Sunday, November 23, 2014

How I (Mostly) Cope With Infertility During the Holidays

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I've been thinking a lot lately about holidays and how my husband and I have tried to navigate through them over the years. During the years that we struggled with primary infertility, the holidays were always particularly difficult.  I could always count on shedding a few tears on Mother's Day, but Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year's certainly weren't any easier.   Now that we are parents, things have improved a bit, but this is not to say they have become tons easier since we continue to struggle with secondary infertility and trying to adopt.   For instance, just last year, I felt crushed when my sister announced her sixth pregnancy on Thanksgiving Day because it had been on Thanksgiving Day the year before that we'd announced our plans to adopt. One year later, we still had no baby, so her announcement, joyous as it was, was also a reminder of how much more difficult things were for us.   Not to mention, the way my family responded to her announcement compared to ours was pretty devastating to me.

That is just one example of many times that the holidays have been difficult for us because of our struggle with infertility and miscarriage.   And even though my husband and I both come from good families, when it comes to our personal struggle with having children, they just never have been able to relate to the pain we have been carrying.   Some families are better at showing support and compassion than others, and every family is different.   It has taken time for me to understand that what my family may lack in understanding and sensitivity, they have made up for in other ways.

So, as I brace myself prepare for another holiday season (during which we are still waiting and praying for a child), I thought I'd share some of the things that I had to learn the hard way in hopes that it might help someone else navigate what, for me, has always been a very difficult time of year.

  • Be honest with yourself first.
Before you accept that invitation to Thanksgiving dinner, or the Christmas party, or the New Year's Day bash, ask yourself, "Am I really emotionally ready for this?"   Chances are, in any large gathering, especially family gatherings, someone is going to want to talk to you about when you're going to have kids. Or, the opposite extreme, they'll be talking about everyone else's kids and struggle to make conversation with you because you don't have any.  Or, you'll be watching everyone else's kids.  Or someone will make a flip comment to you about having or not having kids.   You get the drift.

For me, there were times when I was not emotionally prepared to face those kinds of situations, but I did it anyway.  I didn't want to turn down an invitation for fear of hurting someone's feelings or appearing unsociable.  However, when I walked into those kinds of scenarios emotionally fragile, the results were often not pretty.   I would either say something uncharitable or snide, or say nothing and internalize the pain until I got home, where I would either crumble in tears or explode in anger and either way, my poor husband was left to to pick up the pieces.   After years of repeating this ugly cycle, I am finally realizing that if I walk into a gathering already feeling tense, jealous, angry, bitter, or sad, I should take that as a warning sign.   If I don't feel like I have the fortitude to turn a "near occasion of sin" into an "occasion of grace", I have learned that it probably would be best for me and all involved to avoid the occasion altogether, which leads me to the next point...

  • Know when to walk away.

This is not to say you should avoid all gatherings at all costs.  But sometimes, when you feel that blood pressure starting to go up and your tongue is almost bleeding from biting it so hard, the best thing to do is to just walk away.   It might only be for a minute or two, it might be for an hour, or you may just need to leave the situation completely.  Sometimes, it might be the most charitable thing you can do in the moment.  Yes, people might wonder what happened.  But you can explain later, if they ask; and in many cases, they won't ask.  As I heard more than once, they'll just wonder "what's her problem?"   And that's okay. Because they aren't expected to understand (I'll get to that point in a minute).

I recall a few years ago, my husband and I were eating New Year's eve dinner with my parents and my sister and her family.   Two months before that, we had lost our first baby to miscarriage, after four years of trying to conceive.   As we sat there at the dinner table, chowing down on our black-eyed peas and turnip greens, my mother decided to elaborate on what a great year it had been for her, specifically because my sister had given birth to their third grandchild that spring.    I suddenly felt the blood rushing to my face as I choked down my food. My heart raced and my jaw was clenched as I put my fork down, stood up, and just walked out the door.  I started walking, fast, and taking deep breaths of the frigid winter air.   My husband soon caught up to me and gave me a long, tight hug.  We talked a bit, I regained my composure, and we slowly walked back, getting there just in time for dessert.  Nothing was said by anyone.   And that is probably a good thing.   We spent the rest of the evening playing games, drinking egg nog and watching the new year come in, as a family.

There have been other times, however, when I was not so strong.  One Christmas, my husband and I headed home a day early.   Watching all the joy of the nieces and nephews and their grandparents opening gifts together and listening to all the talk about how "Christmas is for children" was more than either of us could take.    But we didn't go directly home.  We took that extra day and spent it at a state park doing things we loved to do like hiking and bird-watching and we drove the back roads home.  It was bittersweet but as the distance between us and our extended families grew, the bond between me and my husband seemed to get stronger.

And there was a Thanksgiving, about six years into our infertility journey, that we decided to just forgo family gatherings completely.  Instead, my husband and I took a three-day trip to a national wildlife refuge, where we watched the sun rise and set over clouds of snow geese.   It was something we'd always wanted to do together and so we just did it. I felt liberated from all the questions and emotional strain that I knew we'd have been facing if we'd taken the traditional route of spending Thanksgiving with either family.  So instead, we ate our Thanksgiving dinner in a truck stop and watched bald eagles instead of football, and you know what?   There were dozens of other people there doing the same thing!   It really opened my eyes to the fact that many, many people, for whatever reasons, also spend the holidays alone and they just make the best of it. That truck stop was full of laughter, and joking, and compliments to the waitresses and cooks, and even though we were surrounded by strangers, in a weird way, they felt like family.   Nobody asked personal questions because I think everyone knew not to.  Eating at a truck stop on Thanksgiving Day said enough.

Nowadays, since we do have children, my husband and I make more of an effort to get along with family and attended holiday gatherings.   We want our children to have happy memories of spending Thanksgiving and Christmas with their grandparents and cousins.  However, before we tackle such a gathering, I still try to remember one more thing...

  • Lower your expectations...and then lower them some more.

This is probably the hardest thing for me to do.  I tend to expect more out of others than I expect out of myself.  I know, not exactly the path to sainthood.   It has taken a lot of time and a lot of prayer for me to turn that around and start expecting more out of myself and less out of others.   I still have a ways to go.   But upon reflection, I have realized that a lot of my pain came from expecting others to respond the way I wanted them to respond.  The way I thought I NEEDED them to respond.  And when they didn't, I had a difficult time dealing with it and it has caused a lot of relationships to slowly die on the vine.

I would have saved myself and my husband a lot of pain and tears if I'd have worked harder to lower my expectations.  It was really unfair of me to expect others to understand my feelings and emotional pain. While my pain certainly felt justified, my expectations in others were not.  They had not walked the path I was on, and in many cases, had experienced nothing quite like it.   To expect them to respond to an adoption announcement the same as a pregnancy announcement was more than I should have expected.  To expect others to see what I largely hid from them was not really fair.  To expect a grandmother to remember a grandchild lost to miscarriage when she is holding another grandchild in her arms was unrealistic.   But instead, I cried out for validation and craved empathy and so, I set my expectations high.   As a result, I kept going to the well called "friends and family" and finding it dry. Everyone was trying to give what they had but for me, it wasn't enough.  I wanted more.  I craved more. More compassion, more concern, more support.  I expected them to see that, but they just couldn't.    As the saying goes, "you can't get blood out of a turnip", and I was squeezing that turnip dry.

It has only been through God's grace that I have begun to realize that I too, am a mostly empty well.   I expected so much from others but I gave little back in return. The truth is that none of us is really capable of giving others what they need, especially when we haven't shared their journey.   We all tend to put band-aids on the deepest emotional wounds, which is better than nothing, but certainly not life-saving. Only the Divine Healer can give us the healing and grace that can help us navigate our feelings and control our emotions.   Once I realized that and started going to His well, I found a little more peace.

So, we are all works-in-progress and thank God for that!   The holidays have been my little test each year along a spiritual journey that seems forever to be tied to my infertility.   And now, as I await my next little test, I am feeling confident. Sure, this Thanksgiving will mark our two-year anniversary of announcing that we plan to adopt, and nope, still no baby.  But rather than be bitter about it, I am looking forward to holding my newest little Godson on my lap, and reflecting on learning that he was coming into our lives a year ago.  And while I didn't exactly handle the news with grace then, his birth is still my blessing.  I know God will be watching how I handle the test this year and He will, I pray, give me the strength I need when I need it.   And if I still fail, with His mercy, I will have a chance to try again.

I have no expectation other than that.


  1. Lynda: Thank you for such an honest reflection. I know some of these feelings all too well myself and being in situations with large groups of people can definitely make those feelings more pronounced. This was a beautiful post. I hope your Thanksgiving went well and that you and your family have a wonderful Christmas.

    1. Thank you Kerri. This was a difficult post for me to write so I hope others have found it helpful. It is so hard to keep things in perspective when going thru these struggles that we've shared, but with time, I think we all become better human beings because of them. Merry Christmas!

  2. I loved this honest and very thoughtful post. I have shared so many of the feelings you describe, and I too tended to set my expectations too high. Recently I came across another blog post that discussed this issue, written by a friend of mine who blogs from Sweden. She writes:

    My husband and I had suffered from infertility for five years preceding our son's conception. My experience is that there is no human being who can offer you consolation in a situation like that. You try to distract yourself and not think about it all the time, but the worry and the pain is always in the background, making you suffer. A suffering which eats away at your peace of mind and joy of living in your soul. Research has found that a woman suffering from infertility has the same stress levels as women suffering from cancer, AIDS or heart disease. What's so frustrating is that people around you don't acknowledge the gravity of this suffering. Today, people will most likely think that a childless couple is postponing having children.

    The second sentence of her post gets exactly at what you wrote: that no human person, no human well, ever proves to be enough to give us the solace that we are desperately seeking in the midst of our infertility journey.

    This is surely true for many others who are suffering in our society, not just the infertile. I think for instance about those members of my family who have dealt with cancers, and even lost their lives to cancer. Often, in the midst of their suffering, I felt that those social events like Thanksgiving were no source of true consolation for them, with the cheerful small talk that covered and ignored the depth of their personal tragedy and suffering.

    It is often very difficult indeed to remain genuine and deep in our relationships with others, and to provide those who are suffering with the comfort and empathy that they need so much. It is a challenge worth embracing, especially with the Christmas holidays ahead of us.

    1. Absolutely, your friend describes it perfectly! It took me a long time to realize that I was asking for more than anyone could give me. I hope in turn that I have become more empathetic to the suffering of others. I keep thinking over and over that the one gift we all need this Christmas is Jesus Himself, and yet I and so many others seem to be playing dodge-ball to avoid that reality. Infertility has taught me so many lessons that I probably never would have learned otherwise. Thank you for the comment and have a Merry Christmas!

  3. Merry Christmas to you as well, and to your beautiful family!