This Blog was originally written and posted on Mother’s Day 2013.
I can’t honestly say I always wanted to be a mom. In fact, I distinctly remember, at about eight or ten, telling my mom I never wanted to have children. It was one of those disagreements when your mother says, “You won’t understand until you have children of your own.” I told her, “Then I’ll never understand. I’m never going to have children because there’s never been anyone around to show me how to be a good mother.”
Well, years passed and I changed my mind. Or, my body changed my mind for me. Something like that. As I got older, I became aware of a space in my heart, in my gut. And I knew without a doubt that it was the space waiting for my own children to fill it.
I wanted to be smart about it, though. Smart and responsible. Part of this was due to social fear. See, I have a couple sisters who had children out of wedlock, and I grew up hearing on pretty much a daily basis how they had ruined my parents’ lives, made it impossible for my parents to hold their heads up in public, and how my mother considered my oldest sister’s getting pregnant the WORST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED TO HER, and how if I didn’t mind my ways I was sure to turn out JUST LIKE THEM. I also saw what my sisters’ lives looked like as single mothers on welfare, and I didn’t like it. I did not want to be that person. So I made a pact with myself that I would take absolutely no chances until I was in a stable relationship with a man I loved and our financial reality allowed us to support a family.
Unfortunately, that never happened. Or happened too late. Or something.
See, I wasn’t considered attractive in my younger years. I grew up regularly hearing what a dog I was from my peers, trying not to pay any attention to the vomiting noises they made when I passed them in the school halls. Needless to say I never had a steady boyfriend. To this day, I’ve never been on what I would consider a real date, you know, where a guy is going out of his way to be charming and attentive. No one has ever romanced me. No one has courted me. I’ve been sexually active, sure. But I was the fat girl you could sleep with but not date. I’d pick up a guy–usually someone I knew in a vague kind of way–at the club and we’d spend the night together and I’d never hear from him again. Guys seemed ashamed to be attracted to me. There was the guy I slept with on and off my first couple years in college. We were compatible, attracted to each other. He told me several times that he thought no one else understood him (maybe I was stupid to believe it, but hey. I was twenty). And outside of our sexual encounters, he pretended he didn’t know me. Once he got mad at me for mentioning that we were fucking to another woman he hoped to date. There was the other guy, a friend of a housemate, I had a serious crush on. He was nice. He wore skirts sometimes. We both loved Batman and Star Trek. The sex was…well, he did the best oral EVER. He’d come around to the house and we’d have great conversations and end up sleeping together. But I wasn’t his girlfriend.
Well, anyway. You get my drift. At twenty-three I did meet someone I stayed with for almost six years. He was five years younger than me. We broke up and got together again about four times, and at one point he had an affair with his Lesbian Spanish teacher, who was having relationship troubles and thought a boy-toy would help. Because, you know, guys shouldn’t be tied down to one woman (though gods forbid women should look at more than one guy). So, yeah. This didn’t exactly increase my feelings of safety and stability.
Okay. Eventually I met my husband, who is a great guy who thinks I’m the most brilliant and beautiful woman in the world and DOES NOT GET why I have trouble believing this. We were together four years before we got married. By that time, I was thirty-four. And, you know, time was of the essence. Because conventional wisdom is that women should reproduce as early as possible—in their twenties—and that by the time you’re thirty-five you’re reproductively dead. Anything over that is known as AMA: Advanced Maternal Age. I didn’t have too many worries about it, because my grandmother, mother, and one sister all had kids late (I was a late-life baby myself). But I heard the clock.
Still, there were things in the way. And a lot of it, I admit, was my baggage. Coming from the place I did, I found it hard to trust my husband. I felt that if I didn’t do everything exactly right, if I didn’t act in a totally supportive and non-threatening way, he would decide, “Fuck this,” and leave me. Because, you know, I have no value as a person and it was only by the grace of the gods and my guy’s willingness to tolerate me that I was in a relationship at all. So I didn’t feel quite comfortable saying, “I want kids. This is a deal-breaker for me. That means we have to be able to support a family, so we can’t keep dicking around (so to speak) at half-assed jobs that make no money.” I was pretty sure if I said something like that he would be all, “Okay,” and walk out the door.
And some of it was…other stuff. I’ve suffered severe bouts of clinical depression since I can remember (and a few years ago I was diagnosed bipolar). One of the…things about my illness is, I absolutely cannot work at what is considered a “real” job in our society without going out of my mind. It’s not laziness or bad attitude. Doing work I love on my own terms, I work more and harder than most people on the planet. But I cannot do the daily grind most people take for granted without becoming suicidal. I just see life stretching out before me in all its sameness, day after day, and I think, “If this is what it looks like, I don’t want to do it.” It seems a perfectly rational decision to end my life rather than participate in a job. So it was clear from the outset that my husband was going to have to be the main breadwinner for our family. In our society having one income is a pretty sure way never to progress beyond subsistence level living unless you happen to be Bill Gates. Not great when you want kids.
Also, I worried my mental health would be bad news for any children I might have. I grew up in a household with a father who had an undiagnosed mental illness (Clinical Depression at least, maybe other things too) and it was a nightmare. I did not want to inflict that on a family of my own.
But, like I said, the clock was ticking. So after a couple years, I told my husband I really wanted us to have kids, and he agreed to try. I got pregnant right away, and I miscarried almost right away, the day after my first appointment with my midwife. Well, okay. That’s not so unusual. They say probably 25% of all pregnancies end in miscarriages. I mean, it was upsetting. I hadn’t even considered that I might not carry a pregnancy to term once I got pregnant. Everywhere I looked I saw pregnant women, women with babies, women with toddlers. And I had reason to know that some of them didn’t make the healthiest lifestyle choices. How hard could it be? But I hadn’t been very far along; I hadn’t even begun to have morning sickness or anything. So I managed to cope. We gave it a few months and tried again. Again, I got pregnant right away, like the first try. I was kind of scared. No, I was really scared. I decided to see a doctor instead of a midwife, just for reassurance. I prayed every day that I’d make it past the magical twelve-week point after which most pregnancies turn out okay.
At first things seemed to be going fine. The morning sickness was horrible. I’d never thrown up so much in my life. But hey, maybe that was a good sign that my hormones and all were functioning right. I made it past the point where I’d lost my first pregnancy. At eight weeks, I went to a pre-natal appointment. My doctor couldn’t find a heartbeat with her little sono-whatsit, but she assured me it was early yet and a regular ultrasound would probably pick it up. We may have made an appointment for one. If we did, I never went to it. At ten and a half weeks, I started to bleed, and I eventually lost that baby, too. And that time it was horrible. The pain was worse than anything I had ever experienced. I bled way too much. I got a high fever and an infection, and I thought I was going to die. I remember getting up in the night one time to pee, and chunks of stuff falling out of me while I was sitting on the toilet, and thinking “That’s my baby,” and just feeling numb and dead inside. I’ve never told anyone that, by the way.
Eventually I recovered, and that was almost worse, because I had told people about the pregnancy and the things people say to a woman who’s had a miscarriage are just heartless and cruel. “It wasn’t meant to be,” seems to be the favored response, but I also heard, “It wasn’t a real person yet,” and “You need to see the lesson in your experience,” and “You know, everything happens for a reason,” and “Have you thought about how you created that?” And between the sententious BULLSHIT coming out of people’s mouths and the sheer physical trauma of the experience, I thought, “I cannot go through that again. I cannot take the risk.”
It didn’t help that the loss put a wall between my husband and me. We never talked about it. We didn’t share our grief. Hell, I wasn’t even sure he felt any grief. I was totally alone. He saw what I had gone through and he got so scared of my going through it again—after two miscarriages, the chances of having a successful pregnancy decrease significantly—that our sex life became virtually non-existent.
Obligatory plug: If you want to know more about what it’s like suffering pregnancy loss, the protagonist of my book series goes through it in my third novel, A Maid in Bedlam, and the whole event is taken pretty much verbatim from my own experience.
Anyway. About this time—and it may have been triggered by the miscarriage, but maybe not—I started the worst bout of clinical depression I’d ever gone through in my life. And I mean, I’ve endured almost thirty years of treatment and multiple hospitalizations. It went on for years and years and got worse and worse. I could not function. I went to therapy and talked my voice out, but it didn’t help. I did all the CBT shit you’re supposed to do to transform your thought patterns. I just kept getting worse and worse. I remember one day being on the back road to Hotchkiss looking out the car window—it was in February, I think—and the sky was so heartbreakingly blue I started crying. And I thought “I’m not going to make it this time. I’m not going to live through the summer.”
Well, for some reason I have an unusually strong survival instinct. I got it together and went to my doctor and told her I needed to try medication. I’d never had much luck with medication before and I’d kind of given up in it in my early twenties, just decided I’d have to grin and bear it and meditate through it, whatever. But I knew this was not going to work here. So I started the round of SSRIs and all, and those didn’t work either. Some of them made me worse. Most of them didn’t do anything at all. A couple kind of worked but also made me irritable, twitchy, over-sensitive, jumpy. My doctor sent me to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed me with bipolar disorder. And he started putting me on more and more medication. Huge amounts of a “mood stabilizer” because common wisdom has it that bipolar people can’t just take anti-depressants by themselves. Anti-psychotics. Anti-convulsants. I don’t know, I think at one point I was taking half a dozen different pills twice a day. And none of them worked. All they did was turn me into a zombie.
Oh, and my periods stopped. I was forty-four.
“Oh, no,” my psychiatrist told me. “The medications you’re on could have nothing to do with that.” (I found out later that this isn’t true.) So I went to my regular doctor. She told me it was probably my age; irregular periods are part of getting older, etc. I didn’t think this was the case. I mean, I was barely past forty and the women in my family didn’t tend to stop menstruating until well into their fifties. Plus, it didn’t feel right. I wasn’t experiencing irregular periods. They just stopped. I didn’t have any other symptoms of hormonal malfunction. No hot flashes, night sweats, itchiness, palpitations, nothing like that. I just stopped bleeding.
I was so out of it that I just said, “Okay,” and walked out of the office and tried to put it from my mind. But I couldn’t really. Because with everything else, I still wanted a family. I hadn’t lost that dream. I just knew it wasn’t a practical thing to be thinking of while I was, you know, suicidal.
So, maybe another year went by and I got worse and worse and eventually was hospitalized again. And the psychiatrist at the hospital looked at all the medications I was on and pretty much said, “What the fuck was he thinking?” and started weaning me off of them. I stopped seeing the drug-happy psychiatrist and started seeing a psychiatric nurse at the Mental Health Center. We tried this and that, and eventually I found a new drug that actually worked. I mean, worked! I’d heard the success stories the anti-depressant manufacturers put around, but I’d never believed any of them. A pill couldn’t possibly make such a huge chance in your life. But it was like waking up for the first time. It was like a miraculous recovery from a horribly painful disease.
And I remembered I wanted a family, and now I wasn’t menstruating. I was forty-six.
One time, I said to my therapist, “I’m trying to deal with the reality that my husband and I are probably never going to have kids, and it’s really hard for me.” “Why do you say that?” she asked. I told her, I’m forty-six and not getting any younger, and my cycles are screwed, and there’s the whole financial reality to think about, and you KNOW how iffy our sex life has been. And she said,
“Well, those are all good reasons not to have kids. Now, let’s talk about the stress your lack of resources puts on you.”
And I was all, Excuse me? Because what I heard was: “I am super fertile. I have four kids and no empathy for this subject. In fact, it makes me uncomfortable. So please let’s talk about something that isn’t so uncomfortable for me, ’kay?”
Pretty soon after, I stopped seeing that therapist.
A couple months went by. In the spring, my husband and I went out to dinner. He pointed out that our waitress was the daughter of an acquaintance, whom I remembered as a child of about four. And I burst into tears. I told him I still wanted kids and I would never be okay not having kids and I knew I was old and dried up but I really, really wanted us to try again.
That started a three-year nightmare of going to various doctors and specialists in an attempt to find out what was going on with my body and see if anything could be done to fix it. And since this blog is getting far longer than I intended it should be and I haven’t yet got to the point, I won’t go into detail. What I’ve heard from just about everyone is some variation on this: “Yeah, the way your cycles stopped was abnormal and someone should have looked into that. Yeah, your hormones are abnormal. They don’t even tally with what we know about normal menopause, and you don’t have any of the symptoms of that. But hey, there’s this number attached to your chart that means we’re totally going to ignore all of that and send you away with nothing.”
(UPDATE, 2014: My current doctor recently told me that I assuredly have PCOS, but no one ever diagnosed it because my manifestation of it is atypical. And no one will diagnose it now because infertility doesn’t matter when you’re my age.)
Meanwhile, I’m watching young, unmarried relatives get pregnant for something to do, or because their mothers told them they wanted to be grandparents. I’m seeing women in their teens trying to get pregnant because they’re thinking of getting married and they think it would be cute to have a baby bump under their wedding gowns. Pregnancy as fashion accessory. I read forum posts from women who don’t have jobs or places to live, who get beat up by psychotic boyfriends or other family members, deciding to reproduce…why? Because having babies is a good thing to do just in general? I’m seeing women’s reproductive rights being attacked by old white men who have no clue, who DO NOT CARE what happens to children after they’re born and will shame mothers who need public assistance to support the families they are being influenced to have against all sanity. I’m seeing mere reproduction being elevated to superior status. And I’m thinking, “Shit. I just wanted to do the right thing for myself and my family. I should have got pregnant when I was eighteen.”
No one who hasn’t been here can grasp the pain of infertility, pregnancy loss, childlessness. We childless women are invisible. Our stories are not told. No one wants to hear how hard it is every day, going to the post office, going to the store, seeing the women with newborns, with strollers. Seeing the families. Other women don’t want to hear it. They do not want to know. I was part of an internet group for a while, of women trying to have children after difficulties. Over the course of two years every single member of the group got pregnant except me. Last winter they changed their group from open to private and I was not invited to belong. I asked the mod what was up, and she told me that, “The other women are uncomfortable with your pain, and they feel guilty about sharing their family experiences with you in the group.” Oh really? Well, I have news for you: Your guilt is NOT MY PROBLEM. We childless women need support from other women, not exclusion. Not to be treated like the darky janitor at the country club, an outsider, a pariah. We need to be heard. People are okay with hearing the painful stories that have a happy ending. The multiple miscarriages that finally produce a healthy, “Take Home” baby. They don’t want to hear the ones that go on forever with no resolution. The thing that a childless woman like me lives with every day and will never get over.
That’s why I hate Mother’s Day. It’s a celebration of everything that is closed to me. It shoves in my face how badly I conform to society’s notion of womanhood.
And the worst thing about it? I can’t let go of hope. Because I didn’t experience “normal” menopause, I can’t believe it’s happened to me and that my dreams of having a child of my own, of experiencing all the wonders and horrors of pregnancy and rearing an infant, are over for once and or all. I still think “It might happen.” I know so many stories of women who had been infertile, who hadn’t ovulated or menstruated in a dozen years, suddenly turning up pregnant. I’ve read so many accounts of women older than me who’ve conceived children naturally. I cling to that, and clinging breaks my heart every single day, because my rational mind keeps telling me, “This is stupid, you know. You need to accept and move on.” But the idea of doing that is worse. How does one let go of this desire? How does one move on? It’s impossible. It’s the thing in my life I wanted that I can never have. When I see inspirational memes that spout something along the lines of “Nothing is impossible if you can dream it,” or “Because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it won’t happen,” I just want to set things on fire. I want to scream, “You can’t fucking get pregnant if you’re not ovulating!” And apparently no one will address the fact that you’re not ovulating if you’re past a certain age.
I’m too old for fertility treatments. I’m too old even to do a donor egg, even if I had the money (it costs upwards of $30,000 for a single TRY.) We’ve discussed adoption, which isn’t what I want, but I’m willing to look at it. It costs too much and we’re too old even for that; adoption agencies like prospective parents to be no more than mid-thirties.
So every day I grin and bear it. I still do the Restoring Fertility yoga DVDs, even though I don’t have a cycle to synch to the routines, telling myself I just like the movements from those DVDs better than I like those from my other yoga DVDs. I try not to cry when other women post forty-eleven baby pictures a day to their Facebook pages. I try to be happy for them and not let it get to me. But it does.
I’m fifty-one now. Most women my age have grandchildren. I know a few women my age with GREAT-grandchildren. I’ve been told I don’t look any more than thirty-five. I know I don’t FEEL any older than I did at thirty-five. In fact, in a lot of ways I feel younger. It doesn’t matter. Biology doesn’t care how you feel.
And I can’t let go.