12 May 2015

Life, death and fertility

This article has been sitting in an open tab in my browser for a week or two now, because I keep coming back to it. I'm not sure if I really have the right words yet, but rather than let it sit there for another week, I'm just going to write about it anyway. So go read this first, and then if you want my thoughts, come on back:

Fertility, infertility, miscarriage, and the many ways random people seem to think it's okay to ask why you are or aren't pregnant right now. I agreed with her premise, for the most part; when, why, and how many children a couple have or may eventually have certainly isn't at the same level of inconsequential chatter as the weather or a new haircut. So no, it's not "small talk." I still can't quite wrap my mind around the idea that people honestly don't realize that when they ask questions about number of present, expected or future children, they're tangentially asking questions about your fertility and marital relationship—Could the connection be any more obvious?

BUT. The implication was made, and I've seen this in so many, many other articles about infertility and miscarriage, that these aren't things that can be talked about. That a woman or a couple struggling with infertility or the loss of a child or children has no real way of answering casual questions about when they plan to have a kid. It makes the conversation "mighty uncomfortable." I have to ask, is there something intrinsically wrong with "uncomfortable"?

Now I in no way mean to say that anyone should have to share any of that struggle with anyone they don't want to! Not at all. Your experience is yours, personal, unique, intimate, and if you don't want to talk about it, if sharing it makes you uncomfortable, then you don't have to. 

But there are some things people need to be aware of, even if hearing about them makes them uncomfortable. Miscarriage and infertility are on that list. And I do want to talk about it. To acknowledge my daughter in heaven. To share my experience of miscarriage, of the pain and loss, the uncertainty and confusion, the slow growth of faith and trust in God. The crippling fear that I wouldn't be able to conceive again, or that if I did I would lose another baby. The continuing worry that'll probably always be there in the back of my mind now, the it could happen again. I want to be able to, to be "allowed" to, remind people who believe that fertility is something easily controlled that, for many women, this is blatantly untrue.

hate that this is such a taboo subject, that young wives and mothers experiencing infertility, secondary infertility, miscarriage, are made to feel even more isolated than need be because no one will talk about it, no one is "allowed" to freely acknowledge it. One in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage. Women should not be blindsided by miscarriage, never having even considered the fact that it could happen to them, never having known that anyone else they know has gone through it. It shouldn't be impossible for a woman who, shell-shocked after learning that her baby has died in utero, is online looking for now what? to find other women's stories, support, answers to the million fragments of questions she doesn't necessarily even know how to put together coherently.

According to the CDC, 12% of American women of childbearing age struggle with infertility. I couldn't find a solid statistic on men, but it's definitely not a women-only issue. How many of these people, do you think, were even aware that infertility was a possibility before they started having trouble conceiving? Our culture focuses so heavily on the idea that babies "happen" all the time with no effort even when you're trying to avoid them; even for many young Catholic couples going into marriage with a solid grasp of the Church's teaching on openness to life, there's often a belief that you, you the couple, have to make a choice between "having children immediately" and "using NFP to postpone children for ---- months/years." Matt and I certainly never heard anything in our marriage preparation about there being any possibility/likelihood of not being able to have children. And I'd never even heard of secondary infertility until after my miscarriage last year. 

We do a disservice to women and to couples when we all collectively refuse to acknowledge these struggles. To those currently struggling, by making them feel alone and denying those who need it emotional, spiritual,or material support, and to those who will face these struggles in the future by not acknowledging that they exist. Ignoring problems doesn't make them go away; it makes people less prepared to deal with them when they happen. Look at those numbers again. Miscarriage is common. Infertility is common. Even if you don't realize it, there is a very high chance that someone you know, someone you see every week at church, has endured one or both. It makes logical sense that the secular, Culture of Death society doesn't acknowledge these women's loss, but it's scandalous when otherwise pro-life Catholics do not recognize and validate their struggles.

Growing up in a large family, surrounded by other large families, it was pretty much impossible to not absorb something of a defensive attitude about large families and Humanae Vitae. The mentality of "Following God's will concerning fertility means having a large family. Period." became a subconscious self-defense mechanism as we got older, hearing the same disparaging comments over and over, receiving the same shocked and disapproving looks, as our mothers continued having kids. You certainly heard judgments made from time to time about "double income no kids" couples, about well-off families with just one or two children, how they were obviously using contraception, or misusing NFP selfishly, or even that they simply didn't realize the beauty and importance of trusting God. It never occurred to us that those families could be wanting children, or more children, and were unable to have them. And by the time we were old enough to be judging others on their family size, we were old enough that we should have been made aware of the reality and commonness of miscarriage and infertility, as well as the scope and breadth of reasons a couple not struggling with miscarriage or infertility might legitimately seek to avoid pregnancy.

To automatically assume the worst of a couple with few or no children, to choose to believe that they are disobeying Church teaching on fertility without giving consideration to the fact that they could be struggling with crosses we don't see, is absolutely unchristian. And to support the social nicety of not talking about "uncomfortable" things like miscarriage and infertility denies those who might otherwise have shared their struggles the opportunity to be welcomed and supported by the community instead of feeling judged or shunned. I know that most people honestly aren't aware of infertility and miscarriage, of their prevalence or of how to support those struggling with them. But that won't get better if no one will talk about it!

I cannot refer to this baby as my second. I can't. She isn't, she's my third, and I'm not able or willing to force myself to say otherwise. Recently Matt had to submit a brief bio to the parish office for something, and the question of how to describe our family came up. "Just say two kids," pretty much everyone I asked said. "You don't need to make it complicated, to confuse people." And I listened, and nodded, and said no. We have three kids, one is in heaven. How is that confusing? We eventually reached a compromise; the copy I sent to the parish read that Matt and his wife, Rosalie, have a 2-year-old son and are expecting a baby in June. No mention of Alex, but not denying her existence either.

I'm not happy that I did that. I may not have outright denied Alex, but I still caved to the social order that says that I can't mention her because hearing that I have a baby in heaven will make people uncomfortable. Is that how these people-who-would-be-uncomfortable want their families and friends to behave after they die, to never talk about them and pretend they never existed? Of course not.

We're all going to die, y'all. Every single one of us. Past generations had an awareness of death and eternity that we, in our culture of frantically avoiding even the appearance of aging, have lost. Many Catholics, too, have lost the sense of the beautiful mystery and connectedness that is the Communion of Saints. Hopefully, opening the door to a broader conversation about miscarriage as well as infertility will—in addition to reminding us all how important it is to refrain from judging others—help us to build up the recognition of how precious life is at every stage, and of the fact that those who die, no matter how long or short their life, are still a part of our lives. The way we relate to them changes, but we are still truly connected with them, and will be forever.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing about this, Rose. I really appreciate hearing your perspective, and you're right, awareness needs to be spread.