Infertility has turned me into a social outcast, except that no one really knows it but me. My scarlet letter “I” marking me as an infertile is invisible, etched on my heart. It affects me everyday… but since it’s invisible, no one else is really aware of what is happening. In general, I’d say that the far reaching effects of infertility are largely a secret, known only to the invisibly branded members of this horrible club. Most people I know do not understand how painful it is for me to walk around in this fertile world trying to fit in, trying to survive, and trying hard to not let infertility ruin everything. I know that the world isn’t trying to shame me, or intentionally exclude me, but my status as an infertile, grieving mother turns me into an outcast nonetheless: I become awkward when conversing with others and can easily become sad or uncomfortable during conversations; I’m anxious about social interactions, and sometimes I just avoid social gatherings all together.
Conversing with people I don’t know very well or don’t know at all has become very difficult for me because small talk is very uncomfortable. Simple questions from acquaintances or strangers make me uneasy. A “how are you today?” from someone I don’t know makes me wonder if I should lie, “I’m good”; or if I should be honest, “I’m terrible, everything sucks today”; or if I should go somewhere in between, “I’m ok”. And sometimes by the time I’ve decided which answer to give, they are already uncomfortable and probably wondering what is wrong with me. Doesn’t she know how to interact? In the end I usually lie or give an in-between answer… but even the in-between answers make people uncomfortable. “Just ok?” they’ll ask, alarmed. No one likes to hear that someone else is having a bad time, but I don’t like going around pretending everything is great either, just to avoid disappointing strangers, so it’s hard for me to give updates on how I am doing to someone I don’t know very well or at all. Perhaps we as a society could be more accepting of the in-between or bad answers. It would be such a relief to be able to more honestly respond to someone with, “I’m ok”, or “I’m having a bad day”, and instead of alarming them, they could just say that they are sorry and that they hope things get better. Feeling like my reality is acceptable to others would be comforting.
Another isolating question that is frequently asked in small talk is, “Do you have children?” Strangers, new acquaintances, and clients at work all ask me this regularly, and it never fails to make me feel uncomfortable, isolated, and sad. My friend Melinda, who blogs at www.youarerooted.com, wrote a wonderful post about this question… She thoughtfully proposes that instead of asking people if they have children, we ask, “Who makes up your family?” This question is much more inclusive of people in all kinds of different situations, and as a bonus, it doesn’t put me and my reproductive system on the spot. Please give her post a read.
These little changes in small talk could make a big impact on reducing the isolation I have experienced during infertility. Having my not-so-great days accepted, and feeling like Matt, me, and our kitties is a valid type of family would make me feel like less of an outsider. And I suspect that other people who are having a bad day for reasons unrelated to infertility, or who have unique or unconventional family situations would also appreciate feeling like their realities and situations are accepted and valid.
Small talk aside, I don’t fit in at most social gatherings. Nearly everywhere we go and nearly every event we attend, there are families present, or couples talking about their kids. Even if the event is adults only, so many of the conversations of parents is focused on their kids. And I get it — their kids are so important in their lives. In the case of friends and family, I LOVE their children, and at times I even enjoy being with their children. I’m glad that my loved ones are not experiencing infertility and I’m happy that their family building has been joyful. But at the end of the day, I’m left out. My desire for, and lack of children can be so sad and isolating in social situations. I don’t fit in with my broken, grieving, marked heart, and since my scarlet letter “I” is invisible, no one understands why I’m shutting down and making excuses to exit a conversation or leave a party early.
In general, my infertility has led me to limit my participation in the social world, making me feel like an outcast. Sometimes this is due to feeling left out or feeling anxious about social situations, and sometimes it’s because I am unwell due to treatments. I am often not feeling well. During our infertility journey I have declined invitations to numerous parties, happy hours, and other get-togethers for various reasons. And sometimes if we do attend we might leave early if I get overwhelmed or if I am feeling unwell. Either way, I’m left feeling like an outsider — infertility has ruined many events for me that should have been fun.
Even being in public spaces without talking to another person can be difficult while I navigate the world with my invisible scarlet letter “I”. Reminders of what I’m missing are everywhere I go. I see pregnant women all over town, and I avert my eyes because I’m so sad for my non-pregnant tummy. I see parents with their babies and kids everywhere, and I walk the long way around them because seeing their smiling faces make me so sad for Matt and myself. There’s a daycare across the street from my house and all of our neighbors have kids. There are kids at the shelter where I volunteer. More often than not, my clients at work have children. At the grocery store the baby items are in the same aisle as the paper goods, and I walk down the aisle quickly, my eyes focused on the prize — kleenex or toilet paper — while I try to avoid seeing anything intended for a baby. At Target the baby items are across the aisle from some of the home goods. And I won’t even get into how I feel about facebook. The world is filled with families, and things to support and help families, and that’s ok — I know it takes a village to raise a child — but it leaves some people out… and for me, with my infertility etched on my heart, it hurts. I know the world is not intentionally trying to increase my pain, but it still happens. And the only thing I can do is carry on the best I can.
My infertility has also led some of my loved ones to exclude and avoid me — the scarlet letter “I” isn’t always invisible. And before I write any more, I want to be clear that I understand that it’s hard for my loved ones to relate to me and to know what to say, and I know that none of them have intentionally caused me pain. I know they love me and want the best for me. But my infertility has been like an elephant in the room… we all know it’s there, but no one knows what to do with it. I’m socially paralyzed by my infertility, not knowing how much to talk about it and with whom, and I think my loved ones are often afraid of upsetting me by bringing it up. So, to my loved ones, I suggest three things:
- Please don’t be afraid to talk to me. I am trying to share and be more approachable… and a big start to that is this blog, so thank you for reading this. Please feel free to discuss with me anything I post here. If you aren’t sure that I’m in a good place to talk, please text first. I like texts and if I’m in a good place for a call, we’ll make it happen.
- If you haven’t already, or if you need a refresher, please visit the links on supporting someone with infertility and supporting someone who has experienced pregnancy loss. These are especially helpful if you are struggling with not knowing what to say to me.
- Ask me how I’m doing. In our society we often ask complete strangers the question, “How are you today?” without really meaning it, but I have realized that we don’t often ask the people we care most about how they are doing. More often we ask the questions like, “What’s new?” or “What’s going on?” to one of our loved ones… I think because it’s more informal, more friendly… but the questions are different. Asking a loved one, “How are you doing?” invites the recipient to answer how they really are, instead of listing what activities they have been doing lately. It’s a more meaningful check-in, and I instantly feel more connected to my loved one when they ask, “How are you?”
My invisible, or maybe not-always-so-invisible, scarlet letter for infertility has made my interactions with the social world complicated and painful, but I know that I won’t always be in this tough place… I know that infertility won’t last forever and that at some point it will be resolved. Either we will have a child, adopt a child, or not have children. And as I’ve said before, I hope that wherever we end up, Matt and I will be happy and surrounded by love. I’m hopeful that we will heal from our infertility and our pregnancy loss, and that the social world will be less isolating and more inclusive for us in the future… but I also do not expect that transition to be immediate. I do not think I will be “fixed” overnight whenever a resolution to our infertility presents itself. This journey has wounded me deeply and I know I will never be the same. And regardless of what happens, I expect it to take a while for me to heal and be ready to fully engage in social activities. I ask my loved ones now, in advance, to be patient and gentle with me whenever Matt and I end up moving forward.
And until then… I’m doing my best to survive with my invisible scarlet letter “I” etched on my heart. Sometimes the thing I need to remember most is to be gentle with myself. I am doing my best to navigate my path in the world. I may feel isolated, but I know deep down that I’m not alone. There are many others who are also struggling on their paths and feeling isolated, and I’m wishing them strength, peace, and love on their difficult journeys. My loved ones are hoping for the best for us, and I’m thankful for their love and support. And Matt is here, by my side, holding my hand every step of the way, reminding me with his constant love why we’re on this journey.