The Invisible Infertility
Is the infertility of a single woman less sympathetic?
Posted Aug 14, 2011
Dinner started off simple enough, three friends in their mid-thirties catching up on each other's lives. One was a married mom of two kids. One was a newly married woman, pregnant with her first. And one was a single woman about to lose another unfertilized egg hours later. I was the latter.
The conversation turned to maternity, the two who had the common experience of pregnancy shared stories about the challenges of a burgeoning bump. Then they went through the list of mutual friends expecting a first, second, or third. And finally they talked about one of the friend's younger sisters, recently married and having trouble conceiving. Understandably, the conversation got solemn, and I got quiet, as they shared thoughts on the grieving of the young couple. The topic went on past the appetizers well into half a bowl of pasta...and I lost it.
"Stop talking about babies!" I shouted in a very uncharacteristic way. A passing waiter stumbled with his tray and my friends awkwardly changed the subject, but not before looking at me like I was inappropriate.
Later that night, the mom of two called me out on my outburst. "I've never heard you like that," she softly scolded. "I'm sorry," I said, "but I just couldn't take it anymore. We had been talking about motherhood and pregnancy and infertility the entire time out. Don't you know I want to be a mother too? It's like my inability to have a child is invisible to you."
"It's different for you," she immediately responded. "You're not even married!" "Exactly," I replied. "I'm thirty-six years old and not even married. I am years behind your younger sister who at least gets to try to have children. I get to try to go on a date." And then, as if on dramatic cue, I went to the ladies room to dry my inner tears and noticed I had lost that egg.
Last month I published an article on Huffington Post called The Truth About Childless Women and it hit a nerve. It went viral, shared over eleven thousand times on Facebook alone. In it I talked about the grief of childless women who suffer from what I call "circumstantial infertility," the inability to have children because one doesn't have a partner with whom to conceive. Of women ages 40-44, for example, 19 percent are childless - almost one in five American women in that age bracket. Pew Research reports that among that group, about half have chosen not to be mothers. The other half suffer from infertility, and not all biological.
"How DARE you?" opined the commenter on the "Truth" post. The twenty-something told me that the grief of a married biologically infertile couple was deeper than mine and I was wrong to compare the grief or to call it 'infertility.' They suffered, the commenter inferred, from real infertility. Well commenters are allowed their opinions but when I noticed it was written by a young man, I was taken aback. There is no doubt that men suffer the grief of infertility, too. I do sympathize. And while there are many women who are childfree by choice, a very valid choice, many women have a biological urge to conceive a child and to be pregnant. It's how we are built. And every month, there's a physical reminder that we have failed to be who we believed we were born to be - mothers. (There is little coincidence to the fact that with menstruation, there is physical pain and blood, often associated with death.)
Stephanie Baffone, LPCMH, NCC, grief counselor and married woman who suffers from biological infertility, writes in an article on SavvyAuntie.com that what women like me go through is called 'disenfranchised grief' or a grief that isn't recognized by society with legitimacy. For women like me, we not only grieve the loss of motherhood, but we also grieve the loss of the dream, the dream of finding love and marriage resulting in that beautiful baby carriage. And not only do we grieve childlessness alone, with no partner to console us or share the grief, but society as a whole won't let us grieve, as if we've brought it on ourselves by being unwilling to settle in love. As Baffone articulates so beautifully in her article, "has compassion for victims of infertility become the proverbial carrot on a stick, reserved exclusively for those considered by the masses to have legitimately, 'tried hard enough?'"
I awoke to an email a couple of days after "The Truth" had been circulating from a woman I do not know (who does not know me) who chided me for not adopting. "If you were really maternal, you would adopt a kid," she scolded. Followed by "If you want to remain the "auntie', the godmother, etc... then you're not really mother-material."
I honor single mothers and want-to-be-mothers who have invested time and money in adopting or conceiving a child alone. I am comfortable in my choice to not be a single mother, or even try to be a single mother. The grief I've seen and heard of women who tried to conceive through IVF and couldn't or the ones who adopted only to have the biological father take the child back, well frankly those are not losses I want to grieve alone. And those are just a couple of reasons. What one can trust is that I've considered the options. For me, finding love is my only honest choice.
Thankfully, my friend's sister and brother-in-law went on to have beautiful twins, a boy and a girl. My friend went on to have her third. And six years later, I'm still looking for love.
I write this on the eve of what would have been my own mother's 75th birthday. Upon returning to college after the Shiva period some 22 years ago, a classmate expressed his sympathy having known my mother since childhood. "The semester is almost over," he said. "Why don't you just take the rest of it off to grieve?" Without flinching I replied, "My mother died, I didn't."
I move on; I celebrate my maternal instincts with my nephew and nieces and all the children who come my way. I allow myself now and again the time to grieve. But then life, the life my mother gave me, goes on.