So how are the cats June, have you decided to add to your litter?
It was this seemingly innocuous question by a lovely mother of twins, at a recent birthday party for a friend’s little girl that stopped me in my tracks. I suddenly realized that not being a mother immediately made me a crazy cat lady in her mind.
Did all other women see me like this?
It also drove home the point that because I wasn’t a mother the only other thing women who are lucky enough to be mothers, could think to ask me about, was cats.
Don’t get me wrong as everyone who knows me will tell you I adore our cats. In fact I love all animals. I also love my wonderful siblings, my gorgeous nieces and nephews, my very handsome husband, my dad, and I miss my lovely mum every day.
I love my work, spending time with dear friends, writing, reading, going on long walks and sitting outside coffee shops watching the world go by.
What I am trying to say is that just because a woman isn’t a mother, doesn’t make her less of a woman.
It shouldn’t stop conversations with other women dead in their tracks when the response to how many children do you have? is “none”. But it does.
Some women have made a conscious decision not to have children. That is their choice; their right and I support them in that.
To be content in life without conforming to societal pressures to be a mum just because you are a woman of a certain age, must be hugely liberating. However I can imagine that having to explain that choice to those that cannot accept it, must be very wearing.
Then there are the women like me who ache everyday to be a mother.
It is estimated that one in six couples in Ireland are affected by infertility and my heart goes out to each and every one of them.
Infertility has been ranked as one of the great stressors in life, comparable to divorce or a death in the family.
However unlike bereavement where time can help, its passing can simply intensify the sorrow of infertility.
According to the 2005 Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction “Infertility is a medical and social condition that can cause considerable social, emotional and psychological distress.”
The Commission continued, “For those who want to have children, infertility can be an extremely traumatic experience, characterised by feelings of guilt, low self-esteem, depression, and sometimes consequent relationship difficulties and sexual dysfunction. These psychological effects have been compared to those following bereavement.
“The process of discovery and comprehension involved in the diagnosis and treatment of infertility can be a very isolating period for the individual or couple. There may be social consequences too, as extended families and local communities share bonds through child rearing from which childless individuals and couples feel isolated.”
Isolation is a very good word to explain how those affected by infertility feel every day. Loneliness also works.
In the past seven years my lovely husband and I have been living with unexplained infertility. We have had two full rounds of IVF and two cycles using frozen embryos. The first round resulted in a much longed for positive pregnancy result. Sadly however the joy was short lived as I miscarried at nine weeks. The other cycles were unsuccessful.
We have also been to numerous christenings, first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth birthday parties. While we feel privileged to be invited to these wonderfully joyous occasions, they are also always tinged with deep sadness.
I have learned to perfect my “how wonderful face” when women I know tell me they are expecting their second, third and fourth babies.
I ask all the right questions, “when are you due”, “how are you feeling?” “Are you going to the Rotunda again?” “Do you know if it is a boy or a girl?”
Then I go home and dissolve into tears, rally against the unfairness of it all and berate myself for not being able to do what it seems like every other woman I know can do, and my heart breaks all over again.
I then feel immediately feel guilty for being so selfish.
I was and continue to be genuinely delighted when my friends and my sisters announce their pregnancies.
I adore being “Aunty Juney” to all their gorgeous children and it is a huge privilege to be involved in their lives.
I just wish their wonderful news didn’t hurt so much.
I don’t think anyone who hasn’t been through the heartbreak of infertility can ever truly understand how devastating it is and continues to be. You are grieving for your future or what you imagined it would be.
And for the record well meaning as they may be, stories of how a neighbour’s wife had 2 children at the age of 47 after a trip to Lourdes don’t help. Neither does advice to “relax and it will happen.”
What does help however is a little bit of sensitivity and insight.
If you are friends with a woman like me all we ask is that you try to understand and be mindful of our grief.
Tell us your wonderful news and exciting plans. But please don’t go into every tiny detail of your pregnancy, your worry that you will put on weight and lose your figure. You have no idea how much we would give for that chance.
Share your genuine worries that all will be well; I am your friend and a good listener.
But please don’t show us the scan photos they hurt way too much, especially to those whose last scan was to confirm a miscarriage.
When we meet for coffee and your new arrivals are now a gorgeous boy of four and a chatty girl of three, tell me about them.
I want to know how they are, what they have been up to, the wonderful things they have said.
But please don’t spend the precious two hours we have together talking them about and nothing else.
You are a bright, intelligent and funny woman. I want to know how you are, what you have been doing and what you think.
And when you meet me at a children’s birthday party please don’t ask me about the cats in the mistaken belief I have nothing else to mind, to nurture, to care for. Ask me about my gorgeous nieces and nephews just as I have asked about your lovely family.
I know all the words to “Do you want to build a snowman” from the film Frozen and have seen the pride in a three year old’s face when she reaches the highest point of the playground slide. Indulge me in a “proud aunty Juney” moment.
We have not given up hope and plan to embark on the IVF rollercoaster again in the summer.
The possibility that this time too it could fail is never far from our minds, and we wonder if we will have the strength to go on if faced by more crushing disappointment.
However the thoughts that maybe, just maybe, this time it might work are also there, willing us to go on and give it one more go.