The Best Advice I Ever Received
My keynote for the New England Resolve conference yesterday did a 180 from where I thought it would go. I could talk about what it was going to be, but perhaps, instead, I should just post what it was. Here is my address if you weren’t at the conference to hear it:
My husband called me one morning and told me that Carla Cohen, the owner of our local, independent bookstore, Politics and Prose, had died. The news came on a day when I was already hurrying, behind on a deadline, and at first, I was angry that he had shared the news with me then and there when he knew how important it was that I got this work project done. Her death was like a punch straight in my heart.
And maybe that’s where it first felt like infertility. Because — as you know — news never comes when you’re prepared to hear it. There were calls from my nurse with negative betas where I had to brightly smile and go face the students in my classroom without missing a beat. Nurses never called when I had an hour free period stretching ahead of me. They always called three seconds before the class bell rang so I had to jump off the phone, a fist-sized hole in my heart, and pretend nothing had happened.
Sometimes the show has to go on.
Back to the death of the bookstore owner; what else could my husband do? He knew how much she meant to me. Her store had served as my community during some very difficult times in my life. It was a refuge of sorts. And she had given me one of the most important pieces of advice, one that I promise I’ll share with you today (this is called the big build up – where I keep hinting about this awesome advice, ensuring that it will be a let down).
Again, her death reminded me a lot of infertility itself because I had many of the same thoughts and feelings. I didn’t feel right mourning so deeply because she wasn’t my mother or my best friend – she was simply a person who meant a lot to me. I gave myself the same talking-to often during treatments or after a loss – what right did I have to mourn so deeply?
During my first round of treatments, I wanted life to stop for me, to let me pause, but again, no one recognized what I was going through as a reason to pause. Cancer, of course, or the death of a family member excused one for a short period from life. But infertility? It’s a silent mark – you often don’t share the experience with others, and when you do, they usually don’t understand how deeply it cuts. My day 3 bloodwork would suck, and I’d have to pretend everything was okay during work hours or out with my friends. And here, I had lost someone who meant a great deal to me, and my editor was not going to understand if I didn’t turn in that manuscript as promised.
So what was Carla Cohen’s ever-brilliant advice – words that can apply to every facet of life?
Just wing it.
Let me explain. It was my first reading for Navigating the Land of If, and it was special because I was at my favourite bookstore, this place that meant the world to me. My publisher didn’t have great luck booking readings there, but Carla made a special exception because she knew what the space meant to me.
The night before the reading, I typed up a page of things I wanted to talk about in terms of the book and blog. I printed it off, folded the paper, and tucked it into the book, proud of myself for being so freakin’ prepared.
The next afternoon, I am waiting in the back office with Carla Cohen prior to the reading and we’re chatting. She asks if I’m prepared because we’re about to walk out to the podium. I pull out my book and notes and unfold the paper to find myself looking at a blank page. The printer must have spat out two pieces of paper — a blank sheet and my notes. And I grabbed the blank one.
My first instinct was to hide inside the office until it was safe to sneak out to my car and drive home, crying all the way. But Carla’s answer to this problem was “just wing it.” And what she meant wasn’t that I shouldn’t take this seriously or feel embarrassed. But that the only way through it was … well … through it. That stopping wasn’t an option. And that I needed a lot more fortitude to get through the problems in life.
So, I winged it.
Just wing it is an attitude that takes into consideration that life doesn’t always go according to plan, but regardless, we need to keep going. We need to keep pretending that we have our shit together, that we can do this. Pausing from life isn’t an option just as returning to your house with your tail between your legs when you show up for a book reading without your notes isn’t an option. Carla Cohen’s advice points out that life goes on because life has to go on. And this attitude shift is imperative for getting through infertility because often life feels like it can’t go on.
This attitude is there to wrangle those thoughts back into their place. You are allowed to curl up on the bathroom floor and cry. You are allowed to sit out a baby shower or two. You are even allowed to hide all pregnant people from your Facebook feed. What you aren’t allowed to do is let infertility stop you from living. You can’t allow infertility to become like one of Harry Potter’s dementors, sucking your soul from your body. Conjure up whatever Patronus works for you to chase that infertility dementor away.
Just wing it is the anti-just relax. “Just relax” dismisses the problem. It says: it’s not such a huge deal, just relax about it. It’s negating the problem: it’s not a medical issue; it’s just your stress getting the best of you. It’s belittling the problem: that infertility can be solved with a vacation or a good massage.
Where as “just wing it” acknowledges the problem and reminds the person that they need to find it somewhere within themselves to cope. The only way out of infertility is through infertility. You have to resolve it; you can’t live here indefinitely.
But “winging it” takes a leap of faith, one that is perhaps impossible when you’re not in a comfortable situation. If the same thing had occurred at a different bookstore, I probably wouldn’t have been able to pull myself together and walk out in front of that podium faking it. I was in this space that had been essentially a refuge to me. And beyond that, I was amongst friends – albeit friends that were in a sea of strangers, but friends nonetheless.
So I leaned on that, and that is what got me through it, and the same can be said, as you’ve probably guessed, for infertility. Going it alone; not having understanding people around you; it’s impossible. You need fortitude that most people just don’t have naturally. And frankly, infertile people live in an un-infertility-friendly world. Few of us naturally have people around us who understand that it’s not a disease you can leave for a few hours. Medications are timed, appointments are frequent, and toilet paper examination goes on hourly.
But the way we wing our way through infertility is by making connections such as the ones that are going on in this room. It’s about going online and finding your virtual tribe; whether it’s other parents-to-be going through the adoption process or others beginning treatments or others utilizing donor gametes. No one will have your exact story; but there will be places that you overlap and in those venn diagrams of life, we find support.
And I challenge everyone here, if you don’t already have a blog or a bulletin board or a face-to-face support group, get one. Go home tonight and start a blog; many blogging platforms are free. Within ten minutes, you can have a short paragraph up announcing yourself. Read other blogs, and leave comments. Add yourself to my blogroll at Stirrup Queens – you can find a link in the top left-hand corner. There are over 2500 blogs on it right now. People will find you if you go out seeking them. And now you have a refuge, a place to go when people tell you to just relax. These people will know that while “just relax” is bunk, “just wing it” is the way you really get through infertility.
Having support – whether its online or face-to-face – will not cure infertility. But it will certainly make tackling infertility easier. It is always better to plow forward knowing people have your back if you slow down, to know there will be people there to show you the way if you get lost, or to simply hold your hand when you don’t want to be alone. Having support doesn’t erase the terrible parts of infertility or loss; those still exist. But what it does is give you the refuge to take a deep breath and move forward rather than continue to stand in the storm, becoming increasingly battered.
Having support allows you to just wing it: to go back to work after a negative beta knowing that you will vent to your friends that night. To get through that upcoming Thanksgiving dinner where your Great Aunt Jane is going to ask you when you’re finally going to have kids. To pick yourself up after a terrible loss.
I wanted to say something funny about infertility today. And there are times when we can be sarcastic and bitter and list all the horrific things people say to us in the name of “helping out.” We can list our comebacks and snicker over people’s ignorance. But in the end, sort of like black coffee, there’s no sweetness to it. It’s not the kind of the laughter that leaves you smiling. It’s the sort of laughter that is the precursor to tears.
So instead I give you the best advice I’ve received in a while, one that applies to book readings as well as infertility. It’s a way to honour Carla Cohen, a fellow infertile woman who died way too soon, one that taught me the importance about plowing ahead. And how you can do that when you have supporting hands behind you.