First a word about this post: I wrote this weeks ago. My perfectionist tendencies got the best of me and got in my way of publishing this for a while. Is it too delicate a subject? Too personal? Too long, too twisty-turny, not straight-forward enough, not creative enough….such is my mind at work. So good at standing in my own way. It’s crazy. I love to write and if I had my way I would publish so much more. Quality is important, but I also need to remember why I set out to start this blog in the first place: I had something to say, and I was going to say it, perfect or not! So I am done with analyzing. Going to put this out there. I trust it will find the one person it may encourage today. My hope is that someone may find deep affirmation in this post because it puts words to what they’ve been feeling, or that it may be informative for someone who “doesn’t get” this type of struggle. And P.S: It’s helpful for me, too. It’s part of owning my story, and coming to terms with it all. Finally a Disclaimer: If you don’t like to see words such as endometriosis, infertility, or menopause this is not the post for you!
While this is about grief and loss, it is not a post about losing someone close to me. I am fortunate so far in that I’ve got my spouse, child, sibling, and both parents still with me. This is a post about handling transition. One such bridge I am about to cross is that of an infertile woman knocking on the door of menopause. Coming to terms with the idea that I will never know what it is like to conceive, carry, or give birth to a baby. Never. Not ever.
I will be very honest, not because I love to talk about this, but because I am determined as I grow older to use every bit of me: my life, gifts, struggles and issues if I believe it might resonate with one person somewhere. Then, to me it is so worth the discomfort of baring my soul. I want this unfortunate lot to do some good in some way. It may be an attempt to take back some control. When I was going through the thick of the struggle, I felt I had no control over my own body or the way it seemed to betray me.
It has been a little over one year since I wrote some thoughts on our infertility struggle. I wanted to share more as I’ve continued to wrestle with it. Even as I write these words, which is meant to be a post about how I continue to live in the face of loss-I still feel the sadness. The anger. The confusion…yet, there is hope. Because with time, the shedding of tears, prayer and reflection, my grief has changed and become a little less potent.
Please understand, that while I speak in general terms, everybody will deal with it differently. I do believe many struggle with these things and will do some grieving over it in the process. Others may not have. This is about my story, and others who might share some common elements in theirs as well.
Infertility is not a “One time event” that happens, is over and done with, and you have the grief afterward. It comes in bits and pieces. Sometimes it gets to me just a little bit. Sometimes it is a giant tide of emotions rolling in and knocking me over.
For me, it was a loss I already anticipated when I endured years of painful endometriosis and was told it could later affect my chances of becoming pregnant. That diagnosis came in my late teens. And then I didn’t meet the man I would marry until my mid-twenties. Lucky for me, Mike and I both had dreamed of adopting one day, too. I had my plan all figured out: Two biological children and one adopted child from China. But that specific plan wasn’t in the cards for me. Oh, I would become a mom. It would just look a little different.
A couple of surgeries for endometriosis and a couple of years of filling out those silly charts: Documenting everything like your temperature upon waking up, when your cycle is and blah blah blah. I had little patience for ANY of it. The medicine I had to take did not agree with me and didn’t help the roller coaster of emotions already happening. At that stage, the losses were piling up: Loss of the “spontaneous” ability to conceive, loss of being able to try for a family without having to share all about my personal life with doctors and others who asked. Loss of dignity. It was really embarrassing for me to have to talk about these things that should be (in my mind) kept private. I found it horrifying to constantly sit on a cold table in a clinic wearing a ridiculous paper gown that barely covered me while I answered questions about topics not usually up for discussion (in my mind). Ugghhhh! I HATED Hated Hated this.
Another loss along the infertility journey many might experience is the feeling of having no control of what happens with your body. I had this growing awareness becoming pregnant was happening spontaneously to everyone else BUT me. I was confused. Why is it so simple for so many others, but not me? What did I do wrong? Was God punishing me for something? (I do not believe He was, but the thought occurred to me at the time). So during the “trying to conceive” phase, I felt a sense of loss everyday, along with this constant panic: “What if I can’t have a baby?” But then, I would push it away because, well, there was still time and still a chance. And since I was so intolerant of the medications, appointments, and mental anguish of the monthly ups and downs, why not take a break from all this and start the adoption process?
So we went to a church in Sioux Falls to see a presentation about adopting from China. Actually, it was about International Adoption and that was where our future agency was presenting. But I was always interested in China. So that is what my heart grabbed onto. I was eager to find out about the programs the agency offered, yet was filled with angst when we arrived about “would anything work out for us to have a family at all? ” As we got there and took our seats near a few other couples, I was nervously holding back tears. When they turned on the video, it happened to be placed right in front of a beautiful sculpture of Jesus hanging on the wall, with his arms raised. In that moment God told me “This is what I have for you.” I felt an inexplicable, undeniable pull toward adopting from China. I was overcome with emotion and knew this was, in fact, the future God wanted us to embrace. I believed that God was telling me, “I heard the desire of your heart for a child, and here is the path I have laid out for YOU.”
On the drive home, Mike said the words I longed to hear. “Let’s fill out the paperwork and adopt from China.” And that is what we did.
At this point in my story some might be inclined to say, “well what was the problem then? You got a child, right?” That is correct. We began the long journey to adopt, except none of that was “easy,” either.
The idea of “getting a child” fulfilled a deep need I had, and throughout the paperwork process that hope kept me going. But there was still the unanswered question of, “have we exhausted all our possibilities for biological children, if we cannot afford a second adoption in the future?” Will this process to adopt even work out? So the anticipatory grief of possible permanent infertility loomed over my shoulder and followed me around for the entire decade of my 30’s and into my 40’s. It wasn’t always at the forefront of my mind, rather it hid in the shadows, revealing itself to me more clearly every so often. Like a dark specter. I couldn’t shake it.
As far as grief goes, somewhere along the line it dawned on me that I had to give myself permission to separate the two issues. I had to realize that adopting a child, which I wanted to do, was something I could celebrate, while still grieving the fact that the biological part was possibly going to end up unfulfilled. In other words, don’t mistakenly assume there is no need to grieve infertility because we adopted. Infertility has layers of loss, not just the absence of a child.
The complicated part of my journey was that this question of unresolved infertility hung around for my twenties, thirties and part of my forties: “Can it happen, will it happen?” After we adopted our son, Liu, we revisited the idea of the biological route. But in the time that had elapsed, roughly two years….what was once a door slightly ajar became one that was mostly closed if not quite slammed shut. The doctor told me that “At this point, you wouldn’t even be a candidate for In vitro, unless you use donor eggs.” I decided that I would rather adopt a child that needed a family rather than try to “create” another one. No disrespect to those choosing the latter option. I just knew in my gut that route wasn’t for me.
You might assume I fully grieved after that revelation. Yet I held out for a miracle to somehow occur, not ready to admit I would forever be barren. So the ghost looking over my shoulder kept following me around. And I began panicking about possibly never having a sibling for my son. When I say panicking, I really mean obsessing. Not every minute, but some of every day was spent thinking about it, researching adopting again, asking Mike when we might start the process, etc. It made some days difficult to think or do anything else.The biggest “hurdle” in my adult married life has been the fact that I’ve been in some type of “limbo” for all of it: The struggle and question about “will I have a family?” I haven’t had the benefit of having a couple of babies and saying, “okay, our family is complete now” like I know others have. I have had days where I’ve felt like I couldn’t go on without some type of clarity. I love clarity. First with the biological question and then most recently wondering if we will we adopt again. If you wonder why I don’t know if we will adopt again, it is because there are many rules and regulations for International adoption, more so in recent years due to what is called the Hague Convention, meant to ensure safe practices in International Adoption. So, although we are pursuing this route, our time to complete this is dwindling.
For China specifically, the avenue which still makes the most sense for us, you’ve got to meet the qualifications: The right amount of income, an acceptable Body Mass Index, lack of serious health issues, and both applicants must fall in an acceptable age range. For lots of reasons (those reasons could be an entirely different blog post-maybe later), we have been in the home study phase for over three years. Along the way, we have had two almost/not quite situations ( Fostering Hope: The Princess Dress) that took time to get over (Losing Mai Ling) yet we continue to persevere. Because it is so important, I believe, for my son to have a sibling. And I have a big heart that wants to lavish so much love on another little one.
And yet, I’ve had to begin re-imagining what “family” looks like. This too, is part of the cycle of grief. If one works through the stages of grief made popular by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, eventually one hopes to get to “acceptance.” But I like to think of it more as “integration” of the reality of the loss into my life, into my personhood. I think with the work I’ve done this past year (with God’s help), I am on my way to that. By “work” I mean staring it dead in the face and telling it, “you won’t ruin me.” Work means talking with a therapist about it (let’s end the stigma! Talking with a therapist doesn’t mean you’re “weak!”), expressing my sadness in writing, prayer, laying paint down on canvas, singing in my car…all ways to get my feelings out. And finally, beginning to visualize a new and different future for my family and me.
So what does this re-imagining look like for me? I always thought it would be best to be “young” when I had children. Isn’t it “unfair” to a child to have parents in their forties and fifties? I thought that for most of my life. But, when you think of a child who has NO family, spending years of their life inside an orphanage with barely enough food to go around, what’s the alternative for them? I’m sure if you ask any of them, they’d be glad for somebody, ANYBODY to take them home and love them for as long as they’ve got. So, if, this second adoption works out, I have to come to grips with the fact that I am older than I thought I would be as a mom to young children. But just because I had a picture of how my ideal family should look, that doesn’t mean anything beside that is “less than.”
That has been the toughest thing to work through: Letting go of the picture I concocted as a youngster of the “ideal family.” Tougher still, is coming to grips with a possible future with only-gulp-one child, if for some reason the second adoption does not work out. There were days in past years when I have thought, again, being totally transparent, that my life wouldn’t be worth living without more children in it… It was such a deep longing for as long as I can remember. Not just for me, but for my son who has special needs. Please don’t tell me he can “have friends,” or that “it’s not so bad being an only child.” I know that many only kids turn out great. I just see our situation as different. And do you know how hard it can be with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other needs to make friends and to otherwise navigate in this world?
So I have tasked myself with making a life worth living–regardless of what I have or don’t have. Perhaps a better way to put that is opening my eyes to the fact that my life is already worth living: Cultivating gratitude for life itself and the gifts it offers. It is true I have loved ones already in my life. But if I woke up tomorrow and lost everyone dear to me…what would I have to live for? I have to love life itself and all the beauty it offers, from the Creator God Himself. I don’t want my happiness in life to be contingent on everything turning out the way I had planned. Rather, I am taking what has been given, and thanking God for it, enjoying it for what it is. This is my task at hand. I am working on it.
Another aspect still, of grieving the family I could have had, but don’t yet have is embarrassing to admit. Jealousy. Of other families, bigger families. Those that had it easier, that had no difficulty getting the family they wanted. Envy. It is why, for so long I could not, would not go to a baby shower. Just too painful. Or why I would get a lump in my throat when I would see the baby clothes at Target and see the moms-to-be with their swollen bellies excitedly filling their carts with all the necessities for their baby. And I would sometimes just get angry when I heard moms talking about their birth experiences and about bringing the baby home from the hospital. More than one time I asked God, “Why this one thing? You KNEW how important this was to me! WHY?” Luckily, I knew that God was never going to abandon me, even though I was really hurting and struggling with all those feelings. But I ultimately end up realizing God doesn’t owe me a thing. My plan might not be His plan. Yet I have much to be grateful for.
Not every mom can say they had such a beautiful, one of a kind experience of meeting their son for the first time in a dark hallway in China: Liu ran up to me with open arms ready to hug his mom-One he’d only seen in a photos and never met. Yet he was open-hearted and trusting enough to embrace this new life waiting for him across the ocean. It’s breathtaking. I might not have a birth story, but my heart grew ten times bigger that day, and I wouldn’t trade that moment for anything in the world. So I have much to be grateful for even though it is different from many other women’s experience with “meeting their baby.”
The biological question is OUT of the question now. I haven’t reached menopause yet. However, fate stepped in and gave me a medical issue that required medication which for all practical purposes will make it impossible for that “miracle” to occur. So I can FINALLY be done with THAT question once and for all. I have my answer. I will never have a biological child. And while that sentence is still difficult to say, I am relieved I can finally deal with that and work to move past it.
Now the limbo, or possibility of the second adoption is still here. It moves forward, at slower than a snail’s pace. Just when we seem to move forward, some piece of paper expires and we have to redo it. I have just come to realize that clarity on this will continue to elude me for Lord knows how much longer. And in the mean time, will we not meet the criteria and get nixed? What stands between me and a bigger family are some pieces of paper and rules about age, weight, health and finances. That makes me angry, and so, so sad. Some days, like today, I just want to scream. It doesn’t sit well with me that I had to go take the MMPI (A psychological test) to prove I am fit to parent since I have a history of anxiety. Imagine if all those folks that become pregnant had to take that 567 question mental health screening! But, rules are rules. Such is the world of International adoption.
I wonder, too, as I see many friends from high school have already become grandparents some time ago, why I am still trying to form my own family at this point. It is a strange phenomenon. It wouldn’t have been the future I saw for myself, but I have to trust that all will work out as it should, perhaps not with the ending I wanted, either. I know that the Rolling Stones famously sang, “You can’t always get what you want,” but why do some get want they want and others don’t? Just sayin.’ This will make a good blog post in and of itself, too.
How I have dealt with all of this? To be honest, some days I haven’t. Some days I throw myself a giant pity party (although this too is part of a grief “process,”) or drown my sorrows in chocolate chip cookies and stuffed crust pizzas with extra cheese. Yum. But then, I wake up the next day and realize I have to keep putting one foot in front of the other and hang in there until we have a resolution. The adoption process is stressful, in and of itself. But one day, it will end. It has to. And when that day comes, I will work to accept whatever answer God, and the Chinese Government, gives us. And then I will go on living.
A final word on the topic of grief in general. Sometimes I questioned why I was sad, when there was still a chance for me to get pregnant or to adopt. I would tell myself, “don’t grieve until you get to the end and have your answers, be happy or hopeful. ” As if I could push it all away until the one day the adoption process ended for good and I completely knew I was in menopause. Well, that’s kind of silly. Life doesn’t work like that. It works out best for me when I honor my feelings. Give myself permission to be sad or angry. Write out my feelings. Don’t push them away. Paint a picture that represents how I feel. Write a prayer, expressing my feelings. Talk to someone. I always feel a little better and able to keep moving along when I allow the feelings to come, whatever they are, whenever they are…and sit with them for a time… as uncomfortable as that can be. This is a way forward. It is only when I tell myself I SHOULD feel a certain way that I run into problems.
So this is where I am. Hoping for one more child. Grieving some aspects of the difficult road to a family, and a family “half-realized,” yet starting to see the beauty and blessings of a one-child family: All the time I’ve had with him. The special relationship we’ve cultivated because he hasn’t had to share me, the things we’ve been able to do together, the time I’ve had to learn about his special needs and become a tiger of an advocate for him…and so much more. Our family has been such a gift to me, a source of so much joy!
It should prove exciting to see what an update one year from now will look like. I really hope I have my answers by then. I am weary and discouraged. I want off this roller coaster. There are so many more things I wish I could explain about this journey, but it is not the time. Since I am still in the thick of it, I can’t share too many details. But one day, I will tell the whole story.
I hope that if you are reading this and you are in a similar struggle, you will feel and know that God will see you through all the twists and turns. Don’t give up! He sees you, knows you and wants to meet your deepest need. God bless you. There are many gifts waiting up ahead for you!