your car is still broken and the clock is still ticking. You’re still going to be late to your interview. Your friend made you feel a little better but she didn’t solve your problem.”

Hmm. That made a little bit of sense as I listened. He continued.

“You need your friends. We all need supporters. We all need love. We all need someone to talk to. But at the end of a day, talking doesn’t always solve the problem. A therapist knows how to train you to think differently. I can give you the tools you need to think differently. And that’s when you’ll find peace. Your faith is good. I’m a believer, too. But maybe your faith and those prayers led you here. I can help you.”

I sighed. OK. I was all in. I still didn’t advertise to the world that I was in counseling twice a week, but I was (privately) all in.

My circle of friends that knew I was suffering from infertility were always willing to listen. But when each month brought me again to the doorstep of failure or hopelessness, the listening ears of my friends could not help me avoid the barrage of negative emotions I was feeling. I could talk for the rest of my life and never get well. This is where we began. It made complete sense. Knowing this was the beginning to rising up out of it.

Negative emotions–anger, frustration, disappointment, sadness, etc–come from a gap between your expectation and your reality. That doesn’t have to be infertility, obviously. That can be anything. Your love life. Your finances. Your grades. Your job. The way a family member treats your fiancée. Anything. When you expect something that you feel should be attainable and then are unable to attain it, you react negatively.

Unfortunately, we often cannot change our reality. When the gap between expectation and reality exists, everyone’s first response is to attempt to change the reality. I want a baby. I do not have a baby. I will get a baby. But the baby doesn’t come. I want my grandmother to approve of me. I will write her a letter expressing nice things. Nothing changes. I feel dejected and rant to my husband. I want to be married, so I join singles groups and socialize within an inch of my life. But I never get past the 3 month anniversary of the first date. I’m alone and I don’t want to be, so I’m a wreck 80% of the time.

We try. But sometimes the reality is out of our hands. And sometimes the timing is just off. If you find yourself unable to change something about your reality, you need to turn your attention to something you CAN change: your expectations of your reality. Maybe you can’t change what’s bothering you. But you can change that it’s bothering you.

It sounds almost too simple to work. But it worked for me and I’ve seen it work in others.
It works.

The first thing Dr. MJ instructed me to do was to write down a list of my expectations. This wasn’t just one thing. It was a fairly comprehensive list. Up until a year ago, I still knew where it was. As of this moment, I can’t locate this list. I’m going off memory.

Expectations

  1. I wanted to be pregnant before my 30th birthday. (Because everyone knows 30 is the benchmark for old age.)
  2. I wanted to have the first grandchild in the family. I had been married the longest and so badly wanted to offer this as a gift to both sets of grandparents. I felt it was my birthright. (This sounds silly and irrational. In ways, it was. But I was told not to edit myself as I wrote down the expectations. I was reacting emotionally to these thoughts, so I needed to write down the thoughts as they were. Raw.)
  3. I wanted to have a biological child. (I also had always wanted to adopt, but I wasn’t ready to give up on seeing my brand of stupidity walk around in a kid I brewed.) I wanted to experience pregnancy.
  4. I wasn’t sure I could love an adopted child the same as a biological one. What if I couldn’t? (18 years later, I can 100% confirm the irrationality of this one. Goodness me.)
  5. I wanted to have kids the same ages as my friends’ kids. I felt like I was getting left behind and that my future kids would also.

There were probably a couple of other expectations, but these are the ones I recall that I know caused the most stress. I could immediately identify where all the stress was coming from when I read the things that my brain was buying into. I was racing against things I couldn’t control. Everything was a rush. I was rushing against time itself. I was rushing to be the first to hold the baby lion over my head while everyone congratulated us on the grandchild. I was rushing to keep up with friends. And while my brain was telling me these were the things I had to have, my emotions were cracking like a wine glass at a greek wedding. I had programmed my brain like a computer and my emotions were responding to the programming. My output was just a reaction to my input.

That was the bad news.
The good news was that all I had to do was change my input.

The Expectation Statements comprised Phase 1 of this process. Before I could fix anything, I needed to recognize the problem. This exercise forced me to name the things I was reacting to. It gave me a new awareness of what I was battling. That was really the easy part.

Phase 2 of this process was to write Permission Giving Statements. Permission Statements would be counter statements, which were essentially corrections, to the expectations that were wreaking havoc on my emotions. Don’t think that (expectations), think this (Permission).

Permission Statements

  1. I give myself permission to get pregnant after my 30th birthday.
  2. I give myself permission not to have the first grandchild. I give my brother and Todd’s sister permission to be pregnant.
  3. I give myself permission to never be pregnant.
  4. I give myself permission to adopt and to consider adoption as equal to pregnancy.
  5. I give a stranger permission to be the birthmother to my child.
  6. I give myself permission to love an adopted child as if I had given birth myself.
  7. I give myself permission to have kids that are younger than the kids of my friends. They can all still play and be friendly. It will not impact our friendships.
  8. I give myself permission to be an older mom. It’s ok to be having kids in my late 30s or early 40s. It’s ok.
  9. I give my family permission not to look or be like other families. There’s no right or wrong way.

I had written the Expectations while sitting in Dr. MJ’s office. The Permission Statements were homework and required a little in-session editing the next time I went in. We tweaked them together, because I was still taking a slightly negative tone, albeit unintentionally, at times. I’m not proud of some of the erroneous thinking I once had. It was erroneous. But fortunately, the story didn’t end there.

What I’ve written above is a fairly accurate representation of our final draft. Once I had the Permission Giving Statements ready, I had a new homework assignment: sit in a quiet spot at least once a day and read the Permission Statements aloud to myself for 10-15 minutes.

That’s it. Sit. Read aloud. Repeat. Daily.

Reading the positive permission statements aloud to myself would cause my brain to take in the information in an intentional manner. I couldn’t space out and think about other things while I was actively reading out loud. And doing it for 10+ minutes a day gave my brain time to adjust to and accept this new information. This was entirely new information. A totally new message. I was going from gotta be pregnant in 5 minutes to stop by the OB/GYN on my way to the Red Hat Bridge Tournament. I was going to need that 10 minutes a day to flip my original input on its head. When I began the activity, on day 1, I felt silly and awkward and didn’t believe a word of it.

I put in the time. Every day. For several weeks. And guess what? That simple, non-time-consuming activity changed everything. By putting in the time consistently, I felt less awkward about what I was reading and gradually that information seeped from my mouth to my brain to my heart. Where I hadn’t believed a word of it on Day 1, now I was seeing the value.

I believed.

I went willingly to baby showers and participated in labor and delivery conversations. Before, I would retreat into a corner when the topics came up, considering myself not worthy or able to participate. Month after month went by in the paper gowns at the gynecologist and I didn’t fall apart at each failed turn. My brother and sister-in-law announced they were expecting their first and I was excited for them.

My own waiting game was no longer my first thought when I heard someone else’s news. I had given them permission to be them. And I had given myself permission to be me. Infertile Me. Reproductionally challenged me. Unconventional me. Potential adoptive mother me.
ME.

It was ok now. My situation had not changed, but my mind had. Because I had given it permission to be okay–because I had given myself permission to be okay–suddenly I WAS ok. And I would be.

The early days


The Helpers

In 1997, just after my 4th anniversary, I made a plan. It was a plan with solid foundations. It was such a good plan, that I categorized it as God’s plan and pretty much counted it as done before I had even gotten started.

I was going to lose 20 pounds, pay off my credit card, and go to Italy. Right after that trip to Italy, I’d dip my foot in the “Let’s Have a Baby Pond” and 9 months later I’d be sending out my announcements. That’s how I roll. I get things done.

I did lose 20 pounds. I looked and felt good.
I did pay off that credit card and then tore it up and threw it away.
And we did go to Italy. It was a magical trip.

But that last item.
That one took a good bit more time and concentration. And it caused a whole lot more suffering than my days on the treadmill. My plan was good. It made sense in my mind. It made sense on paper. It made sense financially. The problem was that some of it was out of my control.

During those days, I had a lot of things. I had plenty of friends and no shortage of activity. I had money, because we were both working. I had family. I had a strong network of support. And of course, I had my plan.

The one thing I didn’t have was a baby.

And you know what you get when you’ve been married awhile and you don’t have that baby? You get people emerging from the woodwork with questions, suggestions, and advice. There’s a grace period of at least a year. You may get 2 years if your crow’s feet aren’t too defined on your wedding day. But on Day 731, all bets are off and the world is allowed to walk up and ask you where YOUR baby is.

The Questioners. This first group tried to baste their questions in innocence, sweet-grandma style, or humor. I really didn’t prefer one style over another. I mean, I already had a grandma with her own set of questions. And the humor I didn’t find funny. One friend approached me at the end of church one night, deep into our infertility struggles, and fired off some funnies. What’s the matter? he asked. Todd shooting blanks? I think I almost passed out. I was hoping I could pick up a pew bible and knock him out before I hit the ground myself. At the moment he asked, I didn’t know the fertility problem was mine, not that it matters. Because really, no matter who the problem had landed on, it was our problem. Not mine. Not his. Ours. Just in case you are recovering from a head injury or from being raised by wolves, this question is never, ever, ever appropriate. Ever. That was for free.

The Suggestors. Since this isn’t a word, I didn’t know whether to go with an “er” spelling or “or.” Ultimately, “or” seems a little more refined. This group seemed to think I hadn’t yet come up with a family plan on my own. They were just helping out in case I was just living the good life and enjoying a lavish, dual-income-no-kids lifestyle without even the thought of settling down. You two kids have been married awhile. You should get on that.

The Advisers. This one can be spelled either way and comes with all kinds of advice. Some of the advice came from people close enough to us that we were obligated by relationship to listen. Some of it came from people that were just a notch above a stranger but we felt obligated to listen out of sheer politeness. Some of it came from professionals who were claiming to help us with our problem. None of it came from anyone who knew what it was like to be us. What it was like to be me. The girl with a problem. The girl who could not get the thing she wanted most in the world.

My plan, along with the advice and the questions, unraveled down to a single line: “Unexplained Infertility.” After a major surgery to remove a grapefruit-sized fibroid tumor from the walls of my uterus (I was declared cured right then), a year and a half of lesser fertility drugs, 6 months of harder core fertility drugs, a miscarriage, and then a train-wreck of an attempt at in vitro, it came down to “Unexplained Infertility,” which was written in blue scrawl in my chart.

“I have no idea why you aren’t pregnant,” Dr. Tarantino said. “You should be pregnant.”

But I wasn’t.

There were a staggering number of opinions on why I wasn’t and how I could be.

You kids just need to relax. Go home, pour a couple of glasses of champagne, and see what happens.

What’s the matter? Someone shooting blanks?

Come on, Missy. Your parents aren’t getting any younger. I think they are plumb ready to be grandparents.

Listen, just stand on your head. Stand on your head and it’ll happen.

Have you tracked your cycles? Like taken your temperature and stuff? Maybe you just aren’t in touch with your cycles.

Oh, well-meaning fertility experts:

I don’t drink. At all.
And I didn’t need to relax. Sometimes I’m so relaxed people walk by and check for a pulse.
We had real bullets.
And I knew my parents were almost 60.
I had definitely, definitely tracked every last temperature spike, read every book on the topic, and knew at least as much as the first doctor who thought a lack of alcohol was my problem.

And no, mother. No on the standing on head routine. Back off, because now your voice in my head is another barrier between us and this baby we can’t have.

My days went by from hope to hope. When there was a procedure to try, I was hopeful. When it was time to either be pregnant or not, I prayed like a possessed woman. And when it became apparent that this month was another no, I fell apart at the seams. I grieved for the lost family member I hadn’t yet met. I grieved for the life I wasn’t being allowed to grasp. Sometimes I retreated. Into a public bathroom stall where I sobbed until my story was swollen all over my face for the duration of the afternoon. Or into my room for an entire weekend. Sometimes I escaped. Into extreme biking or a new college class.

It was a period of my life I can only describe as dark. There’s something about razor-sharp focus on an unachievable goal that can throw a black shroud around everything else good. There were days when no light got in. Looking back, I feel deeply sorry for Todd. He tried everything he knew to help me. But I was helpless.

Finally, I realized that the kind of help I wanted–the get-me-a-baby-kind–I couldn’t get. So I went for the only kind of help I could think of. I went to a therapist. No one could fix my broken body. I needed someone to fix my broken heart.

Through 2 sessions a week over the course of more than a year, I sat with a guy who had no idea what it felt like to be infertile. But he knew how to help me adjust my expectations. And he taught me how not to be led around by emotions that were tied to things I couldn’t control. He showed me the path to peace. How exactly he did that will get its own post.

One afternoon, in the middle of this phase of my life, I was sitting in Dr. Tarantino’s office, wearing a wafer-thin paper gown and staring at a metal set of stirrups in a room full of pamphlets about things that should not have full-color pamphlets. And I sat straight up and said out loud to no one,

“I’m done.”

That was it. No more procedures. No more pills or thermometers or breakdowns. Five minutes later, the doctor came in and asked me how I was.

“I’m good,” I answered. “But I’m done. I’m done with all of this.” He raised his eyebrows. After all, I was there to explore more options. I was wearing a paper dress. But he sat down on his swivel stool and allowed me to finish. “We’re going to adopt.”

This was my own announcement. Todd wasn’t even present for this particular appointment. There were so many of them that he only came to the important ones. Until this moment, this appointment had not been one of the important ones.

My doctor folded his hands in his lap, looked me in my eyes, and replied with kindness.

“I think that’s a great idea. If I can help you any further, you know where to find me.”

I did know where to find him, and I would eventually see him again. But at that point, he was not who I needed to find. Our answer to the “what now” question was about to take a hard right turn.

This one keeps me up at night.