Our online support group has been running for so long now some of it’s members are now dealing with secondary infertility as well as the group being open to anyone struggling to create the family they desire. Please be aware that this post discusses very openly and honestly feelings of lady trying for a sibling for her son, please do not read if you feel this may upset you. Our policy within the blog and the group is to offer support for everyone and while we are aware that couples facing secondary infertility have different challenges to those still childless the heartache is no less devastating. We are not looking to spark debate but to cover all aspects of infertility.
The above is a phrase used by well-meaning people. People wanting to comfort us, give us some consolation, hope, or even sometimes as a gentle chiding remark in case we might be taking things for granted. It’s hurtful, though they mean it to be the opposite. I get it. I’m sure I’ve used it in the past myself with the best of intentions.
But here we are, in the confusing, guilt-laden, limbo-like world of “secondary infertility”. And on the days I dare talk about it, friends, family, and strangers alike are quick to remind me that we, “already have one.”
For some, they are saying, “Well, you already have one…so you *can* have another.” It’s their offering of hope, a reassurance that my body carried a baby to term once, so surely it can do so again? I most often hear this variant from friends who have more than one child. They might have tried for months for one or more of their children, they might have gone through the heartbreak of pregnancy loss, but in the end their bodies did what they were supposed to do. They conceived, they carried their babies to term, and for the most part, any anguish of any wait has been eroded over time, and they have been able to move onwards, building the family they had envisioned. They comfort me because they can’t envisage the alternative, and I wouldn’t want them to. I bare no grudge towards them, but I do so wish I could share their point of view.
You see, I have had a tumultuous relationship with my own body. These days I know my body isn’t my enemy, but I also know it doesn’t always work the way it “should”. I was 21 when I was told by a GP (who had forsaken personal space and formal procedure to hold my hand and put his face *far* too close to my own) that I probably had a type of cancer called lymphoma. 9 months of chemotherapy later, the lymphoma was in remission, and a few months later my then-boyfriend-of-5.5-years asked me to marry him. Before my treatment had started, we had quizzed the oncologist about egg collection (despite both being pretty young, we had been together nearly 5 years at this point and knew we wanted children), and been told I was too ill to delay the treatment to do so (I didn’t know back then that egg collection is such a lengthy process). At one of my frequent checkups in the months following, we were told we wouldn’t know if my fertility had remained intact until we, “started trying”. Lymphoma being a blood cancer means the chemotherapy used touches every organ and every blood vessel in the body, they take no chances that one of the little rogue cells might be hiding in a distant capillary somewhere. There is no way of telling what the chemotherapy might have permanently damaged, and what remained intact. So we carried on with life as a couple for a while.
My cycles were erratic, I was told I had ovarian cysts, I started acupuncture ahead of wanting to try for a baby, and we geared ourselves up for what, we had been warned, would be, “most likely a lengthy amount of trying before we might see any success”, and almost immediately fell pregnant when we decided to take the plunge in January 2011. We were ecstatic, baffled, we couldn’t stop counting our lucky stars, but I also had a feeling something wasn’t right. I had hoped it was just first-time parent nerves, or simply down to it happening so easily after we had been so worried it would be a long, hard process. But when I started bleeding after a few weeks, I think I knew why I had been feeling uneasy. We said goodbye to our lost little one in March 2011.
Again, we steeled ourselves for a tough journey ahead, and now wondered if it was that my body was too damaged to carry a baby. I continued acupuncture, and we were shocked four months later when we were once again staring at a positive pregnancy test. It wasn’t an easy ride, I suffered with anxiety during the pregnancy as I was constantly convinced something would go wrong, and a year to the day we had been told our previous pregnancy had failed, we were sat in the same unit being told our baby needed to be induced as I had preeclampsia. An emergency caesarian and a NICU/SCBU stay later, and we finally came home with our little ginger boy. I felt betrayed by my body over the preeclampsia, and the birth. But we had our son. It wasn’t easy, but I got over my hurt and by the time he turned one, we were ready to start trying again to give him a sibling, hoping that we would be as lucky as the first two times.
That didn’t pan out as planned, in the following two years we were sent to the fertility clinic, found I have adhesions from the caesarian, and polycystic ovarian syndrome, had a laparoscopy which turned into a laparotomy when there was unexpected bleeding, I decided to lose weight to hopefully reverse some of the polycystic symptoms, and lost 4st 3.5lbs. My symptoms eased in some ways (shorter cycles), but worsened in others (hair thinning). It has not been an easy ride, and we still don’t know if we will be able to get pregnant again, or stay pregnant if so. Having been pregnant before is no guarantee of another healthy pregnancy. So you might be able to see why the, “so you *can* have another” implication is a bit of a sore subject for me. We don’t know that I *can* have another, and this is why trying to conceive is so difficult. For primary infertility journeys or secondary infertility journeys, it is the fact that there is no guarantee of success that knocks us back all the time. Those of us with a child already hold on to them wondering if they were our one, flukey, shot.
On the other side of the coin, when some say, “Well, you already have one…”, they are saying, “Well, you already have one…be grateful for him.” This is a complicated one as the second half of this offering can carry multiple meanings from different people. Even multiple meanings from one person.
From those who have lived, or are living, with primary infertility, it is a plea to be grateful that we have a child. They would give anything to have a child. Except I am grateful, every single moment of every day. Even when I’m ticked off at him for silly toddler behaviours, or exasperated at his stubborn streak, or asking him to be patient while being nagged for his dinner. I am grateful. But I also feel guilty. I feel guilty that there is even a notion that he isn’t “enough” for us, as he is everything to us. I feel guilty that I get angry with him when he misbehaves, as I’m not fully appreciating every moment of his existence, but then try telling someone with a broken arm that the pain doesn’t matter as they still *have* an arm? Expecting a parent to be visibly and outwardly grateful every second, to never feel frustrated or upset with their child is to reduce the world to black and white. To paraphrase another wonderful blogger I read recently, you wouldn’t expect someone who had recently lost a parent to grieve any less because the other parent is still alive, so why do some imagine that parents going through secondary infertility must not suffer at all simply because they have a child? The grief of an incomplete family they had imagined and planned with their partner is very real.
For some, being single is what they want from life. For others, finding a spouse is their dream, children do not equate into their life’s plans. Many going through infertility have happily found their life partner, but would you ask them to simply be grateful that they have each other, and stop being upset over wanting a child? An incomplete family is heartbreaking, no matter at which point it is seen to be incomplete. Our family is incomplete.
Being a parent means you are often surrounded by parent-friends, attending birthday parties, and parent support groups, where there are endless bumps, new babies, and sibling sets, which only serve as a constant reminder of what you have yet to achieve, and the questions of, “Is he your only child?”, “Are you going to have any more?” and the like, are casually asked as if someone were asking about the weather. Infertility talk makes others uncomfortable, or even on occasion, feel guilty, so the subject is swiftly changed, and those of us who are facing it can often feel ashamed or isolated.
I worry about not being able to give my son a sibling. He is endlessly sociable, and acutely aware of his friends mostly having siblings, he pretends to have brothers and sisters, and has even requested that a friend’s newborn be his new baby brother. Some children are meant to be only children, it’s their nature. It is not my son’s nature to be an only child, there is an intangible quality in him that shows this, and I feel I am failing him in not providing the sibling(s) we had envisioned for him.
I also feel panicked that his babyhood is slipping away, that I might never experience that again, and there is nothing I can do to stop time from marching on, and his growing up. His early days seemed to slip by so quickly, but I consoled myself at the time with imaginings of it not being my only chance to live those days.
As with many platitudes, “Well, you already have one…” is said mostly with love, and as a means of comfort. But those of us who have heard it, or even said it in our own minds to ourselves, no longer feel it as comfort as the months and years of trying start to stack up. Secondary infertility is still infertility. It is hard, stressful, upsetting to say the very least, and people facing this need support and for those in their lives to simply be there, and to listen. Finding a silver lining is up to the couple facing the journey themselves, and no amount of “at least”s will ever really help them find comfort. Offhanded comments about life being easier with, “just the one”, anecdotal tales about a friend’s cousin’s colleague stopping trying and falling instantly pregnant with triplets, reminding us that we are getting lots of sleep, joking about how much fun it is trying, regaling us with tales of how sibling fights are so much hard work, or having two in nappies leads to endless changing, will never make us feel the hole in our family where another child was imagined any less acutely, none of that will ever make up for the months and months of disappointment, medical procedures, and constantly fallen hopes.
We have been lucky in that most of our family and friends have been endlessly supportive. They have watched our son while we attend the clinic appointments, they have listened to us vent, cry, and waffle on about hormone levels. And I have been especially lucky to have the very lady behind Embrace as one of my dearest friends. Without her introducing me to mindfulness, and coaching me through many of our rougher moments, I don’t know what I would have done to cope with the events of the past 29 months. Our journey so far has led to my working on my own thoughts and behaviours, finally making friends with my own body, and working with it to become healthier and stronger.
A lot of men and women on this journey aren’t so lucky with their support networks, and it’s important for them to know that there is help and support out there. This journey is lonely enough as it is. Acknowledging your feelings (however complex they might be) as normal, and a little camaraderie can go a long way to making it bearable.
Are you dealing with secondary infertility? Leave a comment below or come and join the conversation within our fertility support community.
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