It’s amazing how the right topics come to me … as if delivered by the Holy Spirit (or a really networked friend, i.e. Priscilla Warner) because I have been wanting to discuss the subject of fertility and depression for some time. I know from reading the comments of many Beyond Blue readers that depression is so often a result of infertility … because of our culture’s expectations, because of people’s ignorance.
Writer Christina Gombar is willing to share her story with us, and in so doing will no doubt speak to the silent sufferers among us. She is also an accomplished writer whose commentary on women’s issues appeared in The London Review of Books, The New York Times, Working Woman, Scholastic, and the Providence Journal. She is the author of “Great Women Writers,” and has been the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow.
Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed, Christina!
1. In your piece for “Exhale,” a literary magazine for “intelligent people who have lost a baby, or can’t figure out how to make one in the first place,” you lay out some creation myths:
* People can go from desperately wanting a child, to “choosing” to be ?child free.
* Anyone can adopt.
* Women wind up childless because they put off marriage to establish ?careers; or were looking for Mr. Right instead of Mr. Good Enough.
* Anyone who wants a baby can get one, because this is America, ?where there is a solution to every problem.
* Pets, gardening, or spending time with other people’s children fills ?in for not having biological children of one’s own.
* People without children are not real adults, and don’t know what ?real love is.
* Infertility is a women’s issue.
I’m so glad you listed all of those, because I admit to having believed some of them. It certainly made me think. Of the seven, which do you think is most harmful to women who can’t have children?
Christina: Each is the most important to whomever the myth is misapplied. Probably the most common is women put off children for their careers. This isn’t the fifties, very few women have the option of graduating high school or college and having a man at the ready to marry, willing and able to take on her and a child. Women who go to college generally come out in debt with huge loans, so do their husbands. They can’t afford day care.
My situation isn’t reflected in any of these myths. I got married young but soon got very sick. I spent my twenties paying off my education, working too many jobs in very tough environments. I got fired from my Wall Street for being sick, yet had to have a good income and health benefits to have a child. Many people who benefit from a supportive extended family at the time they have children don’t understand that many of us don’t have those advantages.
Also, the very assumption that childlessness in a married couple equals infertility in the woman. My friend Elsa wasn’t infertile — her husband was, by vasectomy. By the time they divorced, she was 43. I think there needs to be drawn a distinction between a woman who has gynological problems that stop her from getting pregnant at 25, and situational infertility like childlessness by marriage, and then women who start families at 50. That’s not true infertility, that’s past the natural biological childbearing age.
As I blogged on the New York Times, when celebrities are showcased having babies in their forties, then fifties, society gradually sees this as normal. Mainstream consumer magazines run articles about freezing your eggs in your twenties, so you can have a baby at 45, instead of talking about retuning society and the economic system to make it easier for young women to have children at biologically natural ages.
The solution really, is not to come up with newer and more advanced fertility treatments or yet more third-world adoption options. But to make the world safe and welcoming for people who wind up without children, often for very good reasons.
Many many childless people feel bereaved — it is a situation that deserves respect, not pity or gloating.
2. In that same article you mention your friend Elsa, whose older husband didn’t want more kids. She was often pitied, her husband demonized. People said to her, daily:
• “You’re selfish.”
• “You don’t know what real love is.”
• “Your husband will leave you.”
And then you go one to say that he did leave her “because with so few counterparts in her workplace and community, her sense of private loss and public alienation corroded her marriage beyond repair.” Man, that is such a crucial message there … the absolute requirement of support. If an infertile woman wants to make her marriage work–wants to become immune, if at all possible to the toxic messages around her concerning this issue–what should she do?
Christina: I think the real question is — what can society do to normalize Elsa’s situation? An urban area is more accepting of non-nuclear families, as well as singles. I think it’s her friends, neighbors, pastor, yoga instructors (who might, for example, address the class as if everyone were a Mom — i.e. — “Moms are tired” … as if no one else had challenging life situations!) Her co-workers who preface every meeting with ceaseless chatter about their children. The women at the gym who turn their back in the middle of a conversation when one of their “Mom” friends comes in. It is truly a social status of second-class citizen.
Elsa tried to become very involved in her nieces and nephew, but sometimes the parents, her siblings, resented this.
There is no push button answer. Most books on childlessness are written NOT by people who are childless, but by psychotherapists who are mothers. We need to be able to speak for ourselves, to be heard. The Internet is a great resource lately, but these blogs weren’t around four years ago, when my friend was going through this.
3. You say that 44 percent of women in their childbearing years don’t have children, and some never will. And “while the world is rightly concerned with family issues, the constant focus on motherhood can make it easy for a childless woman to feel that she is less than a woman, that in failing to reproduce, she as failed at life.” Poignant and powerful words. I agree with you. So what can the infertile woman do to feed and nurture herself in a family-oriented world? And especially the infertile woman who suffers from depression? What have you done to sustain your sense of self?
Christina: I’d like to point out — that 44% figure — is women from 15 to 44. As we all know, those numbers can be exceeded in both directions! This figure includes women who may have a step-child, but no biological child of their own — often by their husband’s choice. Step-mothers often parent, but they don’t get the societal credit for it. I have several friends in this situation.
I can speak for what works for me, which might not necessarily work for someone else. First, I write, which is not a replacement for having a child of one’s own, but a distraction, pleasure, obsession, assertion, as well as a way to vent. I am lucky that many of my depressions have been cured by travel, a change of scene, whether a day in New York or a yoga retreat. I get out in nature, I pray and meditate.
The tough thing is, sometimes you pray and you get the answer you don’t want. You can have faith, and the thing you want can still be denied you. Once someone said to me, God has another plan for you. I’ve always had to be very flexible, so I’m O.K. with that. I went to a faith healer once, and she warned, The outcome may not be what you want.
Going to places of religious worship can be very difficult — the Catholic church has respect for the celibate childless (of course!) nuns and priests, and for families, but the message is never good for childless married adults. The message is always, if you believe, God will give you this. But it’s not always possible. I always have to explain to people that I’m not even eligible to adopt, due to health and financial circumstances. Clearly, it is God’s will for some of us to remain childless.
Some years ago, I remember being at the Catholic church at Easter, and while in previous years it had been hard not to feel left out and maligned, both by the sermon and the other congregants, I had a still moment, looking at the decorated ceiling, and I got this message from God, at first this faint tingling glimmer, then a feeling of certainty, that it was O.K. for me to be exactly as I am.
But I constantly have to remind myself of this, because the outer world isn’t telling me that. I remind myself that I have two aunts who didn’t have children, and have had full and happy lives and very enduring marriages, like my own marriage. They were always good role models growing up. I had two uncles who were priests — one, still teaching at 75, took my older sister and me off my mother’s hands to all the Disney films. The other, who sadly passed away a few years back, used to take us on swimming outings to Sherwood Island, a large state park in Connecticut. It was too much of a trip for my mother, who had younger children, work, and her own parents to take care of.
I remind myself how valued these and other childless people were and are in my life. My best teachers, bosses, colleagues, doctors, lawyers, friends — have often been childless. They have a lot more to give, and they give it freely.
I’d like to tell infertile and/or childless people to just tune out the crazyiness! A few years ago I read a story about then-57 year old, former Good Morning America host Joan Lunden, whose husband had twins by a surrogate, using the eggs from a third woman — and then another set when Lunden was 57. Lunden declared, “I want readers to know this is absolutely O.K. If they’re not her eggs, they’re not her baby.”
Well, I’m not a celebrity, I don’t have a platform like Joan Lunden, but I’d like to float the message that It’s Absolutely O.K. not to do a third world adoption, Foster Care, or a fertility treatment that seems wrong for you on a gut level. But society, and the media especially, needs to start getting the message across that adults without children are O.K. just as they are. I appreciate you giving me this platform.
4. You mention that you have read dozens of blogs as you search online for kinship regarding this issue. Could you share with my readers some of your favorites? Where are the childless hubs online?
Christina: The first I came across last spring was Nymphe: Living Childless and Child Free. The woman who authors the blog is actually childless by marriage, but feels the lack terribly. It’s a very intelligent, deep-thinking forum. Click here for a recent post that addresses some of the complicated spiritual issues of coping with grief.
Another, Coming2Terms.com, is hosted by a woman who confronted fertility issues in her twenties and spent about 15 years going through the IVF mill. She had spent a lot of time on the many fertility blogs during treatments — and found that she needed to create a safe place for people who experienced “the flip side of IVF” that the media seldom talks about.
Finally, Childless By Marriage is pretty self-explanatory! Blogs are probably starting up every day.
In the future I plan to write more for people who live without parenting due to health issues. The media just shows us the woman paralyzed from the neck down who managed to have a baby — with a huge support system, money, etc. Most chronically ill people I know are unmarried and trying to keep a roof over their heads. To become obsessed with having a baby in such a marginal life situation is just madness, but we live in a baby-mad culture right now.
All the discussions of parenthood in the CI (chronic illness) community tend to center on how to get a baby, and get those around you to take care of the baby as well as you. In one discussion blog, a woman wondered if it was wrong to have a child with all her disabilities. Another who’d done so quoted scripture to justify spanking, and spoke of monitoring her children from her bed. I was a voice crying out in the wilderness, when I suggested accepting a childless life as God’s will.
I wrote: “You can develop tunnel vision when you’re in the midst of an infertility struggle.” I want to let other people in my situation know that there’s a light at the end of that tunnel.
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