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
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,
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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. 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.
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,
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.
Yesterday, while trying to fit laundry into a piano lesson I forgot about, a meeting with a decorator, 2 pick-ups, and the 4th dental appointment of the week, the question of fertility–and infertility–came up to me. Out of the blue. Twice.
That was oddly coincidental. Or not. Because as severely as I struggled with this issue, those struggles are so far in my rearview mirror now that I almost can’t make out shape or color anymore.
But I remember. Oh, I remember. A person doesn’t forget a thing like that.
One person asked me if I had ever written about my struggles. I actually had to search my blog to see if I had. I searched on “infert” to cover all forms of the word and came up with 3 or 4 posts that were Mother’s Day related. All of them were good for me to read again. All of them began at infertility and ended at adoption. None of them really talked about what we’d been through. And it occurred to me that people don’t really talk about it enough.
There were a few people I talked to about everything and a few reasons I didn’t want to talk about it with anyone else.
Everyone’s a critic. Even people who don’t mean to be sometimes are. Every single treatment I pursued was something that I first grappled with inside my mind. Todd and I both agonized over the expense and the decisions. We didn’t need a panel of self-proclaimed experts pointing out our mistakes as they saw them.
Everyone’s got an opinion. I heard most of them over the course of 4 years.
Everyone’s got a story. You may have been through some stuff, too. Maybe infertility. Maybe miscarriages. Maybe anxiety. But you have never been me and I have never been anyone else. Your story is your story. Mine is mine. We can understand each other, but we are not the same. I try to remember this as I go forward also. I’ve been through a LOT in my journey to my family. But I can’t know exactly what you are facing in yours. And I can’t tell you what you should do with yours or what’s right for you. Only you can do that. I certainly can’t tell you to do as I did.
I think what bothered me the most during those years was not knowing how my story would end. I didn’t want or need to hear “Your day is coming. Things are going to work out.” I knew that. But how were they going to work out? And more desperately critical, when? When?
But the one question I asked that was harder than the how or the when and 100% unanswerable was why? Why was the woman at the edge of my neighborhood who was strung out on drugs 8 months pregnant, but I wasn’t? Why were there girls sitting in waiting rooms considering abortions for a pregnancy they didn’t want but I could not find my way to one I desperately wanted? Why were there couples getting pregnant after 5 minutes of marriage and I couldn’t manage it after 5 years?
The why question is unanswerable. Always. Why is there cancer? Or autoimmune disorders? Or mental illness? Or accidents? These things just are. And sometimes they fall on us.
Over the course of 4 years, I transitioned from a girl who cried in bathroom stalls when my monthly cycle ended another few weeks of hoping to a girl who was ready to ask the real question:
It isn’t why or when. It simply is what now.
Anyone can do the what now. Anyone.
So since I’ve been asked, and since I’ve been around the block 78 times, and since I’ve emerged on the other side with 4 children, and since I’ve done therapy, and surgeries, and IVF, and medicines, and adoption, and pregnancy, and C-sections, I’m going to write it all down. Maybe it will help someone. Maybe it will only help me as my oldest boy prepares for his senior year of high school and I prepare to watch him leave.
It has been a journey. And it was often a dark and difficult one. But I wouldn’t change a second of it. Not one second. I wouldn’t reverse the tears or the breakdowns or even the months and months upon years and years of waiting. Because those things prepared me to be a mom. And those things brought me here.
Small things are cute. The smaller they are, the cuter they appear. There are plenty of unattractive adults that were adorable as babies. A slimy wriggly puppy, who will grow up into a smash-faced dog breed, is worth cooing over as a puppy. And a super fat baby thigh, enlarged and placed on an adult, aged 25-80, is the grossest thing ever. But we squish and croon about fat baby thighs.
As a kid, I was obsessed with small things. Tiny stuffed animals. Little action figures. And miniature 1970s wooden Christmas ornaments. When I was 8 years old, while decorating our Christmas tree, I found my best friend. It was a 2″ wooden angel, tossed into my mom’s collection of non-special ornaments. Because it was nothing special. To anyone else. But when I picked it up and made eye-contact with her black dots, she became special to me immediately.
“Can I keep this one?” I asked my mom. she agreed dismissively. Nobody cared that I was keeping her. I named her Baby. And she became my baby.
I carried Baby with me everywhere. Literally everywhere. To school. To church. On vacations. To my parents’ office. Down the street to play with my human friends. Everywhere. When she wasn’t in my hand or set up in some elaborate diorama, she was in the pocket of my jeans. There is one picture in some album somewhere that I took of Baby. It is only her right half, because I was shooting with a 110 point and shoot camera that is worse than drawing a picture with Crayons. I can’t locate the picture right now.
When the unfortunate fire of 1981 happened, we scrambled to pack our things and move out. Our insurance company sprung for a Howard Johnson’s in a bad section of town. My parents were not that excited about the hotel or our location in town; our new residence backed up to the parking lot of a honkytonk bar. I thought it was the most exciting place ever. All I had to do to enter a foreign world was to slide up in my bed ever so slightly and part the linen curtains behind my bed. The music went on all night.
One night, a couple of weeks into our stay at the HoJo, when I had seen enough and couldn’t seem to settle into sleep, I realized I didn’t have Baby. I looked for her in my covers and then in the drawers where I was keeping my clothes. She wasn’t there. In a panic, I called to my Dad.
“Dad,” I said. “I don’t have Baby.”
“It’s ok. We’ll find her in the morning,” he replied. Unlike me, he was settled in for the night. Now that I’m firmly entrenched in middle age and parenting, I get it. There’s nothing a parent wants to do less than to hike to the car for a forgotten item when you are already wearing your PJs.
“Dad, that won’t work,” I whispered across the dark hotel room. “I need her to sleep.” I paused. “And she needs me.” Now I was Grade A Crazy, but I didn’t care.
My dad swung his legs over the side of the bed and I sucked a breath of hope into my lungs. He was going to get Baby! But instead, I watched him fumble across the room to his stuff that was laying over a vinyl chair and reach into his pants pocket. Did he have Baby? He then found his way over to me and knelt beside my bed.
“Here,” he said. “Sleep with this.” I opened my hand hopefully and in it he placed a penny. A penny. Like a 1 cent dirty piece of copper. I closed my fingers over the penny as I narrowed my eyes in disgust and rolled over. The edges of the penny dug into my palm as I tried to pretend it was Baby. With my hand under my chin, I could smell the metal. This was not going to work.
“Dad,” I whispered again. “I can’t do this. I have to have Baby. Could you please go down to the car and get her?” I think people at the bar next door could hear him sigh as he stood up to face his mission. He threw on a pair of real pants and quietly slipped out of the room, along the outdoor corridor, and down the stairs to our car. A few minutes later, the door opened, letting a long shard of light into the room before it all went dark again. He padded over to my bed and placed the familiar shape of Baby into my palm. I smiled and hugged her to me and we sunk into a slumber on the faint notes of an Alabama lullaby that was drifting out from the doors of the bar behind me.
Within a couple of years, I lost Baby. I looked for her everywhere and was heartbroken when I couldn’t find her. I wondered what she was doing in her spare time. Was she missing me as much as I missed her? Had she found new friends? Would she ever show up again?
I never saw her after 1983, but there’s this lovely site called eBay, where a person who is a little off in the head can reconnect with their past in off-in-the-head kinds of ways. eBay is where I found the beach curtains of my childhood. And while it’s not where I found THE BABY, I did find A Baby. And I bought her. There is a familiar sweetness in her black dotted eyes and little round mouth that reminds me of a faithful friend I once had. A friend I like to imagine on a honkytonk stage somewhere, listening to our songs, and nestled into the palm of a kid who loves her.
There’s a strong case to be made for wearing pants, at all times and in some form, whether it be leggings or jeans or pajama pants or even something as cringy as Daisy Dukes. But nobody ever makes that case, because it seems to be a superfluous argument. The world is largely on board with the pants-wearing tradition. I’m on board, too, most of the time. But a couple of nights ago, I decided to live on the edge. It was hot. I was the only one awake in a shared bedroom with my 11-year-old daughter. I needed to take my core temperature down and I wasn’t going to need the pants.
So I thought.
I got fully settled about midnight but was only in and out of a fitful sleep when a light came through the slats of the vertical blinds that separated my bedroom from the coastline. It was enough light to make me wonder what was causing it, so I got up to check. From a thin space between slats, I saw a police SUV driving along the beach out front. I knew what he was there for. He was there to confiscate property left behind by lazy sunbathers. He was mostly there for the canopies. He pulled up to one and got out of his truck when my eye was drawn to two women just below me on the pavement. They had flashlights and were moving with purpose. I didn’t understand what that purpose could be, because by now it was past 1 a.m. but they appeared to be mildly frantic. One of the women immediately took off toward the cop on the beach.
Ah, it’s her canopy. She wants to talk him out of taking the canopy. That made sense in my mind but didn’t explain the lateness of the hour or the other woman wielding a flashlight. After a few seconds of imagined conversation about the canopy, the woman jogged back toward the paved parking area in front of our condo and the cop hopped into his vehicle and moved it closer to the women. Then they all started scrambling.
I watched the chaotic dance of the flashlights with confused fascination. At this point, I was fully awake, fully out on my balcony in the dark, and fully aware that I was mostly pantsless. I was safe in my lack of pants because it was so dark and because, with a cop and two women running willy nilly on the beach below, no one was going to be looking at me. I pressed myself up against the balcony railing, forgetting the pants entirely, and followed the flashlight beams with my eyes. Something was all over the ground. The ground was practically moving because of it. It was crabs. These were crabs. Wait a second. Those aren’t crabs. Crabs are faster than that and no one cares about crabs. Dozens of little darkened shapes were flopping around on the sand and crossing under the fence into the parking lot.
I gasped as I figured out what it was. It was a group of little hatchlings from a nearby turtle nest. These were baby sea turtles. And they were lost. Going away from the ocean instead of into it. I watched as the cop and the women scooped up turtle after turtle, turning on their heels and then running with them to the water’s edge. But the numbers were against them, so they grabbed an empty trashcan and began to set the turtle escapees into the can, one after the next.
I wish I could help them, I thought. But I’m not wearing pants. I ran back inside the condo for a moment and noticed the lights on in Brady’s and Lucy’s room. They were both still awake. So I ran down the hall to grab them out.
“Hey, come with me. I have something to show you.” They followed me back to the balcony and were just as intrigued as I was with the process going on down below. On my way back through the family room, I grabbed a blanket to serve the role of the pants. It did its job as well as it could.
Over the next half hour, we witnessed a small group of beach combers saving a larger group of tiny, helpless turtles. If the women hadn’t been out there with lights–which still baffles me because of the lateness–and the cop hadn’t showed up to take someone’s canopy, there would have been a crop of dead turtles in a parking lot the next morning.
“That cop was on the night shift, working the canopy confiscation beat. I bet this is a much more exciting night than he had planned,” I said to the kids, resting my chin on the railing as the activity began to wane.
“You know what they say,” Brady replied. “Not all heroes wear capes.” Lucy began chuckling at that and they started a whole routine as if they were turtle wrangling cops. At noon the next day, none of it would have been funny. But at 2 a.m. it doesn’t take a lot to get a punchy reaction.
I’ve been at this beach in this condo every summer for 20 years now. I’ve seen a lot of turtle nests get roped off. I’ve even seen some turtle tracks. But until Monday night, I had never seen the actual turtles. It was pretty spectacular. I do wonder how much more spectacular it might have been if I’d been wearing pants and had run down to join the rescue operation with the flashlight I had brought from home. This might have been a much different post.
Not all heroes wear capes. But they do all wear pants.