Still here, still hopeful

A reader got in touch to say that couples trying for a baby need to hear they’re doing great too. We are very grateful to her for writing about her experience and letting us share it here. She has asked to remain anonymous.

Swirl

We’ve been trying to have a baby, my husband and I, and it’s not working. For nearly three years we’ve been at it: planning sex, taking tests, seeing doctors, taking temperatures, adjusting diets, avoiding alcohol, avoiding stress. We are exhausted. We are definitely stressed. We are bound so tight it’s sometimes hard to breathe.

It’s a situation made worse by the fact that nothing is technically ‘wrong’. There are a lot of reasons for infertility, but ours remains ‘unexplained.’ Everything should work, it just doesn’t. We haven’t been successful. We haven’t been lucky.

I remember what it felt like in the beginning, starting to try for a family. It was exciting and terrifying and we didn’t know what we were letting ourselves in for, but we wanted a baby. Our friends were settling down and starting to fall pregnant. We would do the same and be part of that community, guiding each other through the pitfalls of parenthood as our children grew up together.

That was the plan, anyway. Looking back a clear metaphor comes to mind. I see us sailing down a river along with our friends and colleagues, all of us in our separate couple-boats, waving to each other and having fun. As each couple falls pregnant their boat peels away, heading for the shore and we wave and laugh and keep going, keep sailing, waiting for the time when we will change course and return to land. As time passes more and more boats leave us and the river opens out into the sea. We start to feel nervous, helpless. We have no food or water, no life-jackets. No-one told us we might be away for a long time. No-one told us we might never return. The last boat peels away and we are left alone.

We are at sea now, my husband and I, sailing the calm mid-cycle waters, when hope is as intoxicating as love, and surviving the crashing end-of-cycle lows, when our boat is battered by wave after wave after wave. We are stuck here, sailing steadily onwards, too sad to face the thought of life without a child, too weary to think of IVF and the enormous pressures it brings.

We keep sailing, but we can no longer remember the land.

Aside from a few close family and friends, we don’t talk about our experience of trying for a baby. Part of it has to do with the language surrounding fertility. The first time someone labelled my condition as ‘unexplained infertility’ I immediately wanted to squirm away from it, as if something heavy had been placed on me. The word ‘infertile’ seemed so final and it presumed I was broken, defective. It took what precious hope I had and squashed it.

The other reason we don’t talk much about our experience is because of the pressure and awkwardness that comes with telling a person. Our situation reminds me of grief – it’s heavy and it doesn’t go away. People who ‘know’ see us after a month or two or six and nothing has changed, we are still here, going through the same things, making the same choices every day. It’s uncomfortable for them to deal with and inevitably, we receive a lot of advice. I am often told to ‘relax’ – that when I let go or just stop trying, it will happen. But when someone says that it makes me feel like I’ve failed again, because (according to them) the answer lies with me and I still can’t fall pregnant. I understand their intention is to comfort, fix, smooth over, but mine is a problem that can’t be fixed. And while positive thinking can be helpful, sometimes it feels like pressure. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes things are shit and you have to accept that.

Honestly, the most helpful thing people can do for me is not mention it, and when I bring it up, be ready with a hug and some love. I don’t need advice or excessive assurances – if this experience has taught me anything it’s that nothing is certain – I just need a friend. Someone who’s willing to be in those moments with me. Nothing more.

We are on a journey, my husband and I – a great, challenging, healing journey that will take us somewhere we’ve never been. It’s heart-breaking and hard – the hardest thing we’ve ever been through – but we are still here, still hopeful, still trying.

While we are alone in our situation, I know there are other women and couples going through the same thing. And I want to say to those people:

I see you out there, on your boat, riding the waves and staring out at the vast ocean. You’ve fought and yearned and picked your hopes up time and time again.
You are braver and stronger than you know.
Keep going. Keep going, wherever that might be.
You’re doing great. You’re doing really great.

The challenges mothers face

After spending the last six years listening to women’s stories of pregnancy, birth and early motherhood, I have seen women dealing with all sorts of challenges.

Challenges to do with:

  • Infertility
  • Miscarriage
  • Birth trauma
  • Mother’s health (mental or physical)
  • Baby’s health
  • Breastfeeding
  • Sleep (baby’s or mother’s)
  • Feeding
  • Family or relationship stress
  • Isolation and loneliness
  • Identity crises
  • Outside stress (death of a family member, moving house, financial stress).

There are surely exceptions, but I can’t think of a mother I know who hasn’t faced one challenge or another (or multiple challenges). It’s as if this is part of a woman’s rite of passage into motherhood.

Sometimes women face these challenges alone – not wanting to tell anyone what they are going through. Especially if their issues are hidden, such as injuries from birth or pregnancy. Other times it’s very obvious that they are being challenged to their core. At the time it’s not something you would ever hope for, but often there are amazing insights that can come out of dealing with one (or more) challenges in that early time.

I found that the challenges I faced as a new mum have given me deep compassion for other mothers’ struggles. Our book has been borne out of this compassion and everything we have learnt.

May all mothers going through struggles

Through Leo’s birth I learnt how to communicate my needs and advocate for myself and my child. I don’t feel like I can know for sure what Clem’s birth has taught me until he is a bit older, but one year on it has taught me that surrendering to, and learning from, life’s ups and downs is my life’s work.

It’s so important to honour our disappointment when things don’t go as we had hoped. I remember my despair when I couldn’t produce enough milk to sustain Leo. I needed to grieve. Gratitude would come later, once I’d honoured my sadness and my profound wish that things could be different. (I will write more about my journey with breastfeeding with Insufficient Glandular Tissue in a later post.)

It’s easy for people who aren’t in a mother’s position to belittle her feelings of loss and disappointment when things don’t go as she had hoped and planned for, or dismiss them as ‘first world problems’. This is so unhelpful. Everything feels heightened with a new baby around and what the mother needs is support and empathy – not “at leasts” e.g. “at least you have a healthy baby”.

I had mild postnatal psychosis and postnatal depression after the births of both of my children. I thought that all the work I had done and the lifestyle changes I’d had would mean that I’d be fine after Clem was born, but it happened again. Mental illness is bad enough at anytime, but trying to recover while you’re also looking after and getting to know a baby with round-the-clock needs is extremely challenging. Beating myself up about getting sick again wasn’t productive, but I have had times when I felt like a failure for having it happen a second time.

Women dealing with challenges: I salute you.

It can feel so lonely to be going through whatever it is you’re going through. I know so well that feeling of just wanting your family to have a happy life free from struggle. I solemnly hope that you find some peace in whatever your sorrow is.

Related reading:

Loneliness in early parenting

Learning to go with the flow