Women and Childlessness: What Happened to Compassion?
When it comes to infertility—regardless of circumstance, it is no wonder people tuck themselves away privately in the shadows of their loss.
Last week, our founder Melanie Notkin created a firestorm with her Huffington Post piece, “The Truth About Childless Women.” Her courage to speak up about what she calls “circumstantial infertility” brought many to tears and while it was heartwarming to witness, what puzzled and infuriated me was the venom and blame spewed against those who have battled various forms of infertility.
As a grief therapist and a victim of (biological) infertility, it saddened me to see someone come under such scrutiny that courageously shared a personal loss experience. To borrow a variation of a line from one of my favorite movies — there’s room for everyone on the grief list—even if it’s a loss you personally don’t understand.
Marriage and children
Daydreams of marrying and raising children have long graced the pages of little girls’ diaries. It is a dream held dear by many of us in the Savvy Auntie community. Falling in love, walking down the aisle adorned in white, and ultimately holding our breath for that tiny pink plus sign to come into focus, are all developmental rites of passage for which millions of women ache. And while there are exceptions to the specifics, when any part of that dream fails—it is likely one will experience disenfranchised grief— a sense of loss that goes unacknowledged.
All losses are legitimate
In “Rewriting the ‘Rules’ of Grief,” Lynne Shallcross in Counseling Today says, “Counselors say it is completely appropriate to place non-death losses under the umbrella of grief. In fact, it's important to recognize them.” Russell Friedman, executive director of the Grief Recovery Institute agrees in that same article. "All loss is experienced at 100 percent. There are no exceptions.”
The burden of loss is lightened when it’s shared. The challenge for disenfranchised grievers though, is as a society we have developed a de facto pecking order in which they barely get an honorable mention and sometimes, as in the case with the infertile, suffer public lashings in the virtual town square.
Kenneth J. Doka, a professor of counseling at the graduate school of the College of New Rochelle, says in Counseling Today, “In many situations—including non-death-related losses—a person might experience a significant loss but be deprived of the opportunity to publicly acknowledge the loss, openly mourn and receive social support."
Shock and Shame
During my days in hospice care, as the coordinator of the children’s grief and loss program, I witnessed the rally of support generated around a dying patient. People lined up in droves to drop off casseroles. They baked cookies and cakes and took shifts in carpool—a perfectly appropriate and understandable response. And while I would never expect news of someone’s struggle with infertility to spawn that same degree of support, the hostility levied against those brave enough to come out from behind the shadows of their grief is shocking, shameful and a societal outrage.
Has compassion for victims of infertility become the proverbial carrot on a stick, reserved exclusively for those considered by the masses to have legitimately, “tried hard enough?”
Simply because advances in modern medicine make parenthood more accessible, compassion for those who long to parent should not be held hostage, released only to those who pay the required ransom of taking full and complete advantage of them (including adoption).
Trust me, the millions who have struggled with the reality that no one will ever call them, “mommy,” have weighed their parenting options and made the right and often very painful decision* for them*.
Let’s move forward embracing a higher ground. While you might not understand the fertility resolutions others come to, please try to respect them. In a world where many of us feel like a “Charlie in the Box,” and are considered by some, pariahs who made our beds and should quit complaining while we lie in them, harsh judgments and assumptions about our fertility hurt—a lot.
How to help
The wisest advice on how best to support those who are grieving comes courtesy of the late Henri Nouwen, a renowned priest, author, and respected professor who said:
When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is the friend who cares.
The beauty of a community like Savvy Auntie is that it makes room for everyone “on the list” who loves children. It suspends judgment about how any of us found our way here, celebrating maternity in all its forms while providing a wellspring of compassion for all those who seek it—a remarkable refuge indeed.
Stephanie Baffone, LPCMH, NCC is a newspaper advice columnist, “Ask Aunt Steph,” speaker, educator and therapist in private practice with a specialty in grief and loss. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook or StephanieBaffone.com.
Photo Courtesy of TheAlieness GiselaGiardino²³
Published: July 19, 2011