Infertility and Marriage and Empathy
A reader called out Carolyn Hax last week on her discrepancy between the way she gives advice for someone infertile vs. someone who is single. Namely, her advice for those who are single but wish to be married often points towards the idea that they need to be happy with life as is and not wait on living life until they’ve partnered up. And her advice for those experiencing infertility is less about being happy with what you have and more an empathetic nod towards the shittiness of the situation.
Click over and read the question and response, pretty please.
I in no way want to encourage Hax to treat infertility advice otherwise; I think she usually hits the nail on the head, and I’m grateful for the words she has put into the universe setting clueless questioners on a better, more-empathetic path. But I do see the reader’s point: there is a lot of overlap in the emotions that accompany being single for an extended period of time and trying to conceive for an extended period of time. In both cases, they’re situations that come without any promise of a desired resolution. Where the amount of work expended does not compute into success. And overall, it’s a reminder that some of the most important things in our lives are completely out of our hands. Both experiences can make a person feel very. very. small. And vulnerable. And question the sanity of ever putting out an effort in anything ever again.
Not that I have any baggage, mind you.
Both experiences have their own minefields — weddings or baby showers. Both are joyous occasions that attendees are expected to come to with a happy heart despite their own situation. And sometimes these two unrelated situations suddenly become related as late marriage (finding your partner later in life or going through a divorce) can lead to age-related infertility.
All in all, it’s a fair question.
And I’m not sure Hax answered it all that well at the beginning, though she gets to a decent* answer by the end.
Hax starts out with the idea that single people need to find self-contentment. Though the same could technically be said for anyone trying to reach parenthood. Why are you seeking your happiness in someone outside yourself, in the role of parenting? Why can’t you just be happy with being childfree/less until you’re not? You need to be satisfied with the life you have and just hope that a child enters your life if you put yourself out there via treatments or adoption. Live the life you have now and make decisions based on what you know now; not what you hope happens in the future.
And sure, that is decent advice in theory. But in practice? I mean, I can only speak for myself, but while tying up my happiness in becoming a parent was technically self-defeating (as Hax says), I couldn’t have talked myself into feeling otherwise. And… that’s sort of okay too. We’re allowed to want what we want; to feel unhappy when we can’t get what we want. And as long as that unhappiness stays within the bounds of unhappiness and doesn’t bleed over into internal or external harm, I think it’s okay. It’s okay to feel sad; we don’t always need to be happy. And I think it’s okay to even put yourself into a mindset that makes you feel sad. To not talk yourself out of that mindset just because it would ultimately make you happier if you could master your feelings.
I wouldn’t have been true to myself if I had calmly and rationally navigated infertility. I’ve needed to feel everything I’ve felt while family building.
Personally, if I was Hax’s advice editor, I would have had her skip towards the bottom where she points out the difference between the two situations that makes her give different advice: “Thus the long-range, make-the-best-of-what-you-have advice to someone single vs. the short-range, manage-your-emotions-as-you-make-your-choices advice to someone facing infertility.”
It comes from an assumption that childlessness will be** resolved in a shorter amount of time than martial status, but that aside, I get her point that infertility does have a shelf-life whereas marriage does not. One can get married at 70. You’d be beyond an outlier if you were entering parenthood at 70. You need to come to peace with infertility regardless of the outcome by a certain point in life when becoming a parent would be difficult to impossible. You never technically need to come to peace with singleness since marital status can technically change at any age.
And in that regard, I wonder then if the amorphous nature of singlehood warrants more empathy. Because what I’m hearing from the questioner is that she doesn’t feel as if her situation is given sympathy in the same way that Hax doles out sympathy for those struggling with infertility. I’m not getting a sense of curiosity; I’m sensing the asker is feeling as if she’s being told to put on a happy face whereas those struggling with infertility are told that it’s okay to weep into our cake. And that’s hard. That’s hard to feel as if your situation is being diminished. Or to feel as if you’re being held to a different standard than someone else.
So, in the end, Hax amends her own advice (and I like her for always being open to having her advice questioned and then tweaking it):
So that is where I’d amend my advice: Pick a point, and grieve. Grieve what you hoped or planned for that hasn’t materialized — maybe when you first form the thought, “I thought I’d be married by now.” That goes for someone pining for a mate, but also for someone longing for a child, left adrift by an indifferent nuclear family, immobilized by thwarted ambitions. Dodge that baby shower OR wedding OR reunion.
But keep letting grief make your decisions? No.
* I say decent instead of great because I think Hax missed something that Teendoc pointed out years ago: that infertility is often (though not always) experienced with another person, and it is a powerful thing to have someone on your side, going through it with you. Whereas being single means that you are — by definition — experiencing the difficulty of the situation alone. Well, not alone alone. You have friends and family. But you know what I mean. Now, we can also say that sometimes it is more difficult to go through infertility with an unhelpful partner who holds you back or makes you feel like shit, but that is an entirely different post.
** Since we all know that (1) not everyone who attempts to become a parent will become a parent, (2) not everyone who gets pregnant has a living child, (3) not everyone resolves their infertility even if they do or don’t resolve their childlessness. There are plenty of people out there who still need to come to terms with their infertility even though they are no longer ensconced in family building. (Meaning, they are parenting or they are not, but they’re no longer actively trying.)