Bibi Lynch’s piece in today’s Guardian about the pain of not being able to have children has, predictably, (and already, it’s only 10am as I write this) provoked many comments telling her off. (Many of them telling her off for the headline – I do wish commenters would realise writers don’t write the headline!!)
Having been in more or less the same position, albeit at 36 and with post-chemo infertility (and, being gay, no chance of a ‘happy accident’, though with the great benefit of a partner to love), I can nod my head to absolutely everything she’s written there. All of it. The pain on seeing pregnant women or people with small children, the way every time a friend tells you they’re pregnant feels a little like a small stab, the envy that feels like it’s taking over, the ouch ouch ouch, the dreaming into a future where no toddler becomes a small child becomes a teenager becomes an adult, the knowledge that it stops with me. All of that.
But what I also know, as it’s now 9 years since I last tried (and ‘failed’, ah the language of infertility that constantly reminds us our bodies are broken) with the last embryos made before chemo (with our loving and very good friend babyfather), is that it’s grief. And grief feels all-consuming, slaps you when you least expect it, takes over your life and then it does, honest, it really does, change. Not go away, not fade even, none of the useless cliches people usually say about grief, but it does change. We re-work our narratives to be the people we are becoming instead of the ones we can’t be. We look around and see that, yes, from our perspective, the world really does treat mothers like graduate women and the childless/child-free as little sisters, no matter our age. We learn to put up with that or even accept it, because we know better. We know that the world IS unfair, that things aren’t the way we’d like them to be. And, eventually, we get to a place where that’s just how it is, not how-it-is-and-killing-us-every-moment-with-the-inequity.
Until that time though, until the grief becomes an ordinary and not a daily shock, grief does what it does, and to ask a person who is grieving to snap out of it, or look around and see how lucky they are, or to count their blessings, is as pointless as asking anyone who has lost a loved one to do so – because those children we’re never going to have are very real dreams in the minds of those of us trying to have them.
And just in case you can’t find your way to understand someone else’s grief, here’s a few things not to say :
1. Don’t say ‘have you considered adopting?” D’uh! well of course she’s considered adopting. Constantly. In Britain at least, it’s still quite difficult for single people, older people, and those who have had life-threatening diseases to adopt. And anyway, that’s about as sensible as saying to a young fertile couple trying for their first baby “have you considered adopting?” – the reason people want to grow their own child is because they want to grow their own child. That’s it. And why should the adopted child be considered a second option, surely if adoption is so perfect for the infertile it should be the first option for fertile couples as well? AND, personally, I could never get over the idea that for the same cost and time in adopting a child myself, I could likely help another woman to keep her child. (It’s why I support SOS Children, I happen to believe most children are better cared for in their own communities and, ideally, by their own families.)
2. Don’t say “I know just how you feel” if you don’t. If you have secondary infertility (one child and then couldn’t have another) you have your own grief, yes, if you desperately want a second child, but you do not know how it feels to have none. Especially don’t say it if you are assuming how you felt before you had children is the same as your friend feels who CAN’T have children. The state of not-being-a-mother-yet is not the same as the state of never-being-a-mother.
3. Don’t say “you can have mine if you want” – you don’t mean it. You know you don’t.
4. REALLY don’t say “Well, your books are kind of your children, aren’t they?”
5. and if they’re a lesbian couple, don’t suggest the partner tries to get pregnant. Well of course that’s been thought of and tried and no doubt (as in our case) also ‘failed’. All you’re doing is reminding them of the double loss.
Basically, do what you’d do with any other person grieving. Don’t offer solutions (because that never helps), don’t offer comparisons (grief is of the ego, of attachment, comparison is pointless), just say ‘there there’. It’s all any of us want to hear in the white-heat of hurting. Comparison and other possibilities for life come later. For now, let them grieve.
Grief is awful. It often makes us self-centred, certain our pain is the only pain, unaware that we are not the only one, unaware that others are suffering or in difficulty in their own lives. That’s how it is. That’s why we turn grief into narrative, make story of what has happened to us, tell out our dramas of loss and sorrow time and again to anyone who’ll listen so we can finally find a way to package that pain and make it bearable.
Any grief does this and the pain of childlessness is no less a grief than many others and has its particular problems in a patriarchal society that really hasn’t moved that far from a time when a woman was valued primarily for her ability to breed sons. A society that reminds us, day in, day out, that we are different, not quite part of the rest, when we are childless. Be kind about that, generous, and wait for the time when your friend/lover/sister/brother (oh yes, it certainly does affect men too) has moved on from the intensity of grief to it being a dull ache. Most of us wake up from grief eventually, no matter who or what we’ve lost. When we do it’s good to have some loved ones with us to share what is, having mourned what’s not.
And yes, of course it’s easier for me to write this, 9 years later – I’ve also had lots of grief-practice, with the deaths of sister, mother, father, nephew, and all-but-one uncles and aunts. Having practice in grief is not a very happy badge to wear, but it certainly helps me to know that it has its phases and will change eventually.
My wife Shelley Silas wrote a great piece, in 2002 when her play Falling was on, about the not-baby thing. Things have moved on for us since then, but the core of what she said still stands :
“I was fed up with putting the rest of my life, our life on hold. Being hopeful one day then desperately sad the next was too much to bear. My whole focus had been on something I didn’t have. I wanted to focus on all the things I did have.”
ps – yes of course this is all first-world-problem stuff, sort of (because we know infertility affects people in poverty far more directly and painfully). Yes. See SOS link above.