My parents married with the intention of having a large family together, which is how I’m the firstborn of seven: five girls, two boys. Of all my parents’ daughters, I’m the only one diagnosed at 15 with polycystic ovarian syndrome and informed I’d never bear a child. While one of my sisters has chosen to remain single and childless so that she can achieve her dreams of international travel, each of my other sisters has married and had children.
It hurts to be the only married, childless woman among my fertile, married sisters. It hurts when I see two of them pregnant at the same time, especially when they pose together for pictures. It hurts to be at family gatherings, and their conversation turns to motherhood, and I cannot participate. Not knowing what else to do, I stopped going to family gatherings. I was hurting too much, and I wanted something I did not know how to communicate.
One time, I texted my sister, Sarah, volunteering to babysit for her. She replied, “Okay.” But due to lack of communication, I felt like she preferred that only women with children babysit for her. From that thought, I jumped to the conclusion that Sarah did not consider me qualified to babysit her children because I am not a mother.
My reproductive disability had me feeling “less than” my sisters because of how I desperately wanted children.
I felt that babysitting my sisters’ children was a privilege I desperately coveted, but how could I ask for it? I was like a beggar at a king’s banquet table, stomach rumbling with hunger, staring at heaps of delicious food, but unable to take part.
Many days I cried because all I wanted was to spend time with my nieces and nephews, but because I did not ask, I did not communicate; my sisters had no idea how much I hurt, or how to help. Even so, my mom and sisters told me they consider me a vital part of the family – a phrase which felt so meaningless to me. I thought, “If that’s true, then why can’t I babysit my sisters’ kids? I love them, too.”
I arrived at the bottom of my pit of despair when my oldest sister Sarah began mentoring our youngest sister April, who had her firstborn some months ago. April lives in another state, and she needed Sarah’s help in adjusting to the pressures of motherhood. I grieved over what my infertility cost me just on the sisterly level, and I felt just enough anger over my loss to finally verbalize what I had buried deep inside for too long.
I called my Mom and cried as I explained how one time, lots of months previously, I had offered to babysit for Sarah, and she had rejected my offer. I sobbed as I told her how that made me feel that I wasn’t qualified to babysit her children because I’m not a mom. I said that whenever I’m with my sisters’ children, I don’t feel the weight of my infertility grief because I’m focused on how blessed I am to be their aunt. Mom let me cry, and she listened, and then she said that she would approach both Sarah, and my other sister Laura, and ask them whether they would mind letting me babysit for them. Sarah has four children, and so does Laura.
Weeks passed, and silence prevailed. I didn’t get an update from Mom. But I felt so much relief from having expressed my desire to babysit, I didn’t despair. Instead, I made the choice that I would not place the burden of whether I could be happy upon my sisters. I knew that for the sake of my sanity, I had to choose to be content no matter what.
The next time my Mom saw me, she gave me a beautiful bouquet of yellow roses, and a greeting card congratulating me on my new job. Then she told me that she had spoken to my sisters, and she asked them if either of them would mind letting me babysit for them. They both enthusiastically embraced the idea. Each of them had thought that if they asked me to babysit for them, they would be burdening me, they had not felt comfortable asking me.
Their conversation had occurred weeks back, and Mom had forgotten to tell me about it, and she apologized for taking so long to get back with me. I cried again, but this time, feeling so loved! That phrase about me being a vital member of my family didn’t feel so meaningless anymore. My Mom hugged me and told me she loved me, and that she was thankful for how I dared to be vulnerable with her in the middle of my pain.
I visited with Sarah, and she said that she would be delighted to let me watch her children, as often as I ask. She said that she knew I was hurting, but she didn’t know a practical way she could help until our Mom asked her if I could babysit for her. I advised her that children were no burden, but my infertility grief is. Sarah told me she loves me so much.
We planned a babysitting day and she allowed me to keep her oldest two for a few hours. It happened! And their behavior was perfect – I enjoyed every moment with them, watching cartoons and eating snacks. Sarah used the time to get a massage. We both felt loved–her for getting her ‘me time’, and me for getting to spend time with her kids. The kids felt loved because they got to watch cartoons and eat snacks.
Soon, I have plans to visit Laura and her children. They are good at loving on me, too.
The beggar was given favor and allowed to take part in the feast. And now the beggar feels like royalty, too.
Our long and bumpy road of infertility began 9 years ago. After numerous tests and failed treatments, IVF was our only hope of conceiving. In 2015, the procedure was successful. Early in the twin pregnancy, one of our embryos stopped developing, however, subsequent ultrasounds revealed a strong heartbeat with the second. Our prayers had finally been answered and our dream of having a child was becoming a reality. At nearly 10 weeks, the doctor uttered the words no one ever wants to hear, “I’m sorry, there’s no heartbeat.”
Overwhelmed with grief, and so many other unnamed emotions, the months and years that have followed haven’t been easy. No one is ever really prepared for how to cope with loss. It’s not something that is taught in school and in most families, not discussed openly. Men and women grieve differently and we would soon learn, these strong emotions began to manifest in different ways.
In the months prior to IVF, I made it my mission to prepare my body for pregnancy the best I could. It was almost like training for a marathon. My regimen included an anti-inflammatory diet and numerous vitamins and supplements. I felt strong and hopeful and started a blog to share my journey and encourage others struggling to conceive.
Soon after the loss, that feeling of hope began to fade. Between the IVF medications and miscarriage, the hormonal roller coaster was unrelenting. I no longer felt I had a reason to focus on my health. There was nothing to look forward to and feelings of apathy set in. Not sure how to help me through this emotional struggle, my husband did the best he could to be supportive and loving, while dealing with his own feelings of grief. He often found solace in lone fishing trips and spending time with nature.
Three years later, drawing strength from our faith in God and each other, the healing process continues to be a work in progress. Anyone who has experienced loss will tell you it changes you. We soon realized this life-changing event was stressful on our marriage. Communication has been key and we are both learning how to lean into the pain and allow ourselves to be vulnerable and honest about our emotions with one another.
By reading and studying emotional resilience, grief, and loss, we have started on a new path of healing by embracing and reckoning with the painful scars that infertility has left behind. Facing a lifetime of childlessness, we are rumbling through the middle of the messy emotions. Grief has no timeline and no one really knows how long the rumble will last.
While life hasn’t turn out the way we had planned, our story isn’t over and we are hopeful for the future. We are learning to flip the script and write a brave new ending. One where it’s okay to be sad and joyful, to grieve a painful loss and embrace the wonders of life with gratitude and most importantly, together.