BONUS POST: Narratives we tell ourselves

One of the most important things we are able to do as humans that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is reflect. We can look into the past and remember in order to make the present or future different. It’s how we learn about ourselves and the world around us.

These days, it’s all too easy to look back; in fact, there are apps like Timehop and Google Photos that do this for us. However, the narratives that are told again are not necessarily the important ones, the ones that inform our thinking. Often when I get a notification from Google Photos to “look back at this day,” it’s random pictures I took of my homemade dinner. Or a cute picture of the dog. Or a beautiful sunrise. But these aren’t the most important things we need to remember, to reflect on.

Oh man, was it that much better then? | We were left alone, we were proud of our pain

Fleet Foxes, “A Long Way Past the Past”

I’ve kept journals off and on since I was about 7. Unfortunately, the ones I still have in my possession that have somehow made it through two cross-country moves don’t begin until when I was in junior high. I came across my journal from when Aaron and I were dating and trying to decide when to get married, about fifteen years ago. We were young and it was a busy time. A confusing time. I literally felt like my whole life banked on a decision about something like whether to major in Spanish, or whether we got married in December or in June.

At that time in my life, I let myself receive narratives from others, and my own narrative was buried. However, at the time, I didn’t realize that my own desires and needs were nearly indiscernible. I told myself that because I was so young and inexperienced, I should rely on older adults to make decisions for me. So I took people’s suggestions and prayers and ideas and wove them into my own tapestry so I didn’t know where theirs began and mine ended, and in the end, I gave them credit for my life decisions. It was a relinquishing of precious autonomy and agency that I’m just now wielding back into my possession all these years later.

One the narratives I have told myself since going through infertility is that “I really wanted to be a mom my whole life. That’s all I wanted – to be a wife and mother.”

It’s not true. I’ve realized while fumbling through my memory that this narrative isn’t true. Not 100 percent. I think when infertility was fresh and raw, this was a comforting thing that I told myself. It helped me feel close to the only community that I had access to at the time: the infertility community, where people go to great lengths (and into great debt) to have a child.

However, as I was thumbing through an old journal, not sure what I was looking for but hoping to find something poignant to cling to, I found:

I definitely could be happy being just a mother and a housewife, but I feel like there’s this other part of me wanting to be unleashed to go fight in the world.

2006

For some context, I was in the middle of my undergrad studies, Aaron and I had basically decided we were “it” for each other, and I was really struggling with my decision to pursue teaching Spanish over teaching math. This was also before all parts of people’s private lives and thoughts were made public, so I had no audience for my writing, outside of the things I would post on my Xanga (take that one to Google!). There were some years when I didn’t journal, no doubt because of the shitstorm of honesty it would have released. But that’s a topic for another time.

At that time in my life, getting pregnant was not something I wanted: “Pregnancy would be the least logical thing to do… to amount to.” I think that maybe I had been influenced by my mom who wanted me to graduate college before getting married and having babies. It’s something she didn’t do, so when we were all 10 and under and finally in school, she decided to go to college full-time. And the hits “Get Married After College” and “You Don’t Need a Man” was the song she sang all throughout my formative years.

Even when Aaron and I got married two years from the date on that journal entry, I remember pushing off all the people at church and elsewhere who were clamoring to know when we’d start trying for a baby. We’d only just been married! Our answer was five years from getting married. And, kind of like clockwork, we started trying about six years into our marriage. We waited for a lot of circumstances to line up – no more deployments or long separations, stable jobs, having paid off a lot of debt, et cetera.

So now that I work through all of that, it’s possible that the narrative I told myself as a salve was partly true. But only partly.

I have to trust 20-year-old Elizabeth who was writing for no one but herself, to chronicle her life and feelings. And damn, did finding that journal entry bring some perspective and remind me of the logical, sane, conscientious person I can be who has a part of her that needs to “go fight in the world.”

Some years down the line, I will remember saying things like these to myself, sentiments that are far from one another on the spectrum, and realize that I met myself in the middle. Both narratives and perspectives have a place. Which begs the question, How do you know where the middle is if you don’t know where you’ve been?

Coming back into my body

Over the past seven years or so, I have been made acutely aware of my body. At first she seemed like a stranger to me, someone you pass in the night but can’t quite see past the darkness and shadows.

It’s quite ironic that I was so separated from my body because I am tall. I take up a lot of space, all 5’10” of me. I have big feet (size 10-10.5), relatively broad shoulders, a large bosom (though pretty proportional to the rest of me), and in general I have always been aware of the space I take up, but not necessarily been in sync and felt unity with my own body.

On being tall & taking up space

In conversations that date back to my years going through puberty, my aunt and I explored some of these feelings I had about my body. I felt I was too tall; she said I was beautiful. I thought my feet were too big; she said that if I didn’t have big enough feet, I would fall flat on my face. I guess this is probably true. But her messages about my body seemed to contradict the jokes I heard from other family members; namely, the ones about my shoes being pontoons and the cups of my bra drying above washer being soup bowls. Those comments were made in jest, for sure, and not meant to harm at all. But seeing as I am the only person in my immediate family who seems to carry the Scandinavian genes more than the others, it really made me super aware of the space I took up. And you can understand why during those years, I began to dissociate my self from my own body.

Recently I attended two consultations with plastic surgeons. I was interested in getting a breast reduction. I spent hours pouring over before and after pictures (I have never seen more boobs in my life….), comparing my breasts to headless women who kind of looked like me. I imagined the types of clothes I’d be able to wear, including cute lacey bras that resembled small ice cream cups rather than soup bowls. I imagined getting the surgery during a long break from work and healing up before a beach vacation, ready to take the ocean with my new & improved perky boobs.

Throughout this process of consultations, I had conversations with my insurance company about the surgery. I got a letter of medical necessity from the chiropractor. Even when the procedure may not have been covered by insurance, the money really wasn’t an issue either way. We could have saved and made it work, if I had really wanted it.

A switch flipped in me about such a radical surgery. On the surface, it seems relatively harmless and it seems people get plastic surgery all the time. However, in the few months I spent obsessed with this idea, I began to get attached to my boobs (emotionally…). I saw them in a different light. I began to mourn their loss and eventually decided against a breast reduction.

On being infertile

Nearly seven years ago now, we began trying to conceive. As we know from other posts on this blog, it didn’t work. And in that process, the dissociation I felt with my body that began in adolescence only grew more pronounced. I began to resent and even despise my body. It’s a very uncomfortable state to be in because you can’t really get away. Thankfully I didn’t choose to engage in self-destructive behaviors, though I can imagine for some people that that would seem like a way out from those feelings.

It took a lot of therapy and research, even surgery (to diagnose and remove endometriosis) to help me heal. It took a rewiring of my brain when my period would start, that instead of absolutely hating my bum uterus* and emotional pain it caused me for so long, month after month, I just accepted that this is my body right now. I’m still in the reproductive, “child-bearing” phase of my life, and it is possible that very soon I will enter what is known as perimenopause. I decided that I can’t just hate on myself for the next 10-15-20 years until my body stops bleeding every month. I have to accept myself, come back into myself, and act like I love myself.

*I was misdiagnosed – I do not have a septate uterus. It turns out that I had benign uterine polyps and stage 2 endometriosis, mostly occurring in the deep cul-de-sac. I had a D&C to remove the polyps and excision for the endo. 2.5 years on, I feel pretty good, though I suspect the polyps might be coming back.

On being a sexual being

They say that women lose some of their inhibition around sex in their 30’s. I’ve not read up on the reasons why, but from personal experience, I could say that the previous two experiences of being tall and being infertile have had something to do with it. Once you peel back the layers of why your body & soul are disconnected, it’s really hard to not keep going, keep discovering, staying curious about yourself.

My journey with my one and only body has also been spiritual, which necessitates an analysis of my previous spiritual experiences and an examination of the things I was taught about my body. If being tall, having big boobs, and being infertile made me feel shame and embarrassment about my body, then learning that my body, literally the existence of it, could be tempting for boys and men or inherently sinful certainly did nothing for my self-esteem.

What has done something, in fact a lot for my self-esteem is engaging in exercise, especially long-distance running and yoga. Concerning running, there’s nothing quite like completing a marathon and realizing that your own body took you that far. It’s impossible to not feel proud of yourself, to shed the self-consciousness about what you might look like running 20 miles on country roads during training.

Yoga has by far been the most transformative experience, and the most daring I must say. In some Christian circles I have been a part of, yoga has been looked down on and considered “giving the devil a foothold.” I will be honest, though: the conservative Christian rhetoric surrounding women’s bodies, pregnancy, and infertility did very little for me as far as healing was concerned. (I have written a lot about that here, here, and here.) So I decided to explore elsewhere.

Forgive my facetiousness, but as it turns out, I have not turned into a witch or a Satan worshipper. I have, however, developed a broader sense of spirituality that I needed at the time which also includes my sexuality.

In Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, Nadia Bolz-Weber talks about the need for a new approach to sexuality as Christians. She makes a clear distinction between purity and holiness (hey-o those are some buzzwords!) that helps validate my journey to uniting my own body and spirit:

Purity most often leads to pride or despair, not to holiness. Because holiness is about union with and purity is about separation from.

page 26

This brings me to the last practice or habit I’ve explored to help me come back into my body: reading. It’s been a way for me to round out my experiences of intense emotions, to inform my journey going forward. I have found that the topics of books I have read that have helped me realize a deeper connection to my own humanity include sex within the Christian world (Shameless: A Sexual Reformation), sexual health (Come as You Are), endometriosis (The Doctor Will See You Now), Jesus as a husband (The Book of Longings, post here), women’s health (In the Flo, Womancode), spiritual memoirs written by women (The Very Worst Missionary, Out of Sorts, Inspired, and Christian mysticism (The Universal Christ). While these topics might only seem marginally connected, the reflect the interconnectedness — union — of who we are as humans – complicated and complex in our sexuality and spirituality, in our body and our soul.

Books under the rug

The memories we have as children are grossly underestimated. The experiences, people, sayings, jokes, smells, foods, books… it’s really amazing that all of this fits so well as it’s swept under a rug. Until it doesn’t fit, and one by one each memory or book or food grows legs and crawls out, peeking its head out to see if we notice it.

And once you notice it, you can’t not notice it. And then you have to decide what to do with it. Ignore it? Try to shove it back under the rug? Good luck with that, because all the other things under the rug have already spread out a bit more, just like you do when your spouse leaves you and the dog sleeping in the bed. It’s the nature of living things to spread out and take up more space when they can.

So then you have this thing to deal with. You can decide what to do with it. Deal with it immediately? Hold it and inspect it for cracks and lies? Set it on a shelf to collect dust? Whatever it is, your brain has a neural pathway for that, I promise.

My neural pathways have made detours and new paths with lots of gravel and potholes, but new inroads nonetheless.

Upon learning of my impending transition to teaching high school again, I judiciously curated my collection of items I’d acquired over the past four years of teaching elementary. This included a box of books that is now on the floor of my office closet. Many of those books were ones I purchase to have a copy for when I was working on students with the prescribed curricula – books about Biscuit and Little Bear and rocks and Willy Wonka.

Where this overlaps is that many of these books I had on the bookshelf in the nursery in my mind. Anyone who has been on the receiving end of my gifts for their children knows that I am a pusher of literacy. You will read, and you will like it. Or at the very least, know how to do it and use it to your advantage. In teaching elementary students, I found many books I added to the bookshelf in my head. One that was already there was Are You My Mother? by P. D. Eastman.

And thoughts and memories of this book are what catapulted me into an ugly cry at 6:05 AM after I’d been laying awake for at least an hour and a half. It was triggered by something as innocent as my husband telling the dog to “give your momma a kiss, no not me, I’m not your momma…”

Are You My Mother? is a children’s story about a baby bird that falls out of a tree and thus is separated from his mother. He spends the whole book walking around, trying to find out where his mother is. We can assume that he’s so young that he’s not yet imprinted on his bird mother and maybe this is a reason he’s having trouble figuring out that no, the dog is not his mother. And the boat was not his mother. And so on.

Some descriptions of this book call the baby bird’s wandering “hilarious,” but fuck me if this isn’t one of the saddest books out there. I never realized this sad perspective until the memory of the book came back to me. How sad for the mother and the baby bird to go through this event.

I could not tell you why this was one of my favorite books when I was young, and one of my favorites to introduce my students to (most of them were Spanish-speaking and I had the bilingual edition). I knew who my mother was, and I never questioned it. I was never separated from my mother like this baby bird was. I’m sure there’s more I could explore about being emotionally separated for a period of time.

I wanted to read this to my child. Over and over. To teach them the basic names of certain things, and to indirectly teach them how invert the subject and verb to make a yes/no question (linguist here). I wanted this book to get lots of handprints on the cover and maybe some crayon marks throughout. I wanted this book to have a wobbly name amateurly written inside the front cover.

So yet again in this journey that I 0/10 would not recommend to anyone I have found something else to mourn. For awhile I could hold off on it because I was sharing books with my young students, and sending books like this to nieces, nephews, and niblings. Most of the children in my life are getting older and ready for novels and fantasy stories and maybe poetry compilations. I have so many books to share and nowhere for them to go, except a box in my office closet. At least they’re not under the rug anymore.

Boundaries

I don’t normally write for this blog on my work laptop and I usually have my Sunday post done by now, but my personal laptop seems to be dead. At least for now. Quite a bummer, too, because I was working on a very cozy vibe for a mid-autumn Sunday morning – complete quiet, a drowsy and cloudy sunrise, French press coffee. A few years ago something like my laptop completely kicking the bucket would have really thrown me off, but here I am writing about it.

I think we can all agree that in this time of the pandemic, having boundaries is good and helpful. Obviously we have the concrete example of a face mask, a literal boundary that we wear every day. We have “social distancing” as another concrete physical boundary. I hope that people also are beginning to understand the importance of work/life boundaries.

Fortunately, I’m no stranger to this practice of creating and enforcing boundaries. Long before infertility, long before moving to the East Coast, tunneling through time to when Aaron and I were first married, I had to set a boundary with work and life. He had been laid off and was in the process of joining the military, active duty. I was in my first year of teaching – which many teachers say that no matter what, is like this year for everyone.

In February of that year, Aaron took his last paycheck at the job that laid him off, and he was set to leave for basic training in April. Only two months away. I knew that it would be at least ten weeks from the time he left for Missouri to the time I’d see him again, and who knows after that. So I created a boundary with work, that I would get what I needed to get done at work, and come home at a decent hour so we could take advantage of the time we had together.

My memories of my first year of teaching are becoming fuzzier as I make room for more memories of teaching high school, but I do remember that not everything got done every day. My to-do list was long and never-ending, but I had to draw a line in the sand and say, “Done. I’m done for the day.” Because spending time with my new husband was more important. Because enjoying time we had together before an enormous change in our life was important. I was fortunate to have to learn about boundaries so young.

As the years went on throughout our experience as a military family, many boundaries were created, especially with time. When he would come home for a visit, such as Christmas break during Advanced Individual Training (AIT) or on leave from his tour in Korea, I would drop everything so we could 100% focus on being together – just the two of us and also with family. Yes, work was important, but our time and health of our marriage was more so.

As it turns out, this practice with concrete situations has really served me well throughout our time of attempting to add to our family, failing in the “natural” way, making decisions about which treatments to pursue if any, and then finally deciding to live without children.

It has not been easy, and for most of it I’ve been afraid of pissing other people off or at the very least, making them uncomfortable. However, at some point when you are so desperate for some peace and quiet in your mind, you stop caring about what people think and you just do what you need to do to feel safe.

I had not really considered that avenue before, as growing up I was taught to just deal with the feelings, push through, get over it… whatever phrases there were circulating from parents to children born in the 1980’s or early 1990’s, I heard it. I was taught to make people feel welcome and comfortable. I think that’s a good thing to teach your children, but it crosses a line when that becomes a detriment to the emotional safety of the individual.

Over the last six and a half years, since we officially started “trying” (those of you in the “actively trying” camp, please revise the list of jargon…), I and my husband both have had to lay down some boundaries.

Consequently, they have come in quite handy over the past few weeks. I’ve written a lot about church and the pressure on anyone who is not married with children to become married with children, be it single people, young married people thinking about becoming parents, or older people who have been widowed (minus the children part). I have a lot to say about the culture of the church, but I will leave that there for now.

There are many activities at church that just aren’t comfortable or welcoming for us. They weren’t even as young married people who weren’t ready for children yet. Trunk or Treats… small groups that are demographically alike… certain children’s ministries… They are all difficult, we have had to put our foot down about it. Sometimes we give a reason, sometimes we don’t. Mostly whether we give a reason or not depends on the apparent willingness to empathize of the intended party.

It had been awhile since I waved my infertility flag at church, probably since a Mother’s Day where I wrote in to the person who works on the service order and request that a single carnation be placed on the altar in honor of all mothers who could not become mothers for whatever reason. But I was asked to help out with a virtual “children’s/family ministry moment” and I had to decline, and in addition I have many feelings about the use of the word “family” in church vernacular.

Immediately when in my head I decided “Nope, can’t do it” all the justifications were running through my mind… Things like: ,Don’t get me wrong, I like kids but… or I just don’t have time right now…

But I didn’t use those to justify saying no. Instead, after reviewing the situation and the person asking, I decided to be honest and speak my peace. Having not done that in awhile, I was nervous… and this was over email! So I told the person something to the effect of, “Thank you for inviting me, but after our struggle with infertility, some things involving children are difficult and I cannot participate.” And guess what, my faith in humanity rose even the slightest bit with receiving a very empathetic and caring response.

So that happened shortly before Halloween.

Then Halloween arrived, and we were ready with costumes we bought from Walmart and full size candy bars. Yes, friends, we want to be those neighbors. Just like the folks who lived on Washington Street in our hometown gave out full size candy bars.

I really anticipated that I would be okay. The first few Halloweens of our infertility journey found me grocery shopping – all the kids would be out and about, so it was pretty peaceful to run my errands. For the past couple years, I sat on the fence, one foot in the tradition and one foot out – I would sit on my porch with candy, but have a drink in my hand. Alcohol does wonders for numbing feelings, let me tell you.

This year, I haven’t been drinking, so I’ve been having to deal with my feelings as they come up. It sucks when the feelings are in the “bad” category. And on Halloween, instead of participating like a “normal” human being (I’ve been lied to and tricked into thinking that alllllll Americans participate… and they don’t), I sat in my house, front porch light off, not dressed in my Halloween best, because at the last minute I had to draw a boundary. I didn’t anticipate it, but I whipped out that skill like a pumpkin pie out of the oven on Thanksgiving. (You can see where my mind is…)

So not only have I been running interference on boundaries, but my husband has as well on our behalf. It was pretty clear to him that I was struggling with some things and so when a situation arose with a family member, he shut it down. He didn’t even consult me first, and that felt really nice. Like he had my back. And that comes from me continuing to communicate about the boundaries I need and how I use them, and from his confidence in shutting down certain situations. We’re still a team, children or not, and that is worth its weight in….. candy bars? No, gold. It’s worth its weight in gold.

Plan A is Plan A

In a one-on-one session with a student today, these literal words came out of my mouth: “Bear with me with biology; it’s been 20 years since I’ve had this class.” (For the record, I teach ESOL but a student came to me for language help with her bio class.)

I became a teacher long before now. Professionally, I’ve been at it for about 15 years. But before that I taught piano lessons at my local music shop. Before that, I was giving my sisters lessons using a chalkboard mounted on the wall behind the Laz-E-Boy in the living room.

I thought teaching was a great aspiration, but for me it was always a placeholder until I could do the thing I really wanted to do: take care of my own children.

When I learned that having my own children probably wasn’t in the cards for me (for many reasons.. check out those posts here, here, and here), I had a major identity crisis. Yes, I was a teacher still, but in my heart of hearts I was also a mother. I was a wife and a mother before anything else. Besides “teacher,” it was probably the first identity that emerged when I was a little girl. I’ve always been very maternal, be it with dolls, stuffed animals, my sisters, the younger siblings of my friends. I always knew I would be very suited for a long-term relationship as someone’s wife. And even then, becoming a wife was an avenue for becoming a mother. (Yes, I’m very traditional about some things. But only for myself. You do you.)

It’s taken now many years and dozens of therapy sessions, plus a whole lot of mental bandwidth, to disengage from my identity as a mother. During that identity crisis, I was still serving as a teacher but refused to accept that it was now (or still?) my life’s work. Another one for the record: I do believe in callings, in God’s will. As such, teaching has always been my life’s work.

It hasn’t been until this school year that I’ve finally felt liberated from my dormant and unfulfilled “mother” identity. It could be that I’m more comfortable in my own skin. Or that I’m back teaching in a high school as I spent four years in elementary, which has a role of its own in my healing from the hurt of infertility. I spent a lot of time and energy exploring other potential life paths in the past few years.

I started my professional career in high school, first in student teaching at a school in a very small town in the middle of cornfields, and then in my very own (windowless) classroom of wide-eyed Spanish students in another school surrounded by cornfields. I even started my (amateur) teaching career while I was a high school student. So many positive formative experiences happened to me while I was that age.

There’s a type of magic for me of being in a high school building. There’s not only nostalgia, but a feeling of “home,” and if you lead me to the band room, that feeling is only amplified.

School in post-COVID-closure 2020 may look very strange to my 14-year-old self who once sat in freshman biology class thinking about what 34-year-old Elizabeth would be like, or do with her life. But there’s something about imparting knowledge on others, about creating a classroom community, about leaning into the hard days and frustrations that makes me feel like I belong.

I don’t communicate these words lightly. In the five weeks since school has been back in session I have considered quitting my job at least five times. I could write many many posts about the difficulties of teaching these days, and a treatise on the inequities and bureaucratic bloat of the American public education system.

But late last week I had a realization. Me di cuenta… I realized that now is a good time to lean in. To embrace my chosen profession. To receive my new students, whom I have known for all of a month. To welcome new families, immigrants or not. To keep creating lessons that are fun to teach and hopefully to learn. To call on my creative brain to step up. To take advantage of the wealth of pedagogical knowledge I’ve amassed in the 13 years since I was a teacher candidate.

In our society that says that having a plan will make you successful, “they” are awfully silent about the plans that emerge from the shadows, or a child’s dreams that want to be Plan A when they grow up. I have come full circle, where my Plan A is still my Plan A.

When they’re all grown up

Sometimes the house is too quiet, sometimes the floors are too clean. On a lazy, cool, and rainy Sunday afternoon, which have been quite rare, I become more aware of my inner thoughts than I have been in awhile. I seem to oscillate between thinking and feeling, doing and observing. And I’ve been doing a lot of doing lately. What with the global pandemic and all.

I’ve been hiking and camping and walking and talking and reconnecting and putting semantic and proverbial puzzles together. It’s been good work for my brain. I’ve also been working with my hands – sewing, planting, (hoping to harvest), mowing, trimming, and cooking. Laundering, vacuuming, planning, scheming.

There are times I wish my life weren’t mine, and times I am utterly convinced that this is not my life, that my life is somewhere in the ether or in a parallel universe, being lived by someone who looks like me and talks like me. But isn’t me.

I’m here, wondering what my life story will be at the end. You ask rhetorically, But don’t we all… wonder what our life story will be? Yes, I answer, but it’s easier to let this thought go when you’re hustling and bustling about, chasing children who have dirty feet who are walking on your clean floor. Folding their still-warm small pants and shirts, organizing your collections of their pictures, wondering what they will look like as a adult.

Keep in mind, they could be like me when they’re all grown up. Educated, yes; successful, I guess yes by the world’s standards; happily married, most of the time; adventurous, absolutely. But then there are the periods of self-doubt, of self-loathing, of them harboring a sincere dislike of their own bodies for any number of reasons… too tall, too big-boned, too big-boobed, too klutzy. I just hope you know that your inquisitive and beautiful children could have moments when they’re all grown up when they look into the mirror and wonder what their own children could have looked like. When they glance at their spouse across the room and then look down, teary-eyed, wondering what of his characteristics they could have inherited.

And then, when they’re all grown up, they’ll look at their shiny clean floor and listen to only the whir of the AC or dishwasher and be overcome with emotion and write these exact words.

How the prosperity gospel ruined my peace, and other stories | [Unpublished post from 2015].

I’m sharing this private unpublished post in honor of National Infertility Awareness Week. To all the people who are sick of society’s and the collective church’s bullshit about conceiving a child and what constitutes a family.

When I’m in crisis, I write. A lot. As a colleague says when there’s nothing else to say: words, words, feelings, words. I wonder what other writers write out of crisis or desperation. Most likely I’m not alone.

We’ve been trying to conceive a child for over a year, 16 months to be exact. In the time we’ve been trying, I have seen dozens of babies come into the lives of my friends and family. I’ve seen a friend get engaged, married, pregnant, and give birth in that amount of time. Time is relative, and while 16 months would be a very young age for a child, 16 months of hopefulness followed by disappointment followed by despair times 16 can make one age more than 16 months.

In this time, I’ve confided in several people. My mom, my sisters (one who is a mother and one who’s childfree, so I have my bases covered), and a handful of close friends who are all actually mothers. Maybe that was my first mistake, confiding in mothers. But I guess I was hoping for some encouragement that yes, this will happen. Some of my mother-friends conceived very quickly, and others took longer. I’ve learned more than I need to know about the female reproductive system and all the crazy things that can happen. I know way more than any sane person should know about childbirth, all kinds of childbirth. Quick, long, scary, natural, c-section.

Up until recently, all this information brought up in conversation felt normal to me. Childrearing is something that affects nearly all women, right? I was brought up to believe that one day I’d have children, and even through my 20’s (I’m on the cusp of 30) while we were still preventing, I always had this future family in my mind’s eye, albeit still far away.

I never thought we’d have a problem conceiving. We’re healthy, we stay fit by working out and running, we eat relatively healthy. It was a given in my mind that we’d have children biologically our own. To be honest, I never considered another possibility. That is, until a year had passed with not so much as a faint line on a pregnancy test and I realized just how long this journey could be.

First there’s bloodwork and an ultrasound, and after that there’s fertility meds that make you ovulate better or “stronger” or whateverthefuck my doctor called it. They made me crazy. So I stopped after one month. Through all my “research” (I use that term lightly because I actually am a scholar-teacher-researcher so I know not to play around with that term that so many others use blithely, ugh) I determined that I’d ask my doctor for a hysterosalpingography, basically a test where they shoot radioactive dye through my tubes to see if they’re blocked. Because if they’re blocked, no egg can get through no matter how “strong” the ovulation is. Thus, no baby can be formed.

My doctor was hesitant to approve this test because there were no other signs that this might be the problem. That’s the kicker though with blocked tubes – there are generally no symptoms. But, I got the test approved and to satiate my own logical and perhaps morbid curiosity, I’ll schedule this test soon.

And now I actually can schedule this test because I just started spotting this morning. This means that MY PERIOD IS COMING (Game of Thrones style). The test is also know to sometimes “clean things out” which can apparently result in increased fertility. The ironic part is that my husband will be gone for work during my fertile time this month, so joke’s on us.

The very unfortunate thing is that past this test, things get very invasive and very expensive, fast. At the beginning of this, we drew our line in the sand that no, we would not be doing IUI (intrauterine insemination) or IVF (in vitro fertilization). We might do the fertility meds. Which I did do, but the side effects made it clear I’d not be doing it again.

So. We’re almost at the end of what we’re willing to try, and with continued failed cycles with like I said, not so much as a faint eensy teensy line, we’re at the end of what we’re willing to try emotionally. I am for sure. My poor husband watches me every month get so disappointed to the point of ugly cry. Every. Month. Times sixteen.

We’ve been discussing this idea of living our lives without children of our own. Now, read that sentence again. It seems more than logical, right? This is not our second cycle and we’re throwing in the towel. This is over a year of heartache with no return on our emotional investment. Now, you tell that sentence to someone and most people lose their minds. Avail yourselves of the following list of things people have said when I mention this possibility:

  1. “Don’t give up yet!”
  2. “What else have you tried?”
  3. “My sister/mom/friend/cousin-twice-removed tried for over a year and then when they stopped trying, they got pregnant!”
  4. “You guys are too amazing of a couple for God not to bless you with children!”
  5. “I just know that God will provide a family for you, whether it’s your kids or adopted kids.”
  6. “Do you think taking the pill for so long is affecting your fertility now?”

Please see below for reactions and honest-to-goodness truth.

Giving up is not necessarily a bad thing. Insanity (or stupidity, or both) is doing the same thing over and over and getting the same result. Uhhhh. That sounds a lot like what we’ve been doing.

Well, we haven’t tried having sex. Maybe we should do that? /s In all seriousness, people want to help us “fix” our “problem”. That’s a nice intention, but if you’re not my doctor, please don’t go there. Believe me, we’ve tried pretty much anything you can think of. I’ve peed on ovulation sticks, charted my cycles (most people would consider this trying) and I’ve also just been a regular woman who’s sexually attracted to my husband and had sex whenever I’ve felt like it. We’ve gone on vacation, spent money on fancy dinners and wine… anything to relax or “not try”. And to boot, “not trying” is not as simple as you think. When for the past year you’ve had sex to make a baby (and for other reasons….) you can’t not try when you’re not using protection. The other thing about this comment is that no one talks about their aunt/sister/friend who doesn’t get pregnant after “not trying”. So stop. STAHP.

I’ve really wanted to believe those words said in love. But you know what? Moses was pretty damn amazing and he never got to see the Promised Land. Read the Bible… there are stories upon stories of disappointment. Some of them found peace. I actually have been on my journey of finding peace, praying for peace about this. My prayer is not, “God, give me children or I’ll die!”; it’s “God, whatever the outcome, give me peace and direction.”

Please don’t claim to know what God wants for our family (read: two people constitute a family). Don’t attempt to project on to me the result of what you refuse to see: this isn’t workingMy junk is not working. This is not a faith issue; this is most likely a biological issue. I don’t need to petition God for children if that is actually not in His plan. When talking to the friend who said this, she literally could not understand the possibility that maybe we would live without children. Granted, I’d said  something about maybe adopting one day. But that was after I qualified that by saying, “If [having biological children] is not what the plan is, I can live with that. I just need to move on and heal and be whole before I’d consider adoption. I don’t want to do it out of desperation.”

I know people with their comments are trying to be helpful. I totally appreciate that. And yes, I’m coming from a place of sensitivity about this topic, especially when the majority of these comments are from women who were able to relatively easily become mothers.

But please don’t use pseudo-theology to quell my fears or try to make me rethink things. I’m emotional, yes, but I’m also as rational, logical, and analytical a human being as there ever was, and I know my body and limitations best. I know that continuing on this path would most likely render me sunken into a corner of my couch, depressed and hating my body and life. I can’t do that, not again. If this is what it will be, that I can accept that. My husband and I can accept that and live a fulfilled, happy life where we actually do contribute to the next generation by our relationships with biological and honorary nieces and nephews, with my international students, etc.

Having biological children is a de-facto imperative of the Church, and it needs to stop. Not everyone is meant to have their own, and just because they can’t have their own doesn’t mean they need to run off to China or Korea or Ethiopia and adopt kids.  If you’re called to do that, great. But please don’t use your prosperity gospel to ruin my peace, especially when I’ve almost found it.

I am woman, a poem.

In honor of National Infertility Awareness Week. For all mothers who wish they were. You are still you.

I am woman.

I am moon and stars and voices on the winter wind.

I am a young girl with sparkles of hope in her eyes as she gazes at the fading sun.

I am in awe of my daddy and enamored with my husband.

I bring balance to the male, to the brash, to the swift.

I am Mother Earth, worrying and waiting over the birth of life.

I am whispers of life on the summer breeze coming over the fields.

I am new green leaves of growth in a garden.

I bring life and nurturing to pain and sorrow.

I am skin and sinew and organs and blood.

I have sorrow of my own.

I am every bleed, every cycle, every lost child.

I am silent voices in the night crying in desperation.

I have light in my eyes after unspeakable loss.

I am woman.

Vanishing

With all this time at home and so many headlines, I find I’m spending way more time on my phone in the past week than I have in a long time. As a result of scrolling, I saw this video of Kelly Clarkson (have always been a fan) doing an a cappella version of Mariah Carey’s “Vanishing”, or “track 5” as Kelly called it. I felt that in my soul – the eponymous album by the diva hooked me as a little girl and up into my teens I was still purchasing her CDs with my piano teaching money and listening to them on repeat. Of course, the listening came with an attempted vocal accompaniment by yours truly… attempted. By an untrained amateur alto.

After watching Kelly belt it out in her bathroom in a Montana cabin (ugh, that sounds awesome), I played “Track 5” by Mariah while working in the kitchen. That in itself felt strange, to play the song out of context. The album is one to be enjoyed in its entirety, preferably with the huge 80’s-era headphones of my dad’s, sitting on the living room floor completely oblivious to the world, bass cranked.

I was finishing up picking the meat off of a homecooked “rotisserie” chicken and putting the bones and some veggie scraps back into the Instant Pot to make a broth. My alto voice was (attempting to) sing along to the first verse, chorus, second verse… then I was putting away dishes from the dishwasher to make room for dirty ones.

If I could recapture || All of the memories || And bring them to life Surely I would

Before I knew it, I was in tears. Utterly blindsided. I could not have seen it coming from miles away. It all happened so fast, the train of thought that left the station quickly and then slammed on the brakes. I was swaying a bit (I’m home alone this afternoon so who cares) and in a split second I was reminded of my mom telling me that when I was little, she and I would dance to this in the kitchen. I was four years old when the album was released, in 1990.

Hear the distant laughter || Wasn’t it you and me || Surviving the night || You’re fading out of my sight || Swiftly

And suddenly the four-year-old blonde haired blue eyed girl became the nearly 34-year-old woman holding the four-year-old girl, swaying and dancing with her. Not in the Bacon Street kitchen, but in my kitchen in 2020 during a global pandemic. I, the almost 34-year-old woman was not looking at my mother, but I was mesmerized, gazing at my own daughter, at her messy ponytail swaying and her little legs and bare feet kicking and her mouth open, laughing. And that, with the lyrics and music and felt experience, I was realizing just how real the song felt in my bones and I just started crying.

Oh, I was so enraptured || No sensibility || To open my eyes || I misunderstood || Now you’re fading faster || It’s suddenly hard to see || You’re taking the light || Letting the shadows inside || Swiftly

So, like any sane person does when a song moves them, I played it again, while letting myself not just feel the feelings, but experience the feelings. The loss. The life that could have been. How this quarantine could be so different. How my life certainly must be playing out in a different way in a parallel universe. That’s the way we have to be present and sit with it (or sway to it in your kitchen with a dish towel in hand). It’s really not an option for me anymore to acknowledge the feeling with a nod of my chin and a few teary blinks and move on.

Fuck, it hurts. It’s a physical pain in my heart and chest. It’s intense, and lasts for a little while. But it’s necessary. And a reminder that while in general I am content with my life, and free from worry about bringing children into this crazy-ass world, I am not immune to my own grief and hurt and despair. It comes to the surface every now and then, a reminder that I am human and I am or was a mother (in another life) and that for some reason the souls of my children never made it to this world.

Reaching out into the distance
Searching for spirits of the past
Just a trace of your existence to grasp

Equal and opposite reaction

Physics was not my best class. Here I was, senior year of high school, vying for the “Seven-Semester High Honors” title I would share with many of my classmates. Our grades weren’t weighted, but I’d be damned if I got either that honor or valedictorian (something I shared with 20 of my classmates) without going toe-to-toe with them in classes like physics and calculus.

While physics didn’t even make the list of favorite classes, at least I remember one of Newton’s Laws of Motion – For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. It also helped that I have a science teacher for a mom.

All those days sitting in school (ahem, I’m still sitting in school, voluntarily) and I wondered if I’d ever use those laws. Well, here I am, 15 years plus out of primary and secondary education, and I will say that yes, I am using what I learned, but in an unlikely way to a 17-year-old – an existential way.

I was pondering this whole people-pleasing thing I’ve been doing for basically my whole life, and how it really hit a peak shortly after we moved to Maryland. I was talking with Emily, my younger sister, about our very different but at the same time similar experiences of moving across the country (I went east, she went west.. I hate counting the miles). She said that when she moved to the PNDubs, she didn’t commit to anything other than work for a long time. She went sightseeing and exploring and took in everything western Washington has to offer.

I, on the other hand, was moving to Maryland whilst needing an “attitude adjustment,” as my dad calls it, and I avoided much exploring or discovering or spontaneity at first, at least not beyond the whole, “Wow, I’m living equidistant from Philly and DC. Let’s go.” Feeling like I should go. Not necessarily because I wanted to all the time.

I threw myself into everything – work, church, friends, volunteering for a nonprofit. I didn’t know my place yet in society, being childless not by choice and fresh outta infertility camp. Instead of doing the inward-looking word of reflection and introspection, I externalized all my hurt and anguish and feeling of not belonging. It felt like an equal and opposite reaction to basically having my life turned upside down within months – cross-country move, Grammie’s death, and really deciding to not pursue parenthood. It’s a perfect storm, really, and in my case, a Nor’easter.

Now, over four years later, I’m trying to back out of that equal and opposite reaction, because now it’s beginning to backfire. I’m experiencing burnout from all this externalizing that’s led to “yes” to all the things. When life seemed to implode, I reacted and clung to my highest-seated coping mechanism – being the “yes” girl.

Because that would make me wanted. Because that would make me needed. Because people would like me if I participated in their projects and presentations and ministries. Because I could quiet the monkey mind pretty easily if I were busy all the time.

After years of work, some on my own, some with a therapist, I’ve finally come to the conclusion that I matter. I can prioritize myself and my own health and the world will not come to an end. I am worth a healthy mind and body. I can say “no” to so many things that don’t point me toward my goals or comprehensive health.

I’m not exactly sure what all my goals are. But slowly and surely I’m learning what I’m not willing to say “yes” to anymore. It’s not an option to not learn this skill, this very important two-letter word. But I do know one of my goals is to see how a different, more positive and life-giving equal and opposite reaction plays out.