Childless Until Proven Parenting
I finally put my finger on what bothered me so much with the coverage of that study (and assumptions within the study itself): that all infertile people are childless until proven parenting.
Some will be comfortable with that assertion — they are going through treatments or are in the process of adopting, but they have no children yet so they’re fine with being called childless. But others will be put off by the reductive at best (and cruel at worst) nature of stating that all people without children are childless.
To begin, I feel — personally — as if I were in a different state once I began treatments vs. when we first started trying to conceive. In the former state, I had made a decision without any hardship in sight. In the latter, I now had to decide how badly I wanted to reach that goal. Was it worth the physical pain of treatments? The financial pain of treatments? What was the worth of my emotional state? I was a different sort of person once I had to think through those questions; a pre-parent that I (and look carefully, I’m discussing myself, not everyone) don’t believe I was at first. I was making parenting decisions even though there were no children in sight. Because all of those decisions you make when you are undergoing assisted conception or the adoption process are parenting decisions for a hypothetical-until-actual child.
Which is not to say that there weren’t parenting decisions even before we were diagnosed as infertile. When I started taking folic acid and went off my cholesterol medication prior to conceiving, I was making a parenting decision, trying to create the best environment for my child. But the decisions I made during treatments were a notch above what I made prior to infertility. I went above-and-beyond what the average woman needs to consider pre-parenting. And for that reason alone, my childless state prior to parenting was different pre-infertility and during infertility. Therefore, it would make sense that childlessness after infertility is different from childlessness during infertility.
Because to think otherwise is to misunderstand that living child-free after infertility looks and feels the same as being in the throes of infertility (or, even worse, being in a limbo state within infertility) and that simply isn’t the case. Perhaps that is why living child-free after infertility (LCFAI; apologies that I need to reduce this to an acronym, but it’s getting difficult to type it so many times) is so misunderstood. LCFAI has more in common with parenting after infertility than it does to those going through treatments. Both are on the same side of the resolution divide, if we can really call it a divide at all.
LCFAI is a mindful decision, not a default position. And perhaps if people recognized it as such, they wouldn’t spend so much time trying to convince those living child-free to try one more thing or begin sentences with “have you considered…” They would see it as a viable choice, one that takes into account a plethora of factors that makes it the best choice for some and anathema for others, in the same way that treatments, adoption, surrogacy, donor gametes, or trying unassisted is the best choice (or anathema) for others.
While I don’t have experience personally in living child-free after infertility (and hopefully people who do will chime in via the comment section), I cannot imagine that it feels the same as infertility based on the fact that life situations rarely feel the same pre-decision and post-decision even though the only thing that has changed in your life is the making of a decision. Doesn’t engagement feel different from dating? And I would assume that divorce feels different from the dissolution of the marriage.
The decision to live child-free is not passive; it’s an active solution, a way of resolving infertility. And so I really didn’t appreciate the researchers who used soft numbers, simply looking at who was alive or dead who had registered for IVF between 1994 – 2005, because numbers don’t tell the real story. In that pool of people, there were some who were infertile and treating their infertility, and there were others who had resolved their infertility and were living child-free, and to lump them together reinforces the myth that LCFAI is the same as being in the throes of infertility. And when you reinforce that myth, you remove it as a possible solution from people’s minds.
After all, how many would choose to resolve their infertility by living child-free if they believed that they’d be in the emotional hell that is infertility indefinitely? Not many. But how many people would choose to reframe their life and choose living child-free if they believed they would be supported in that decision? If the message was reinforced that LCFAI is different from treating infertility and these are the ways in which they differ. I know I’ve internalized the ways they differ via a multitude of blog posts I’ve read (obviously enough that I can state that I see the two places in life as different), but it could be enormously helpful for people to state in a roundup of posts (since all personal experiences will be different) “this is how I felt during infertility and this is what it is like now after resolving infertility via LCFAI.” How helpful would that be for people attempting to make the decision: to read, internalize, and understand?
Beyond those LCFAI, this concept of childless until proven parenting is incredibly dismissive — not to mention offensive — to all people who have lost a child, regardless of the gestational or birth age of said child. Just because the child isn’t crawling through the physical world doesn’t mean that the child never existed, and it is a special kind of hell to be mourning someone that no one else got a chance to know. There is no reminiscing, no shared memories, no new things to learn, no understanding from the general population. (Though, even that is fairly minimal. Despite the fact that everyone will experience loved ones dying, humans are awful at comforting those who are grieving — especially long-term vs. short-term comfort.) You are alone with that grief or sharing it with a very small circle of people.
But you can hardly be lumped in with all people who are not parenting who would like to parent. Within those soft numbers, can they see who conceived but lost the pregnancy? Those who conceived but their child was born still? Who carried to term but experienced neonatal death? I haven’t read the full study so I can’t know how much information the researchers had when coming to their conclusions. But I can say that if they didn’t consider all those possibilities, they missed the nuances of the population they were studying. And in missing those nuances, they did the population a disservice.
Good science is about pinpointing the specific not making sweeping generalizations. Therefore I find the approach of childless until proven parenting confusing. And by confusing I really mean disappointing with frustrations on the damage that studies like these do for bridging the gap between the infertile experience and the general population. Whether you are surrounded by ghost children, amalgamations of Cycles Past and Cycles Future; viewing infertility as a temporary state you need to pass through to reach parenthood; living child-free after infertility; grieving a missing child; or at the beginning of a diagnosis, wondering which direction to walk, you know that there are many shades of infertility and the state each of us are in within this community.
And that’s why I can’t reduce us into two categories like the researchers did in that study. It’s more complicated than are or aren’t; childless and with children. There’s a much bigger story than the simplistic childless until proven parenting.