invisible badge

So there’s a boy at Jaye’s preschool. He’s a darling four year old kid, new to the school, very sweet and chatty. He’s my new buddy.

Let me back up a minute. Jaye has been going to preschool three mornings a week since she turned three, and she’s never once looked back. Unlike the kids who cry at drop-off and run to greet their parents at pick-up, our Jaye begs to stay longer and go more often. (Aside: We may try two full days to see how she does, but for three days the rates jump so that’s not happening.) When I pick her up mid-day, the kids are usually playing outside unless it’s freezing or storming. I head out back with Baby Z on my hip and we begin the song and dance of what it will take to get Jaye to leave so her little sister can eat lunch before her afternoon nap. It’s tough, because she’s having a blast and the rest of the day isn’t usually as exciting, even if I have something fun planned. Normally I’ll let her play a few minutes before trying to bribe drag coax her out the door. A good sign, really. The girl loves her school. So far, anyway.

A couple of weeks ago, we were all playing in the big sandbox when the new boy — let’s call him Dex — came over to us. Dex was instantly drawn to Baby Z and wanted to play with her. He asked lots of questions about her. He wanted to touch (or pet) her. Now Baby Z has quite a little fan club already. All the kids know her. A few have little siblings of their own. Many of the three-to-four year old girls are enamored by the “baby” and her cute little outfits. The two year olds are too small and the five year olds are too busy being big girls. Mostly the boys are too busy being, well, boys. But Dex was different. He was entranced and really trying to engage Baby Z.

So I asked Dex if he had a little brother or sister at home. He was such a natural with her, so gentle and kind. His response was equally sweet. And a little heartbreaking.

“No, I’m sorry, I don’t.”

It’s impossible to convey the innocent sweetness in his little voice. It was as if I had asked him if he had any bananas in his lunch bag and he was apologizing because he ran out or something.

“Well, you must really like babies,” I said to him. “Because you are so sweet with Z here. Did you know Z is Jaye’s little sister?”

He did not, because he asked me which one was Jaye. So I introduced them. Jaye agreed Dex would be an excellent big brother.

Dex continued to want to play, though I was trying to get Jaye out of the sandbox and ready to go. When Dex asked if he could hold Z’s hand, I nearly shed a tear. This boy was so sweet, so gentle.

“I do really like babies!” Dex told me. “I love them a lot!”

He followed us inside to say goodbye. Just as we were headed out the door he peeked his head out.

“Can I come over to play some time?” he asked.

Sure, I told him, any time. I was excited that Jaye maybe had a new friend. But later one of the teachers told me that Dex had wanted to come over to play with her baby too (not her four year old). So it wasn’t Jaye he wanted to play with; it was Baby Z. The boy loves babies. Ever since that day, whenever Dex sees me at drop-off or pick-up, he comes running to say hi and play with Baby Z. Just the other day he asked if he could hug and kiss her goodbye. (He asked! The girls don’t even ask, they just do.)

On the way home that afternoon, I couldn’t help but think about Dex’s parents. Did they want another child? Had they tried? Were they still trying? Did they quietly let that dream go? Or did they just want one?

I know a number of one child families. Sometimes that was the plan all along. Sometimes the plan changed somewhere along the way. Sometimes the kid came as a surprise. Sometimes they wanted more but couldn’t or didn’t. I know more families — through the blogosphere especially — who wanted more, who hoped for more, who prayed and wished for more. Who tried and tried for more. I wondered which kind of family Dex’s was.

Last week I met Dex’s mother, a lovely woman with an easy going manner. I told her how sweet Dex is with Baby Z, what a kind and gentle boy he is. She smiled and said yes, Dex does love babies. He adores them, we agreed, and he’s very good with them. While I didn’t say it outright — I would never, knowing what a sticky subject it could be — clearly he would make a wonderful big brother. I wondered whether Dex himself had asked for a sibling. And did he ask just once, or does he ask often? It’s none of my business, I know. But I just couldn’t read her. I couldn’t tell whether there was longing there, or just something she’s used to hearing. She didn’t share and I didn’t ask. I would never ask.

There’s something about this badge of infertility I wear. It’s still there, but no one can see it anymore. So strange. It’s such a huge part of me, who I am, how we got here, how I became a mother, and how I parent my girls every day. It affects most every interaction, especially with other parents. Yet on the surface, it’s invisible. Here I am — seriously, so many years and tears later — with an amazingly clever and adorable preschooler and a cute baby on my hip. Unless you knew my age (can you say oldest preschool mom?) or saw my scars (those things are never going to heal), you’d never know what I’ve been through. You’d never know how many years and how much struggle it took to build our family. How many miracles and dollars and prayers to the universe. How neither child might have ended up as our daughter, yet here they are. It is truly nothing short of a marvel, how our family came together.

Yet to a stranger or new friend, we’re just another family of four like so many that came together so effortlessly.

People have no idea.

Back to our little friend and his mom. I always treasure opportunities to share our story, but I keep it guarded too. I love being able to support someone in the midst of such life-altering experiences — i.e., infertility, loss, adoption, etc. And while I have no idea if this woman is in fact suffering at all, I do know that I too cherish my privacy. I would never presume anyone was in a similar situation or that they would want or need help. Yet I am always listening for clues, looking for openings. If I noticed any sign of anything relevant I would recognize it as an invitation. I remember making little comments here and there to offset probing questions. But I think I was also fishing for a lifeline. At the time I knew so few people in real life to talk with that I would engage anyone who showed the slightest interest. I felt invisible then too. I was always waiting for someone to say “I know, I’ve been there, it’s hard.” So desperate I was for affirmation and any form of support. But you know what I got? Mostly nothing. Awkward silence. Change of subject. Unwelcome advice or assurances. Hence, I turned to the blogosphere, where I met fellow travelers and kindred spirits and felt welcome and heard and supported during the loneliest stage of my life.

And I made it through. My goodness, I made it through that darkness triumphantly with magnificent blazing chariots soaring over rainbows. These marvelous girls that brighten my face each day mask the sorrow that once was. They are my invisible cloak now. They shield my badge.

One thing my experience has shown me — and there are so many things (really, some day we should list All The Things) — is the significance of support. The impact of a simple affirmation can not be underestimated. It means you are not alone. It means you are not a lunatic or freak. It means someone to help you look at something in a new light. It means someone to share that burden, if only for an instant, to help make it lighter.

Real life support is so critical. So why is it so hard to find?

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~ by luna on February 13, 2013.

9 Responses to “invisible badge”

  1. Sometimes I feel like I am bursting to share my vast knowledge of fertility treatments with people that I think may find it useful, but like you I don’t ask and don’t offer. In particular, the two mothers of one of Burrito and Tamale’s classmates/friends, who clearly used some kind of treatment to conceive their daughter. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with them on playdates, and they’ve mentioned that they hope to have another child, and so I’m constantly biting my tongue, wanting to share if they’re interested.

    There are several little brothers and sisters in the preschool class; some have a few kids who are interested and some have a huge fan base. The other morning a toddler boy came along to drop off his brothers, and as the mom and toddler left the playground to leave the building, there was a huge crowd (maybe 8 or 9 kids?) running after them, clamoring just to be near him. Burrito and Tamale were not in the crowd, and I’m kind of glad — I like it when they like babies, but it’s a relief to have them not bugging me for a baby sibling (yet?).

  2. We are quite open about our IF struggle and treatments, in part because I think otherwise it would not be quite so apparent for us (we’re young, kids close in age). I know this is a bit tangential, but I am wondering if you have also found a huge divide between those who are still shaped by their treatments and those who seem to feel that once they have baby in hand it is all behind them and not worth talking about at all (and that also goes for 2 of my friends who had full-term stillbirths). We live in a very expensive urban neighborhood so I would guess that a high percentage of kids were born using fertility treatments. I can certainly spot the 50-year old mothers of toddlers at storytime and in the park, but very rarely does anyone mention any of that, even when I do. And the close friends I know who have gone through treatments seem to treat it as entirely a thing of the past once they are done; no anxiety, no lasting feelings of thanks for having children, etc.

  3. I must admit I was anglingn for you to ask Dex’s mom directly — something I wouldn’t do but would really WANT to do.

    I am often seeking the badges of adoption and infertility, too.

    Love the imagery of the chariots and the rainbows.

  4. I have moments like that a lot, where I wonder but don’t ask. Sometimes people ask about my son, and I tell them a little bit of our story and they share with me… but you’re right about it being an invisible badge. It isn’t just the way our families see us (personally our families seem to think we’re no longer infertile, for whatever reason) but looking at us from the outside in we’re a young couple with a child… nothing marks us as anything different, but we infertility and loss has sculpted us in unimaginable ways. Really good post, thank you for that.

  5. I had a similar experience on the playground this week–but from the opposite side. One of my son’s teachers (who has 2 kids quite close in age) asked when my partner and I plan to have another one. I gave my standard response, which is “well, it’s not an easy or inexpensive process.” And then the teacher said “I know! I went through treatments to have both of mine.” I was angry at her for asking about a sibling when that’s something we desperately want–and especially as someone who ought to know better than to ask in that way! But I think that she was just trying to connect, to have the kind of conversation you describe wanting. And it did feel good to know that we are not alone in this struggle.

  6. Because my son is African-American and we are not, my badge is a bit more obvious. People used to ask me about adoption a lot when he was little, but it rarely happens now that he’s clearly old enough to understand their questions. That said, I will talk infertility, adoption and ART all day long if someone asks. I don’t understand why it’s such a taboo topic … Except of course for the pain that goes with it. I’m someone who totally processea misery by talking about it, but I know many people don’t or can’t. It’s a shame, really, because there are SO many of us out here, ready to lend an ear or shoulder. I guess it’s easier to talk to anonymous strangers on the internet because you don’t have to wade through all the inerrpersonal social niceties that you do IRL. You can just dive into the heart of the matter, and it’s not considered rude.

  7. Beautiful post. I really related to the concept of the badge, and how difficult real-life support is to find. I wonder about Dex. My son loves babies too. I’m not really sure why, but probably because most of his friends are the oldest sibling (or the middle): there are no other twins, even though most of the parents are in their 40s, because we are in the most bizarro fertile pre-school of all time.

  8. I listen for openings, too. Sometimes I hear one and make a small comment about myself or something to encourage conversation. Sometimes they take it, sometimes they don’t. But I still make the little personal comment, just in case. I never want someone to feel like they are alone and I don’t mind putting myself out there on the off chance that it could help.

  9. You are clearly on a blogging roll. Again, what a lovely post. I don’t really share the infertility badge in the way that others do but like you, I am always on the look out for a crack, a glimmer, an opening, a look of longing … and I always try to offer one as well “just in case” someone want to talk about adoption. As for boys and babies and all that stuff. Theo loves babies but never once has he asked for one (!).

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