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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Kids, Part 2: The Aftermath

This post is not going to be pretty.  There is no uplifting message at the end.  Just please remember that this is part of a series, and there is more to come.  There is a small light at the end of the tunnel, but we won’t be able to see it here.  Steph and I were unable to see it here.  Following the realization that we would likely not have children, Steph and I were trapped in this post for roughly 4-5 years.

Some of it will come across as self-pity…and to a large degree, it was.  Some of it will come across as petty…and to a large degree, it was.  Nearly all of it is irrational thought, but that’s the message I’m trying to get across: When you experience some kind of personal tragedy (cancer, loss of a loved one, or in our case—infertility), your mind thinks irrationally even when you are desperately fighting against it.

I’m going to be mentioning how others acted around us, some that knew what we were going through and some that didn’t.  I will bring up some things that our family or friends did or said that hurt us.  I said this last week, but let me say it again: Our family and closest friends have been great through all of this.  The things they did or said were not intentional.  They did not know that it hurt us.  Also—to be fair to them—we never brought it up.  We never said, “When you do or say ‘this,’ it hurts us.”  Why?  Because they were doing nothing wrong.  The issue was ours, and we knew that.

Dealing With Others:
Let’s get this out of the way right now: We do not get angry when others have children.  Unfortunately, not every other infertile couple is the same way.  I knew one couple that was extremely irrational.  When their friends sent them Christmas cards with pictures of their kids, this couple would believe that their friends were “rubbing it in” that they couldn’t have children.  There are couples who get angry like this.  There are couples that will break friendships with those who have kids.  It’s sad that this happens, but it does happen.  We are not like that, but there are things that anger us.

Things we get mad at:
-         People who use abortion as a form of birth control.
-         People who see another child as another tax break and/or welfare check.
-         People who neglect their children.
-         People who continue to go out drinking and partying every weekend like they did prior to having kids.
-         People who look at their children as a burden.

I have snapped at exactly one person in the 6-7 years this has been present in our lives.  I would put it up there as one of the angriest moments of my life.  There was a guy that I knew who had a pretty decent job.  His wife also had a good job, but she left that to be a stay-at-home mom once their first child arrived.  A couple years later, along comes the second child.  One day, we were talking, and I asked him how the kids were.  He took a deep breath and said, “Exhausting.”  I smiled.  I understood that.  Made total sense.  The problem was, he didn’t stop there.

“It’s like…I work ten-hour days, and when I come home, I’m beat.  All I want to do is sit down for a few minutes.  Instead, the second I walk in the door, the kids come running at me and want to play.  My wife will then ask if I can watch them while she makes dinner.  Sometimes I want to look at her and ask, ‘Isn’t that your job?’”

That would be when mild-mannered Josh Ringle turned into the raging Hulk.

“Are you kidding me?”  I asked him.  “We can’t have children, and you’re sitting here complaining about the fact that yours love you so much that all they want is your attention…and you can’t even give them that?  Look…when you come home, you have two jobs.  Two.  To be a good husband and to be a good dad.  Right now, you suck at both of them.  Shut up, and be a dad.” (I intentionally ignored the “Isn’t that your job” comment—different topic for a different day.)

That’s the only time I’ve snapped at someone that (partially) stemmed from our inability to have children.  Look…I know kids are exhausting.  I know all you want to do when you come home is sit down.  But you knew what you signed up for, so this should come as no surprise.  I would gladly trade my sleep for children.  So, whatever you do, don’t talk about how much of a burden your kids are to someone who can’t have any.  For that matter…don’t talk about how much of a burden your kids are to anyone.  Children are not burdens.  Shame on you.

Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him.  Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth.  Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.  They will not be put to shame when they contend with their opponents in court. – Psalm 127:3-5

Children are a blessing.  They are a gift from God.  A reward.

I have two thoughts regarding this: 1) I get angry when parents do not see their children in this light.  2) When a couple is infertile, the irrational can’t help but seep in.  Children are a blessing.  They are a gift from God.  A reward.

What have we done wrong?

Mark Driscoll, referring to Genesis 1:22—“‘God blessed them.’  This word (blessed) then appears from this point forward over 80 times in the book of Genesis – more than any other book of the Bible.  The focus here is on God, who is good, and God who blesses.  Blessing usually, in Genesis, is referred to in terms of fertility.  The birds can reproduce.  The animals can reproduce.  The fish can reproduce.  They’re blessed.  It’s why the first words to the man and the woman will be, ‘God blessed them, and said to them, Be fruitful.’  Fruitfulness is a blessing.”

God blessed the birds.  The animals.  The fish.  Man.  But He didn’t bless us.  What did we do wrong?  Were we being punished?

In our minds, we had done everything right.  We were friends for a year before we started dating.  We dated for years before getting married.  We didn’t have sex prior to marriage.  We planned for a child (read books…Steph subscribed to the Parents magazine…we bought baby stuff here and there so the financial situation wouldn’t crush us when the baby came…loads of discussions on what kind of parents we wanted to be).  We took the money that was supposed to go towards the honeymoon we never received and put a down payment on a house.  We only looked at houses that we could “grow into.”  We attended a local church that was young so our children would have friends.  We even looked at school districts to help us decide what town we wanted to live in.  For well over half our marriage, we were making lifestyle decisions for someone that wasn’t even alive yet.  We were good, loving, selfless, trusting people…yet we still weren’t blessed.  Meanwhile, so many others around us with no money and no plans were being blessed with “oops” pregnancies.  It has to be restated: We were not upset with those couples.  We rejoiced with them in their blessing.  Internally, however, we pined for our turn.

We left our church partially due to our infertility.  There were obviously other factors, but we’d be lying if we said the baby thing wasn’t part of it.  Our church was extremely young and very much at the baby-making stage of life.  It felt like every week there was a baby announcement.  Towards the end of our time there, the pastor said there was a goal of twenty babies in that calendar year…and they were already at twelve.  Granted, the “goal” was said tongue-in-cheek, but they did include a list of all the babies born in that year on the back of the service bulletin.

Naturally, parents—especially new parents—in the church became clique-ish.  This left us…where?  Fellowship after church was non-existent.  Every conversation was baby-this and baby-that.  While that was fine for them…where did that put us?  It wasn’t exactly easy to join in any of those conversations.  To be honest…we weren’t exactly included in any of those conversations.  If I was talking with a guy who happened to be a dad, and another dad walked up, our conversation was dropped.  They’d start talking about their kids, and I became invisible.  I’m not kidding…they wouldn’t even notice when I walked away.

All this joy, while we were miserable.  All this celebration, while we were depressed.  All this talk about being a blessed church with blessed members…had we done something wrong?  Why weren’t we blessed?

Many say that it’s the biblical calling of a woman to motherhood.  In one Mother’s Day sermon we attended, the pastor said the words, “It’s not okay to not have children.”  Now, he did go on to talk about how sad infertility is, but notice how I can’t remember those words.  Again…totally irrational…but that’s where the mind goes.  It’s sad.  You want it to stop, but it won’t.  Naturally, one could pray for peace.  For understanding.  But spiritually, we weren’t there at that time.

Few people know this about us, but we don’t leave the house on Mother’s Day.  We definitely don’t go to church.  They talk about how great motherhood is—ouch.  They honor mothers—ouch.  They usually give a gift of some sort—ouch.  The last Mother’s Day service we went to, as we walked in, they were passing out books on motherhood to all the mothers.  The lady handed a book to Steph and asked if she was a mom…when Steph said no, she took the book back.

No harm was intended.  The lady wasn’t being rude, and she obviously didn’t know our story, but that was the last straw.  Steph cried the whole service.  So…now we stay home on Mother’s Day and merely give our own mothers a call.  Probably not the best response, but that’s where we are right now.  In time, we’ll visit our families again.  I’m sure we’ll attend church on that day again.  We’ve moved on in a lot of ways, but currently—the Mother’s Day service is too much.

What sucked was that it often wasn’t any easier when we were with our families.  Steph frequently felt like there was a special bond between Christen and my mom that she would never have.  Between her sister Kim and their mom.  There have been times I’ve felt the same between the men/fathers of both families.  There is a unique bond between those people.  There is a unique bond among all parents.  We know that.  We accept that.  But it’s that bond that hurts.  We feel like outsiders.  Like the third wheel.

Steph described it once as a club we were not allowed in to.  Like we were standing at the bottom of the tree house, but no one was throwing down the ladder.

Genesis 16 and 1 Samuel 1 are popular places people go to in the Bible for verses dealing with infertility.  Each has their own story, each with a different and important message.  However…in my study Bible, the commentary for both stories is what stood out to me.  “During that time, a married woman who could not have children was shamed by her peers…In Old Testament times, a childless woman was considered a failure.  Her barrenness was a social embarrassment for her husband.  A husband was even allowed to divorce a barren wife.”

Knowing full-well that it isn’t true (usually), the infertile couple can’t help but feel this way.  That others look at them as failures.  That they have let their parents down by failing to produce grandchildren.  That they are shamed by their peers.  That they aren’t invited into the club.

Friends treat you differently.  Some will feel that talking about their kids at all is like rubbing your face in it…so you never hear stories or never get pictures.  Some will even feel so awkward around you that they’ll stop hanging out with you altogether.  They’ll stop calling (or returning calls).  Stop texting.  Stop Facebooking.

Like you’re some kind of disease.

Probably the worst part of it all is that there’s no one to talk to…at least that’s how it feels.  It is such a private matter that people just suffer silently.  You already feel like a failure…opening up that failure to others doesn’t always help.  Everything that I read says that the best thing you can do is talk to a professional.  Thanks, but I just spent my life savings on these fertility treatments.  I don’t exactly have an extra few thousand to pay for therapy.

Friends and family are great, but if they have kids, they simply don’t understand.  It’s not their fault…they can’t understand.  Since Joe lost Christen back in January, he has been fairly transparent with how he’s feeling…but words only go so far.  I simply can not fathom his pain (though he gives some great insight in today’s post).  Talking about how hard infertility is with someone who has children just seems pointless.  I recognize that that is a selfish sentence.  My mom made a valid point once: The friends and family of the infertile couple suffer too; they just suffer differently.  Agreed…but our minds don’t often go there.  They stay selfish.  Forgive us.

One day, you find a couple that’s struggling to have kids—or they’ve been told that, like you, barring a miracle, they won’t have children.  Common sense says, TALK!!  But there’s a problem.  Both couples have a crippling fear: What if you do strike up a conversation?  What if you form your own unique bond?  Your own special club?

…And then one of you gets your miracle?

Whether you like it or not, that bond is now broken.  They understood where you were, but they can never fully understand you again.  Emotionally, for the miracle-less couple, it’s like starting all over again.  It’s like picking at a scab with a butcher’s knife.

It is one of the infertile couple’s greatest fears.  So instead, many just don’t talk about it.  Ever.

Know someone that’s going through this?  Don’t know what to say or how to act?  Tired of feeling like you’re walking on eggshells?  Come back next week for the “Advice” post.


Dealing With Each Other:
A study that began in 2002 and tracked over 12,000 men and women from the ages of 15-44 found that women who gave birth to a child 8 months or more into a marriage were 79 percent more likely to celebrate a 10-year anniversary.  Childless couples only hit the 10-year mark 34 percent of the time.  Think about that…66 percent of childless marriages end in divorce.

I want to say that again so it will sink in: Two-thirds of all childless marriages end in divorce.

Why?
1)    Depression (for one or both of you).  You fall into a deep pit of sadness, and just never climb back out.  Steph thought for awhile that I would slowly begin to love her less, or just stop loving her altogether.  She went so far as to say that she wouldn’t blame me if I left her while I was young enough to find someone else and start a family with them.  Sounds silly, but this is actually a very common thought-process.  Ready for another shocking fact?  Studies have concluded that women dealing with infertility experience the same level of depression as those dealing with cancer.  I don’t know about you, but when I read this, I felt like a real jackass for how I dealt with Steph.  I tried to help as best I could, but I know I didn’t give her the love and support that I would have if she had been diagnosed with cancer.
2)    Feelings of guilt, shame, or embarrassment.  If the infertility lies with one person, they feel like they let their spouse down.  Growing up, Steph didn’t put much thought into kids.  I did.  I’ve always known that I wanted them.  I couldn’t wait.  Steph knew this before we even started a relationship.  It worried her because she still wasn’t sure that she wanted them.  Eventually, as her love for me deepened, she came to realize that she did want kids with me.  The idea excited her.  It’s one of the things that made her realize that she wanted to spend her life with me.  Then, when it became clear that we weren’t going to have kids, Steph thought she was being punished.  She spent her whole life not wanting kids…and God gave her just that.  Now it was her fault that I would never have the one thing I wanted most in the world.  She felt that she had “let me down.”
3)    Loss of romance or intimacy.  Sex became so robotic when we were doing the treatments, that not doing it felt like a relief for awhile.  The problem was that when we started again, the detached, chore-like feeling that we experienced through the treatments remained.  It wasn’t really enjoyable…for either of us.  I’m not making a joke or trying to be overly graphic, but the cliché “going through the motions” really fits here.  Also, Steph was dealing with image issues.  Remember, the fertility drugs + her PCOS caused her to put on a lot of weight.  She no longer felt attractive.  You add on to that the feeling of failure…of “letting me down”…sex wasn’t exactly on her mind.  Ever.  Over the last few years, there have been times we’ve gone months without having sex.  The longest drought has been five months.  Intimacy is vital to a healthy marriage.  We all know this.  Increased distance in the bedroom can directly be linked to a distance in the couple.  We definitely drifted apart.  For years.
4)    Decreased communication.  I’ve already spent some time on this recently, so I won’t go too much deeper here.  I’ll just add this: An infertile couple has great difficulty talking about their infertility with others.  In the same light, the infertile individual has great difficulty talking about their infertility with their spouse.  It kind of works the same way—I could “be there” for Steph, but it’s not like I could fully understand.  She didn’t totally shut me out, but there were just some things I couldn’t know.  At the same time, because of all the struggles Steph was going through, I kind of took it upon myself to be the strong one emotionally.  Due to that, I didn’t feel like I could share my pain with her.  I thought that if I did, she would be reminded of how she had “let me down,” and it would crush her all over again.  So…we both suffered silently a lot of the time.  Not talking to others.  Not talking to each other.  Obviously, a lack of communication is a detriment to any relationship.
5)    Resentment.  Sometimes it’s a subconscious thing, but there are spouses who resent their infertile significant other.  A lot of times, the resentment comes from a lack of conversations.  Example: The husband is willing to do whatever it takes, but the wife is adamantly against in vitro fertilization (IVF).  Because they didn’t discuss this before the treatments began, when it reached the IVF stage, a huge fight happened.  The couple did not go through IVF, and for the remainder of their marriage (however long that would be), the husband resents his wife for “not doing everything possible to conceive a baby.”  One thing that helped us get through it all was the perimeters we set from the beginning.  Before Steph started any tests or treatments, we knew that injections were not an option.  Surgery was not an option.  IVF was not an option.  Basically—we set the finish line.  In doing so, there were no fights along the way or even at the end.  At no point did I push her to go further.  Thankfully, resentment has never occurred for us.

Here is our marriage in a nutshell:  The first 2-3 years = happy.  C-R-A-Z-Y in love.  The middle 3-4 years = stressed.  Stretched thin.  Between the treatments and the diagnosis and the realization that this probably wasn’t going to happen for us, we slowly drifted apart.  We suffered a little together, sure, but we did most of our suffering privately.  The last 2-3 years = strangers.  We had drifted so far apart, that we really didn’t recognize each other anymore.

Still…

…I lied at the beginning of this post.  I said that there would be no uplifting message at the end…but there has to be.  See…66 percent of childless marriage end in divorce.  Most of those happen before the couple has been married for ten years.  In August, Steph and I will celebrate our ten-year anniversary.  How did we make it?  We obviously have dealt with a lot of adversity.  As you just read, we drastically drifted apart the last 6-7 years.  What happened?  How is it that we didn’t drift away to irreparable levels?

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. – 1 Corinthians 13:7

We’ll pick up here and conclude this series in two weeks with the “Where Are We Now” post.

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