Friday, May 2, 2008

Mother's Day

Mother's Day is almost here. For me, as for some people I know, this is a day fraught with meaning far beyond anything one might glean from the ubiquitous Hallmark cards proclaiming universal Motherlove. (A little aside here to thank my mom for never expecting anything from me on Mother's Day, and to my immediate family generally for not investing any real meaning in these manufactured holidays. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for celebrating real holidays, esp. the Jewish ones, but these others, put on the calendar to guilt us into supporting the greeting card industry by an ostensible show of good behavior towards our parents one day of the year, give me a pain in a particular region of my anatomy).

Before, say, 2004, Mother's Day didn't make much of an impression on me. I'd call my mom, usually, (I call and email her often, so I don't feel a particular need to do it on the second Sunday in May) and some years I may have sent a card, but that was the extent of it.

But now a mention of the words "Mother's Day" makes my heart clench like a fist in my chest. Most of you know that my sweetie and I tried to have a child of our own. When it became clear that we had exhausted all the medical options available to us, we looked into adoption. Private adoption was beyond our means, well beyond. So we got in touch with the state to find out about adopting a child through them. What we were told, basically, was that they really had a need for short-term foster parents, and that if we wanted to adopt a child of our own, we'd need to become foster parents first. Well, okay, we thought, we could do that. But then they told us not to go into foster parenting with the intention of becoming adoptive parents, because the state makes every effort to place foster kids with other relatives whenever possible, and that what we could likely expect was a series of custodial situations, where we'd take care of foster kids for a period of time until a permanent placement could be found for them.

I have nothing but admiration for those who choose to become foster parents.  In my twelve years teaching music I had occasion to meet several such people, and to talk with them about their situations. Their courage and strength are admirable; hell, they should all get automatic sainthoods, IMO. Most of them had children of their own, and they also told me that foster parenting is about providing a safe, stable environment for kids whose families, for whatever reason, can't provide that safety and stability themselves. Foster parenting is a timeout, a respite, but (in Oregon, at least) there's no expectation built into the process that the kids placed with you will be with you for any length of time.  In other words, to put it bluntly, being a foster parent is not the same as parenting your own child.

When I have talked about this with family and friends, I have sometimes noticed a certain judgment creep into their tone. I have sometimes gotten the distinct impression that they feel I should be willing to opt for foster parenting if that's the only option available, that I am "giving up" on becoming a parent because I can't do it exactly the way I wanted to, or that I'm acting like a spoiled child myself, someone who wants what she wants and isn't willing to settle for less. I can't express how hurtful that judgment has been, both for me and my sweetie, over the past few years, nor how unfair it is.

Foster parenting isn't parenting in the usual sense. When you have a child of your own, however that child came into your lives, either through adoption, surrogacy or more traditional means, you get to invest in that child emotionally. You get to have hopes and dreams for that child. You get to bond with that child. You get to claim that child as your own. One foster parent I spoke with told me that state agencies prefer foster parents who have kids of their own, precisely so the foster parents can make that emotional separation between the kids they have and the kids they're taking care of at any given moment. I'm not saying foster parents don't love their foster children, or take care of them just as well as their own children. I'm talking about the expectations foster parents have for their foster children, and the reality they often live with: that, whenever possible, the state will make every effort to reunite a foster child with her or his biological family, and so the foster home is a way station, not a permanency. Given this picture of fostering presented to us, my sweetie and I decided we couldn't do it. We couldn't take a child into our home and our life and bond with it and then have it be taken away. We couldn't live with that sense of impermanence, or subject ourselves over and over to that kind of loss.

Please don't post comments telling me that fostering is different for you or I don't know the whole story about it or that other states have other options for long term foster adoption. I'm sure that's true. This isn't a general discussion of foster parenting as a viable alternative to traditional parenting. It's a personal story. It's my story. This is what happened to me, and to my sweetie, what we were told, and the reality we live with.

I wanted to be a mother. I wanted to get pregnant and have my own child. Having to face the fact that my body has failed me on that front has been devastating. I'm still not over it. My experience of childlessness and infertility can be seen as a series of diminishing expectations and hard realities with no alternatives. First was the disappointment of learning we couldn't just pick out a donor and inseminate and go from there. Then was the painful and emotionally and physically humiliating process of prodding my reproductive system into doing its job, via hormones, pelvic ultrasounds, doctor's visits, lab tests, and, oh yes, thousands of dollars of investment, none of which was covered under my health plan.

When I stand at the grocery check out line and see tabloid headlines trumpeting the pregnancy of yet another aging celebrity, I seriously consider committing an unlawful act. The reality, for those of us who have struggled with infertility, is that the miracle drugs and procedures don't always, or often, work. I don't know if there are statistics to show how often these medical interventions are successful, but my guess is less than 35%. I only know what was made very clear to me by the doctors I saw: that I would be bucking the odds no matter what I did, whether it was trying to ovulate or attempting in vitro, and that those odds were pretty severely stacked against me. We bucked those odds until our money ran out and my body made it clear that, no matter what we did, it wasn't going to cooperate.

Americans love stories about about overcoming, about surmounting obstacles, about triumphing in the face of adversity. They inspire us and leave us with the illusion that we can control our own destinies, if we just try hard enough. It's what makes reality TV such a powerful and successful genre. I would have loved nothing more than to add to that canon of optimism with my own story, but this isn't that kind of story. It's not a creation, so I don't get to delete the sad stuff and write the happy ending. This story is what happened to me. 

The passivity of that statement galls me. Like most people, I'd like to think I have some control over my life, at least insofar as I get to make decisions about what happens to me. But I'm not in control here. I didn't choose this. That may sound like a ridiculous thing to say, so I'll put it another way. This is a story of failure. You can call it my failure, because it was my body that wouldn't allow me to get pregnant (but it's not a failure of my own making, because I was born with the endocrine syndrome that caused my infertility). You can call it God's failure, if you believe in God, or the universe's, or the State of Oregon's, or a failure of modern medicine. If it's important to you to assign blame, there are a number of culprits here. But that doesn't change the fact that, in the end, this story doesn't have a happy ending. And because my story ends in failure, it flies in the face of the American trope of triumphing over the odds. It alienates some people, and makes them uncomfortable, occasionally so much so that they are unable to express their support for us. We're a problem-solving people, much more comfortable offering solutions than commiserating when all solutions have been exhausted. And if I could be subjected to such a failure, despite all my efforts, it could happen to anyone. There but for the grace of God, etc. Who wants to hang out with that? I sure don't.

Needless to say, this wasn't supposed to be my life. This wasn't the script I wrote for myself, nor the one written for me in the hearts and hopes of my friends and family. I didn't start out on this journey to become a parent with any expectation that it would fail to come about. What I am left with, as I contemplate the past three or four years, is a child-shaped hole in my heart and a profound (and unwelcome) understanding of loss.

For the past three or four years I have been trying to adjust to living with this new and unwanted version of my life. It has weighed on me, literally and figuratively. It has made it hard for me to be around people whose lives are going as planned, and it has forced me to sometimes distance myself from people who have children. By now, a couple of years after the realization that I would not be able to be a parent, I have gotten to a place where seeing a pregnant woman no longer makes me flinch, and I am usually happy to spend time with close friends who have young children, because they are not simply "children" but small people we love and have a relationship with. I am grateful for the love, understanding and support we have received from friends and family near and far, and also grateful that the insensitive comments we have been subjected to were few.

But I am still living with loss. I will always have the child-shaped hole in my heart. I say this not to beat my breast or coerce sympathy or set myself up as a martyr who will suffer forever the torments of childlessness. I say it as an acceptance of a reality I did not choose, do not want, but nonetheless have to come to terms with. I'm not saying I won't ever be happy or fulfilled again. I'm not saying the rest of my life will be constantly overshadowed by my childlessness. In time, especially once I've found meaningful productive work and have something besides job-hunting to occupy my daily thoughts, I will refashion my life and my expectations of it into something once again hopeful and optimistic. The loss will be there too, but it will not define me as it does now.

To those of you who have children, I say, in all sincerity, that I hope you have a lovely Mother's Day. For myself, I look forward to the day when the words "Mother's Day" once again mean nothing more than a manufactured greeting card holiday I can ignore.

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