another baby birthday

I can’t even count how many baby and children’s events I’ve had to decline or suffer through in the past few years. Baby showers, mother blessings, births, new baby visits, baby blessings, birthday parties. You know the joyful gatherings that infertile women tend to dread. (Of course this is on top of every other event that becomes child-centered when so many family and friends have kids, who are often the focus of attention.)

I can’t even tell you how many gifts I’ve had to buy for expectant mothers, babies and kids since we started trying. Too many. If I have to walk into another store with some clueless clerk asking me how far along I am, or how old my child is, or boy or girl, I might just fucking lose it. Plus it’s just too sad to keep wondering if I will ever need these things for myself one day…

In the past year alone, three babies were born into my immediate family (with two more on the way), plus so many others born to friends and colleagues (with always more on the way). I adore all the children in my family, and I love their parents. I love being an auntie and a big cousin to all our little ones. It’s just that we were supposed to have some little ones running around too. And that we don’t is the big fat elephant in the room. But more than any awkward moment in any announcement or event, it just leaves me longing for what we (so obviously) don’t have, and may never have.

For a long time, I tortured myself with so many baby showers and birthday parties, feeling angst for weeks in anticipation, feeling sad and detached during, then depressed afterwards. All the focus on the belly, the rite of passage into motherhood, the birth, the baby on the way. All the moments I’ve never experienced. All the conversations I can’t join in. All the things I want to say but can’t, since I never made it past 21 weeks. Since my baby boy didn’t live to see his birthday.

Birthdays are no easier, with lots of playful children and parents bonding and the constant stream of “so do you have kids?” with the inevitable awkward “oh” in response followed by a quick getaway (this is true even when I just say “not yet” or “still trying” rather than getting into the whole sad story). 

Over time, I’ve found it a bit easier to decline invitations to certain events out of self-preservation. I was recently invited to attend a “mother blessing” to celebrate a friend who was about to give birth to her second child (in less than 18 months) but who had not been at all supportive of me. I thought, do I really want to go rub this woman’s feet in warm oil (no joke) and henna tattoo her big belly? That’s easy. I think I’d rather walk on hot coals, thank you very much.

Then there are the friends who mean well but became unexpectedly pregnant (ouch) or say all the wrong things; or for whom everything comes easy, including remaining oblivious to our difficulties even though they really should know better (if they gave it half a thought). Yeah, it’s easier to say no thanks to those events too. Then there are the women who may be empathetic but just don’t know what to say or how to support, as everything they know revolves around their family’s universe. Those are a little harder, since they are so well-meaning. 

I still struggle with how to tactfully decline and maintain some needed distance while making an effort to preserve a potentially worthwhile friendship. I’m still reluctant to return certain calls. (In fact just as I was writing this, we got two calls asking our reply about a coed shower next week that we will avoid and upset the guest of honor. (Yep, straight to voicemail.)

What do you tell people? “I’m sorry but… (a) I just can’t make it (without explanation, but you should know why); (b) I need some space right now and hope you understand (even though I know you won’t); (c) I have other plans (usually an obvious lie); (d) I’m not feeling well (only good for last minute excuse); (e) I’m still reeling from the loss of our baby (and I really can’t be around you and yours just yet); or (f) actually, we just spent 15k on our last hope which failed so I really don’t want to be around you and your self-absorbed friends and all of their kids right now.” (Ok that last one is a long-shot, since I don’t think I’d ever say that to anyone, but you get the point…) Hey, the truth hurts. How many excuses have you used?

I know we will lose some friends along the way. We already have. People always say, if they love you they’ll understand. But the truth is sometimes people just don’t understand. So you grow apart. Maybe whatever damage done can someday be repaired and the friendship salvaged, maybe not. If our lives are never going to be the same after infertility, maybe everything in them changes too. And change is inevitable, right?

Still, other events I feel obliged to attend. Celebrating the births and birthdays of nieces and nephews, close cousins and good friends. I am so grateful to have every one of them in my life. I sometimes even get upset when I’m unable to share in a celebration due to long distance. But when I see the joy in the eyes of the proud new parents, even when I’ve come to momentarily share that joy, I still silently suffer inside. It’s messed up, but it is what it is. I cannot deny this. Even when I’ve enjoyed birthday festivities because of a special relationship to the child, inevitably I still walk away feeling the sad deep longing that lurks just beneath the surface.

In the midst of celebration, I still feel the absence of my own baby boy, and of any other child we might have had in the nearly four years we’ve been trying, who aren’t here to play with their cousins. I feel the sorrow that comes with knowing that instead of planning my angel boy’s first birthday, I was home crying after yet another bfn. And there have been so many more since then…

Yesterday we celebrated the first birthday of a little cousin. As much joy as I could feel looking into her sweet face as she smiled while I sang happy birthday right to her, or in seeing her eyes light up as she reached her hands into her first piece of cake ever, I also felt so sad and empty inside. I felt the palpable absence of my own children and the ache in my heart that lives alongside whatever else I may feel at any moment. I felt every measure of the gaping hole in our lives — not just what we’re missing, but the joy that our children are missing too.

We tend to think things will be easier when we have a child. That the joy of a new baby will help us through our grief and that our lives will be complete with parenthood, or by the family we envisioned. But we know that doesn’t always happen. We don’t all go on to have children, or as many as we would like. And grief is not just overcome, even in time. There will always be babies born, there will always be birthdays and graduations and life celebrations.

So must we choose between a lifetime in isolation or learn to tolerate awkward suffering to remain in the lives of our loved ones? That doesn’t seem like a fair choice. But then again we didn’t choose this life, and none of it is fair. 

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~ by luna on January 12, 2008.

19 Responses to “another baby birthday”

  1. I just wanted you to know that your post touched me deeply. I’ve never experienced infertility, but know several women who have. Some have gone on to have children naturally, others have adopted, and still others are childless. One woman that falls into this last group is the oldest of 12 children and a midwife–a profession that she chose well before she discovered that she and her husband could not have children naturally. I know that it is extremely hard to go through–especially with everyone else so joyful, and so visibly pregnant. Frankly, I don’t see a thing wrong with being honest with people–let them know that it just hurts too much to be around pregnancy right now. Your real friends will understand.

  2. It’s so hard, isn’t it? I can’t count how many times I felt like I had to go to a baby shower, only to end up crying in my car in the parking lot. I have had 4 losses, and I can’t help but look at some of my friends children and think, “If I hadn’t had that miscarriage in (01, 02, 06, 07) our kids would be the same age.” Unfortunately, I guess that’s just all a part of this crappy hand we have been dealt. I’ll never quite understand it, and I’m sure I’ll never be over it.
    If there is one thing I have learned over the last 7 years, it’s that there are a lot of “us” out there – women who are dealing with infertility and loss. I am pretty honest about what we have been through, and it does take people by surprise. However, every so often, I find a kindred spirit when that look of recognition and relief spreads across someones face and they say, “Me, too.”

  3. It is a tough choice, isolation or feeling alone in the crowd. Mine is a funny kind of lucky in that my age limits the number of these invites I get. Soon I will be invited to the showers of my friends’ kids. Ouch.

  4. Wow. I had to do a double-take as this looks so much like one of my journal entries from a few years ago. I simply declined the invites to the above events from anyone who wasn’t immediate family. I didn’t feel a need to provide an excuse. If they had any inkling what I was going through they put two and two together. If they didn’t then they weren’t close enough to know and I didn’t feel like I needed to provide an explanation. The gift arrived by mail instead. (And let me add that between the IF treatment costs and buying other people’s kids, we could have traveled around the world in style. Sigh. You must have one very large social circle though as it sounds like you’re getting double the invitations I once did. In the end self-preservation trumped any desire to tolerate the awkwardness.

  5. It took us three years to have our son…I remember this. The phone calls from friends, telling me they got pregnant while on the pill; finding out a mother who didn’t take care of the son she had was pregnant again; the dirty looks I got from my family when I told them I just couldn’t go to another baby shower.

    I know that there is nothing I can say that will make it better, but know that someone who only knows you online is thinking of you.

  6. I could also have written this post, and it’s going into my favourite posts folder!! Dh has a large extended Italian family & we get invited to tons of baby showers, christenings, first birthday parties, etc. — so I know exactly where you are coming from (although I must admit, a “mother blessing” is something I’ve never heard of). I’ve never been able to say no, either — even for the baby shower that was held the weekend of my 40th birthday while I was still in infertility treatment! This past May, we attended the wedding of dh’s cousin’s oldest daughter (age 23), which was a surreal experience, realizing this could very well have been our own daughter, & knowing it was only the first in a long line of next-generation weddings we’ll be attending over the coming years. We will be attending a first birthday party in another two weeks, with another likely to come early in March. The only balm on the wound is knowing both these babies were desperately wanted & conceived through IVF by over-40 parents.

  7. Oh, this has to be the worst part of dealing with fertility issues (besides, of course, not having babies in our arms or expecting them imminently).

    Like you, I have bought so many gifts for countless people expecting babies while month after month failing in my own attempt to start a family. I have given 3 baby showers during the time in which I have been trying to conceive. Of those showers, only one of the honorees really, really means something to me and is important in my life and is understanding about what I’m going through.

    Somehow I thought at first that if I went above and beyond by giving fantastic showers and elaborate and expensive baby gifts, and engaging in lots of baby talk with expectant mothers, I would somehow be a better person and negate what I believed to the bad karma of being bitter and sad about my own situation. I never gave myself permission to feel sad. I forced myself to be the infertile who “happy” for every pregnant person I came in contact with. Crazy, yes. and it didn’t work because I would come home after buying a gift or giving a shower and collapse into tears.

    Of course, now I realize that the pain and bitterness is not about *other people* so much as it about me. My own loss and void and desire and empty arms, coupled with having to see everyone (it seems anyway) get what I do not have but want so badly.

    Well, I have come a long way. I buy any baby gifts that I have to buy online and, never, ever go to a baby boutique or store. I will never give another baby shower. People will just have to understand, and if they do not, well, they are not the friends that I thought they were. It is insane how fertility issues actually cause the breakup of friendships and create isolation. Would people treat us this badly if we had cancer? I know I’m rambling, but this is such a raw subject you’ve touched on.

    Coming from a person who gets upset about people on TV who are “fake-pregnant” (!) my opinion doesn’t mean a lot, but I want you to know your strategy of self-preservation is what it is all about. The pain of dealing with others’ pregnancies and the attendant celebrations is unbearable. Only by taking care of yourself by avoiding situations that will cause you grief will you be able to get through all of this. And that’s OK. The friends who matter will stick around and will understand.

  8. It IS really hard. Do you struggle through these events, or do you politely decline and risk offending people? After five years of this, I’ve finally come to the conclusion that it’s now time to be a bit kinder to myself – if I can’t face these things, I don’t go. While some people will understand, others won’t – but that’s really their problem, and not mine.

  9. Speaking from a different perspective, I can see it being difficult to know whether or not to invite someone who is currently infertile to a baby shower–you don’t want to hurt them by not inviting them, but you don’t want to cause them pain by making them feel like they ought to be there. Many of my extended acquaintance also struggled during those times–sometimes they went, sometimes they didn’t.

    I’ve been in some conversations when a baby shower was in the offing, and the question about inviting someone who can’t have children has been raised. We all were thinking about it, and none of us knew whether it would be easier for the person to come and not feel left out simply because she was infertile, or to stay home to avoid the pain of yet another woman having yet another baby. So we just invited them and left it up to them to come or not as they could.

    When I had a baby shower for my first son, there were at least two women there are not able to have children. Even in my joy, I was still very sorry for them, and wondered how they were handling being there, if things were better for them emotionally, etc. It’s really hard to know what to say in those situations so that it doesn’t sound like, “Yeah, I’m so happy I’ve got everything you want….don’t you wish you did too?” Sometimes it’s easier to say nothing so that at least what you say doesn’t cause pain.

    So, short story long, if you don’t want to go, don’t feel guilty about needing to stay at home. Why torture yourself? To please others? They won’t think badly about you for staying home, although they may feel badly *for* you. It can be hard to open yourself up to other peoples’ judgment and criticism, but I think that if you are open about your struggles, more people will understand; but if you just go and “put on a happy face” while you’re miserable on the inside, people will just assume that you’re handling things better now, and be even less sensitive than before.

  10. hi everyone and thanks for your comments! I don’t usually comment on my own blog (esp. when the post was SO long already!), but I wanted to respond to womantowomancbe. I wanted to clarify a few things, and also thank you for your comments, your candor and perspective. I appreciate your sensitivity to the feelings of your infertile friends, and your points are well taken.

    As to the question of whether to invite an infertile to a baby/child-centered event, since I did not include that in my post (but I thought to), I’ll just say I always prefer to be included and given the opportunity to make that choice myself (whether I’m up to attending). My feelings are hurt far more by people who make that decision for me by exclusion.

    To clarify, the decision to stay home is not about guilt but rather knowing that it can interfere with or put a strain on (and even eventually end) a friendship. Of course real empathetic friends should understand, but not everyone does.

    As to how others view my decision/situation, I am not at all concerned about judgment or criticism. It’s about wanting to participate in the joy of a friend, to share a huge event in her life (but ultimately deciding that my heart just can’t take it).

    Finally, I can’t speak for every infertile woman, but I imagine that many of us who have fought so hard to have children (yet keep losing) do not want to feel pitied. Feeling pitiful just make me feel worse. What we want is some understanding and compassion, and many people don’t understand there’s a difference.

    I know it’s hard to show your support to a woman in my situation. Many opt for silence out of fear of saying the wrong thing. Sometimes a simple, “I’m sorry” or “I realize this might be hard for you” or “I understand” goes a really long way. Thanks again for your comments.

  11. Thank you for putting this into words. I have learned to live with what I call the “bittersweet”, always having to explain that “I’m happy for you, but I’m sad for me”. And the anger I’ve felt when people just don’t get it at the same time, being thankful that they’ve never had to live through the hardships of infertiliy fits right in there too. And people don’t get it when they haven’t experienced it. Sad but true. So few people understand the discipline of compassion, which comes only when we step back from our own experience to try on, as best we can, the experiences of others. If more people did that, you wouldn’t have to have a list of excuses.

    I am parenting through adoption now (we had one pregnancy in nine years that ended in loss) and I have to say that it’s been a reality check for me. THe pain of infertiliy doesn’t go away, no matter how hard I try to imagine that everything is fine now. My children bring great joy, but the heart-brokenness of it all doesn’t seem to go away, at least not very fast. Sadly, whether we are blessed to become parents or not, sometimes the change is only on the outside in that, we “get to” participate in these child-centered events but our heart still hurts because we know. We know the pain.

    And you are right… it is NOT pity we seek but understanding and compassion. I hope if we keep talking maybe just maybe someday someone will breathe and say “I’m sorry”.

    While we were in the middle of our fervent attempts to get pregnant (pre-move to adoption, we’ve never “not” tried IYKWIM), my job required me to be present at these kind of events and even officiate in such things as infant baptisms. I can say that it made me tougher to face things but it also left me numb for a very long time. It’s been just in the last year where I’ve started feeling some of this stuff and I say this because I applaud your STRENGTH for knowing your limits and taking care of yourself. I don’t think I’d be in the position health-wise (emotional and physical) that I am right now had I allowed myself room to feel what I was feeling and grieve/work through it in that time. So don’t feel guilty for making the excuse if you need to. You are doing what you have to do.

    I am so very sorry for your loss. And wish you peace and hope on this journey…

  12. This post speaks so much truth. I, too, am battling between those two terrible choices–sucking it up and just going to those events, knowing it’ll be terrible for me, or isolating myself and not going anywhere. Both choices suck. How, for example, can I go to the baptism of my new niece or nephew in a few months knowing that my child should have been getting baptized at the same time? That I should have been battling over dates with my SIL?

  13. Heartbreaking post. And no, not a fair choice.

    Bea

  14. This was a beautiful post. Thank you for it. I too feel a loss when surrounded by all the young children in my husband’s family — we are the only couple without children. Our child should be there, too.

    I am lucky that a good part of our almost 4-yr infertility experience fell between “breeding cycles” among our friends and relatives, but this year is already shaping up to be a tough one.

  15. Hot coals indeed – pretty much right on target there. It all gets kind of crazy excessive sometimes doesn’t it? I get that it’s a big deal – but good grief. I have a dear friend ttc a looooog time now who has a friend who invited her to no less than THREE baby showers all for herself for the same pg. I say – send a gift card, not even to a baby oriented place, Amazon.com say, a little card wishing them well and no apologies or explanations needed.

    I always enjoy your submissions to Bridges – you have a very elegant hand at writing that captures emotion very well.

    My best to you.

  16. Receiving some invitations was like pouring acid on a gaping wound.

    I declined many of them.

    I am wondering if your feelings about this changed in the last several months. You know, that time healing thing.

    Or not.

  17. I came to this post today from Bridges, and the particulars of my life have been different – no infertility but widowed young and the dificult invitations were to weddings, events where couples who had been our peers were all coupled up. I remember the challenge of wanting to celebrate with others and feeling my own loss anyway – and you pose well the challenge of choosing, at times at least, either isolation or painful participation. I think sometimes it’s just like that.

  18. Sometimes, what hurts even more than the invitations I get are the ones I don’t. The ones where we are close enough that I would have been invited if I had kids, but since I don’t, I’m off the guest list. I like to imagine that it’s to save my feelings, but I think more often it’s to avoid awkwardness.

    Damned if you do, damned if you don’t — for them and for me.

  19. […] second birthday. I was quietly pondering what a difference a little hope makes in the course of a year. […]

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