Another view

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A few weeks ago my husband and I woke up with a jolt at 4.30am to the harsh beeping of our phone alarms. We stumbled around and quickly threw on some clothes before we headed outside into the still, silent morning. We were staying for the weekend in a cosy stone cottage, in one of the well known wine regions in our state. We were on our way to a sunrise hot air balloon ride. As we drove in the darkness to the meeting point, I kept thinking how lucky I was to be having this experience; a thoughtful, romantic present for my 30th birthday and the perfect version of an ‘adventure’ for someone like myself, not too fond of adrenaline sports. As you would guess, the appeal of a hot air balloon ride is the opportunity to take in breathtaking views and to see another perspective of the countryside around you. What I wasn’t expecting from the morning was the experience of also turning in and seeing myself, and my own experiences, from a different view.

Leading up to our weekend away I hadn’t given much thought to the balloon ride itself, instead daydreaming about the buffet breakfast that was included as part of the package. I was surprised by how exciting the lead up to the ride was: driving to a random shopping centre car park where the pilots released a helium balloon with a small LED light attached to see which way the wind would blow us; being amazed by the size of the balloon itself as it seemed to take ages for the folds of fabric to fill with air; and feeling the heat radiating from the gas burners on our heads and faces as our pilot prepared for takeoff. As we slowly drifted higher and higher, the familiar sights below us (a bitumen road, rows upon rows of vines, and clusters of sheep and other animals) took on a different form. Suddenly the harsh interruption of the highway through the green countryside looked like a gentle, bending river. The animals we spotted from above seemed to move at a slower pace; kangaroos and rabbits hopped gracefully between the vines. The patchwork valley before us seemed so still and calm and deliberate despite the changing colours of sunrise and the seasons.

Reflecting on the experience after we had come back down to earth, and I had devoured my weight in buffet pastries and bacon, I realised that for the first time in ages I had spent the better part of a day simply enjoying the natural beauty around me and not thinking about the weight of infertility. I feel as if I have become so fixated on what I don’t have right now, and what I am going through at this point in my life, that I need to remind myself of what I do have and what we all have – the ability to appreciate our blessings and the present moment. I should be and am grateful for so many things in my life right now. A loving family, supportive friends, a challenging but rewarding job, a cosy home of my own, and the love of a really good man. Also the means and opportunity to seek medical assistance to help us step closer to parenthood. What feels like an agonisingly long wait ‘in transit’ will one day become a stitch in the patchwork of our life. An important one, one that I won’t easily forget, but a stitch joining one part of our journey to the next.

I often think about the title of one of my favourite podcasts, The Longest Shortest Time (hosted by Hillary Frank and dubbed “the parenting show for everyone”). It makes me wonder if perhaps this time in my life, maybe a little like the demanding moments in early parenthood, will be “the longest shortest time”. While it certainly feels stressful and unending, it won’t last forever. Like any hopeless romantic, I play certain songs on repeat and overanalyse the lyrics. This sentiment, that all things pass, seems echoed to me in the beautiful lyrics of Husky’s song Saint Joan:
‘I woke up thinking that I might be dying

But I was only in the belly of a whale
And I recall I saw the red sun rising
As he spat me out and the wind it caught my sail’.
I finally feel like I might be catching some wind in my sail, gaining momentum, and looking forward with hope and positivity. While my balloon ride was a once in a lifetime experience, I know I can take away a new view to help me to put things in perspective. As work gets busy again, as we get deeper into our IVF journey, I can remember the image of the calm valley. A reminder to myself to slow down, be present, be grateful, and be patient, as all things will pass.

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In transit

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For the last two years I have been in transit. At first, I experienced the anticipation that comes from waiting to start a journey to somewhere unknown. However, anticipation slowly turned to impatience and frustration as that journey was delayed, without warning or reason. While some people around me seemed to easily move ahead, travelling to the destination I was constantly thinking about, I remained in transit. Waiting.

Infertility has weighed on me for the last few years, trapping me in what has felt like a constant state of transit. My husband has also dwelled in this limbo – having outgrown our previous life as a young, carefree couple but unable to join those around us who entered the world of parenthood.

It seems I turn to journaling at points my life where I feel lost, anxious, and lonely. I have volumes of scribbled adolescent angst detailing my unease about events out of my control.  Yet I don’t seem to have a written record of the seemingly stable stages of my life. A life where I have been lucky enough to have discovered a love of learning and teaching, met and married my best friend earlier than most, known the love and constant support of my family, and enjoyed many adventures across the world. It is no surprise to me that now, in what has felt like one of my darkest chapters, I am seeking some solace (control, even) in something that used to be so therapeutic for me.

Whilst our story reads like so many others’ stories who have struggled with infertility, I am becoming increasingly more aware of how, compared to many couples, our journey must seem short and relatively easy. Yet, as my mum has reminded me since I was young: everyone has a struggle and no matter what that struggle is, and how it compares to yours, it is real to the people experiencing it.

Two years ago, almost a year into married life to my love of ten years, we made the decision to start trying for a baby. Like most women my age, as a teen I had been scared into believing that any fleeting sexual encounter could end in unwanted pregnancy. So like many others in my generation, and the ones before, at seventeen I blindly began taking a contraceptive pill. It was as much in the hopes it might clear up my teenage blemishes and allow me to schedule my period as it was to prevent me falling pregnant. So ten years later, it should not have been surprising that my body took awhile to work out how to function in a somewhat normal fashion without its daily dose of artificial hormones. Once a sense of normality returned, we waited patiently each month and I dutifully kept track of my cycle, learning like so many other women the foreign language of those TTC (trying to conceive). But a year passed and nothing changed, so we sought answers from doctors. After routine tests didn’t shed any light on our situation, we were referred to a fertility clinic for further testing and the possibility of treatments. Whilst I would have preferred to have fallen pregnant naturally, after over a year of failures and knowing the pain of constantly waiting, I didn’t hesitate to throw myself into the hands of fertility specialists. After further testing, we were still left in limbo, given the frustrating diagnosis of unexplained infertility and therefore no clear area to target. Three IUI (Intra-uterine insemination) treatments later (plus one cancelled cycle of treatment) and we are still waiting. After dozens of injections; packets of pills; endless appointments, blood tests, and scans; and streams of tears, we are still in transit.

Through what has been such a dark, seemingly unending series of disappointments, the support we have received from those around us has allowed us to float instead of sinking into an ocean of self pity and loneliness. Unlike many others, we are both blessed to have family who we can openly share our struggles with. They have gently supported us in our journey, sharing our pain and frustration and buoying us along with a sense of positivity and hope when ours was waning. Similarly, I am lucky to have a collection of friends who I have been able to rely upon. Despite the perceived cultural stigma associated with infertility and the inherent pressure to keep these matters (including infertility, miscarriage, or early pregnancy) internalised and private, I operate as an ‘oversharer’. Some choose to keep their struggles to themselves, however I knew early on in our journey that there was no way I could keep my experience to myself; I needed the support of my friends and for them to understand why I wasn’t feeling like myself anymore. My oldest friends offered amazing comfort from the start…from simple statements such as “it sucks that you are going through this” to simply listening and being present. Similarly, a few generous work colleagues and friends have helped me through the rough days at work. One gem of a friend actually thanked me for opening up to her and allowing her to be there for me! As with other experiences of loss or bereavement, struggling with infertility has certainly highlighted to us the strong relationships and friendships in our lives.

On the other hand, one of the hardest parts of this journey has been dealing with the thoughtless and sometimes hurtful comments of others. Those facing infertility know all too well comments such as “you just need to relax” or “you’re still young”, and the supposedly comforting stories of their co-worker’s cousin’s neighbour who fell pregnant naturally after she adopted a child. Whilst I am aware of the sensitive bubble in which I am operating, where I can take every innocent question or pregnancy announcement as a personal affront, there have still been countless encounters where I have struggled to hold back tears or harsh retorts. Generally most people are well intentioned, or simply oblivious to their lack of tact, but this realisation doesn’t always make things easier. In my many sessions of scouring the internet for the advice and experiences of others, I have found so many eloquent summaries of my feelings, my frustrations. On one of my favourite blogs, A Cup Of Jo, which has several beautifully written pieces on infertility, I read about Catherine Newman’s thoughtful advice about how to help a friend with a miscarriage. To me, they were the words I wished everyone in my life could read. Words that could help us all be better friends to each other, no matter the situation:
“You don’t need to worry that you’re reminding your friend of something painful; she is probably thinking of little else. And you’ll dispel that strange sense of shame — as if the event were an embarrassing gynaecological issue or a personal failure and not a devastating heartbreak — felt by some women who have had miscarriages. Your job as a friend is to share the burden of sorrow. You can’t do that by looking the other way. You have to reach out.”
(http://cupofjo.com/2015/11/miscarriage-stories/)

In opening up to others, many friends have also shared with me their own stories of heartbreak and struggle. Writer Abigail Rasminsky addresses the sense of shame and silence which surrounds infertility as much as it does miscarriage. She reflects:
“The most alarming thing I’ve heard from friends who’ve had miscarriages is their surprise (only upon miscarrying) at hearing about how many of their friends, aunts, cousins, sisters, mothers and grandmothers have had them, too. If miscarriages are so common, why do we hide them behind a wall of shame and silence? If women could announce their pregnancies immediately, wouldn’t we learn that a pregnancy is truly awesome and terrifying and precarious and unknown — that anything can and does happen, and that women deserve all the love and support and understanding that comes with the act of trying to make another human being?”
(https://medium.com/the-archipelago/im-pregnant-so-why-cant-i-tell-you-271659d03f36#.rtjx99js8)

Yet even when in the company of women going through exactly the same experience we aren’t always able to find strength or comfort. Blogger and photographer Monica L. Schulman reflects upon her feelings of both isolation and connection to a wider group of women all going through the same pain:
“I had an “A-HA!” moment one morning at the fertility center. The waiting room was packed, and I started looking around at the other patients. One woman was reading the US Weekly that I had read the night before when I couldn’t sleep; another was reading Twilight, which I had just finished, someone else was typing furiously on her Blackberry—I related so much to these women.
Then a nurse comes in and says to someone, “Why are you here again?” And the woman said, “Oh, for the test.” And the nurse says, “Again? I can’t believe it. Again?” And the woman started crying, “Yes! Again. I’m here again, again, again, I’m here again…” She kept repeating it and crying. And everyone was staring because no one could believe it.
I suddenly realized: We were all the same. This woman was openly crying. I had openly cried in the subway so many times, I’d lost count. I didn’t even care, I didn’t care who saw me. I had been in my own world, always. You get wrapped up in yourself when you’re going through this; in my mind, it was just me and nobody else. Nobody else could understand. I was just so far down. Earlier that morning, I’d felt like I was alone, even though I was sitting in a room full of women on a Saturday morning. But after this A-HA moment, I absolutely felt less alone. I was like, these women are me. I am them. Not one of us was there because we had the strep throat or the flu—we were there because we didn’t have something. And that something was a baby. We were dealing with a void and something that we wanted to have but could not. We are all the same.”
(http://cupofjo.com/2011/10/motherhood-mondays-what-if-you-have-a-hard-time-conceiving-a-baby/)

Despite the challenges on this journey, the physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion, I do feel I have grown in different ways. I have learnt a lot about female fertility, myself, and my relationship. From taking a keen interest in my cycles and tracking ovulation I stumbled upon the online community of women experiencing infertility. These women have given me a forum to openly share my worries and ask any seemingly random question, an ever-present support network, and a sense of hope through seeing so many women overcome their varied challenges. Through throwing myself into these communities and avidly consuming online material and podcasts I have learnt so much about the many factors that can affect fertility; things that need to be taught in homes and in schools so women can be more aware of their own bodies and empowered.

My experiences have also been revealing in the way they have given me an insight into my own strength, the strength of my marriage, and the enduring love my husband and I have for one another. At times I’ve hated myself and my body for not being able to do what should come naturally. I’ve hated the way I’ve cried easily or envied a pregnant stranger or not been able to leave the house that day. Yet through all of the self pity and stress, through tears and anger and sadness, my husband has been there – never judging, never faltering, always offering love.

Part of the journey has been questioning why I want this so badly, and what will happen if I can’t have children. Whilst I know that I am drawn to being a mother, and if it doesn’t happen naturally (or with the help of science) we will pursue other options, I also need to make peace with myself in the mean-time. To learn to do more than just survive this transit time. Blogger Mara Kofoed expresses this much more eloquently than I could:
“For years, my worth and identity was wrapped up in having a spouse and children. But then, I realized that I was putting pressure on this child to fulfill me, when in reality, it’s my job to find fulfillment, not anyone else’s.
If you’re seeking wholeness from another person—looking to your child or spouse or job—then when you encounter challenges in that relationship, you’re going to feel threatened. Your worth and identity as a wife/mother/business owner will be sucked in to every bad mood, tone of voice, stressful moment, etc. That’s a huge pressure on the other person. There’s no getting away from it until you decide to cut the cord and say, my wholeness is intact. It’s the most loving thing you can offer someone, because it allows you to absolutely love others and to stay stable, no matter what the circumstances are.
I know—with every ounce of my being—that joy in life is possible regardless of your circumstances, regardless of whatever hand you’re dealt. Now I live my life by cultivating joy and happiness myself and not relying on anyone else for it. The most important thing is learning to live a life motivated by love, no matter what your circumstances. That is what makes good parents good parents. That is what makes good people good people. And I still have that. We ALL have that.”
(http://cupofjo.com/2014/04/motherhood-mondays-what-if-you-cant-have-a-baby/)

As we take the next steps on our infertility journey, delving into the world of IVF, I feel both hesitation and excitement. I don’t know how we will achieve our dream of becoming parents but I do know we will get there. I am encouraged by the knowledge that this transit isn’t permanent, that all things shall pass. In the mean-time, thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts. I hope that some of these ramblings can offer a sense of comfort for those going through the same journey. I feel hopeful that one day we will have a beautiful child who will know how long we waited for them and how very much they are loved.