It could be argued that I choose this – this painful, screaming label which keeps me so separate – because there is always the ongoing choice I make to stay with the man I married and to honour our wedding vows, because damnit, I just can’t stop loving him, in spite of how much more convenient it might be if I could cast him off. Love is rarely about convenience.
In sickness and in health…ah, how little we knew. We were not forewarned that this vow would mean us pledging our lives to infertility and heartbreak. Nor to depression. Nor to the desolation of knowing that our two, miscarried babies would probably be our only ones – we thought we were committing to one another and the start of a new life spent fulfilling all our expectations for ‘How Marriage Should Be’. Life is rarely about fulfilled expectations.
Ongoing chronic sickness, both mental and physical, and dead babies aside, it’s really the ‘no more babies’ which has been hurting me lately, because it makes other people so damned uncomfortable. And I can’t escape it – it might as well be branded on my skin.
Barrenness used to be considered a curse, the origin of which could be attributed to any number of deities or personal faults of the owner of said unused womb. The fact that my own womb could be described as “Barely used, good as new, slight crease to dust-jacket” is beside the point, as is the fact that the reason for its emptiness does not originate with me. The curse as social stigma, is (if not in full force, then at the very least) tangible.
I have experienced things. I have been told things. I have heard whispers.A friend and I were recently ensnared in a tangential and unfortunate (sometimes) offshoot of infertility – the drunken, desperately sad rant. My fault, for there is no excuse, but exposure to a third party’s ‘happy pregnancy details’ before I could absent myself, on a particularly tricky-anyway day, left me distraught, and I dealt with it badly. After this, we didn’t speak for a few days; she was busy and I was mired in a cycle of misery and distraction as things settled down again – Husby and I talked things through and various deeper complications came to light (side-shoots to the original issue: his ill health, which causes our infertility). When we spoke again, she was sombre and said we needed to talk seriously about the way I had behaved; that others had been upset by me and felt they had to tiptoe around me. Our conversation was curtailed there as the routines and requirements of the day took over, and I was left to mull. To imagine (for it was only allusion, half a conversation and me drawing matters to their logical (but erroneous) conclusions) that I was behaving in a manner which made my friends uncomfortable was painful for a few reasons: firstly because I have seen the extent to which infertility can cause an individual to become angry and embittered, and I do NOT want to end up that way, if I can help it; secondly because I happen to think that there are few jobs more important than the right raising of the next generation, and if my presence was hindering this process for my friends, or making them feel they couldn’t ask for support while I was around, that was utterly unacceptable to me; thirdly that this situation existed at all, surely meant that I should remove myself and allow them to get on without me. The idea of being further isolated tore at my heart, but it felt like the best and only thing I could do to show that I cared for my friends, their children, and the conversations they needed to be able to have, freely, in order to best raise them. Fortunately a subsequent heartfelt conversation put both of us to rights – my poor behaviour had knocked her confidence in me and had called into question my levels of support. Other people were not upset by me. But in spite of my apologies and our mutual reassurance that we both love one another HUGE, and had no desire to upset the other, the situation left me feeling hollow, because she’s not the only one to express this kind of thing. My friends have felt uncomfortable sharing news about their children with me (or near me), out of guilt because they think it will hurt me. They have felt unable to ask for support from other moms with me around, because it might be a tough conversation for me to see, and be so utterly excluded from. One friend even hid her pregnancy from me, up to birth (which she really couldn’t hide), and I still don’t know why. These events chill me – children are so important, and yes, of course it hurts to be unable to have my own, but being kept from the chance to join, even vicariously, in the joy of having them, is nothing short of awful. Strangers, upon hearing I can’t have children, either give me the ‘pity face’ (just don’t, please!), stumble over words trying to find anything more appropriate to say than “That really sucks” (there’s nothing else – I promise), or they rush headlong into Ways It Can Be Fixed (trust me, anything you’ve thought of, we’ve already discussed). So please, if you don’t know me, get to know me. I’m (usually) happy to talk and answer questions and have conversations about this immensely tricky subject, because I believe that the more it’s talked about and accepted, the less taboo it becomes: just be gentle with me, and don’t try to offer solutions.And if you know me, and care about me, please, please, please don’t shut me out.
I want to hear about your pregnancy and be allowed to congratulate you. I might not be around for all of the updates, but I’m here, and I’m thrilled for you, because babies are wonderful.
I want to know if you’re worried about something, and to be able to provide a listening ear, if I can.
I want to hear about how stressed you are because your toddler threw up in the middle of the night and you’re tired and cranky – let me support you and encourage you. Kids are hard bloody work, and it’s rough sometimes, but that you still care enough about them to try to make their day work, even though yours is super-hard; that’s AMAZING and I’m in awe of your determination to be a good parent.
I want to hear about how you and your child played hooky and went to the beach and had a perfect *RightThere* moment together, and just basked in one another’s company – just as it should be, because these moments are the ones which memories are made of. I love that you do that – that you make sure there are those golden, shining memories for the two of you to look back on and cherish.
I want to be involved in conversations when you’re not sure what to do, or how to handle a situation. Admittedly, I’m no authority on the subject, but I have common sense, I know a lot of parents, I know a lot of children, and I’m sure there’s some way I can contribute in a constructive manner, if you let me.
I want you to be able to tell me that you’ve had enough, that you’re sick to death of them and could I please come and take them out for a few hours for you, because if I can, I will, and I love that you trust me with them.
I want you to let me babysit, or hold sleepovers, so that I can enjoy the precious, small moments of excitement, of damp, shampoo-scented hair, sleepy eyes, of bedtime stories and songs and the warm, snuggled weight of a safe, happy child drifting off into slumber.
I want to listen to you tell me how wonderful your children are. I want to know about their quirks and personalities and the scrapes they get into and the sweet things they do, and the times they surprise you. I want to hear about the things they say which make you frustrated or angry or sad. I want to know how they make you laugh. I don’t want you to hold back, and I never want you to feel guilty for sharing those things.
I want to hear about what a pain in the ass your teenager is, and how you swear if he does that thing ONE MORE TIME…and to be able to make you laugh or distract you, or try to offer some perspective when you feel you can’t see the wood for the trees. I want you to feel that you can rant about your kid, if that’s what you need to do, because we all need to be able to offload sometimes. I get that. I don’t think less of you for not loving every moment just because you have the privilege of parenthood which has been denied me, because that would be impossible.
I want you to keep inviting me round for parties and picnics, even if I can’t round up a child to bring with me, because I’ll borrow any of yours, and I love that they all flock to me and join me in with hide-and-seek and climbing trees and creating new, amazing games.
I want to know that a letter sent halfway around the world made your child’s day.
I want children, and if I can’t have my own (which seems pretty much stuck into the ‘really not’ side of ‘never’), let me join in – let me borrow…observe…watch over…engage with…steal for precious moments…go on adventures with…hear about…and love, yours.
Because if only you’ll let me, I’ll gather up the broken pieces of my mama-heart and love them all.
Just…let me know we’re okay, because the thought of alienating you or becoming isolated because of this, makes it so much harder to bear.