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Examining and reclaiming your identity after infertility.

How long did you spend trying to get pregnant? Did you try any medical interventions?

We spent around three years trying to conceive. The first year and a half we were trying on our own by just getting busy as often as we could! I was only 25-26 at the time, so after trying for that long we knew something wasn’t right. My periods were irregular and painful, so we figured that was a factor, but at that point it was all a guessing game. That’s when we decided to seek help from a doctor.

Over a period of several months, we did all of the initial tests: blood work, ultrasounds, pelvic exams, HSG, and a semen analysis. What we found out was that I have PCOS and endometriosis, and on top of that, my husband’s sperm has low motility. The first step was treating the PCOS to see if that helped at all. While I was able to finally tolerate the PCOS symptoms better, it did nothing to help my fertility.

After all of this, we decided to proceed with a specialist’s medical intervention. We started with Clomid and progesterone treatments, but they went very poorly. I almost immediately had complications from the medications. Not only did I have the typical hormonal side effects, I grew huge, painful ovarian cysts. Because of this, I stopped the treatment after only a month or two. There was such a large chance of the same thing happening again I chose not to try another round.

With non-invasive treatments no longer an option, we decided our journey to become biological parents was at an end.

How did you know you were ready to stop trying?

From the very beginning, Wes and I knew we did not want to pursue any invasive treatments like IUI or IVF to try and get pregnant. We decided that if it came to that, we would consider adoption first. So when the more simple solutions didn’t work, we knew the time had come to stop trying. This might sound very practical and straightforward, but it was a painful realization that we to grapple with. Because of the hurt we were recovering from, adoption wasn’t even discussed for a long time.

What resources, support, or other things were most helpful in making the decision to stop trying and to help you work through grief?

At the time, I didn’t know of any resources for people like me who were ready to move on from that part of their lives. It seemed like everything was geared towards women who were still trying to beat their infertility, rather than accept it as I wanted to do. Or, they were people who never wanted children in the first place, which didn’t apply to me. So in that way, I felt rather alone.

But, knowing that we had a stopping point was very helpful to me. I am a very black and white person, and if there was any grey area in this process I would probably still be struggling. I know that not everyone can relate to that; we are all different and for some that greyness is comforting. But for me personally it was important to know when to let go.

And of course, having an ally by my side was the thing that gave me the most strength. Wes and I were on the same page from the beginning, which means we had to have some serious discussions. I know this can be hard for some of us, but being open and honest about what you want is so important to getting the support you need.

How long after you stopped trying did the shift from mostly grief to mostly at peace with your situation happen?

As I mentioned, I am a pretty black and white type of thinker. I did have a mourning period, but it was short. What I mostly felt was that a huge weight had been lifted. I felt relieved that there would be no more doctor’s appointments, no more failed tests, no more worrying and wondering. My focus shifted from wanting to identify as a parent to wanting to be a great wife, sister, daughter, and friend.

Are there changes you made in your life that you wouldn’t have made if you had become a parent?

While we didn’t necessarily make huge life changes after deciding to the childfree, we certainly added to and enriched our lives. Wes and I travel a lot, volunteer, have good friends, are close to our families, have hobbies, and are more in love with each other now than we have ever been. We are planning a five week road trip this summer and I don’t think we would have been able to even consider it if we had children.

What are the aspects you appreciate most about your childfree life?

I appreciate the way it brought Wes and I together. We shifted our focus from becoming parents, to becoming better partners. We are so in love and just into each other. Without having a child as the focal point of our lives, we are each other’s world. There isn’t anyone else I would rather spend my time with.

And I love, love our freedom. It might sound selfish, but it’s true. I love that we can go out of town at a moment’s notice. We get to eat whatever we want (though, this isn’t always a good thing, haha), and do what we want when we want to do it. We have the time and means to pursue hobbies and interests we have. Our choices and plans for the future are ours alone and it is one of the best feelings. Some of these things might sound small and petty to others, but it makes our lives richer and fuller than ever before.

I also appreciate how it has let us become closer to our families. We are able to give more time and effort into our relationships with them. One of my most favorite things is being an Auntie and having a close relationship with my nieces and nephews.

Are there aspects of your identity you had to shift in the transition to a childfree life?

Oh, for sure. I had to choose to change where I was putting my attention. I had wanted to be a mother since I was a child. I was the one who played with her baby dolls more than any other toy, and loved spending time around my baby cousins and being able to play with and care for them. I had to make a conscience decision to move past that and start believing I could be more than a mother. I’m not saying that in a way to put mothers down, what I mean is that I had to understand that it wasn’t my only option and it isn’t the only path to take in life.

Plus, I suddenly had all of this freedom to work with. As cheesy as it sounds, I had to look inside myself and see what else was there. What I found was that I am artistic and creative, I am adventurous, I love reading and learning new things, and I had dreams that were suddenly more realistic and achievable.

If you could wave a magic wand and have a baby in your arms, would you do it? Or do you prefer your current life?

No way! For now, I wouldn’t change our life for anything. I’m happy with our choice to be childfree. All of the good things I mentioned above are fulfilling enough for me to be whole without a child. Also, through this I have discovered a few reasons that parenthood would not have been a good match for me in particular. I deal with mental illness that requires medication and therapy, as well as chronic pain from the endometriosis. These two factors alone put enough stress in my life that I don’t know how I would handle a baby on top of it. Not to say that you can’t be a great parent if you deal with similar issues, but I imagine it makes things a bit tougher. If I didn’t have time and energy to put into myself, I don’t think I would be as healthy as I am today.

What advice do you have for those who have just made the decision to give up their dream of parenting?

Refocus your priorities. It might not sound simple, but it was the main thing that got me through the realization that I would never be a parent. Instead of putting money into doctor’s appointments and treatments, go on a vacation and reconnect with your partner. Take the time you would have spent pouring through TTC forums or learning about new treatments, and pick up a hobby you’ve been putting off. Take the time to do things that bring you the most joy. Do things outdoors like camping and hiking. Or if that’s not your thing, keep on eye on gallery openings and special exhibits at your local museums. There are beer gardens and music festivals and art walks you can attend. Even if you like the quiet, calm life at home with your books and crafts, just don’t dwell on the past. Plan a future just for you and your partner, and actively work towards it.

Interested in sharing your childfree by chance story through Chasing Creation? Drop me a line through my contact page.

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I used to be infertile. According to Jean and Michael Carter, authors of Sweet Grapes: How to Stop Being Infertile and Start Living Again, “you can stop being infertile even if you are not fertile.” That “when a couple is no longer ‘trying to get pregnant’, they are no longer infertile. They no longer have the medical problem called infertility.”

I have a lot of books I want to review but I’m starting with this one because it played a monumental role in helping me see a path forward after infertility.

Who should read it?

Anyone who feels they are reaching their limit for how much they are willing to sacrifice in trying to create a baby. Whether that’s time, money, physical or mental health, or energy. Maybe you have run out of options for fertility treatments or aren’t willing or able to pursue the options available, but the alternative of a childless life is terrifying to you. Maybe you stopped trying to get pregnant or gave up on your dream of motherhood a long time ago but find that you can’t move past your grief, and infertility and childlessness is still dominating your identity. Read this book.

While the main audience for this book is those who are infertile, it also applies to those who are childless by circumstance. If you’re not sure what I mean by that, check out Jody Day’s list of “50 Ways to Not be a Mother.”

Lastly, this is a great read for those who want to support a loved one who is moving from infertility to a life without children and you’re not sure how to help or don’t understand why they are making the decision to stop trying. Read this book.

The gist.

The main theme of Sweet Grapes is that “you may be able to transform yourself from childless to childfree, from a life defined by what you don’t have to a life defined by the opportunities that living without children can bring…there is hope that your infertility crisis can be resolved and you can get on with your life, even if you don’t end up with a child.”

If you’re in the midst of infertility and are holding on to the hope of a baby, this idea probably terrifies you. Those of us who end our infertility journeys broken and babyless are the worst nightmares of those who are still trying. In the midst of infertility, you need to believe the odds are in your favor. However, if you are getting to a stopping point you absolutely need a new dream, something new to hope for. The authors propose that the “decision to live childfree is not giving up hope but finding hope once again, the hope that you can have a good life without children.”

Sounds easy, right? It’s not. The authors recognize that “infertility is one of the most traumatic experiences you can endure.” The transition from childless to childfree is hard and your loss and grief won’t vanish completely, but you can create a new vision for a rich and satisfying life that is waiting for you, even if it looks different than the one you originally planned.

In the book, the authors propose a four step process to move from childless to childfree that looks like this:

  1. You begin with a need for something better, and a hope that you can find joy in life again. Also important at the beginning is an awareness that choice is possible, that childfree is possible.
  2. You search yourself for any decision blockers and work to reduce or eliminate them. It is necessary to grieve for and accept the loss of your fertility before you can work on living childfree. But even with acceptance of the loss, there are other blockers that could obstruct your decision making.
  3. Then you do the real work of making a choice. You communicate, and through communication you search out ways to redefine your life according to the potential gains to be found in living without children. You try on the idea of living childfree and see how it fits.
  4. If you find that living childfree feels right, you commit to it by registering the decision and living out the benefits that childfree offers.

One of my favorite aspects of this book is it includes an amazing section on step two: working through grief. This was helpful for me because so many resources on grief specifically focus on death. “Infertility, however, is what one psychologist calls a deathless death. What makes infertility so painful is that there are so many focuses for grief: every trip to the doctor, every pregnant woman we see, every month when the period begins.”

I appreciated that the authors included so much information on moving through grief because to me it seems this is the most challenging aspect of coming to terms with being childless. The book includes a few different grief models outlined by psychologists Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and John Schneider, and how they apply to an infertility crisis specifically. They also talk about the importance of actively working through grief instead of getting stuck in it, and how this can make all the difference in making peace with your situation.

For example, denial, in Schneider’s model, comes from the defense mechanisms of holding on or letting go.

Holding on is a strategy by which people attempt to cope with a loss either by ignoring it or by trying to direct their energies in another direction. Letting go…is a strategy through which people try to cope with their loss by minimizing that loss as much as possible. They convince themselves that what they have lost is not important anyway…Both holding on and letting go are normal responses to pain of a loss or a potential loss. It hurts and we want to limit the hurt. However, when people rely too much on these coping mechanisms, they become stagnated in this phase, unable to take their grief any further. The problem with this is that while we are holding on or letting go, grief cannot run its beneficial course. You can’t grieve as long as you deny that there is a loss.

The book also talks about two concepts that many in the infertility world might say they no longer have: choice and control. In Jean and Michael’s opinion, living childfree requires making a conscious choice. The alternative choice is trying the next treatment or taking steps to adopt. Those who don’t choose anything becoming what they refer to as drifters, “people who don’t decide to stop treatment, they just don’t bother to go the the doctor any more. They don’t decide not to adopt, they just never get around to it…they don’t decide to live childfree; they remain childless.”

So what does it mean to choose to live childfree? “It means embracing your childlessness as a positive state, as an opportunity for growth, as a path to greater achievement and happiness. It means no longer defining yourself in terms of what you don’t have. It means changing failure into success, negative into positive. It means reclaiming the energy that allows you to be yourself again.” It’s passages like this that make me love this book so much. Wisdom from those who moved past their infertility crisis to create a rich, beautiful life without children.

Other topics in Sweet Grapes include: dealing with regret, how to prepare for not having children in a pronatalist society, finding new outlets for your maternal instinct, planning for old age, what reactions you can expect from family and friends, adoption, and redefining your identity.

The pros.

The authors, Jean and Michael Carter, do a fantastic job of incorporating their own story as well as research studies, relevant theories, and advice. The writing duo is a married couple who experienced infertility and, when their journey didn’t end with a babe in arms, decided to move to plan B by embracing the benefits of not having children.

This book was written in 1998 so it was ahead of its time and one of the first to focus on how to move forward when infertility doesn’t end with a baby. While there are more current books out there, this one is unique in how it frames the concept of transitioning from childless to childfree.

I bought this book while I was planning a second IVF round, but didn’t read it then because the idea terrified me. The thought of getting to the end of my infertility journey without being a mom was too painful for me to consider. But, as my endometriosis pain got worse and it became clear that another IVF round would do too much harm to my body, this book helped me make the difficult decision to stop treatment. It was a godsend because it gave me hope, a new vision for a happy and fulfilled life without children.

If you are still trying to get pregnant but are realizing you may be reaching the limits of what you can sacrifice in hope of a baby, read this book.

The cons.

This book was written in 1998. Because of that, it does feel dated at times. The terminology, societal context, research, and statistics all reflect that. I would love to see an updated version.

My second issue with the book is it’s very repetitive and a bit disorganized. The authors have a few ideas they obviously loved and keep repeating them with slightly different wording throughout the book. A few more rounds of edits and reorganizing some of the content would have improved readability.

Favorite quotes.

“Instead of being unsuccessful parents-to-be, we were very successful nonparents. Failure was no longer the major theme of our lives.”

 

“According to this medical definition, infertility is a very specific and limited condition. It doesn’t mean that your marriage is infertile or that your life is infertile.”

 

“We realized that choosing to live childfree is just as ‘successful’ a way of resolving an infertility crisis as having a biological child or adopting. It is not a failure or resignation to fate, instead, it is an affirmation of who we are and of our ability to live full, productive, happy lives because of who we are. We discovered that we don’t need children to be a family.”

 

“There is more than one way to ‘cure’ infertility. One is by becoming fertile, having a child of your own genetic structure. That’s the cure we all hope for during our infertility workup and treatment. But there is another cure, too: by no longer wanting to get pregnant. One way to effect this second cure is by putting your dreams of a biological child behind you and deciding to adopt. Another way is by discovering that for you, life without children can be rich and satisfying, and thus you no longer want to have children.”

 

“There is no equation in which three romantic dinners equal one wet kiss on cheek. On the other hand, if there are some benefits to living without children, why not take advantage of them?”

 

“I am learning that I am limited as a person only as far as I allow myself to be, that my happiness does not depend on having children. I must let go of what I do not have and concentrate on what I can become.”

Have you read Sweet Grapes: How to Stop Being Infertile and Start Living Again? What did you think?

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A few months ago I was at a full moon circle, a small event where women gather to let go of the things that aren’t serving them and to make space for what they want to create. We ended the night with a type of meditation called breathwork.

As I lay there, focused on my breathing, one sentence kept playing in my mind: I never knew real love until I had a child. I’ve heard this or variations of it many times over the past few years and it haunts me. Because if it’s true, it means that all the love I have in my life isn’t “real” but the shadow of something greater that I can never experience.

I thought of other hurtful statements I’ve heard: that parents have a greater capacity for empathy; that having children is the meaning of life; that people without kids are selfish; that God blessed them with children or a miracle baby; that you aren’t a “real” woman until you’ve given birth; that having kids is what makes you a family.

Then, in contrast to the mashup of awful thoughts swimming in my head and with tears streaming down my face, snapshots of my life came into focus.

My mom taking on my grief, crying with me during life-shattering moments. My husband’s face when I make him laugh and the way his eyes look when he’s worried about me. The overwhelming awe and joy I feel when I see my nieces and nephews. The themed sleepovers my dad would plan when I was a kid to make weekends at his house special. The weekly Mario Kart battles I have with my brother where we talk and drink for hours. The warm, engaging conversations I have with my brother-in-law and his wife. The way my sisters can always make me laugh and how our history connects us in a way unlike any other. My friends that are so close they have become family.

If this isn’t real love then I don’t know if I need real love. Because the love I have now is so strong, so powerful that it already feels hard to contain. The beauty of it overwhelms me. If I am fortunate enough to sustain this level of love throughout my life, I will die knowing that I loved deeply, wholly, and was loved that way in return.

In that moment, I decided to start telling myself a different story. I’m sharing it here because it is just as true for you as it is for me.

I am not a mom,
but I know real love.

I am not a mom,
but I am a powerful source of creation.

I am not a mom,
but there are endless ways I can contribute to this world.

I am not a mom,
but I have the ability to nurture.

I am not a mom,
but anyone who identifies as a woman is a “real” woman.

I am not a mom,
but I have a family, some members by blood and some I chose.

I am not a mom,
but I am empathetic because I have felt a wide range of emotions inherent to the human experience.

I am not a mom,
but I have the power to create a life that is meaningful to me.

I am not a mom,
but I am full of love and energy that I can choose to invest as I wish.

As I was repeating these mantras in my mind, the woman leading the meditation walked over and placed her hands lightly on either side of my hips, her fingers across my pelvic area where my womb used to be. It felt comforting and a little spooky since I had never met her and she knew nothing about me or my situation.

When the meditation was over, I asked her if she had touched other women in the circle that way and she replied no, just me. I asked her why and she said she tries to stay open to the energy of what each woman in the circle was needing. I still am not entirely sure how to process this experience, but I like to believe it was the universe sending confirmation that although I am not a mom, I am enough.

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There are moments so life-altering that as you experience them you know you will never be the same again. That forever after, you think of your life as pre and post the experience. Birth, death, marriage, heartbreak, can change who you are so completely that it alters your identity. These moments are so powerful because of the gain or loss we experience as a result. A birth or marriage expands families and relationships. Death and heartbreak sever them.

Throughout my life, I assumed that having a baby would be one of those life-altering experiences for me. That I would have clearly defined chapters labeled “before I was a mom” and “after I was a mom”. In 2013, I started trying to get pregnant. Four years later that journey ended, not with the ever elusive yet longed for miracle baby, but with a hysterectomy.

I was wildly unprepared for this and it knocked me into a lonely, dark place. I had planned on a beautiful, life-altering event and experienced the opposite: loss and grief that consumed me to the core. So I did what I always do when my anxiety-ridden brain feels a loss of control. I researched. I read everything I could find on living an unexpectedly childfree life, found supportive online communities, went to therapy, read memoirs, talked to friends and family, tapped into spirituality, you name it.

I was looking for a road map. Instructions on how to move forward when just getting out of bed felt impossible. Unfortunately, there isn’t an aisle in the bookstore for this situation. The path feels lonely and untrodden. Slowly though, I’ve been gathering resources that, cobbled together, are helping me design an unexpectedly childfree life. Giving me a path forward through the grief and anger.

I’m at the beginning of my journey and I don’t have all the answers, but I have found hope through the wisdom and stories of women who started this journey long before me. Who have cleared the brush and left footprints for me to follow. Through Chasing Creation, I hope to share the resources I find along my journey, to add a bit of light for my sisters that will follow on this path.

Maybe together we can answer the question that plagues me: can a life defining moment that feels so devastating and full of loss eventually be redesigned into something beautiful?

For those of you on this journey with me, I hope we can connect through this project. That together we can share our wisdom, move forward on the path, and get to a place in our journey where we can yell a resounding “YES” to those just starting out.

How about you? Where have you gone to build community and healing?

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