A woman recently wrote that despite being pregnant now, she would always identify as an infertile. With a sudden rush of emotion and memories, I identified with her, like we were kindred spirits. Since then, though, I have wondered 1) if I truly feel that way and 2) whether that's a good thing or a bad thing.
I understood what the woman meant; the memories that don't go away, the sadness of missed opportunities, the loss of romance and innocence about man + woman having babies naturally, out of love for each other. As soon as I hear another woman talking about her infertility, I can empathize from direct experience. As a fertility coach, though, I cannot bring my own story into a session with a client. What I felt then, and what worked for me, may not pertain to her situation. Though my clients feel reassured to have a coach who has experienced what they are going through, their sessions are not about me; it has to be 100% about her/them.
The second question: Is identifying as an infertile, once you're pregnant or have had a child, a positive or a negative? If you make a choice to act or behave in a certain way that is opposite from what you say you want to be or do, why are you living this contradiction? In other words, you have desperately wanted to join the pregnant girls, planning a nursery, names, clothes and toys, but once you get there you don't leave the past behind.
My own coach, Sarah, used to ask me all the time "What are you getting out of seeing or doing things this way?" about my negative ideas. I answered "nothing" or "I don't know," thinking this must be a trick question, because I'm not getting anything I want from acting in a self-destructive way. She patiently waited for me to figure it out, and eventually I learned that there is always a belief or motive behind your behaviour. For example:
- A woman steps on the scale and sees that she has gained 5 unwanted pounds. Immediately afterward, she accepts an invitation to meet a friend for cake and coffee at their favourite cafe. She may say she wants to lose weight, but her actions say something else. Her belief may be that she will always be fat, so why bother trying? She may use food to self-medicate; sugar and coffee are stimulants. Or, it could be for comfort, camaraderie, fear of the results of weight-loss success or rebellion; or
- A woman's husband never compliments her appearance. Still, she always asks him "how do I look?" Why does she ask? Does she really want his opinion? She may be copying her mother's exhanges with her father. She may just want her husband's attention, even if it's negative. Perhaps it confirms her own low self-esteem. Either that, or she's insanely hoping he will break his pattern and say she looks great???
So, how would a pregnant woman or a mother benefit from strongly identifying as, and calling herself, an infertile?
- Solidarity - having been through her infertility with a group of other women, she may worry that she will be shut out now.
- Reassurance - after years of chasing a dream that is about to become a reality, she may suddenly fear actually getting what she has prayed for.
- Seniority - She has been through it all and come out the other side, giving her some status and a position, as mother, to envy or for inspiration.
- Expert or Role Model status - She is now in a position to give advice to others and get appreciation in return.
- One upmanship - Just like the new moms at a coffee date who trade stories about how bad their labour and deliveries were, this mom has a "story" that grabs attention and marks her as one who has overcome mountainous obstacles.
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What might be the down side to a woman permanently labelling and identifying herself as infertile?
- A topic of conversation - If you are known to dine out on your infertility story as conversation, you have to also be prepared for someone else bringing it up.
- Emotional dead end - You may be masking your true feelings about your infertility, so never really achieving closure or moving on.
- Set yourself apart - The same emotions that you had toward pregnant women while you were trying to conceive, could get in the way of you bonding with other new moms who had an easier time of it.
- Lack of pleasure in your pregnancy - You may actually be dampening down the pleasure that you could have in your pregnancy because you don't want to be seen as different, boastful, celebratory or insensitive to your infertile friends.
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Do you lean one way or the other? It is an emotionally confusing reflection. Suddenly you're pregnant. Everyone, fertile or not, is genuinely happy for you, rushing forward with congratulations. Some of the infertiles may privately cry "Why not me?" On the other hand, you may look at your fertile friends and think "where was she when I needed her?" One way to decide how to handle it is to ask yourself:
- How can I share the joy of pregnancy and motherhood with my infertile friends, knowing how they still hurt?
- Where is the right balance? Should I try to contain my feelings and keep quiet about the experiences I now have?
- Can I admit to myself, at least, that it's easier to smile at the other pregnant women in your ob/gynae's waiting room, as if we share a secret?
- Can I admit now that I don't agree with the infertile friend who insists that we embrace the ugly term "barren" (or other view)?
- Are my friendships within the infertile community strong enough to withstand my changed circumstances?
- Can I be authentic when I join in the Tweets and blog posts, slamming someone's ex-friend who glowed too brightly, invited them to a baby shower, sent out a birth announcement or looked too cosy and happy on their Christmas photograph/card?
- Q: Why does it have to be one or the other? A: It doesn't, but it's not easy.
If you want to identify as infertile; do it. Just make sure you iknow why. Is it guilt; some idea that by achieving what you all want, you have betrayed the IF sisterhood? Shake it off. Guilt helps no one and will just sit between you like a boulder. Is it left-over anger that it was so difficult for you and so easy for others? Anger puts that boulder inside your chest and diminishes your ability to feel joy. If you can't let it go, I can help you with that. Don't leave it too long.
If you want to leave the infertility label behind so you can focus on your child and move forward; do it. It doesn't mean you have to leave your infertile friends behind, but putting out some compassion and humour may be enough to overcome any fears or assumptions on their part. Put your energy into supporting them, while being up-front about your new life. Let them know that the effort they are putting into the pursuit of motherhood is worthwhile. Be real. Offer a shoulder when they cry and hope when they are tired.
If you are self-aware and sensitive to other people's feelings, you don't need to stand solely in one camp or the other. The truth is that once you are on the upswing, it's difficult to walk on eggshells. It takes a lot of effort to be joyful and inspirational on the one hand, and super-ultra-sensitive on the other. However, it's worthwhile to maintain your friendships and the closeness you felt when you were both in the same boat and have trusted friends to confide in.
The kick in the pants is being big enough to forgive some of the women you hated while infertile, now that you know that awkwardness is the least of it. It's not black and white, is it? If they just committed the crime of having a pregnant belly, shopping for baby clothes or pushing a stroller, repay them with some good karma. If they made a mistake out of not knowing how to treat you before, you might let them off the hook. If they were extremely insensitive, teaching them to empathize with someone else is a service to the community! Outright bitchiness, however, deserves a well-placed comment, or even better, shunning by both the infertile and the fertile. See? I told you that you didn't have to belong exclusively to either camp.
P.S. After wading through the questions above, I can tell you this about myself: Now that I am removed by the passage of time and I have my two children, I have all the memories, but fewer emotions about my infertility. I identify with the women and men in the IF community, rather than identifying myself as an infertile person. That's how I am able to be an effective fertility coach, a friend and a fully-present mother.