Last Sunday I spoke at the Fertility Planit Show held in Century City, California. I was invited to be on the panel "Letting Go of the Hope of Having Genetic Offspring". Yeah, it was not exactly the glamour hour at the Fertility Planit conference. I imagined people from all over the South-land deciding to spend their weekend and their $40 in order to learn the latest advances that might up their success rate. The last thing, I imagined, that hopeful couples would want to hear about is a panel of people talking about "Letting go" of exactly what it is they want most. I felt like I was the proverbial skunk invited to the garden party, or perhaps more aptly the divorce attorney invited to the wedding expo. I had visions of our panel being held in the bowels of the hotel. We might have a storage closet as our meeting place. There would be me and the other "letting go" panelists and maybe a long-suffering junior-volunteer journalist who had been sent to see if there might be a human interest story in our panel of sadness. In my fantasy, when the journalist saw the lack of attendance for the panel she got up and called her editor and told him that it had been a complete waste of time. Even though I had that fantasy, I had another one too. In fantasy number two there was a huge crowd and they wanted hard data and facts and figures and they wanted to know exactly how, why and when I got over my infertility issues. They wanted me, in my fantasy, to answer their question in full and complete sentences that lacked "ums" and any other verbal ticks that I turn to when I am nervous. They wanted me to solve their problems in the ten-minutes I would be allotted on the panel. I feared that whatever my answers were that they wouldn't like them. I imagined that they would be like the 1000+ commenters on Huffington Post who were filled with hostility towards almost everything I had to say about being infertile. As a counterpoint to that anxiety, I had the knowledge or hope that people tend to be nicer in person than when they are writing anonymous comments. I suppose it is harder to say mean and hateful things when standing in front of person who is spilling their guts out about how hard infertility was and how harder still it was to let go of----only that knowledge only slightly comforted me---especially when that someone is crying).
You see, dear reader, my fantasy life is, as demonstrated in the aforementioned fantasies, often masochistic and full of unreasonable expectations. Hence, I was, to be completely candid, terrified. I was prepping for the panel in a way that I hadn't done since studying for the GRE exams. And even as I crammed on topics that I KNOW I found myself marveling at the ridiculousness of prepping on what I am in fact an expert on.
The first question I was to be asked by the moderator was: "Who am I am and what is my relationship to the topic? Okay, well who am I? I should have that down, after all I know who I am. However, I wanted to succinctly explain the depth of my relationship to the topic which is not easy to do in three minutes.
What I planned on saying was:
I am an expert on "Letting Go of Trying to Conceive", not so much because I am a MFT and that I work with patients who are struggling with infertility. Nor am I an expert because I have written about Infertility for Huffington Post or on my blog, La Belette Rouge. I am an expert because I spent five-years trying to conceive on my own(with my partner's help) and another five-years and over $100,000 trying to conceive via the help of a Reproductive Endocrinologist. I did four and a half rounds of IVF, 21 rounds of IUI. I did ICSI. And we moved on to do IUI with a sperm donor. I didn’t stop there.
I did Feng Shui, Acupuncture, Yoga, and Chi Gong. I took flower essences, vitamins, and herbs. I saw healers, energy workers and Maori Tribal chieftains that supposedly had the power to heal even the most profoundly infertile couples. We were assured by healers, psychics, astrologers, and all who loved us that there was a baby in our future. Even thought I am agnostic, I had friends and families saying prayers, rosaries and masses for us. We were on prayer chains at over 100 churches. We built a baby shrine in our home—friends and family gave us symbols of fertility that would assure us our baby. I meditated, got massaged and got into therapy to manage my stress. I looked at my psychological resistance to pregnancy and mothering and everything I could possibly be resistant to and might be making my womb inhospitable. I ate more yams than one human should. My ex-husband ingested more pumpkin seeds than you could find in an entire pumpkin patch. I affirmed, “I easily and effortlessly become pregnant”. And instead I become uneasily and with great struggle, not pregnant.
I let go of the hope of having biological offspring on December 17, 2008. That was the last time I tried to conceive with the help of medical technology. I was shopping at Target in Highland Park, Illinois. I went into the bathroom and saw that after another round of treatment that I wasn’t pregnant AGAIN. I went home and called the doctor’s office and instead of scheduling ANOTHER round, I told them I was done. The nurse told me, “Okay” and that was it. I knew that day in a way that I had never known before that I could keep doing this over and over and I knew that I would not get pregnant. I knew that all the kings horses and all the kings men weren’t going to get me pregnant, no matter what kind of success rate they advertised or what kind of Chinese herbal supplements I choked down. That was the day that I quit trying to conceive and I started to move on with my life. It is my hope that today I will give you some tools that will allow you to move on, if that is what you want to do.
Well, I have no idea if I said anything like that. I am guessing I didn't, as I had only three-minutes. I suppose if you want to know what I ACTUALLY said and what all the wonderful people on the panel said you can check this link out and look for my panel ( look for Sunday at 3 p.m.)
The second question that I over-prepared for was: What helped you let go? And do you think it is possible to ever really move on?
My over-prepared answer (and likely not the one I gave to the incredible Fertility Planit audience ) was:
I feel that I was lucky that I started the infertility treatment process knowing that at some point if the treatment wasn't working that I would stop trying. I remember taking a walk the night before I began treatment and the thought came to me, that clearly was coming from a smarter and wiser part of myself, and that voice said, “At some point, if this doesn’t work, then you will stop treatment. “ For me, knowing that there was a limit to what I would do in order to conceive was vital. I knew there would be a point when I could no longer endure the pain and disappointment of failed infertility procedures was a strange comfort to me. I would ask myself after every round of IUI, "is this my limit?" If my answer was no I would go on. I know that many couples have the mindset when they begin treatment to continue until they have their baby, no matter what. However, infertility treatment doesn't work for everyone and knowing that and having reasonable expectations around treatment is, I believe, vitally important. I wanted desperately to have a baby, but after all my heroic efforts failed, it was a comfort to me to have that question in order to check in with myself and see if I could take anymore. I am so grateful that I didn't continue and do more and more and more even though I knew I had reached my personal limit. I would advise anyone to continue to check in with themselves and not to feel pressure to do more than their body, soul, relationships or bank account can handle.
The final question I was going to be asked was: What is the single most important thing a person can do for themselves, once they've made the decision to let go of becoming a parent entirely?
The single-most important thing, I believe, at least for me, and for many patients that I have worked with is to grieve it fully. When giving up on having a baby one is giving up so much: the grief of never having the biological experience of pregnancy; the grief of not having a family, in this way; the grief of not having a baby, a toddler, a child, an adolescent; The grief of not relating to your peers or going through the developmental markers that come through being a parent: The grief of not being a mother. To give up on having genetic offspring leads to MANY losses. And it would be my personal and professional advice to allow yourself to grieve fully and completely. I know it isn't easy to do and I KNOW that through personal experience.
At the height of the pain, everyone told me that it would get easier and that I would get through it, but I didn’t know if I would. I thought the pain and the grief of it might kill me. But I did get through it. The day came when it hurt a little less and then a little more and there were days when I wouldn’t cry when I saw a pregnant women. Overtime it hurt less and less. With even more time, I was able to see babies and not wish they were mine. Slowly it stopped being the first thing I thought about in the morning and the last thing I thought about before I went to bed.
And mostly now I am happy with my life and even grateful for how it all worked out...The Truman Capote quote, “more tears are cried over answered prayers” even comforts me on occasion, but there are times when I am taken over by the fact that I will never be a mother or a grandmother. I never know when or when it is going to hit me but when it does it is not uncommon for me to cry with the same amount of depth of feeling as back in 2007 when I first let go of the hope of having a child of my own.
The hope I have to offer today is that I am here to say that life can be meaningful without children and that even though I didn’t get what I wanted in my infertility treatment I did learn a lot about myself though the treatment. I learned how strong I am and how much endurance and tenacity I have. I learned to tolerate ambiguity and not knowing, something I was lousy at before enduring infertility. I learned the very hard life lesson that doing all the right things and working hard doesn’t necessarily mean that you are going to get what you want. It also hurt like no other loss I have known and it is a wound in me that I will have all of my life, even as I have moved on.
Every time my period comes I am reminded of my inability to conceive, even though I am in no way trying to conceive. Recently I had my period show up a week late and I found that my “letting go” of hope to be challenged. I KNEW that I wasn’t pregnant. But what if I was? What if? I tried to keep the fantasies at bay. I tried to remind myself of the reality. And then my period came and I grieved again. I know my grieving it isn’t over, but neither is my life. I don’t think I will every let go completely, it is a process. Moving on, no doubt, is possible. It just takes time and it isn’t a straight line. That said, I continue to pick up and put down and let go and hold on again to the idea of a biological child. Shelagh Little writes that infertility is like a low level lifelong bio-psycho-social syndrome. My physical inability to produce children has emotional and social consequences that I struggle with at least to some degree every day. Her definition of infertility helps me to understand why it still hurts and that, to some degree, it always will---even as I move on. I am extremely grateful to Shelagh for that way of conceptualizing infertility.
Finally, I want to share what I believe is/was my personal recipe for moving on and letting go:
1. Getting to my personal limit
Knowing that I had tried as hard as I could to have a baby and that I could try no more. That was the first step in my letting go. I have no regrets about how hard I tried to get pregnant. I know I gave it my personal best and that is all I can ask of myself.
Having a therapist to go to twice a week and sob to was essential for me in my recovery from the active grief that comes from letting go. My therapist gave me a safe space to grieve. I felt like friends of family could only take so much of my grief. My therapist could take all of it. And his taking it and allowing me to leave my grief with him was huge for me in moving through it and making meaning of my pain.
3. Finding other people who had gone through the pain I had and seeing evidence that they had moved on
Reading Silent Sorority and Life Without Baby was profoundly helpful. The first place I turned to after deciding to let go was to Google. I queried, "what to do after failed infertility treatment?". At first I found nothing helpful, except a few posts about how to stay away from Disneyland and Chucky Cheese's. Finally I found Pamela Mahoney Tsigdinos and then Lisa Manterfield (whom I was lucky to be on this panel with and FINALLY meet) and other bloggers who knew my pain, even though I didn't know them. It made me feel less alone and it helped to see people who were surviving and thriving without children.
4. Giving voice to my experience
Having my blog to write about my experience. I made friends. I found even support for my experience. I had an outlet to process what felt unprocessable( to coin a term).
It takes time. Time may not heal the wound of infertility, but time, and all the other aforementioned tools,does offer a kind of unexpected medicine that does allow for peace and happiness and meaning to sneak back into your life in unexpected ways .
Well, I don't know if I said all that. I do know that speaking at Fertility Planit was healing for me and that I am extraordinarily grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this wonderful event. In talking about my process of letting go I got to see how far I've come. And it was incredible for me to have the opportunity to share my experience with those who are in the process of hoping, holding on, praying and, maybe, letting go. I was deeply touched by the courage of the those who attended. Letting go of the hope of genetic offspring isn't easy and I admire the men and women who were in the audience, it is courageous to be in the trying to conceive phase and to conceive of not conceiving.
Looking out into the audience and seeing all the people suffering the pain of infertility, I am left with a new fantasy. I truly hope that something I do or say or share is helpful to someone suffering the grief of being unable to conceive---even if it is only one person. Maybe this last fantasy can become a reality.