The hardest grieving I ever did was the year I was diagnosed with infertility.
Even now, having lived it, it seems strange to me to have grieved something that at the time, I had yet to ever taste. If I spend time thinking about that grief, I can feel how the sadness of it weighed on my shoulders like a heavy backpack of loss. I can look at my daughter standing next to the kitchen cabinets pulling out the pots and pans, and in a blink I see how the cabinets would look if she was not standing there, if there was no sudden crash as she finally pulled out the last pot, her face triumphant.
I carried my sadness that year like a secret shame, often thinking that infertility was an invalidated grief. Who was I, to be so sad when there were mothers who watched their children starve to death? Who was I, to be so sad when there were wars and torture? Who was I, to cry like this when the bee colonies were collapsing? Who was I, to want this when the world faces overpopulation?
But I was sad like a back ache. To hear the doctor say that my body was no longer producing eggs felt equivalent to hearing him say, “After thorough examination, we have determined that you are empty.” Pregnant women walking down the street seemed to be bragging, flaunting their good fortunes.
Because I didn’t wear the diagnosis on a t-shirt (“Hey, world! I’m infertile!”), every innocuous comment landed as if the target had been well-aimed. “You’re sooooo lucky that you don’t have kids,” said one busy mother of two.
“Until you become a mother, you don’t really know what it means to be a woman,” said another (snidely).
“Until you’ve gone through child birth, you don’t know what real pain is!” joked someone else.
And always, when my husband and I least expected it because the conversation was squarely on something else, someone asked, “So when are you two going to start a family?” We stretched our smiles and lied through our teeth, keeping it light. Well, you know, we’re working on it, we’ll see how it goes, we’ll see what happens…
I felt stretched between the desire to do everything, and the desire to give up and do nothing. One week, there were so many options! I was ready to make appointments! Change my diet! Start acupuncture! More yoga! The next, I was angry that infertility had officially hijacked my life and that I had been so stupid as to wait until I was in my early thirties and married with stable income before starting a family.
I processed a lot with my coach, that year. I resented him, the session when he asked me to envision a good life, without children.
This was not a push to hurry up and recite positive affirmations, smoothing over the pain. I had spent so much time grieving that it was starting to consume me. Now, he was asking me to choose a future for myself where infertility didn’t eclipse my entire life.
He asked me to get specific about what would be so great about never having kids. I blubbered and did the Ugly Cry and said that if I envisioned those things, then that was like saying it was true, that I would never have children.
“Yes,” he said. “I’m asking you to decide that it is true, that you will have a great life even if you don’t have children.”
So I did, haltingly at first I talked about how I’d travel and all the free income we’d have and the time and the sleep. I was walking into the exercise in order to confront my resistance to the idea, but the truth was that none of it felt like real enthusiasm. (That’s par for the course, with resistance, by the way).
He asked me to make a list of specific things that my husband and I were free to do, because we didn’t have children. I did, and that list became the basis of what my husband and I called “The Summer of Fun.” We took off of work, rented houses up and down the coast, and had I don’t even know how many dinners at Zagat-rated restaurants in wine country.
I gained ten pounds, but I was laughing, again.
That fall, without medical intervention, I was pregnant.
The happiest day of my life was the day that that stick turned.
That statement is a sitting duck for judgment. How un-feminist. Is that all that your life amounts to–what your uterus is capable of? You must be using a child to fill some gaping emotional void. There are bigger things in life than children. You’re celebrating changing shitty diapers and getting no sleep and having to take a diaper bag with you, wherever you go?
But there it is. That was the happiest day. For a full 24-hours, I was so ecstatic, I was transcendent. Absolutely anything felt possible.
The bliss would later mix with fear and worry. Now, as my daughter toddler-crashes through her world, life is happier. Infertility feels like visiting a country right before a coup–I’m grateful to have gotten out, alive.
Mostly, I’m grateful that someone asked me to make a choice about what I wanted my life to be, before I got the baby I’d so longed-for. I’m grateful that someone helped me untangle myself from thinking in black-and-white outcomes, challenging me to decide that I would be happy, no matter what.
When you are walking through your hardest grief, whatever that might be, you need to feel. You need to do the ugly cry. You need to tell people that it’s all unfair, and not worry that they’re going to ask for your positive reframe, which will only ever make you want to punch them. Empathy is critical. You need to find friends who will say things like, “Well, fuck that diagnosis.”
And, at some point, understand that the people who love you most will push you not to let the pain define everything. Clinging to your pain is a dangerous thing. It turns life into the worst kind of “before” and “after.”
The hardest grief you ever walk will feel torturous and inescapable. It will feel impossible, but how things feel and how they actually are, are two different things–if you let them be. You need to feel what you feel.
You also need to choose, over and over, as often as it takes, what you want to feel, tomorrow. That’s how you create what comes next, which may not be the thing you that you long for so deeply, but if you’re committed to creating the good stuff no matter what, will be just as joyful.
We think that we are seeking a plan, a lifestyle. Become this, or become that, or adopt this or that lifestyle, and you have a plan for your life embedded in that choice. Become Paleo, and you eat this way and exercise this way and get a whole crop of Paleo friends to bond with (that’s your plan). Or, go deeply into your yoga practice, and practice ahimsa and wear yoga pants with your effortlessly tousled hair and discuss your pranayama with your new yoga friends (that’s your plan).
We are a culture that is fascinated by lifestyle options.
Paleo diet. Yogini. Raw foods. Triathlete. This religion. That religion. Super-successful MBA becomes CEO, Fortune 500. All-natural attachment parent mama. Tiger mom. What’s your excuse? mom. Double income, no kids–my life is sooooo much freer than all of those moms tied down by kids! Environmentalist. Minimalist.
Choosing lifestyle options has become a new way to establish an identity. It’s a cultural landscape that we didn’t have 100 years ago, when communities were smaller and less diverse. In a globalized world, choosing a lifestyle often means choosing your belief system and any lifestyle niche that you join automatically grants you access to a tribe of people to bond with.
There’s nothing wrong with paleo or raw foods; yoga or cross-fit; this religion or that religion or no religion; kids or no kids.
But we make ourselves desperately unhappy when we use lifestyle choices as a way to seek an identity, hoping that by dropping ourselves into the culture of X, we’ll finally know what to do with our lives.
Choosing a lifestyle option (and secretly hoping that it will fix all of our problems) is a fear-driven choice that keeps us from practicing the courage to find out about all of who we actually are.
What we are seeking is devotion.
And really, what we are seeking is devotion to ourselves.
Ask yourself: Have you ever read some profile in a magazine about, say, a yoga instructor who starts her day with green smoothies and meditation, whose house looks like it came out of Dwell, with beautiful photographs of smiling children who look like they never misbehave, perhaps with photos of the family meditating together in front of their sacred altar, and thought…I want that life? Did you then take up yoga, or fantasize about the white couch, or go buy the book called I Never Need to Yell at My Kids that was mentioned?
Maybe yoga isn’t your thing, but if you switch out the content to whatever you’re really, really into–running an online business, or some way of eating that promises glowing health, or a spiritual practice–is it the same?
What you’re seeking when you read that magazine profile or all about that blogger’s life, online, isn’t their way of living life–but we often get confused about this. Seeking a lifestyle usually means that the choices become about emulation. We put our emphasis on the things they do, that person that we’ve projected has figured it all out, and try to emulate that, instead of putting our emphasis on devotion.
What we are seeking is devotion. We can be devoted to an ideal, or we can be devoted to ourselves.
When you’re devoted to an ideal, you’re emulating.
When you’re devoted to yourself, you’re truly living.
Every Path Has Value
Karmically, all roads lead into one. On one level, it doesn’t matter what you choose, because the lessons that you’re seeking to learn will always find you. We cannot ever fully escape ourselves, because we take ourselves with us wherever we go.
On another level, the more unconscious we are about our choices, the more we suffer without understanding why we’re suffering.
Being unconscious about choosing a lifestyle and hoping that it is the balm to your problems creates suffering. This is a really, really confusing place to be in. You know you’re there if you find yourself thinking things such as, “I don’t get it. I’m doing [all of these things that are in alignment with this lifestyle] and I still feel stuck! Why? Why haven’t I figured this out, yet? Why do I still [get sick, repeat old habits, have bad things happen]?”
Expending all of that effort, only to still feel like you’re spinning your wheels, is an unhappy existence.
We get happier when we choose devotion to ourselves. We get more conscious. This is why, by the way, devotion to yourself isn’t a selfish path. Whenever you get more conscious about who you are, you stand a chance of not repeating the old patterns that are harmful to you, and to those around you.
Whatever lifestyle choices you make, understand this: they can only ever be a vehicle. If you choose a lifestyle as an ideal, it’s a vehicle for endless perfectionism, attaining, trying to “live up to” something. Fear underscores this.
If you choose a lifestyle as a way to be devoted to yourself, it’s a vehicle for more understanding of who you are and your place in the world.
This is is the path of the courageous. That’s where words like “purpose” and “fulfillment” enter the picture. That’s the intersection of joy and authenticity.
Devotion to yourself becomes the game of life, and you’re playing for keeps.
What if I’m not saying anything original?
How do I find my voice?
Your Voice Is…
What you care most deeply about.
What you’re a stand for.
What you most want to heal in the world.
What you’d say or do or your affect when acting from your kindest self.
How you’d speak to someone when they are vulnerable and coming to you, for help.
Your enthusiasm, lightness, and joy.
Your shadowy, pissed-off righteousness.
To access it, you…
You look for what you most want to say, even if it’s not an original thought, and you say it.
You look at what no one is saying, and you say that.
“In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.”
― Czeslaw Milosz
You ask yourself what the people who are most disenfranchised need you to say, for them, because they don’t have the same privilege and access.
You ask yourself what the people with the most power aren’t saying.
How You Access It
You access it by not thinking that you fucking “lost” it, as if “your voice” is your keys, misplaced somewhere.
You have a voice. You have a vision. It’s uniquely yours. It’s informed by your life experience and it will show itself, if you stop buying in to the fear.
Then, you treat writing or speaking into a microphone or being on camera like a craft. This means that you probably won’t articulate it easily, at first.
No one who is committed to her craft waits until it’s perfect, to begin.
If you have something to say, and if you want to say it well, then you’ve got to start talking. Your voice will emerge.
Stop Buying In
If you feel like you have something to say, but you’re worried that what you have to say sounds exactly like what everyone else online is saying, there’s actually one big thing that I recommend above all else:
Stop buying in to that belief system.
How are you buying in? By ruminating on it while doing nothing to shift it. If you know that this belief system stops you, frustrates you, ties you into knots, stop rolling over and playing dead, thinking that golly-gee-gosh, someday you’ll have an a-ha of divine intervention where you’re never plagued by it, again.
When you choose to do nothing to change a belief system that stops you from being all of who you are, you waste years of your life in this space–and the world needs your voice.
Stop thinking that it’s all been said, before, because it hasn’t already been done or said, by you.
Or, you might find your way on your own. Be auto-didactic! Meditate and notice your thoughts, journal, walk through the fire, enlist a friend. If you start paying attention, you’ll find the answers that you need.
If you start paying attention, you’ll also “find” your voice, because it was never lost. The issue at hand isn’t finding. The issue at hand is consciously cultivating the conditions for the things that you desire, to emerge. As always, the choice is yours.