Washington Post columnist Carolyn Hax doled out some poignant advice to a woman in Texas who said she was “broken” because she was unable to conceive children. The thread, which was a long one, ended up taking weird twists and turns as the woman, who also happens to be a stepmom, continued to write.
Here is the original letter and Hax’s response:
Texas: How do I get over the pain of never being a Mommy? We are completely infertile, both totally broken. Adoption is not an option for us for a plethora of reasons. I am a stepmom and I have good relationships with my stepkids but as everybody and their dog like to remind me, I am not their mom. Now I know I will never be anybody’s mom, and it is breaking my heart. I feel like such a loser.
Carolyn Hax: Is that the way you regard other people who haven’t, for whatever reason, been able to bear their own children? As broken losers?
I have to think you wouldn’t dream of being so tough on them.
It’s not often that I need to turn the Golden Rule around like this, but: You need to think of the way you’d treat a close and beloved friend who was in your exact situation, and then start showing yourself the same kindness and generosity of spirit.
There are also some very good resources available for helping you make peace with your circumstances (and that is just what they are–circumstances; there’s nothing more to be read into them). Resolve.org is one that’s at your fingertips and that readers recommend almost every time infertility comes up. Take care of yourself–and those stepchildren, too. You may not be “their mom,” but you’re a prominent part of their lives. If they’re still minors, you have nothing less than the power to make or break their childhoods. Put your heart into your relationship with them, and that will bring its own rewards.
Initially, readers offered all kinds of advice like counseling, while some readers took issue with Hax’s non-chalance on the issue as there are folks out there who believe you are not worth anything unless you have children.
Carolyn Hax: “The vast majority of people”? I refuse to believe people are this willfully rigid in their beliefs, the popularity of Fox News notwithstanding.
“The vast majority of people”?: I’d agree with Woodbridge. I can’t tell you how many times I been faced with family and friends “So what are you up to?” I tell them I have a great job, doing work I support, with co- workers who are like minded, I’m happy, have friends, etc.
“Oh. But you’re not married? No kids? Oh.” Never do I hear “that’s great, I’m so happy for you.”
Apparently, contentment is not enough.
Carolyn Hax: Hmmm I dunno. The scene you describe could also be titled, “Conversations with the socially inept,” and not just, “Single/childless people have no value in society’s eyes.”
For the sake of argument, though–let’s stipulate to what you’re arguing, but move closer to the original Q and A. Let’s take the family and friends you’re talking about, and put them in the position of individual friends. One of them has a friend who has just confided that s/he’s unable to conceive children.
Would these people actually respond by treating their anguished friend as a “broken loser”? Or would they comfort the friend, assure him or her that it’s just a tough break and s/he has no reason to feel bad about him- or herself?
If it’s not the latter, I might have to do two laps of the table.
Then Texas responded, throwing this entire conversation into another direction:
Texas again: Thanks Carolyn and ‘nuts. I appreciate what you said and will give it some thought. As to putting my heart into my relationship with my stepkids, I already do that (I am not being boastful to say I give above and beyond) and frankly it is not reward enough in and of itself, maybe because I get so much grief from their mom for wanting to be actively involved in their lives.
As for counseling for my anger (yes, I’m ticked that my husband caved to his ex’s relentless bullying for a vasectomy that wasn’t successfully reversed), I have seen two counselors about that and both of them advised me to do everything in my power to have a baby of my own, that it would “solve everything”. Barf. Time to find a new counselor, I guess. I just feel so lost and hopeless about my future.
Texas again: BTW in case anyone wants to know why I’m ticked that he caved to her bullying about the vasectomy, it’s because she was already having an affair and flat out told him she didn’t want him to have kids with anyone else.
Carolyn Hax: Your frustration makes so much sense; your husband’s ex seems to have thrown up barriers to your happiness that were mean-spirited and selfish–and selfish, mean-spirited actions aren’t supposed to win out, only good-hearted ones are.
I can also see why your counselors have advised going all out to have a child on your own, because it would indeed solve part of the problem, your perception of the ex as having “won.”
But that doesn’t mean that was and is your only option. First of all, the grief the ex is giving you for being involved in her kids’ lives isn’t the end of the story. That remains to be written, and if you can keep summoning the resolve to keep going above and beyond with your stepchildren, then there’s an excellent chance you will create a soul-saving example for these kids of humanity, selflessness, strength.
They may never thank you for this favor, or even like you more for it, but it will be inside them and it will matter, and you will
always know you did that. Under thankless conditions, no less.
I also think it’s important that you turn your attention to other ways you can be the person you had always imagined yourself to be–or to new ways you can now imagine yourself to be. Maybe you’re not ready yet–maybe the grief and anger are too fresh, and this may even have to wait till your stepchildren are independent enough–but there are other places and other ways to love and nurture.
If you can’t get your current therapist to walk with you in this direction, then, yes, it’s time for another. But if you haven’t said outright that you find the “try even harder for a baby” guidance unhelpful, then you need to articulate that, and ask for other avenues for (a) reducing the amount of anger you feel at the ex and your husband, and (b) reducing the amount of control they have had, and particularly that she has had, on both your daily life and your long-term goals and dreams. You have the last word on so many other things, and those are where your attention belongs.
Once Texas mentioned the irreversible vasectomy, one reader mentioned the possibility of retrieving his sperm another way to create a biological child. Hax said she was reluctant to mention this idea as it sounded like Texas had tried it all. Read on:
I’ve been debating whether to mention this, since it does seem as if they’ve tried it all, in which case mentioning alternatives would be the infertility-treatment equivalent of “You can always adopt.” But if the only thing standing between Texas and childbirth is a referral to a reproductive endocrinologist, well, I’d hate to have been too timid to throw it out there.
So I will, with my own apologies in advance.
Possibily insensitive adoptive dad again: I guess what I’m asking is, when I see comments dismissing adoption as a viable alternative, why shouldn’t I be defensive on behalf of my daughter?
Carolyn Hax: They’re not dismissing adoption as a viable alternative; they’re dismissing -mentioning it.
This is a topic that goes way back, but I’ll try to explain it quickly, because frankly I’m beat and need to sign off: Think of it as the baby-having equivalent to, “You’ll meet someone when you least expect it,” for people who are sad about loneliness or a breakup. It’s condescending, denies/minimizes the pain of what the person is feeling, and doesn’t tell the person anything s/he doesn’t already know—while also minimizing the difficulty of the process.-
So, of course adoption is a beautiful way to create a family. It just makes a lousy platitude.
Like I said, this was a long and interesting thread. What non-platitudes have you used to comfort an infertile friend or family member?