Warning: This diary contains graphic medical details about pregnancy and childbirth.
After years of trying to conceive a child, my husband and I fostered, and later adopted, two young boys out of foster care. We ruled out adopting an infant via private adoption or international agency, which virtually guaranteed placing ourselves on a waiting list for years more.
The grays forming on our temples were a stark reminder that Mr. Boof and I weren't getting younger, and time wasn't waiting for our family to start. By adopting children who genuinely needed a family, we would not only be nurturing our own visions of starting a family, but we'd be giving a family to some children who in many cases were on waiting lists of their own for several years or longer, being shuttled from foster family to foster family, and group home to group home, with no end in sight.
It has been four years since we adopted our boys and welcomed them into our home and our lives as our sons for the rest of our lives. We love our sons and feel so fortunate that they were the ones who came into our lives as our two boys; Mr. Boof and I both love them as if they were always our sons, and would give our lives for them. That being said, I still haven't completely overcome the grief of not being able to give birth. Infertility is something I thought I'd “gotten over” when we adopted, but it has produced an undercurrent of pain that has persisted.
More past the Great Orange Squiggly. Clickety-clickety.
Welcome, fellow travelers on the grief journeyWe had a name picked out for her, if she were a daughter. If he were a baby son, we still hadn't decided, but my husband knew he wanted her first name to be Lisa. Lisa Simpson from The Simpsons was one of his favorite characters on the TV show due to her intelligence and drive to always do what was right. Her character was often misunderstood—mostly because many around her didn't match her in the Brain Department—and often struggled to fit in to the banal world around her. Mr. Boof loved the name Lisa so much—if we had a daughter, we would name her Lisa.
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That meant that I had dibs on the middle name. I chose Denali, which is the indigenous North American name for Mount McKinley, the highest mountain peak on the continent. Depending on which definition Wikipedia provides on a given day, Denali means either “the high one” or “the great one.” I honestly felt no connection to the meaning of the name—just the beauty of the name Denali itself. That, and I've long wanted to visit Alaska, the only state in the U.S. I haven't yet visited. So, Lisa Denali would've been her name.
One of my friends recently posted a great Buddha quote on her Facebook page. It reads:
In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.Such beautiful sentiments, and I think I generally do a good job at the first two—but not so much the third one, particularly when it came to my husband's and my failed attempts at conceiving a baby.
In writing this, I do not intend for whomever is reading it to feel sorry for me in any way. Believe me, I've spent hours, days, months feeling sorry for myself—enough for everyone who is reading this and probably ten times over. At some point, I just need to be pragmatic about the permanence of infertility and not moving forward with any more fertility treatments. What's done is done. Perhaps I am at the transition point of stages 4 and 5 of the Kübler-Ross model of grief, where I am beginning to accept the fact that I will never become pregnant, even though I still get damned depressed about it from time to time.
After we adopted our boys, I was too busy to fully process my infertility grief—and I was also unwilling at the time to accept it. In the back of my mind—and sometimes, in the front of it when I daydreamed—I'd imagine that Mr. Boof and I would again pursue the fertility-treatment route and introduce a little brother or sister for our two sons, who at the time were still fairly young.
During that time, I must've been in the Bargaining stage (stage 3 of the Kübler-Ross model), or even worse, Denial (stage one). I still saw a glimmer of hope, and came up with a bunch of “maybe ifs.” Maybe if Mr. Boof and I paid off our student loans, we'd have enough money for in-vitro, which we previously could not afford. Maybe if I sold one of the seven screenplays I'd written for a small bundle of money, I could stop working for a couple of years and stay home with the future baby. Maybe if I won the lottery...geez, during those early stages of grief, who knew the depths of unrealistic fantasy into which my mind could plunge?
One of my friends has a framed photo of herself and her two older sons when she was very pregnant with her youngest son. In the photo, her two older kids were on either side of her pregnant belly, their hands cupped over their mouths, whispering through Mommy's abdominal walls to their unborn brother inside of her. When I was in a daydreaming mood, I'd imagine my own two boys touching their hands to my belly, feeling for a kick, smiling upon getting a response from within, posing for a photograph of the three of us in a similar manner to my friend.
I tried to talk myself out of the societal glamourizing of Woman Being Pregnant, Giving Beautiful Birth™. From what my female friends and relatives have shared with me, pregnancy and childbirth isn't a walk down the runway. In fact, it's messy—violent, even. In our First World society, a pregnant woman has two choices for the baby to exit her body. One, she pushes it out of her dilated vagina (or is that a dilated cervix? I won't pretend to be knowledgeable about the medical specifics). She does this in either excruciating pain, or else she is drugged with local anesthetics via an epidural. The latter involves a 22-gauge, 3-inch needle causing enough pain as it is injected to warrant the recipient contemplating, well, maybe the natural childbirth thing isn't such a bad idea after all. Two, she gets her lower abdomen cut open wide enough to allow said baby to be pulled out of it during a Caesarean, “untimely ripp'ed,” as Shakespeare would say. In either scenario, the baby is not coming out without a lot of blood, pain, and tearing of parts.
Trust me, I've seen the pictures and video clips of childbirth, which all rival any film in the Alien franchise. I've also heard stories from my friends and relatives who've “been there and done that.” It's a pretty gruesome process, this childbirth thing. There's a placenta that vaguely resembles a giant blood-covered omelet that any vampire would devour. Then there's a globulous mucous plug that uncorks the laboring mother's birth canal in an ever-so-romantic “champagne time!” moment that announces, hey, guess what? The baby is coming! A sinewy red-black-yellow-purple umbilical cord ropes itself from the inside of the mom's belly button to what will become the baby's. Somewhere in that anatomical mess is a screeching, writhing newborn baby, coated in a mixture of its mother's own blood and a milky white vernix that vaguely resembles semen.
Except during home births, the baby is born into a world of hospital-grade white and peppermint ice-cream green, with latex gloved hands cutting cords and foreskins and doing Apgar tests to make sure the baby “came out” right, whatever that means. Almost always, natural childbirth involves screaming women, newborn babies screaming even more loudly, and husbands and doctors barking urgent commands to breathe, push, bear down. Gee, sign me up. Like I SO should feel it's a bummer that whole thing didn't happen to me.
I haven't even gotten to the pregnancy part that precedes this magical moment. The bloated bodies, the fasting from the three cups of coffee and the glass of wine with dinner, the constant aches and pains and exhaustion of carrying around an extra God knows how many pounds of weight on your back and feet, extra money spent on somewhat stylish maternity clothes that are ever so tasteful, and suitable for parties and the work environment.
And after the baby is born? The swollen breasts, with nipples sore from nursing or using a breast pump. The scar tissue, the distended bellies and lady parts that don't quite snap into their former places, the gall-bladder removals and the acid reflux and the incontinence. Finally, for two years, or even longer, a little person to whom you are at the constant beck and call for middle-of-the-night feedings, diaper changes, butt-wiping, playtime, naptime, tantrum time, runny-nose time. Am I honestly depressed about missing out on that noise?
Well, in a word, yes. Like many, many mothers who for hundreds of thousands of years endured what I did not, I realize that the petty discomforts and unromantic—even undignified—aspects of pregnancy and childbirth would be temporary—a passing phase—for a lifetime of watching someone they brought into the world grow from a tiny infant to a toddler to a young child and a teenager, and finally into an adult who in turn could have his or her own children someday. So yeah, it sucks to not have been able to experience that.
You dads out there, the ones who've been in the delivery rooms to welcome your tiny sons and daughters as they drew their first breaths. I've seen the delivery room pictures, particularly of my brother-in-law as he first held his oldest newborn son, my oldest nephew. What was in his eyes was THAT wonder...joy...awe. You have to know what that is, if you've been there in the delivery room to help usher into the world a brand-new person you helped to make. I so wanted that experience for my husband and me to share. Like I said, I love our two boys as if they were our own sons, but all of the “they grew NOT UNDER your heart, but IN it” platitudes ring false and hollow after awhile when considering what might have been, but wasn't.
What is worse is sensing the cliches before they come out of anyone's mouth, and thus not saying anything, or else keeping my emotions to myself so I don't burden or bore anyone with it, so my grief is a pain that I've pretty much had to bear alone. Another set of platitudes are at least authentic to me: Be grateful I was at least willing to adopt (I am). Be thankful for my two beautiful sons to whom I gave sanctuary and built a family (I am).
I am well and soberly aware that the world is full of millions of young women and girls who either died or were killed before they were able to become pregnant and give birth—or worse, they died during the birth of a first child they'd never know, and whose children were horribly stolen the knowledge of the mothers who brought them into the world. One of my good friends died of cancer before her 40th birthday, when her little boy was only three. Her son will never grow up with—maybe he'll barely remember—the wholly beautiful human being who gave birth to him. So, you know, maybe I should put on my big-girl pants and simply get over it already, because I could have had it much, much worse.
Recently, I listened to a Podcast from the wonderful Creating a Family Web site and support network that was acutely pertinent to my feelings of heartbreak and sense of loss. Titled Coping with Infertility Grief After Adopting, the site owner, Dawn Davenport, had a compassionate, thoughtful interview and discussion with Carole Lieber Wilkins, a licensed family therapist specializing in adoption. The topics they covered were numerous—aspects of fertility and adoption I hadn't even known about. For example: choosing whether to destroy donor eggs or IVF embryos during a “closure cycle.” Because this wasn't a factor in our own fertility treatments, my husband and I didn't have to confront this decision, but I gained a new insight into the finality of a woman or couple having to do so.
When the two women on the Podcast began talking about a ritual and healing process recommended for saying goodbye to a biological child that would never come to be, I lost it. With my headphones on, I wept silently at my workplace computer, and when it was safe for me to leave unnoticed for a lunch break, I got into my car, took a short drive, and cried for a good long time before getting myself together and going back to work.
The ritual Carole Lieber Wilkins described was writing a heartfelt goodbye letter to the son or daughter one would never have, to the details of how one had imagined their child to be. The infant's tiny fingers, little toes, hair color, resemblance to Mom or Dad (or both, or neither!); the young child's interests, personality, stories he or she liked to have read, the trips the family would go on together; the growing young man or woman entering the world of adulthood. After writing the letter, it was then to be destroyed in a ritual manner—burned, washed away in the ocean, torn—signifying the death of a dream and a genuine saying goodbye.
I didn't know how I was going to start writing such a letter without falling apart. Just the thought of putting pen to paper and writing “Dear Lisa Denali” made the tears come again. One Sunday, however, I just toughened up and did it. Pink ink on a plain white piece of paper, both sides of the page. The only other person whom I allowed to read it before I destroyed it was my husband; true to the instructions Lieber-Wilkins advised, I did not make a copy of it.
After letting my husband read it, I drove alone to Ballast Point Park in Tampa, a place that I had gone to privately mourn our infertility when my first nephew was born, almost six years prior. I would stand at the edge of the pier, watch the water, and have a good cry to myself. When our sons came to live with us, I no longer had the time—or maybe I just didn't make the time—to make the trip to Ballast Point and finish my mourning, but that Sunday, I made the time to at least bring a sense of closure, even if the verdict is out on whether the grieving process is finally over.
That Sunday was a beautiful sunny fall day. Lots of people were at the park, having picnics, throwing Frisbees and footballs, and fishing off the side of the pier. Finding a private place to reflect on my letter and let it drop into the water was not easy, but I finally did find an empty place at the pier. I looked out at the water, silently read the letter to Lisa Denali for the last time, kissed the letter, and let it drop to the water below me. I watched for a long time as the calm ripples in the water carried it away from the pier, the pink ink blurring as the paper absorbed the water like a sponge, until it was a tiny frame floating on the surface of the water in the distance.
Okay, so it was not very good of an Earth-friendly liberal like me to do this, but I told myself that the paper was biodegradable.
I am still not sure whether the ritual Lieber-Wilkins recommended had any impact on moving the grieving process forward, but I would like to think that it is a small step ahead in letting go of a dream to which I had to say goodbye at some point. I needed to make closure so I could move on and be the mother I needed, and still need, to be to my two beautiful sons. Our family has trips to go on, experiences to share, and love to give to one another and those around us. Saying goodbye to Lisa Denali was difficult to do, but necessary.
Thanks to Dawn Davenport for providing us in the infertility and adoption communities with her engaging and compassionate forum, and also for allowing me to mention her name and Web site in this post. Please visit Creating a Family if you have a chance; it's a wonderful community of caring individuals. Thanks also to Carole Lieber-Wilkins for sharing her knowledge, expertise, and recommendations for overcoming infertility grief.