An unfortunate rite of passage with an okay ending.

Infertility has been an unfortunate rite of passage. It’s something I didn’t know I’d have to go through, unlike other rites of passage, and until I did, there’s a lot I didn’t know or realize about life in general. Funny how specific life circumstances can teach us so much about just… life.

Fertility or the lack thereof is the grown-up version of ‘haves and have nots’. And just like when a boy teased me in fifth grade about having ‘Walmart brand’ shoes, it’s obvious now that I don’t have the latest and greatest, if that’s what our (excessively) child-reverent culture considers as the latest and greatest these days.

Life has taken an unexpected turn. I a year ago I signed a contract for a new job that involves me working at an elementary school. With kids. Young kids. Kids who could be my kids age-wise. I was originally hired as a middle school Spanish teacher, but an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) position opened up and so I was asked to move to that role. Of course I jumped on it since ESOL is my jam. My thing. The catch? I’d be working with grades K through 5.

The peace I have as I walked through my building, and even as I passed pregnant staff in all stages, can only come from God as I’ve walked through the grief and healing process. A year ago, even six months ago, I don’t know if I could go to work and come home still in a great mood, not even thinking about how I’d be sending my kids off to school, too, at some point.

I’m thankful. I’m fortunate. There are other people I’ve known of who have to quit their teaching jobs because it’s just too heartwrenching to be around children. But teaching is my heart. I’ve been doing it since I was 14, before I even knew I wanted to be a teacher, before deciding on a college major, before meeting who I thought would be the father of my kids. Before infertility. Teaching has been a constant, and I treasure the teacher-student relationship.

I had a fantastic year. I grew to love all 20 of the students on my caseload, and many many others from my students’ classrooms. I bid them goodbye on Tuesday afternoon, their little arms and hands hanging out of the bus windows, waving. “I love you! Have a good summer! Make good choices!” were my phrases of choice.

And teaching for me still comes back around to an old cliche, well known among those of us who ‘don’t go into teaching for the money’ that ‘if I impact just one life, it was all worth it.’ And that, my friends, is the truth, and you don’t have to be a parent to accomplish that.

On carnations and Sunday litany

Yesterday as I walked out of the sanctuary, it was the first Mother’s Day in years that I really felt like the sanctuary, was, well, a sanctuary. I’ve been pondering the litany we read together as a congregation, one that my pastor modified as he went in order to be more inclusive. It went something like this:

Leader: Mothers come in many different forms, and today we celebrate them all!
All: Thank God for mothers!

Leader: Everyone here is either a son or a daughter.
All: Thank God for my mother!

Leader: For those women who have joined God in Heaven and whom we miss dearly here on earth.
All: Thank God for the mothers of the past.

Leader: For every woman who is working day and night to raise her children right now.
All: Thank God for the mothers of today.

Leader: For all the women who are expecting, but aren’t quite mothers yet!
All: Thank God for the soon-to-be-mothers.

Leader: For the women who took in their own others’ children through adoption and foster care.
All: Thank God for the mothers with hearts so big.

Leader: For those women who have lost a child to death and must carry on.
All: Thank God for the mothers who are so strong.

Leader: For all the women who have desperately wanted to have children of their own, but chose instead to mother everyone else.
All: Thank God for the mothers in spirit.

All: We thank you, Lord, for the women who have influenced our lives in so many ways. We pray that we will honor them in everything we do. Amen.

Before the service, I was greeted with a carnation outstretched and a “Happy Mother’s Day”. This act makes me feel very uncomfortable. In the years since I’ve struggled with infertility, instead of just smiling, nodding, and taking the flower, I politely refuse and say, “I’m not a mother.” I imagine the person doing the greeting also feels uncomfortable. However, I’m at a point now where I’m okay with stirring the pot, making others aware of the grief that mothers-who-wish-they-could-have-been feel on a daily basis, and especially around a ‘holiday’ like Mother’s Day.

When I politely declined and said, “I’m not a mother” the immediate response was, “Well, but, you have a mother.” Yes, that’s true, but that does not replace the fact that we are unable to have our own children for unexplained reason(s) and that I (we) am (are) still actively grieving this fact and substantial change in my expected way of life.

Another assumption I take issue with is that if a woman on Mother’s Day is not a biological, foster, or adoptive mother, she surely has some hand in ‘raising’ the next generation. I personally do fall into this category of – I teach elementary school and volunteer with both elementary aged kids after school and older kids on Sundays.

But the assumption overall proves itself false. Take my middle sister, for example, who is staunchly childfree – always has been, always will be. She takes no interest in fostering (for lack of better words) her ‘maternal instinct’. I haven’t studied enough biology or anthropology to know if this is an actual trait that all women possess, but I know that there are millions more women like my sister who do not claim to have a ‘maternal instinct.’ Therefore, there’s a huge problem with blanketing an entire sex with a place in Mother’s Day sentiments.

I don’t want Mother’s Day to be abolished. I don’t want people to stop celebrating their motherhood on my behalf. I take part in celebrating my mother and the other women who have helped mother me throughout my life. I just want two simple things: an awareness of those who would love to be counted as a mother but cannot or don’t want to be, and a choice in the manner of celebration – an accepted choice to decline if I so wish.

A suggestion for a venue such as church would be to have a large vase with carnations placed in the entryway to the sanctuary with a direction to take one if she so chooses, rather than nearly forcing or attempting to rationalize the woman in question to partake in a tradition that makes her feel very uncomfortable. If I’m being vocal about not accepting a gift as beautiful as a flower, there’s probably a very good reason.

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A bigger promise

I have failed miserably at writing here every day. But I do that some thoughts that have emanated from my daily devotional on the YouVersion Bible App.

The current plan I’m going through now with a friend is all about devotions that speak to real-life. Really, that’s what I look for in any devotion. But one day so far struck me in particular.

Waiting is a tough thing. It can try the most patient person, and the type of waiting can really make that period of time hard to bear.  In the midst of it, we have to remember God’s faithfulness to fulfill his promises.

This is a noble thing – and we should take hold of it, remembering God’s promises. But the way it was presented in the devotional text was not pleasant. It discusses different life events that can cause us to wait or question God’s promises, including infertility:  “When there’s no pitter-patter of little feet, remember Genesis 30:22: ‘Then God remembered Rachel; he listening to her and enabled her to conceive.'”

This sounds like a nice thought in theory, but I think it’s where much of the ‘Christian narrative’ says that if you just pray enough, or wait enough, or remember the promises enough, God will give you what you desire. That the happy ending is coming. And I’m sorry to say this in case someone hasn’t heard it yet, but sometimes it’s just not going to happen.

I can’t tell you how strong my desire was (is…?) to have our own biological children. It was (is…? still working this out) immense. Overwhelming, all-consuming. Even as recent as a few weeks ago, I would be bee-bopping along in my actually really great life, then all of a sudden see a little girl with dark brown curls marching down the hall with her adorably too-big backpack and BAM. I was hit with that desire and emptiness that is sometimes so strong it could knock me to my feet in tears. I wish I were being dramatic.

So, considering our infertility, according to this idea in the devotional, did we not pray enough? Wait long enough? We have to look at this promise of God in context, as it’s specific to one woman, one situation in all the history of infertility.

The attitudes and apparent words of reassurance around the subject of infertility need to change, not just in the world, but especially in the church. There are probably millions of hurting women that instead of finding understanding and solace in the church when they confide their fears or feelings about their infertility are met with these one-off quotations of Scripture that really do nothing but cause more pain, at least for me.

We need a bigger promise. More than just God will enable us to conceive, because as I’m a first-hand witness to, sometimes it doesn’t happen (and maybe there is not some mysterious reason.. it could just be), and I firmly believe that our failure to procreate has nothing to do with our level of faith.

My promises from God have to be bigger to encompass and devour my fears, my emptiness, my sorrow over children lost, however intangible those children may be. My promises from God have to ensure that He holds me, He knows me, He loves me and has important and impactful work for me to do that does not involve being a biological mother or spreading my ‘maternal instinct.’

I will quote another part of the devotional that I found to be the most comforting: “When hope is scarce, remember Luke 24:6-7: ‘He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you,… ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.'” That is the bigger promise. That is the promise.

Lenten Journey: Day 1, Heal

Image result for lenten photo a day 2017 rethink

Last year for Lent I wrote a little bit everyday about a given topic and related it to my walk with Christ. Instead of spending time on social media, I spent time writing, praying, and reflecting. I will take time this year as well to write about a topic a day. I found the practice to be healing and introspective. Over the next few weeks, I hope to stay true to the spirit of freewriting by not editing or revising much.

MARCH 1: HEAL

Twenty sixteen was a year of grief. I hope 2017 will be a year of healing.

What grief do I need healing from? First of all, the grief of the intangible: infertility. I’m still wrestling with the reality that infertility unfortunately brings upon its sufferers. And I don’t think suffer is too strong of a word. Second of all, I need healing for the loss of loved ones – most recently my grandmother, almost a year ago now. Her death was sudden and heartbreaking, and I went through many weeks of reading and pondering all I could about grief, death, what our bodies actually go through when they die, and the hope we have in an afterlife.

A good portion of my healing so far has occurred through a practice of introspection and disconnection from things that bring me, well, grief. To put it plainly, I’ve deleted my Facebook once and for all. I’ve taken many steps back from social media in order to quit the comparison game. I’ve given myself permission to take back my time and head space. It’s been quite revolutionary.

Another portion of my healing, surprisingly, has been working with children. Exposure therapy, if you will. In August I was hired to teach elementary ESOL. I had never taught elementary in my life. I’d been an paraprofessional in first grade, but really had no idea about the #elementarylife. Funny enough, my office is situated in the hallway with the youngest children in our school – pre-K and preschool. Some days this has been rough, to see their adorable selves carrying their huge backpacks, thinking about if we had had a child when we started trying, he or she would be getting to that age. However, overall it’s been a wonderful experience. I never lack hugs or smiles…. but maybe I lack patience at times. 😉

And finally a third portion of my healing has been my yoga practice. I never thought I’d become a ‘yogini’, but I found a local yoga studio that’s just fantastic. I’ve been going about 3 times per week for about a month. The strength I’ve built is surprising… I keep joking that one day I’ll be able to do a legit pushup. Seriously, I’ve begun to love my body again instead of feeling so betrayed.

Running is always a part of healing for me… it’s also a part of celebration, of determination, of courage. It keeps me centered and gives me time to meditate and pray and appreciate the world around me. And for all these things I’m grateful.

Finding our voices

Every time I get the inspiration or urge to write, something stops me. It’s almost like a paralysis, but it’s completely intangible. I imagine it’s a bit like being under anesthesia, able to feel but unable to speak. Actually, that’s exactly what it is.

Two years of hopefulness followed by hopelessness ad nauseum can really render someone speechless. Screaming on the inside but unable to formulate shapes with the mouth and vibrations with the vocal chords.

There’s so much to say and nothing at all. Some days I feel like an old woman, content to sit in the silence, meditating or pondering the rays of light that come through the window. I move slow, think slower, and hours can go by with nothing more than a few sentences loosely parsed together.

I’m trying to find my place in the world. I feel like part of my soul is missing some of the time. At almost 31, I’m established in my career but not necessarily because this was my goal. I fell into career success. Great, right? Kind of.

Nevertheless, every day in my care are 20 children, ages 5 to 10, all learning English and finding their place in the world, too. They’ve been my focus of whatever maternal instinct has survived this descent. I cherish their smiles and hugs, and their insightful and goofy anecdotes about life. I help them write, putting the words on the page. And in helping them find their voices, I’m finding mine too.

 

What not to say to someone struggling with infertility.

It’s Infertility Awareness Week, April 24-30. Judging by the uncomfortable interaction I had last night at, of all places, a church softball game, cyberspace could use a little awareness.

For those of you who read my initial ‘coming out’ post in October, you’d know that by now, April 2016, we’ve been trying to conceive for two years. Not two weeks. Not two months. Two years. It’s been a hell of a ride, and I mean that literally.

About a year ago I started looking into getting testing done to see what was going on. Long story short, we’re ‘fine,’ which translates into a diagnosis called ‘unexplained infertility.’ The truth is that there is still so much more doctors and researchers have yet to discover about the process of conceiving that there aren’t even tests for a lot of possible conditions.

We did two rounds of fertility treatment and suffice it to say, they didn’t work. The resulting imbalance of hormones sent me into a depressive tailspin, and finally I’m coming out of the fog of the past two years of alternating hopefulness and hopelessness.

Many of you know that I’ve dealt with depression and anxiety in the past. About ten years ago I finally went to see a counselor and I was on medication and received counseling for a couple years. I was able to quit therapy and haven’t been back on it since. Not during a deployment, not during any number of military separations, not even after my grandparents died. I found other ways to cope, and came out of those incidents stronger than before.

Despite all other hardships, infertility has been the most difficult, heartwrenching hardship I’ve gone through. Because of the risk to my mental health, which I’ve worked so hard to preserve and maintain over the past ten years, and also because of the cost (our insurance doesn’t cover infertility), we decided to not move forward with more treatment or testing.

I’ve come to terms with this decision, and we know it’s the best thing for us. As soon as an outside force starts to mess with the happiness of my marriage and/or my mental health, it has to go.  It’s a decision that we are comfortable with, and we don’t feel a need to seek out input from more doctors, or endure more invasive testing and treatment.

Now, back to the uncomfortable conversation last night. Might I encourage people to ‘think before they speak,’ especially about something so personal as fertility and the decision to have (or not to have) children. Below are things that are not helpful to say to someone struggling with infertilityespecially if you’ve only known them for five minutes.

“I’ve heard that people can get pregnant if they just stop stressing about it.”

Would you say something like this to someone going through cancer treatment? That if they stop stressing, the cancer will go away? Even pneumonia or, as silly as it sounds, a sinus infection? Infertility is categorized as a disease and requires its own specific diagnostic and treatment procedures, just as any other disease or illness does. The ‘problem’ with us may not even have a name yet.

“Well, maybe it’ll just happen someday! You never know. Maybe years down the line.”

Female fertility starts declining beginning at age 30. Even so, for a couple trying for two years, the chance per cycle of becoming pregnant is a mere 4%. So I highly doubt it will happen years down the line naturally. Because science. And biology. Also, we are not open to becoming first-time parents later in life.

“Maybe it wasn’t meant to be. Maybe you’re supposed to just be a big part of other kids’ lives.”

We are already a big part of other kids’ lives. Whether it was ‘meant to be’ or not is between God and myself.

“My [insert female relation here] says she never wants kids of her own, but she might adopt someday.”

Last I checked, if a couple adopts, those children become theirs. Adoption is an expensive, drawn out process with a heartwrenching wait of its own. I’m not exactly hankering to put myself through that right now when I’m grieving and healing from two years of disappointment.

Please think before you ask a man or woman about his or her (in)fertility. Please think before you ask about someone’s intentions to have children at all, and refrain from giving unsolicited advice. It is a very personal matter, and one that requires more education.

And if you find yourself asking, just listen. Provide a shoulder to cry on, an attentive ear, a nonjudgmental glance.

(This post is also very helpful for more information.)