The Era of Me vs. the Era of Family

I’ve always believed there are two eras of life- the era of “me” and the era of “family.” You have to choose which one you do first and there is no guarantee you will get to do the other. I chose “me” first and spent my 20’s and 30’s discovering my identity, exploring career paths, furthering my education and traveling the world. That meant the era of family would begin in my 40’s. Knowing this, I expected that the road would be bumpy, but I didn’t realize that the rules would be completely unlike those I had lived by in the preceding decades.

Fertility Is Not a Meritocracy

As a person who occupies many areas of privilege, including being born into a loving family, an able body and the ability to learn in traditional environments, I was used to a linear relationship of inputs an outputs. Meaning, you put in the effort and you will eventually get to the result you desire. Fertility, as I discovered, is not a meritocracy; it doesn’t care how much effort, time, or money you put in. You are not guaranteed a solution. In short, for someone who is used to “stick with it and it will work out”… this fundamental shift is absolutely maddening. Further, every day seems like an eternity, especially because you never know if there is light at the end of the tunnel. 

Self Perception and Relationships

As a person who is very used to my body doing what I ask of it, being able to solve a problem with perseverance, time and money, fertility was a whole new level of frustration to me. I didn’t know if I was ever going to become a mother, in my body or someone else’s. Adoption isn’t easy for people over 40, fostering to adopt is a noble but incredibly emotionally-fraught path, and surrogacy didn’t work for us (as part of our journey, we hired a surrogate who later miscarried). While I hadn’t always seen motherhood as an essential part of my life, I was very unaccustomed to not being able to reach goals I had set. It’s fair to say that during our four-year journey, I lost my emotional tether to reality. All of my thoughts, energy and conversation were centered on possible options and next moves. Not surprisingly, this had an impact on my relationships.

As you can imagine, fertility became the central issue of our marriage. I was so laser-focused on the absence of a baby and all the things I needed to research, try and figure out to fill that gap, that I was unable to be present in the moment. Things I had enjoyed, like dinners on the porch or runs in the late morning sun were de-prioritized. I was pumping myself full of drugs and procedures, which made me distance myself further from a grounded reality. I was so in my head that I couldn’t be in my heart or body. Honestly, those years are a bit of a blur to me, where my husband and I felt like we were floating around on separate chunks of ice in the Arctic.

In addition to the distance it created in our marriage, it was incredibly isolating socially. People love to talk about kids, but fertility struggles are taboo. People have a hard time holding space for sad stories anyway, and when those sad stories relate to an intimate physical process, well, it’s just not something you get into in depth. And, there really is no way to explain a fertility process in a sentence and do it any type of emotional justice. Further, I didn’t want to even open the door for on the conversation with someone who hand’t lived it, because the platitudes of “it will happen when it’s supposed to” or “just try to relax” or “maybe it’s just not meant to be” shut me down immediately. But, I had literally nothing else on my mind, so I just stayed away.

Surprisingly, the biggest blessing on my journey, aside from reaching the end and bringing home our son, is that I met an absolutely wonderful and supportive community of women online. We started out posting on a message board with a very specific topic- “Women Over 40 doing IVF”- and though we were geographically disbursed, we formed a tribe with a high level of care and dedication to witnessing and supporting each other’s journeys. We eventually transitioned to a private messaging app and about 20 of us still talk every day about our full lives, parenting, relationships, careers, health struggles, caring for parents, etc.

Healing Through Helping

As the years passed and nothing was working, including surrogacy, I was faced with the reality that this might not happen. And so, I could either run from that pain and push it down or I could face it and walk towards it. During some of my pregnancies, I had gotten really addicted to a podcast called The Birth Hour and had extensively researched how to safely carry a pregnancy, deliver a baby, and breastfeed. I realized that while I might never be able to do those things myself, I could help other women have the best experiences they could have. And so, I became a volunteer birth and postpartum doula and Certified Lactation Counselor. I volunteered with my local hospital-based birthing center to provide free services to local women requesting perinatal support and was able to attend and support the births of many of my tribe of friends. I would leave each experience so full of love and joy, my own pain soothed rather than flaring. 

Walking The Path

For those of you struggling with infertility, I see you. I feel your pain, I know how easy it is to become overwhelmed with hopelessness, frustration, isolation, physical pain, financial strain and relationship distress. I know the struggle of trying to decide if you will continue trying with your own eggs and sperm, your own body, and how to know when it’s time to release the dream and reimagine your life. Please know you are not alone.

If you’re looking for community, though it can take a while to find your tribe, I guarantee they are out there. In addition to the online communities, Resolve.org, the national infertility association, organizes in-person support groups. If you’d like to chat, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me.

And, though it sounds crazy, finding a way to help others can be an incredibly healing gift to yourself. If it’s too raw to help in the fertility space, I’ll give you a gentle nudge find another way to get beyond yourself. And, of course, make time for self-care, such as walking in nature, practicing mindfulness and gratitude for the things you have in your life.

Gentle hugs,

Mariah

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