As the taboo against talking about infertility slowly begins to lift, I sincerely want to honor every woman who has shared her struggle with this disease that has such a profound impact on every level of the self. While we can thankfully draw on each other’s experiences for support and comfort, it’s important to remember that no two stories can be exactly alike. We might not understand the decisions someone else makes, but we know the struggle, the fears, and the pain behind them. We know the importance of empathy and kindness over judgment, every time.
I believe remembering this is especially important because infertility is still such a new area for open – and raw, and frank and honest – discussion, and we want to have safe spaces where we can feel free and unafraid to share our story, in hopes of adding diversity to the discussion about infertility and childlessness in its many forms.
This is the first time I’m writing about this part of my life, and it’s scary, but here we go, and thank you for hearing me.
The plain and simple, honest truth is that my body doesn’t want to make babies on its own, and I’ve never quite gotten to the point of going to any lengths to have them.
I also struggle with wondering why I want them, but won’t do anything it takes to have them, and with why I’m still sitting on this fence at my decidedly un-tender age of 44.
On the one hand, I’ve grown very used to life without children after four and a half decades on Earth. I also feel that I could be a great mom, and that it would be almost unimaginably rewarding to bring up a little being in this scary, yes, but crazy beautiful world.
I love kids. I’ve always gotten along with them. I love how they know exactly where all the great hidden portals are, to the wild, natural, unfettered, pure and genius side of our universe, and how readily they invite us along for the ride, if we’re willing to follow them. There is a boundless quality of energy involved in everything related to children that I connect with, adore and cherish.
I look at children and I see hope, innocence and a purity I want to protect forever. I want to learn from kids about believing in things, having passion, and thriving in the world of imagination, and I want to introduce them to this world that badly needs the wisdom of children, with their kindness and openness to discovery. I want to help facilitate their brightening and healing of our world. I want to feed and care for them, and really listen to their questions. I want to see the future through their eyes. I want to break down the walls of my mind and heart and dance with them in the rain and splash with them in the mud, as I work the best I can to nurture, protect and teach them so that they can grow up to be the kind of adults that can turn the mess we’ve made of the world around.
I truly love kids. I feel like I have to say this over and over because one perception people have of people who don’t have children is that they don’t really care for them, or think about them all that much. And the judgment behind this perception is that there is something wrong with people who don’t love and want kids. It makes me sad that not being a mom automatically puts me in a defensive position, that I’m some form of less than, and that I’m complicit in these judgmental attitudes by feeling the need to advertise how much I truly love kids.
One interesting thing I’ve observed about my ambivalence surrounding having them is that my ambivalence does not rule out my desire for kids, and my desire for kids does not rule out my ambivalence.
This is just how it is, the reality of my situation. My head knows it, but my heart is trying really hard to accept that humans can be full of contradictions and mixed emotions coupled with an endless array of unforeseen circumstances, and that this is not a failing. That it does not make me a failure.
As I swim in this sea of conflicting desires and emotions, I become acutely aware, of course, of time passing by. There are people my age welcoming grandchildren into the world. I could be a grandmother. I could also just be an over-40 mother, but this vision seems somehow harder to imagine than the one of me being a grandmother. This is how it’s always been for me, leaning toward the impossible instead of the quite viable possibilities when it comes to having kids.
There’s a solid chance, if I’m not dipping too seriously into science here, that I might have something like 1 egg left, swimming around haphazardly in a treacherous, weakened ecosystem, and I still can’t determine if I am absolutely sure I want to turn this maybe-one egg into a baby.
Sometimes I want it this baby more than anything, but then I start to panic.
As I mentioned, I’m 44. I can’t help mentioning it, repeatedly, because … I’m 44! I feel shame that this one-ish lonesome egg is sitting around, restless, bored and probably highly annoyed with me, bags packed for its next adventure, having given up on the ever-waffling self that has been harboring it. I feel embarrassed for feeling shame in an era that has women rallying the cries of empowerment and breaking down barriers I didn’t even know were boxing me in growing up. I feel embarrassed that I can’t own my uncertainty when I laud other women who choose to remain childfree, or who are uncertain themselves.
Their uncertainty feels understandable for me. My own fills me with shame. And that’s on top of the shame I feel over not really fitting in to the infertility community because of the myriad reasons that have prevented me from seeing a doctor even once about it, as though years of failing to conceive month after month don’t already qualify me as infertile.
I find myself obsessively reading about women who don’t have children, who are childless or childfree, by choice or by circumstance. I read about a theory that those of us who don’t have a zinger of a mothering instinct may be the result of a genetic mutation that has survived as long as it has because until recently, women were all but forced – and sometimes actually forced, by convention or rape – to bear children. Now that women in some parts of the world who don’t want children aren’t having them, our breed will die out, and the “normal” state of affairs, in which all women desire to bear fruit, will resume.
So according to this theory, women who do not want kids, or who don’t know if they want them, are by definition mutants.
Even though the world is over-populated. Even though we are eating and consuming the planet into a state of … well, not a good state and sometimes I feel that bringing another being into the world now is downright socially irresponsible.
I can relate to this mutant theory, though.
Obviously I only have a lineage because people in my family were bearing little ones, but I’m lucky enough to have a large enough extended family to include several women who never had children. I remember them as the ancient spinsters of my childhood, and I don’t know why they didn’t have kids, just that they didn’t. I have always felt an affinity with them, despite hardly knowing them, and despite having no solid evidence as a young adult that having children might not be possible for me.
Our image of spinsters is largely fed to us by the media: they are homely, less than conventionally attractive, gaunt (because of course more voluptuous women are not only fertile, but of a jolly enough disposition to attract men), and can be either shy and plain, or eccentric and/or ferociously intelligent (too intelligent, of course, to attract a man who could remain un-threatened enough by her intelligence to stick around and plant his seed).
These images, horrifyingly misguided as they are, also serve to entirely swipe out portrayals of so-called “average” (cringe) women who do not have the distinction of being exceptional in a homely, brainy or eccentric way, and who are without child by early-to-late middle-age for reasons that are already so excavated as to be well-trodden tropes: we have been career-focused; we have had spotty relationship histories; we are daring to try to first work through our crap in a world that is telling us women can have it all without offering support for the emotional fallout of over-extending, or providing an environment that encourages us to figure out how to both live and parent (or not) in a conscious, mindful way.
It makes me sad that there are no mirrors for women like us. Without this mirror, we are made to feel that we either have to have children, or be seriously productive in other areas to compensate for the fact that we haven’t. A child or … a masterful artwork. A Nobel Prize. A life-saving medical breakthrough. An Eat Pray Love (the book everyone who hears a summary of my life compares it to). Then it’s okay. At least we’ve made something of ourselves.
I would be lying if I said that I didn’t carry the weight of this perceived expectation with me every day. It could be that most people don’t know this. I might appear to be relatively carefree. Some people in the social circles I’ve had over the years admire what they see as my freedom or sense of abandon, and for living such an unconventional lifestyle. But this view does not match how I feel. At all! I was in school, more or less, from nursery school until I had trouble finishing my Master’s degree, at which point I deviated from what was “supposed to do” for the first time in my life (unless you count the time my dad stopped speaking to me for awhile when I chose creative writing over physics in high school).
I called a time out, more out of desperation than an enlightened sense that I needed change. My boyfriend at the time and I latched onto the idea of teaching English abroad. We contemplated Whitehorse and Brazil (!?) before a friend mentioned that Thailand might be fun and they always needed teachers there. Somehow that one stuck, and we ended up there for year. I fell in love with Asia; he didn’t. We came home, and eventually, very amicably, parted ways. I finished my Masters’ degree after my year away inspired the discovery that the weight of the world did not rest on my thesis. I started to work in the film industry and began my Phd part-time, and … was still trying to figure out if growing up was actually a thing while also feeling ancient. I was now in my early thirties.
I was a late bloomer in almost every sense you can think of, and now, I was finally starting to come into my own, as a woman and as a person. I was really enjoying the social and creative aspects of my work, and learning more about myself through my intimate encounters with men. I was learning, for the first time in my life, what I liked, wanted and needed. I was starting to see myself as something other than someone’s daughter, a good student, that bright person full of potential – doesn’t that word, “potential” sound like more of a cage the older we get? I was starting to wrest free from all of this, and like many others floating in the waters of freedom, I found myself adrift, and not necessarily always doing what was best for me.
By the time I was 35, I managed to pull off one of my goals, to publish a photography book, and also to alienate my new boss and fall in love with an unavailable man – definitely not two of my goals. They ended up being blessings in disguise, as many aspects of my life were unraveling in that sure but subtle way that I almost certainly would have ignored if I wasn’t forced off the proverbial cliff. Getting fired (technically, my position was made “redundant”, but let’s be real) and heartbroken gave me that boost.
I got rid of and donated a lot of my stuff, brought the rest of it to my parents’ basement (it’s still there – thank you!), and went back to Thailand; I also traveled through Indonesia and Laos. I melted in hammocks, found a staggering book about how to integrate our many aspects of self by Indian sage Sri Aurobindo, and spent 3 months inspired by it, writing journal entries dissecting every facet of my personality. It was grueling, exhausting, and immensely valuable.
I turned 36 while on a 10-day silent meditation retreat in Thailand close to the Burmese border. This was my first experience with meditation. I projected every last one of my insecurities onto the meditation hall, even becoming convinced that the teacher – who was not present, but teaching via video and audio recordings – hated me, and that basically, I was a completely unworthy meditator and human. This was just some of the stuff that came up for me during this incredibly difficult experience. But it was a beginning, a really good beginning that taught me how much we tend to stand in the way of our own happiness.
Then I left there, and met my now-husband, from Japan, about three weeks later.
Our love story is best left for another time, but to bring it back to babies … I was 36 when we met, and he was 32. We knew pretty quickly that this was going to be a long-haul sort of relationship, and that we wanted to roam the Eastern part of the Earth for awhile. We married in a private commitment ceremony a year later, on a deserted Thai island.
Again, this all sounds very carefree, if not downright hippy-ish. And in some ways, it was. But neither of us are hippies. Seekers, yes. Avid, curious citizens of the world, yes. But laissez faire? No. Certainly not the “me” part of “we”.
A superficial glance at us frolicking across Asia glosses over moments like me, at 37, collapsing in a heap of tears and anxiety on a rickety bed in Udaipur, Rajasthan, in a half-complete, still-under-construction guesthouse (anything for a discount!), sobbing that I was as ancient as the ruins in our midst, and that I would never be able to have kids even if we wanted them. Half of this panic attack was my genuine distress at the years passing me by, and the other half morbid terror that my new husband didn’t realize he’d married an extremely aging womb.
He was amazing, and said that if and when we wanted them, we’d try. If we couldn’t and still wanted them, we’d adopt. It was basically the perfect answer, and I was mollified.
Maybe too much so. We eventually moved to Japan – I was now 39 – and we decided to stop trying not to have kids. I’d also decided that I didn’t want medical intervention, that I’d rather adopt if I couldn’t conceive naturally. This just felt right to me. The only lingering fear in my mind was that our lives were not settled – we didn’t yet know where, or how we would live, making adoption seem like a far-fetched fantasy.
And here we are, over five years later. Still in the East, about to move to Canada, and we still don’t know where we’ll settle, or exactly what we’ll be doing. I’m 44 (as you know), and adoption still feels like something adults do, people who have been living in one home for years with one stable job, and everything you picture a good candidate for adoption to be.
I think we are good candidates – really good candidates, even. But … is the life I’ve really, truly been gearing myself up for? What are the parameters of “the kind of life” that leads to adoption and/or child-rearing? Why am I finding it so hard to access my innermost, deepest desires when it comes to having children?
I remember, and my closest friend growing up also remembers, believing from an early age that I wouldn’t be able to have kids. My sister remembers telling her that I wanted to marry a Japanese man and have half-Japanese children, believe it or not. I don’t remember why I came to have this instinct that there would be no kids in my future, or how this “knowledge” made me feel, which disturbs me quite a bit. I don’t remember feeling traumatized by this notion I had. It just seemed like a fact.
Or self-fulfilling prophecy? Month after month, we go about doing what couples do to make a baby. But I’m not going to lie: despite buying ovulation kits and pregnancy tests, I never used any of them. Not once. I haven’t used any apps to track my ovulation, though I did briefly consider using one. I have been extremely casual about my efforts to conceive. I don’t know if this is telling me something about what I really want, or if I’m really just okay with any outcome.
What should my factors in deciding be? What my gut tells me (it tells me different things on different days, so far)? If I’m satisfied with my life or not (can’t I be satisfied with my life, and still want a baby)? What I feel I have to offer a child (I might have a lot to offer a child, but does this mean I should have one)? The environmental impact of over-population? (Will one more child really hurt if governments aren’t doing anything to solve our problems?) Future regrets I might have if I don’t have them (how can I possibly know)?
Which of these counts the most?
Does it count that not long ago, for the first time, I burst into tears passing by the baby clothes section of H&M on a trip to the mall in Nagoya?
Does it count that one month my period was late and I went into complete panic at the thought that there might be an actual baby at the end of this, refused to take a pregnancy test, and lived on pins and needles until my period finally came, at which point I was equally relieved and devastated?
From what I hear, many people have these kinds of fears and doubts, but as soon as the baby comes, it all disappears and they can no longer imagine life without a baby.
What if that’s how I would feel? Then all my fears and ambivalence are irrelevant, the signs of an immature, pre-motherhood “phase”? Can 25 odd years of my life be considered a phase?
My friends very rarely ask me about my plans regarding kids. My parents don’t ask. Most assume, I think, that I don’t want them, or that I can’t have them and have “moved on.” All I know is that we’ve been trying, and have been talking about adoption or fostering more and more, but life has also been getting lived, and feelings about kids haven’t become all that more clear. I don’t know if this means my childless life is half a life or not allowing myself to really understand or process how full of a life I’ve been living.
Why is “childless” the first label we are given, that we give ourselves, as women in our forties who are so many other things? Not just “other things”, implying that childless is one of them. Why am I childless, as though being a mother is a given, and this is something I lack? Am I similarly considered boatless, mansionless or timeshareless (all three words, by the way, trigger spell check, whereas childless is a bona fide word). Why am I childless, as though this is something I have done or failed to do, when all I’ve done is live my life up to now, filling it with myriad other positive experiences?
The hard truth is that there might be some of us who will never know for sure if we want kids or not, and before long, the choice will be made for us. Ideally, we want to make that choice for ourselves. I know we do, but it’s not laziness that prevents us from making it. It’s probably many things, not least of which is the incredibly confusing social system in which we have no real place to be heard, understood, supported and embraced.
Sometimes I feel like the world is not my playground to play in (because I don’t have a child to bring me there), that there’s still something monumental I have to accomplish before I’m ready to assume my place in the world. I know I’ve felt this way as long as I can remember – there was always another degree, a better job that stood between me and “full maturity” – and not having children of my own, against whom to cast myself as the adult, has no doubt played a role, and continues to play one.
I think what confuses and saddens me the most is that we are still living with a very rigidly structured set of rules as to what it means to be a mother. We are either without child, or with child. Why haven’t we moved on to consider alternative ways of living in which the roles of mothering and nurturing become more fluid? In which we live in community (read: not commune, but community), so that we are all mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and sons? A place where everyone has a role to play as a vital member of the community, so that we can all find our place, and feel useful, and feel fulfilled in whatever way suits everyone best?
There are a thousand ways to be a woman. There are also a thousand different ways to be human. We have arrived here, and I believe we are at a juncture. Systems are failing. The environment is failing. We are failing each other, and our careers are failing us, and there is a lot of failing going on. We are in crisis mode. Women are finally finding a space in which to come forward against the oppression of the patriarchy, and I would love to think that we are on the brink of a whole new world.
I would love to think that we are not merely looking for a patched-up version of the old world, but rather, a place where we radically reconsider what the norms are and should be, what it means to have partnerships, intimate relationships, what it means to identify as a man or a woman, mother or father, and what kind of world we want children to be raised in.
I beg – let’s find a real, authentic place for all of us, with acceptance and love. Let us honor people’s decisions and also honor the undecided, the confused, the ones still wondering but not wanting to be left behind. Let’s offer people the space to be and to find out who they are, so we can form real, healthy decisions about identity and the needs of self and society. Let judgments become tolerance, so that people feel safe to find and make the most honest, best decisions as the truest versions of themselves, along with those they love and trust the most, for the betterment of every last one of us sharing this planet.