In April of 2008, I wrote this in a post titled " The Girl Who Knew Too Much:"
In the eight years since I've become a parent, the presence of the aforementioned loneliness has waxed and waned depending on whether or not more pressing thoughts like trying to conceive and making it safely through pregnancy again (and again) took priority over mulling feelings of separation from the general mothering community. While working for and carrying the second and third pregnancies, my thoughts were so consumed with the babies within and the ones I already had to fret much about my interactions (or lack thereof) with other mothers. However, in the spaces between the delivery of one pregnancy and the attempts to achieve another, my thoughts again turned to separation I felt from the general population of mothers - the other 90% who luckily landed outside the spectrum labeled infertility. Now that we are completely finished with building our family, there is little reprieve from the question that begs to be answered: Why do I still feel like an outsider?
I've thought long and hard about this and the answer, while there are several splinter causes that lead to the effect of feeling out of place, it all boils down to one truth - being a mother after infertility splinters even as it fulfills.
Mother after Infertility - even the phrase itself is splintered, implying that I am not just a mother. I am a mother after a condition and not just a mother in the natural order of life. Fertile mothers, especially those without any losses, just are.
Even as a mother, I'm still surprised by how often ease of conception comes up in conversational playground/birthday party/school function chit-chat among mothers.
Mother One: I have two, how many do you have?
Blatant boasts of fertility/blithe unawareness of infertility is actually easier for me to deal with, because then it's clear where the other stands. They're fertiles. Check. Got it. Be on the standby for potentially-stupid comments.
When among mothers and there isn't any mention at all about the ease of achieving pregnancy (which at least in my experience seems to be a rarity), that is when I wonder if there is anyone else sitting there feeling like they are on foreign ground, readying themselves for the possibility of bombs that they must deflect away from their infertile hearts.
This splintering of being a Mother after Infertility is at the forefront of my mind even more so when I am in a situation of meeting new women when there are no children present. Children are like little status symbols. When children are present and I can connect them to their parents, my thoughts go something like this: 5 women present, and all have been referred to as "Mom" by one or more of the 9 children here. We all have the label of "mother" so we all speak the same language, even though some of us are natural-born citizens and others, like me, speak Mother as a Second Language. Try to relax and avoid speaking with an accent. When in Rome, and all that.
However, when there aren't telltale passports running around, my thoughts go something like this: 11 women present, err on the side of caution and assume that all are infertile or have dealt with infertility. Tread lightly, because the talk will invariably turn to children and babies and it's possible that someone here hasn't made it that far yet, and when someone asks and I have to answer, "Yes, I have four," someone else might be mentally yelling at me, "BITCH, DIDN'T YOU HEAR THAT I WAS INFERTILE!" I don't want to unwittingly have to force someone into playing the Wince and Rebound game. I understand. I remember all the times in the 2.5 years of trying that I had to hope that my plastic, fake smile would hold back tears and act as a protective shield against conversation about stretch marks and morning sickness. I remember what it was like to not have a passport, to have to hide the fact that I was an illegal alien.
So, when in the company of women whose mothering status is unknown, I have basic rules of etiquette which I follow with almost flowchart-like precision:
1. Don't mention children until it's mentioned to me. Answer quick and dirty -- "I have four plus my nephew" -- then move on as quickly as possible.
Which, let me stop right there, because the fact that I am raising the equivalent of a small African village makes me somewhat of a freak of nature in both camps. Moving on as quickly as possible is almost never possible. As much as I try to downplay it, others magnify it.
Woman A: I have three kids, and you?
No, Woman A didn't notice, and why would she when she seems to have no grounds for needing to know defensive moves like the Plastic Face and the Wince and Recover? And how could Woman B possibly know that I'm originally from the Land of IF and that I also speak her language of dpt's, dpo's, IUI, IVF, HCG, HSG, TESE, MFI and so on?
Now that I'm typing all of this out, I've had something of a revelation. Much of my social awkwardness stems from projected assumptions. With one foot still planted in infertile memories and the other planted in the present motherhood, I know how the Kym of Ten Years Past viewed a woman who, like the Kym of Today, has 4+1 children. The Kym without Passports would have assumed that it was easy for the Kym with Children to get those children. She would have probably been a little sadder on the day she met Kym with Children, as those children would have magnified all the ways in which her body was failing her.
That image of myself is projected onto the face of every woman I meet. It's like a reflex - a muscle that I can't relax. I don't want to inadvertently hurt women who are still where I was ten years ago. So in social situations, it still feels awkward when discussing children and babies. Even here in my own space, the term "mommyblogging" makes my skin crawl, though essentially that is what I do when recounting the hilarity of life with el Cinco. Whenever I publish those posts, there is a part of me that can't help but feel like at least a few people who read them are hurting just a little bit deeper than they were before they read it. It may sound strange, but I always send a little mental apology out into the Universe when I click "publish" on el Cinco posts. What surprises me time and time again, is that those are the posts that tend to receive the most comments. I subconsciously exhale a sigh of relief and think, "Whew -- no one screamed BUT DIDN'T YOU HEAR THAT I WAS INFERTILE, BITCH! at me."
The bottom line is that I probably over-think things when going into social situations with other women, and most of the awkwardness I feel is probably self-created rather than imposed upon me. However, if my awkwardness and reservation keeps someone else from having to revert into the Plastic Face, it's worth it.
Still, I can't help but wonder if there will ever come a time when I will be able to view my children as just children and not also as walking metaphors for my passports out of Hell. No...I don't think I want that, either. I think that keeping sight of the fact that my children are passports is what keeps me grounded and empathetic, and I know it is what drives me as a surrogate. I think what I really want is balance, some sort of reconciliation between between the two sides of me and how those joined sides interact with others.
And therein, I think, lies the answer to my original question, which isn't really an answer but is more a case of one question begetting another:
I still feel like an outsider because infertility hurts.
Why, after everything, does it still hurt so much?
I have much more to say about parenting after infertility, especially as it relates to the different ways in which infertility is resolved (including adoption and donor gametes). This post serves as a sort of springboard for further ruminations in the days to come. In the meantime, please comment, if you can:
*If you're a mother after infertility, do you find yourself still feeling awkward in social situations with other mothers? How do you handle it?
*If you're still in the process of trying, do you feel like you're always walking around with a Plastic Face shield up, preemptively on the defensive just in case conversation heads down THAT path (like I once used to do)?
*If you're a mother but have not had to experience infertility or loss, do you feel socially-awkward when around other mothers? I ask this question because I have no basis for comparison. In my mind's eye, it has always seemed to me that mothers without difficulty (as opposed to mothers after infertility) must have it easy as I have it complicated. I realize that this is an assumption on my part and that there may be factors that I am unaware of that make it difficult for you to talk about your children and parenting as well.