Friday, May 16, 2014

on empathy and babies and chasms

I know our struggle with infertility was so much easier and cleaner than what many go through (a cursory google search of "infertility blogs" will quickly confirm that). It required some waiting, yes, and that was hard, but once we started the process of figuring things out, our problem was pretty quickly diagnosed, we got on a plan, and about a year later, we were pregnant. Still, it was a long 2 and a half years, and before my endometriosis diagnosis, I spent a good deal of the time taking up residence in that dreaded dark hole of monthly disappointment, not being sure why were weren't pregnant but knowing—feeling, really—that something wasn't right, and that it wasn't going to happen without some intervention.

I rarely talked about what we were going through until we were nearly through it, until we at least thought we were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. So I didn't give people much of a chance to walk through that process with us, other than immediate family and a few carefully chosen people I who I sort of pre-screened to make sure they could relate somehow. In short, I was picky. I didn't want to listen to people to tell me to relax or that everything would be fine, because I didn't trust myself not to go apeshit on somebody, so I usually just kept my mouth shut. For the most part, this was pretty effective in avoiding the sting of misplaced words or well-meaning but insensitive comments.

On the flip side, though, when I was about halfway through my pregnancy, we made some new friends. Already I'd been extra-attuned to the fact that it was now my pregnancy that could be hard for someone else to hear about. You never know what someone's story is. And I couldn't (and didn't want to) forget the dark, uncertain places we'd come through to get pregnant. It didn't feel fair to jump the infertility ship so quickly, and it still didn't feel safe to embrace my pregnancy without abandon, either.

So over a get-to-know-you cup of coffee with my new friend in which I'd been careful not to elaborate unnecessarily about being in the family way, we were instead talking about my being a stepmother, and I made some offhanded comment that while it wasn't how I expected to first become a parent and that it's not without its struggles, that all children are such a gift. Something to that effect, anyways. And then there was a lull, and I knew. I knew there was a story there.

Wringing her hands, she quietly told me of a stillbirth just 9 months earlier, prefacing it with the fact of how hard it was to tell to someone who's pregnant.

Quite often, I now feel that chasm that many people talk about, the one between parents and non-parents. Mothers and non-mothers, or mothers who have a child, and then the other mothers, the ones whose arms are still empty. The chasm doesn't always have to be there, I don't think, but especially in these early months of having a baby (and I dare say far beyond), your life and your time changes so much. When my sleep-deprived thoughts are nearly entirely consumed with mothering, it can be hard for me to connect to anyone on anything (I spent a good few minutes on a women's retreat crying in the bathroom because I felt like I couldn't even make small talk as I was meeting new people. To be fair, I did totally suck at it).

The point I'm trying to make is that sitting there in Starbucks among a bunch of college students, it would have been easy for me to hear of her loss and feel sad and clutch my belly and think Oh, my God, please don't let that happen to me and then feel the great divide and the weight of it all and the pressure of saying the right thing and then how to change the subject to something happier.

Instead, I sat and cried and said how very sorry and sad I felt, and for a moment, I didn't know what else to say. And for that moment, there was nothing else TO say.

The moment passed, and then something happened. We talked about it. She told me how it all happened, and she told me his name and where he's buried. We talked about her pregnancy and her labor. We talked about infertility and fear and isolation. We talked about people not understanding. We talked until I was nearly faint with hunger for dinner, and then we left and picked up our discussion the next time and the next time and the next. As my pregnancy continued, our friendship deepened.

To her credit, she could have easily put me off in favor of someone without a belly swelling larger each week and a baby shower invitation and then a new baby, wriggly and sweet-smelling, surely the pinnacle of all of the hard reminder things. And I wouldn't have faulted her for it, not for a minute for being picky like that, because I so surely would have been.

Anyway, all this to say that I learned from her. I learned that there is beauty and connection and healing in empathy but that it doesn't come without a choice, one that will probably involve risk and putting yourself out there and holding your breath, waiting for the sting of a trite consolatory statement coupled with a change back to safer, more comfortable subjects. Which may happen.

But then again, it may not, and it may lead to just the things you need.


    Thank you so much for this. I so completely identify with it.

    You should blog more often. I would read it.

    1. Thank you for the comment and the encouragement. Writing more consistently and trying to make something more solid out of this space has been a goal of mine for a while—hopefully I'll get there eventually. Have added you to my blogroll. :)