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 so intensely. 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’ll see how it goes, we’ll see what happens…
I felt pulled 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 my grief 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” when we decided to actually just go ahead and do all of the stuff. 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 and the pregnancy test read: positive.
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.
Feel the feelings. And then choose, over and over, as often as it takes, to understand that the feelings are impermanent. That’s how you create what comes next. If you’re committed to creating the good stuff no matter what, the grief can’t stay forever.