Wednesday, December 26, 2012
Two weeks after we lost Ethan, Andrew and I grabbed lunch with my parents on Grand Avenue. While we were waiting for our food, I made a quick trip to the bathroom. As I stood there washing my hands, a hugely pregnant - beautifully pregnant - woman came through the door. She passed behind me and into one of the stalls. Hers was the first pregnant belly I had seen since my miscarriage and I couldn't take my eyes off of it. I lingered a while, long enough for her to come out of the stall. I tried not to be creepy. I didn't want to stare, but I was just so amazed. How did she get that far? I knew that women went full term and had healthy babies every minute of every day. But at the same time, because I lost my boy so easily, so quickly, without doing anything wrong, it felt like a miracle that this woman could be so close to her due date and still going strong. I also felt...jealous. It wasn't a bitter jealousy but rather a deep, sad jealousy - a physical ache that filled the spot where Ethan should have been.
So began my belly phobia.
While I was trying to balance grieving our losses with going through fertility treatments, baby bellies seem to be everywhere. They were at Target. They were at restaurants. They were definitely at church. Church was the worst. They came in groups. They came wrapped in pretty sundresses or cute t-shirts with funny sayings about pregnancy. They seemed to have neon signs floating above them, blinking with messages like "Check this out!" and "I know you want one!" I'm pretty sure at one point, even old guys with beer bellies triggered my phobia. That was a real low.
Friends' bellies seemed to be expanding all around me, and I tried my absolute hardest to be thrilled for them, to celebrate those little babies, to be inquisitive and interested and excited. I tried so hard that it became exhausting, especially since I knew I was really bad at it. I wanted a belly just like theirs. But mine was empty and flat. (Actually, that's not true. It wasn't flat at all. Fertility drugs make you bloated and give you a pooch. I have a friend whose IVF meds made her belly pop out far enough to inspire an acquaintance to ask when she was due...ouch. And in the days leading up to our embryo transfer, my belly grew two inches in 24 hours. When I finally announced my pregnancy at work some months later, a coworker said that she could tell I was pregnant way back in early March. Um...I wasn't pregnant then. Nice.) Some very kind, sensitive friends wore loose shirts and tried to downplay their baby bellies. I was always so grateful for their efforts but it didn't change the fact that those camouflaged bellies were all I could think about.
Being friends with infertile folks is not for the faint of heart. I'm sure there are plenty of exceptions, but women on fertility drugs (and their partners) don't often make the greatest friends. From the side effects of the medications to the depression to the jealousy to the fading fake smiles, we just aren't very fun. When Andrew and I were about two years deep into infertility treatments, we looked around and realized that we had lost most of our friends. We hadn't had the energy to set up double dates or accept invitations to get togethers. I should have taken advantage of the nights Andrew worked to schedule a girls night or see a movie with a friend. But it was just so much easier to stay in my sweatpants.
There is a song by Sara Groves called "Like a Lake." She sings, "Everything in me is tightening, curling in around this ache." That's what I did. I think that's what a lot of us do. We close in around our pain. We try to contain it, protect it and hold it dear. And in doing so, our eyes turn away from the rest of the world and its pain, from our loved ones and their distress, even from our partners and their heartache. Later in the song, Sara sings of "fighting to stay open" and in her voice you hear the effort it takes to keep oneself open "like a lake," to expose our pain and make ourselves vulnerable to the pain of others. It can be so easy to get stuck in our stuckness and to feel that because we have weathered a tragedy or because we are on a very difficult journey, we have an excuse to stay that way. In doing so, we lose. We miss out on our own lives and the lives of others. I did this for a bit. I'm so glad I'm not there anymore.
It wasn't until I was pregnant that I was able to jump back into relationships. It wasn't so much a jump as it was a crawl. Some friendships were easy to reignite. Others took a little extra work, hard conversations, and mutual forgiveness. I am so grateful for the friends who stood by us throughout this process, who understood that for the time being, our friendship was going to be sort of one-sided. I'm also grateful for the friends who gave us some space and then opened their hearts up to us when we were ready again.
Despite renewed relationships and restored energy, my belly phobia continued...even though I myself was looking quite...rotund. At birth classes and maternity stores, I often felt like I could have a panic attack. Surrounded by pregnant women, I forgot I was one of them. Even women who weren't as far along as I was inspired that ugly jealous feeling. After Harriet was born, I told her birth story to a group of expectant moms, and even then, with my very own child in my arms, I felt jealous of the bellies all around me. What's that about?! Maybe it's just a habit, an automatic response. I don't really know.
I do know that I'm getting much, much better. Really, I am. These days, I feel truly happy for pregnant friends. These days, I ask those questions everyone asks (How far along? Boy or girl? Where will you deliver?) with real care rather than feigned interest. But I still feel it - that little part of me that wants a belly just like theirs.
There is an exception to the jealousy, to the belly phobia. People often think that having experienced miscarriage and infertility, I must be angry about the addicts, the teenagers, the prostitutes, the women on welfare who get pregnant so easily and repeatedly. I am telling the full truth when I say that seeing them or hearing about them does not make me feel sorry for myself or angry in the least. Having a child can be as devastating for one woman as not having a child is for another. Who am I to say that my heartache is more noble than hers?
I know it sounds strange but I sometimes feel that these women can understand my plight better than most. They know what it is to struggle with the process of getting pregnant, coping with pregnancy, and having that child. I'm not talking about morning sickness and sleepless nights. I'm talking about making the toughest decisions of your life. I'm talking about deep, dark loneliness. I'm talking about looking around and feeling like nobody can help you, no matter how hard they try. I think that women with unplanned (and sometimes unwanted) pregnancies get that.
I think my belly phobia is strongest around those who don't seem to struggle with it at all. Getting pregnant (and staying pregnant) doesn't come easily for me, so if I'm not careful, I end up feeling sorry for myself around those people. I end up feeling jealous of the fact that they can actually decide when they feel like having a baby rather than having to save up thousands of dollars, involve doctors and nurses, and deal with month after month of heartbreak. That's when I have to remind myself that pregnancy has never come easily for me, but other things have.
It wasn't difficult for me to find a husband. Andrew was the first guy who ever took me on a date. (Well, there was this one guy who I was sure took me on a date but later found out we were just "hanging out"...awkward.) I have friends who have bravely gone on blind date after blind date the way I have done clomid cycle after clomid cycle. Their hope has dwindled just like mine. They have become frustrated and almost given up just like me. This has been their struggle, and while I have had the benefit of a partner to support me through it, they have done it...are doing it...alone. I hope and pray that they have struggled enough in the pursuit of a family and that God will give them children with little trouble. School has also come easily for me. I never doubted that I would finish college or that I would get a master's degree. But I know people who have struggled with academics and have had to work like crazy for every single credit. So fertility is my challenge. It's got to be something, right? Why not this?
People say losing a child is the worst thing that can happen to a person. Maybe it is. But maybe it isn't. Maybe ranking people's pain as bad, worse, and worst is completely ridiculous. Especially in the world of infertility, we tend to measure our losses against one another. But from what I've observed, we rarely invalidate other people's losses. We're more likely to downplay our own. If we had an early miscarriage and someone else's child was stillborn, we feel that we shouldn't be as sad as they are. If we have been trying to get pregnant for two years and someone else has been on this road for five, we become embarrassed at our level of frustration. We chastise ourselves for not being as strong as the next person. Just like with the belly phobia, I'm not sure why this happens. I wish it didn't.
It won't be long before I'll be in active pursuit of another baby belly. It will be interesting to see whether my belly phobia crops up again. I sure hope I will be able to avoid curling in around my ache. I sure hope I will be able to stay open and aware of other people's struggles. I sure hope I can keep from measuring my journey against the journeys of those around me. And if you're in a similar situation, I hope the same for you. It's so, so hard. But where did we get the idea that we couldn't handle hard?