Early in this blog, I wrote a post titled What's Worse--Infertile or Insensitive?
From it: "At a writers' luncheon I was seated at a table with six other women. We were somewhere between the salad and the main course, I think, when the conversation turned to motherhood. One of the women-she looked about 30-said she and her husband had been trying to get pregnant for more than four years. That she'd just come from the reproductive endocrinologist-the fertility doctor. Then she bit back tears.
There was a collective gasp. Not because she was crying but because, according to some dining companions, she was taking herself a bit too seriously."
Comments ran the gamut from why did she bring up such a personal subject to compassionate words are always appropriate.
I wanted to revisit the subject so asked Kelly James-Enger, co-author (with Jill S. Browning) of the book, The Belated Baby—A Guide to Parenting After Infertility, to share her thoughts. She's experienced infertility, and has grown her family through adoption.
I wondered why it seems that other people have an opinion on a woman's fertility. I said that on one level it seemed like poor boundaries (and manners). But as I thought more deeply I kept coming up with the notion of a cultural pull (or push) for everyone to be the same, because if one differs, it must mean that we are not all the same. This shakes up all the expectations we've built our life around.
"I think whether we realize it or not, we have "expectations" of what women do and are. And usually that expectation is that a woman will become a mother at some point, by getting pregnant/giving birth," she said. "When you break that mold--whether you can't get pregnant or you adopt or even if you actively choose not to have children--that is going against the "norm" and many people feel they have to comment on it as a result.
"I certainly always knew I wanted children and just figured I'd have the 'normal' way, although I had always wanted to adopt, too. It wasn't until we got deep into infertility treatment that I realized, "shit, this actually isn't going to happen for me the way I expected. And that was a major and awful realization."
Here's the rest of my interview with Kelly:
Meredith: How can women learn to let go, to not take comments so incredibly personal?
Kelly: I think the first thing to realize is that most people are clueless about infertility, unless they're experienced it themselves. Then they're more empathetic/less likely to make moronic comments or ask moronic questions. Keeping in mind the clueless factor is the first step. The second is to realize that you're not your body (and its ability or inability to do something like create a child that most people take for granted). You're bigger than that. And third, I think if you're feeling overwhelmed by comments, you can just tell people (those close to you anyway) that you're a "fertility-free zone" and you no longer wish to hear comments or questions or anything else about the subject. "If we have news, we will tell you" is a good line.
Meredith: You talk about quick comebacks when people say nosy or not-nice things about infertility. I wonder sometimes if just being quiet and letting the other person hear what she said might also be effective. What do you think?
Kelly: My reaction depends on who's asking and why. When my sister-in-law actually asked me, "so, whose fault is it?" (i.e. our infertility), I knew she wasn't being thoughtless--she was just curious. With anyone else I would have said, "wow, only our doctor knows that" or "I don't think I know you well enough to get into our medical history." With Raechell, I knew her, and I knew she cared about us and was truly interested. I also knew that they were trying to have a baby too and that she was worried about whether they would be able to. I just said, "apparently both of ours," (which was true--we were "unexplained") and I didn't take it personally at all.
Meredith: Having dealt with the topics in the book on a personal level, and now, having distance, what turned out to be most important to you. What did you think was so very important, but didn't matter in the least? Why?
Kelly: Wow, that's a tough question. Really for me the most important thing for me was being a mom. Even in the midst of infertility treatment, adoption was on my radar. Having the chance to be "Mommy" to two amazing kids—who look nothing alike but act just alike!—has been the most challenging and most rewarding role of my life. I don't know that there was anything I thought was important but that didn't matter. I will say that I originally wasn't thinking of having "open" adoptions--I just didn't know that much about it.
Once we learned more, we knew we wanted open adoptions and to know our child's birth parents...I love my children's birth parents—not just because they made me a mom, but because of the people they are and are growing to be. That's a pretty amazing feeling to have as a parent.
Meredith: How about male infertility? Any special thoughts about coping with this in the relationship?
Kelly: I think that's probably more stressful in some ways because men are less likely to talk/seek help for it. I think if you're dealing with this, you really have to let your husband/partner have some "room" and realize he's probably not going to handle it the same way you would. In other words, give him plenty of space and let him know you're there when he's ready to talk, but don't push him. As my husband says, "I move, but I move slow." I think that's true of a lot of men.
Kelly James-Enger is an author, ghostwriter, and speaker, and a mom through two open adoptions to a son and daughter, and lives with her husband, children and maniac golden retriever west of Chicago. Visit her website to learn more.