Wednesday, May 8, 2013

When Being Open About Infertility is Not a Good Thing

I remember it so well. I was newly pregnant and our ultrasound showing the heartbeat had been just a few days before, so I was walking around on a cloud of euphoria. I was working for my previous district and when I was called to the office for a delivery at my elementary school the Friday before Mother's Day 2008, there they were, a dozen long-stemmed roses.  When I walked in, a few people were wondering out loud who they were for and, assuming that it was a Mother's Day gift, the principal (who knew of my infertility), turned to me with spite and snarled,

"Well, I know they're not for you."

I kid you not.  I am quoting her word-for-word.

The flowers were for me from my lovely husband and the words inside spoke of our perfect secret, but her words almost knocked me off the cloud I had been riding and were proof to me that I still needed to keep my mouth closed. That my infertility (on top of already preventing me from building my family) could be used against me was the final blow. No, strike that. The fact that I lost that baby a month later was.

For a long time now, however, I have been very open about my infertility, almost to the point where I'm quite certain I've been Facebook blocked about a dozen times thanks to my zest for posting IF literature for a group who is largely fertile. (I can hear it now: "OK, OK, we get it! We won't tell you guys to relax anymore! Geez!") A lot has changed since that Mother's Day, obviously. I initially 'came out' at my baby shower, but I'm going to be the first to admit that this didn't take nearly as much courage as it should have. I chose a time when infertility was (at least at that very moment) behind me. I was, by all appearances, successful, so I was speaking in past tense and too wrapped up in impending Mommyhood to really feel the full sting of infertility as I had when that principal shot her venom at me.  It's far easier to speak about something traumatic after you've conquered it. It was a precisely-timed 'outing', so my hats off to anyone who is speaking while still in treatment/waiting.

 Recently there's been this message in our community, especially in light of 'joining the movement', to talk about infertility. It goes something like this:

 Just talk! Don't be silenced! If we are to move forward and remove the stigma from infertility, then we need YOU to tell your story!! Do it, and do it, now! Don't delay! Our community needs you to speak-and speak loudly!  In fact, shout it from the rooftops!

Now, I LOVE this message-LOVE it! Obviously I subscribe to it and have blogged about needing more IF awareness recently, but that's because I'm in a place where being vocal will not wound me. When I told my employers all those years ago, however, I was.  It was only after I realized that I needed to start becoming transparent to explain my ongoing absences at work that I finally approached them. Because of Bay Area traffic, what should have been a 20 minute appointment (pick up sample, stuff in bra, drive like mad, lay on table for 5 minutes, then done!) often turned into 2 hour stretches. In the course of an 8 hour work day, that's a huge chunk of time. And it was my first year with the district, so it made it even more imperative to explain why I was dropping off the face of the earth several times a month. So, I was forced to tell my boss and that ridiculous principal. While I don't regret explaining my absences, I do regret going into any sort of detail and opening myself up in the way that I did.

These confessions were long before I had processed any of my infertility. In fact, most family and friends were none the wiser and here were these two people who held this extremely private information and had no motivation to keep it private or treat it respectfully. I had not yet found my way to a support group meeting nor did I even realize the ALI community existed, so I therefore assumed that I was an oddity, having no idea that any of my experiences and feelings were remotely normal. And because of this, I was so tender about the topic of infertility that the mere mention sent me into tears. I still regret showing my tears to that principal when I told her. She didn't deserve that piece of me, but she got it and eventually abused it. So, should I have shouted about my infertility from the rooftops? least not at that moment.

For those who have yet to 'come out', I would caution them with this: think carefully before you do. I'm not telling anyone to remain silent-no, but I think that we should find a way to balance self preservation and supporting our community. Being open about infertility is not meant to be comfortable. Whatever situation you're in, it should take courage, but it shouldn't be done at the expense of yourself, otherwise it could end up doing more harm than good.

Take for instance someone who lives in a small, rural conservative community. Although I live in a pretty liberal place, the stigma still exists here, so I can only begin to imagine what is being said in some places about those 'people who do IVF'.  There are quite a few groups who feel it to be a moral obligation to prevent treatment from happening (take personhood bills, for example), so mean spirits could potentially slip their way in and disrupt your life. And even if you're not worried about the community, if you're not quite prepared to start fielding unsolicited ass-vice, ignorant comments or better yet, very pointed questions about current treatment, then maybe it might also be wise to wait awhile. Being open about infertility educates, which is what we want, but it also has the potential to change the relationships, and thus, the life around you and sometimes not always in a positive way.  We need voices, but at what cost? For some, the cost is just too high.

And then again, some people never even tell at all. And I want to say, I get it. I really do, and I don't hold it against them. Does this silence in our community make for more of an uphill battle for the rest of us? You bet it does. But do I think that the members of our community need to participate if it yields more personal pain? No. Not now. Maybe later. So, if an 'outing' can take place at any point in time in someone's journey, we need that added voice desperately, but learn from my mistakes: choose your audience carefully and make sure that you're ready because sometimes the world of being open is amidst rough waters.


AnotherDreamer said...

Really great post Shelby. I don't regret having been open about my infertility, but at the time- in that moment- it was also hard, and it *did* change all my relationships. Very well said.

MrsDjRass said...

Oh...You are so right! I was open to a few people. I thought it was the right thing to do. But after a failure, I just didn't want to discuss my thoughts and feelings with anyone other than my husband. Because I had let these folks in, they thought it was their right to continue to ask. I stopped talking about it. I won't hide it, but I've made it clear that it's not a journey that I'm sharing.

Aaryn Rubin said...

Mrs.DjRass-sharing is a blessing and a curse-if you share your journey, there isn't really a way to hide! Everyone knew about my first pregnancy when I found out-because I was in undergrad and I was frequently out for all the IVF required monitoring-so I told them why. But then when the result time came, they knew too. I didn't mind it too much, we celebrated, etc...but it is annoying when you do want to keep something to yourself.

Shelby-I'm so sorry to hear about your principal! So crazy...I'm 26, so other than the looks like I have 6 heads when people find out I not only have kids, but am going for more, I have only experienced positive remarks. And thank goodness my principal is 100% pro-family...

I think it truly is great to share-even when it hurts-because people need to know how much it hurts.

Shelby said...

I have to follow up that I was speaking about my previous district. My current boss is amazingly supportive and understanding. I've been at my current district for 5 years, through 3 IUIs, 1 IVF and 1 miscarriage and its been nothing but smooth sailing. (Unfortunately she's retiring this year, so I'm bracing myself if her replacement doesn't share the same empathy and pro-family stance).

Aaryn Rubin said...

Shelby-it's hard because on one hand you know that you're supposed to be in a family friendly field (I'm an SLP) and that you have reproductive rights, blah blah blah, but then really-at least by me, if your principal doesn't like what you're doing-you're gone.

I've been told over and over how fortunate I am to have the principal I have, and that others would just flat out tell me no. I don't think they could actually get away with it if I pushed it, but thankfully, right now, I don't have to worry!

Keiko said...

I really appreciate the candidness of this post. I know how much I rally behind the "just talk about it" end of the movement - but I always say that with a caveat. Just talk about it... in a place that is safe and comforting. I think it's irresponsible to just constantly tell people to be open and forthcoming with everyone they meet about some deeply personal, intimate struggles - so I say kudos to you for calling that out.

A great post - off to share!

CNSmith2006 said...

Fantastic post! Honestly, I've been open with friends, family, coworkers, bosses, acquaintances, and other IF people. Hindsight, I wish I hadn't.

We've been trying for about three years (well, three years two months and 26 days as of today). We originally weren't going to tell anyone we were trying; we had been married for three years and had already endured that many years of 'When are you going to have a baby?' discussions. We tried to wait until we were both out of college, married, had good jobs, etc. We wanted to wait until we were ready in the best way we could be.

So, we told my baby sister who was OVER THE MOON about it. She just grinned from ear to ear with happiness... One of our biggest supporters through it all! Then, we told our parents, friends, and family that we were trying. We didn't think it would take too long because both of our parents were super fertile (think about it and get pregnant. Got pregnant every time they wanted with minimal effort. My in-laws even had two surprise babies (my brother in law (born 11 months to the day after baby 1) and my husband (born 10 years after that).).

We weren't prepared for IF. We have been pretty honest with everyone about it, including taking breaks on treatments and such. I've been told that I 'deserve having six kids at one time with no arms or legs because [I'm] playing God', 'it's not meant to be', 'do we not like kids', 'calm down and it will happen', 'are we doing it right?', 'why don't we just do IVF', etc. Instead of letting us just go about our lives while undergoing IF treatments (along with job changes, moving, others having babies, nieces and nephews, graduations, funerals, etc), we get bombarded with unsolicited comments, unprovoked revelations, and unfair questions. It isn't enough to go through the most difficult thing in my life and potentially never becoming a mother, but we have to endure people because we opened our big fat mouths. Honestly, if I could go back, I don't think I would tell anyone.

I applaud those who share at any point (brave, selfless souls), and I would never discourage anyone from sharing. I would just suggest being prepared for the craziness that may ensue.

Whitney Anderson said...

Really great post. I am one of those people that encourages advocacy efforts, but try to be more careful about "pushing" people to out themselves.

I have been very public and it's had its pluses and minuses. If I had it to do over again, I would probably do it the same. But, I would have kept impending treatment more private. I learned my lesson and for the last several IVF cycles I did just that.

It's certainly a precarious balance and ultimately a very personal choice.

erika said...

I am semi-out about my IF, and being open about it is a mixed bag for sure. All our closest friends, family members and coworkers know, and the list of people with whom I've shared my IF blog is ever (slowly) growing. When we had our first IUI last cycle, I practically shouted it from the rooftops ... then realized everyone was very eager to hear the results. It occurred to me that I didn't want to have to tell them either way, but now I had no choice. (BFN, BTW.)

On the flip side, through being open, I've found real-life, in-the-flesh allies who are also going through this IF bullshit, which I feel has made it all worthwhile. Though I think the lesson I've learned is that for now, for my emotional well-being, I need to be more careful about sharing the specifics of our treatment.

erika said...

Also, should say I really appreciate your balanced perspective on this topic, Shelby!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing, though that must have been an awful experience. I originally wanted to be open about our infertility, but it does make me feel very vulnerable, and after several hurtful comments I've become much more reluctant to share. But IF is such a big part of my life that it doesn't feel right to not tell people close to me about it...

Muneer Hussian said...
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Anonymous said...

This is a great post. I too, get it. Even though I'm in the middle of compiling an anthology on IF and miscarriage, with a very public website to go with it (, I'm still absolutely terrified every time I mention my story to anyone.