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.
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.
- I wanted to be pregnant before my 30th birthday. (Because everyone knows 30 is the benchmark for old age.)
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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).
- I give myself permission to get pregnant after my 30th birthday.
- I give myself permission not to have the first grandchild. I give my brother and Todd’s sister permission to be pregnant.
- I give myself permission to never be pregnant.
- I give myself permission to adopt and to consider adoption as equal to pregnancy.
- I give a stranger permission to be the birthmother to my child.
- I give myself permission to love an adopted child as if I had given birth myself.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.
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.