The Closing of the Bones

Last week I met with Samantha Zipporah, a woman who identifies herself as a “full spectrum doula”. This is a relatively new term and something I’d never heard of. It’s a doula who attends and provides services for ALL postpartum needs, no matter the outcome of the pregnancy. The theory is that whether you gave live birth, still birth, had an abortion, had a miscarriage, whatever way your body transitioned from pregnant to not pregnant, you are postpartum. You have had a partum, and it is now post. Ergo, postpartum. To a woman who has felt like my pregnancies are seen by the the larger culture as nothing, a non-event, a failure to eventuate; like I should just hop up and put it behind me because there isn’t anything anyone can do about it and it’s over now so why dwell on grief; like I am less than a woman because my  body hasn’t accomplished what other women’s bodies have accomplished – to this woman right here it was kind of a fucking revelation.

Kind of a fucking revolution.

I’ve been struggling to find what I needed after this last loss. Miscarriage is such an enigma; it falls in this weird no-man’s-land (literally?) between life and death that the Western medical system just has no idea what to do with. Western medicine gets infertility, or at least maintains a system around it. There are procedures and best practices, and sometimes even insurance billing – although that is a little like unicorns as far as I’m concerned cause I ain’t never seen it. And it gets pregnancy and childbirth, at least to the extent that there are systems and subsystems – hell, whole hospitals – dedicated to dealing with that event. But miscarriage is an ill-fitting abomination, an un-event, a deviation that makes all those big, churning, well-funded and well-staffed system machines start spluttering and spitting cogs. So miscarriage is made invisible. Undone. It is something that didn’t happen, not something that did. Which leaves us with our hands and arms empty, standing in rooms that were once filled with congratulations and warm welcome but now echo with a cold, clinical silence.

I googled all the stuff you’re supposed to google, and I found some stuff. Mostly web pages with book recommendations, which is by far the loneliest, most distancing form of referral out there. There were a few therapist and support group links, but nothing that really spoke to me. Plus the fact that almost without exception all those “resources” are found through sites for women who are pregnant or have just had babies – the miscarriage info is just sort of a half-assed loser cul-de-sac on the site map, something grim and macabre, and the virtual path you have to take to get there is riddled and rotten with ads for maternity clothes, baby-bump forums, scroll-worked cursive-script pronouncements about the wonder of birth and the miracle of life. Seriously, it is enough to make you board up your windows and start with the cat-collecting. It definitely doesn’t encourage your feeble cry for help.

Somehow I ended up on a site called Cascadia Birth Services. I think it was one of the resources on the Brief Encounters website, and I was pissed at first because it felt like yet one more instance of “If you’d like to get help recovering from your miscarriage, please walk through this agonizing tunnel of shit that makes you want to shoot yourself in the face”. But there was a blurb about miscarriage doula services, and I was intrigued. I contacted the woman and she said she was out of town, but gave me a couple of other names to try.

I met with Samantha last Sunday and we talked about what I needed. I wasn’t totally sure. I’d recently posted a list on Facebook of things I want after a miscarriage, but I was pretty sure they weren’t going to be provided by a healthcare professional. For reference, they were as follows:

“Things I want after a miscarriage: 
*lots of wine
*intense snuggles, head-pets, etc
*possibly a massage? 
*to hang out with people who have experienced this bullshit
*preferably while drinking wine
*some kind of ritual, as yet undiscovered, not necessarily spiritual but wouldn’t reject it, that seeks to draw out sickness and restore strength, restore the sense that I am still a woman and still valid and not a useless throw-away piece of shit (which is, incidentally, exactly what you feel like so please don’t remind me that it’s not true because that’s not helpful although I appreciate the sentiment), mark and commemorate the loss of an actual almost human being and then release it
*a weird (and probably impossible) balance of treatment from loved ones that doesn’t make me feel like a scary pariah Miss Havisham pity case but also doesn’t make me feel like I have to pretend to be ok just to make others more comfortable around me
*to have a break from hearing about other peoples’ healthy full term pregnancies
*to sleep and sleep and wake up and have it all back the way it was
*something that will make my hormones stop freaking the fuck out so that I can stop crying and looking like a tomato with rubella
*more snuggles
*more wine
*maybe a mani-pedi
*definitely more wine
*ice cream
*things with ketchup
*cheese
*wine.”

Unbeknownst to me, before I had even posted this exhaustive list there was a crack team of women in my life pulling some straight-up black-ops shit behind the scenes, coordinating across state lines to put together this humongous basket of wine, towels, smelly stuff, a foofy blanket, and $200 worth of Spafinder gift cards that was stealthily left on my doorstep late one night. They blew quite a few items off the list, and filled me with wonder and humility and love and fucking insane gratitude such that I bawled all over my baffled husband’s t-shirt for a full 5 minutes before I could even bring the thing inside. Still kinda reeling from that shit, ladies.

But there were a few things on the list that I just thought weren’t going to come to me, because miscarriage is incomprehensible and so there is no such thing as comprehensive care. After 5 miscarriages – 3 officially logged by medical professionals and 2 gone before I could even get in the door – I’ve just been trained to believe that longing and isolation are the expected norm. It’s What We Do. We buck up. We soldier on.

We deserve so much more. We are due so much more. I know that now.

Samantha and I talked for almost two hours, huddled up on my couch on a hot afternoon. Mostly we talked about how utterly the medical system fails women whose pregnancies do not result in full-term births and healthy babies. She asked me how I thought that system should serve women, and I’m a social justice activist and a community mental health organizer so I had tons of political shit to say. But she knew and I knew that my rage and passion for change was, while legitimately describing a massively fucked-up deficit, really an explosive cover for my own hunger and sorrow. When I finally simmered it down to the truth, I wanted this: To feel like my babies and my pregnancies mattered, to feel as valid a woman as any other, and to have my body treated with the fierce love and infinite honor that I have been unable to show it.

She thought I needed the Closing of the Bones. It’s a traditional Mexican ceremony performed at 40 days postpartum, regardless of the post of the partum. It’s about honoring and letting go and taking care of the bodies that do all the work of life and death in one tight circle. It’s about healing.

Most cultures make a space for this sort of passage. Because it’s kind of a big fucking deal. Dominant Western culture doesn’t, and I don’t know why. Maybe because we only understand value in capitalist terms – women’s bodies are only valuable as commodities and they are only commodities if they are sexually available or carrying offspring. Women’s bodies that fall in between don’t count.

I received this ceremony today. I thought I could get to the words for it tonight and I wanted to, because my heart and my body are so full of relief and healing and solace that I wanted to make sure I got it on the page. But it’s getting late and this body has been treated with such fierce love, such infinite honor, such tenderness and understanding and shared grief and celebration and strength that for the first time in non-pregnancy I want to honor it for the power it contains, instead of punishing it for the deaths it has witnessed. I want you to hear this. But tonight I am wrapping myself in love like a rebosa and putting myself to bed.

Goodnight, all you miraculous women. Miraculous, every one.

CLOSING OF THE BONES, PART 2 

Turbulence, in-flight madness, abortion laws and recovery: Some Shit Has Gone Down.

I haven’t known how to start this. My fingers get tied in knots and my words slip away because there are too many, and not enough, and I am hurting.

Between April 22nd and July 4th, we became foster parents, I got pregnant, went to Ireland, and lost another baby. Those are the basic facts. It’s a lot to fit into two months and twelve days.

I could fill a book with any single one of those events. I haven’t been able to fill a page with all of them.

I didn’t want to be pregnant at first. I was pissed. I’d planned this amazing trip, 23 years in the waiting, and I wanted to drink my face off all over Ireland with my old friend, being teenagers and living the dream. And there was this crazier-than-average 3 year old in my house. Morning sickness + toddler with attachment disorder = areyoufuckingkiddingme. I didn’t want two kids – I’ve never wanted two kids. Maybe twins. Not one squalling newborn and a miniature sociopath, which is what even the most well-adjusted toddlers are. And I’d actually come to a kind of peace about infertility. I don’t know if I can say that I was over it, but I’d moved on and found joy in the life I had rather than longing for someone else’s. And then I got knocked up.

By the time I got on the plane on June 28th I’d come around. We’d made the old Facebook announcement after two good strong heartbeat ultrasounds. I’d had an ultrasound on the 25th two days before I left and recorded that fat hummingbird boom-boom on my phone, listened to it on the plane. I bought an Irish baby name book and had my eye out for a good Irish knit baby blanket. I walked ancient Irish roads with my hand over my belly, telling the child stories about our heritage.

At about 11pm on July 3rd I started spotting. My travel mate, a most excellent nurse and even more excellent friend, called the nearest hospital at Limerick, who said to come in immediately the next morning.

At the scan on July 4th they told me it had died a week before. Some little switch got thrown and the light went out. It must have happened the day I left. I’d been telling stories to a dark and empty room.

Abortion is illegal in Ireland. For reasons that are still not clear to me, this means that in cases of missed miscarriage they will not do a dilation and curettage to remove the fetus. They make you wait a week to see if you will “pass it naturally”, and only then will they intervene. Wait hold up WTF I hear you say, removing a dead fetus is not the same thing as an abortion. I know. I don’t get it either. But that’s the law. So my choices were:

A. Continue my trip as planned, roaming about the country wondering when a dead baby would fall out of my vagina – on a hike? In the pub? We’d planned a lovely excursion to Whiddy Island; perhaps in the ferry bathroom? – and if it hadn’t passed by the following Friday then I could drive the 4 hours back to Limerick and they’d take care of it. Or,

B. Get on a flight the following day and risk massive hemorrhaging and possibly bleeding out somewhere over the Atlantic.

Seriously.

I called the American Embassy, hoping they’d be able to advocate with the hospital and get them to see sense, but they told me they couldn’t interfere with the law of the land. I called the hospital in Dublin because I’d heard that, big as they were, they would sometimes stretch the rules a bit and might possibly take me. They told me they’d take me if I started passing the fetus, which was really sort of fucking unhelpful. I called the Belfast Royal Maternity Hospital and pleaded with them to take me, since they are part of the UK where abortion is legal. I think by that time I had been on the phone for nearly 3 hours, repeating over and over the following statement in increasingly desperate tones: “Hi. I’m an American here on holiday. I was 10 weeks pregnant and I’ve just learned the baby is dead. I need to get home and I’ve been advised not to get on a plane until the fetus has passed. I need a D&C so I can go home. Can you please help me?”, and I’m pretty sure at that point I just sounded fucking crazy, so they said no. I can’t remember why, I just remember the no.

So I weighed my options and decided that bleeding out over the Atlantic actually sounded slightly better than birthing my dead baby in a pub jacks.

I want to take a moment here to pay most humble homage to the incredible strength and fortitude of my travel companion, whom I have known for 23 years. I was a fucking hell-beast during those awful hours. Mad with grief, lashing out like a trapped and wounded animal, I refused to let her take me south to her family where she could take proper care of me because all I could think about was getting home. We were at Drogheda only half an hour from the airport, and I dug in my crazed heels and would not be moved. Her heart was breaking for me, and she was terrified and overwhelmed, and I was, let’s just say it, a fucking atrocious patient. She didn’t want me to fly because she knew the medical risks, but to her very great credit and my even greater gratitude she put her shoulder to the wheel of my insane determination to get home and helped me get there. My dearest Ducks, I will never have coin, word nor valor enough to repay your good offices. You are a fucking star.

So I got on the plane the morning of Sunday July 6th, 9 days before I was due to come home. Amazing humans from all over my life sent prayers, thoughts, love, light, phone numbers of friends and family in Chicago where I had a 4 hour layover, so that in case something really terrifying happened on the Atlantic flight I’d have help when I landed in the States. People I know and people I didn’t know but who knew someone who loved me all bound together in a kind of “Get Gillian Home” Facebook campaign. One of my oldest and dearest friends summed it all up in a post:

“Watching us all circle the wagons to get Gillian home safe is truly a beautiful sight. We’ve got a multi-country multi-jurisdictional task force going on here. Sorry to offend anyone, but my friends just might be more awesome than yours.” 

And while all this was going on, no less than 5 different women messaged me privately – women I hadn’t talked to in years, but who unbeknownst to me were reading the posts as I fought to smuggle my own dead baby out of the country and had been reading the blog since I started it in January of 2013. They told me they’d miscarried, struggled with infertility, felt ostracized and broken and voiceless under the weight of society’s bullshit expectation that we keep it down about our losses. Some of these women I’d admired through the years, but I’d thought they didn’t particularly like me. And maybe they didn’t – god knows I’ve not always been a superlatively likable person. But this thing, this experience of having life inside you and then having it ripped away, and all the madness that comes after – that shit is utterly universal to those who’ve survived it. It is a sisterhood of blood and loss, and there are few things stronger than that.

Nothing happened on the flights. The bleeding got a little heavier but didn’t go red, and the cramps started to get a bit more insistent but nothing that 500mg naproxin couldn’t knock out. I’d told a desk person at Dublin International that I’d miscarried – in the past tense mind you, which was a lie, but I didn’t want to hear that now-familiar shitty refrain that I couldn’t fly until the fetus passed – so there was a wheelchair waiting in Chicago and another one in Portland. My husband had sent the foster munchkin to my mom’s for the night and was waiting, looking shocked to see me in a wheelchair but relieved nonetheless. We went straight to the hospital, were immediately admitted by the on-call doc I’d contacted from Chicago, and within an hour of touchdown I was under anesthesia and getting a D&C. I was home by 11, my body scooped out and reeling. We watched some stupid telly and went to bed.

The next morning there was no blood, no cramps, almost no evidence that I’d carried a child. My throat hurt like a bad case of strep from the intubation, and that was the only lasting physical effect.

I was deeply grateful that we’d done it this way instead of going home with Misoprostol, not only because we could request genetic testing on the fetus and maybe get some answers, but because it was much older this time and I couldn’t bear seeing it, poor withered little plum-sized creature, sloughed off and into the toilet like the last one. This one had a face, the beginnings of arms and legs, a brain. The fear of seeing it was indescribable. And last time the cramping and bleeding had lasted for days, weeks, lifetimes of blood and wrecking-ball pain that kept me in madness till I thought I’d never crawl out. This was better by miles.

But it was an oddly disquieting thing for the whole process to be so quiet. Like my child had been erased from history and had never happened, like I should just take some vitamin C for the sore throat and walk it off. Like my very cells should not be screaming in grief and disorientation, searching in vain for the life they had been funneling all their strength to. Like I’d made it all up.

It’s been 10 days. Just 10 days. I forget that sometimes and so does my husband, though I know he is doing his best in his own grief. We both seem to have unreasonable expectations of my ability to snap out of it. But I think I am doing better this time around, for a few reasons.

First, I didn’t want this baby to begin with. Not at first. I’d idiotically allowed myself to love the thing by the time it had died, but we hadn’t been looking for it and we hadn’t been trying, so there was a lot of ambivalence in the beginning. Ambivalence can be quite an effective prophylactic in times like these. My heart was at least partially vaccinated from the deprivation and wreckage of loss.

Second, this is not our first rodeo. When I heard the ultrasound tech say those words, “I’m so sorry”, my psyche dropped into a well-worn groove that plays a song I know by heart. The accent was different and the canteen had tea instead of coffee, but it was like I’d just been waiting to hear them say it because I’d known it was true, was going to be true, from the first shocking pink line. They gave us a private waiting room (wailing room, screaming room, grieving room) and as official-type people came and went I gazed out the window at gigantically pregnant women in hospital gowns smoking cigarettes between early contractions, and though my body shook and shuddered and rejected the sickening knowledge of the death it carried my mind was strangely calm. For stretches, anyway. Nurses or social workers or doctors would come in and their empathy would shine from their faces, and I was so, so grateful for the humanity. Every single one of them went out of their way to put a hand on me, to call me “pet” and grieve for me. And in those moments I would die alongside the dead child in my womb and helplessly drown in the undoing. But then they would leave and the room would be quiet, and I would return to the knowledge that this child was never going to be born, feel a barren kind of relief that at least I could stop hoping. Hope is energetically expensive. If nothing else I could reduce my capital outlay.

And finally, there is this 3 year old in my house. She stubbornly refuses to need anything less than exactly what we promised when we took her in: patience, radical acceptance and unconditional love. You don’t get to renege on that because you feel bummed. She is full of this radiant, tenacious fortitude that will absolutely not allow you to arse out or feel sorry for yourself. Her little body has gotten brown in the sun, her blonde eyebrows have gone shining white, and her feet are ever more firmly planted in the territory we have offered her. We told her she could occupy, and by goddamn she has done so. I have, with shame and disappointment in myself, realized how little I gave her while I was pregnant. I was tired and sick and, if I am unflatteringly honest, probably resentful of having to take care of someone else’s child while I was trying to keep my own alive. It’s not pretty, but this shit usually isn’t. So now it’s time to give this child what she fucking deserves, which is a caregiver who isn’t too wrapped up in their own illness to be able to receive her. She is worthy of the best. She is probably worthy of better than me. But I am what she has, and for that matter she is what I have, and so the least I can do is offer best I have to give.

That is, believe it or not, the shortened version. I have a lot more to say – about first-hand experience of the absence of reproductive rights and why it is so fucking necessary to protect them in this country, about the vastly disappointing dearth of miscarriage-focused recovery services, about how amazing it is to connect with women who make themselves vulnerable when you are vulnerable, about how unbelievably difficult it is to navigate a relationship that has sustained a pregnancy loss. About the GIGANTIC basket full of awesome shit that was organized by some far-flung bad-ass ladies in my life and left on my doorstep, and how it made me feel like I was not alone, would never be alone again as long as I live. About families rallying and accepting and making space for incomprehensible loss. Lots and lots of stuff. But it’s taken me at least 10 days to get this far and it is late and there is this 3 year old in my house who is relentlessly committed to waking up before I am ready for her to be awake. So I’m signing off for now. Thanks for reading. If you’ve gotten this far you are a fucking champ.

Love to you all.

 

The Eagle Has Landed.

Not much time to write before the lights go out in my brain and I devolve into primordial ooze.

She is here, she is home, she is a tiny human with feelings that are much bigger than her body, and she has some very legitimate concerns. The second attempt at bedtime – at around 9pm, btw – was marked by probably one of the most incredible conversations I have ever had, and I have conversations for a living. In her broken toddler Lithuanian or whatever it is they speak at almost three, she was able to communicate to me that she is scared, that this place is different and kind of weird, that her mommy is the same thing as home, that she is worried that she will be bad and make us reject her, that she feels unwanted by the foster home she just left, that she is worried she will not live to see the morning, and that she really, really, really likes our kitties. Then she wrapped her spindly fingers around a chunk of my hair and said, “I like it here.”

She very quickly passed out after that, which is not surprising considering the incredible emotional heavy lifting she was doing. She insisted on piling every toy in the room into her bed and then lying on them, upside down. This is apparently the preferred sleeping arrangement. I am going with it.

Onward and upward, y’all.

 

Please Keep Your Arms And Legs Inside The Car At All Times.

T minus 18 hours. This shit is about to get Real. About as Real as it Gets.

On the 13th, our amazing friends and family threw us a Fosterbaby shower. It was so lovely and precious and unusual and celebratory, I can’t believe it happened, and I can’t believe how enormously necessary it was. I didn’t even know we wanted one until a butt-kickingly cool girlfriend suggested it and then made it sound totally normal, like every foster parent should have one before they’re certified. I can tell you that they don’t, just on the basis of how stunned our certifier was when we told her we wanted to wait on the final walkthrough until after the shower because there was stuff on our registry that we were going to need to get certified. (Think about the last baby shower registry you had to engage with. Do you remember there being a fire extinguisher? A medication lock box? A crib AND a toddler bed? Probably not.) I don’t think she’d ever heard of such a thing. A sad commentary on the way people view foster parenting, but I’m deeply grateful that our little tribe felt it was a no-brainer. There were cupcakes that I’m still dreaming about, and a lovely cake with wee ducklings, and champagne (a decided benefit to not being pregnant at one’s own baby shower). My sister and my niece took time out of their incredibly hectic schedules to make yummy things and plan goofy shower games, including a brilliant personalized MadLib that will, without a doubt, be framed for posterity. My nephew accidentally diapered a doll’s head shortly before an 8 month old baby stomped on his crotch and my husband was made to spoon-feed baby food to our little hobbity dog, who had been stuffed into a onesie that said “Wild About Auntie” on the front. It was a banner day.

We figured it would happen quickly. We’re fairly desirable real estate – stay-at-home foster dad, trauma-oriented child-therapist foster mom, no other kids in the home. The agency where I worked for 3 years is a huge name in DHS circles, and just dropping it causes a Pavlovian salivation response in caseworkers looking for foster caregivers with basic literacy in child psychology. So we knew we were going to have to be combat-ready as soon as the papers were signed. But the call came on Friday, before we were even certified.

Two and a half year old girl. Can’t give much more detail than that, because of confidentiality stuff. Suffice it to say that she is little, and adorbs (they sent us a picture), and she will be arriving at approximately 6pm Tuesday evening.

It is 11:55 on Monday night, and I am feeling ALL the feels.

Our family and friends have gone into high alert awaiting instructions on how best to help us, and every time I contemplate that I immediately tear up in soppy gratitude. People far and wide across our whole sphere are standing by to provide physical, emotional, practical and philosophical aid, because they love us and they believe in us, and they are totally excited about the insane adventure upon which we are embarking. I never knew how loved we were until now.

Her room is ready. We didn’t know it was her room until Friday night, but from that point forward it was her room. We know a few things about her, but she is mostly a mystery – a shockingly blonde pig-tailed gap-toothed mystery. Her name is an unusual one, and it is the one we chose for the baby we lost two years ago. Hard not to feel a little messy about that.

Unlike most foster care cases, we actually have a fairly good idea of where this one is likely to go. We know that we will not be considered an adoptive resource due to other viable relatives being available and willing. That is both sad and a relief – we know that we will pour love and life into her and she will leave us, but we also know what to expect and won’t get our hopes up. All in all it’s a pretty good first case for us.

This time tomorrow night, I will have in my ears the echo of her stompy stompy feet up and down the hallway, and I will be hoping that she stays in her bed instead of sleeping on the floor as she is reportedly wont to do. Or maybe I will be asleep myself, overwhelmed and drowning in wonder and fear and love and mystery. There will be a little body in the room that has been lovingly and meticulously prepared for it, and in the morning there will be a world of new things to learn. For all of us.

Here we go.

 

Bracing for Impact, Redecorating the Catbox

We are mere weeks away from becoming foster parents to some as-yet-unknown small human. Of course, I can’t be certain about that timeline, because you never know when the call is going to come in. But considering that our certifier tried to place a sibling set with us a couple of weeks ago before we were even certified, I’m guessing it’s going to happen pretty quickly.

Because it is (for now) so much cleaner and more peaceful than the rest of the house, I’m writing this in the Kid Room, which is what we’ve settled on calling it. It feels weird to call it a nursery or baby’s room, as we may get a five year old. It feels weird to call it the kid’s or kids’ room, because that presupposes a subject (a specific kid or kids) to whom the noun (the room) currently belongs, and at the moment that subject only exists vaguely and anonymously in potentia. So it has become “the Kid Room”, literally defined as of or pertaining to the idea of “kid”; a room into which, ostensibly, a kid of unknown provenance will eventually fall.

But I may be overthinking it. A bit.

As this crazy event approaches, I’ve had pause to consider all the things that are different about this way of welcoming children into our lives versus the more traditional organic way, which can make me sad if I spend too much time with it. The surprise here is how much is actually the same, just in a slightly alternate-universe kind of way.

Our friends and family have occasionally expressed concern about the stressors that fostering will place on us. What about when Hubby is on tour and I’m on my own? How will we feel about the ginormous changes to our basic way of living? Won’t childcare be expensive? Aren’t we nervous about not knowing what the outcome of the case will be? How are we going to deal with behavioral issues? Aren’t we, frankly, a little terrified?

And the answer is yes. We are more than a little terrified. We don’t know what the hell we’re getting into. There are days when we wonder what the fuck we were thinking, when we take in the blissful peace of the house while we both work in companionable silence without worrying about anyone else’s needs, savor the exquisite joy of sleeping in and taking an hour to gradually climb out of the bed, revel in the freedom to stay up late or decide to see a movie or a show at the last minute. Our lives are going to change in ways that we cannot possibly prepare for.

But….um…. Isn’t that what every expectant parent feels?

And all the specific problems that people ask about would still have been problems if we’d managed the build-your-own version. I would still have periods of single parenting while my husband is on tour. Childcare would still be a financial drain. The unknown would still be haunting us, ready to leap out from behind any corner and throw something catastrophic in our path. There would still be days when we’d wonder what the fuck we were thinking, bang alongside days when we can’t imagine our lives any other way.

If I let myself, I can get a little miffed about this. Nobody, or at least nobody nice, ever brings these kinds of concerns to financially and emotionally stable adult pregnant couples. Nobody ever takes an 8-months-gone pregnant woman aside at gatherings and asks her if this is really what she wants. Maybe this is another function of fertility privilege, the societal biases that place the value of procreation and the worth of a breeding woman so much higher than any other method of child-acquisition. Who knows. Generally I do not let myself get miffed about it, because no matter what accidental foot-in-mouth offenses people might occasionally commit, the vast majority of our community has been unbelievably supportive and celebratory and awesome. They are throwing us a fosterbaby shower, for shit’s sake.

There are of course challenges that are unique to fostering, and we are trying to be as centered and practical about those as it is possible to be with problems that are, at this stage, only dire predictions. We will not only be taking a child into our lives, we will also be taking that child’s biological parent(s) into our lives as well, and there is no underestimating how difficult that could prove to be. There may be substance abuse, personality disorder, mental illness, domestic violence or some unholy combination of all of the above coming in the door with that parent, and our job is to help them get their shit together enough to be “minimally adequate” in the eyes of the state in order to have their child back. I’m not quite ready to delve into the galactic fucking potential shit-show that may be in store. We just have to brace for impact and figure it out as we go along.

On the plus side, nothing horrifying or traumatic will happen to my vagina, there will be no “baby weight” and my boobs will stay the same size and shape. I don’t know, I kinda feel like there are some upsides here.

I will try to write as much about this as possible given the constraints of confidentiality and the immediate disappearance of every ounce of free time that will occur once the as-yet-unknown small human arrives on our doorstep. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep this blog going now that the subject has changed so much, but I kind of like it here and I don’t want to give up my picture of a pregnant cat and a catbox. And in our own way, we’re in sort of a different kind of Catbox – we are waiting for a child that both exists and doesn’t exist, is present and absent at the same time. Except this time I’m not forced on the daily to handle my own pee.

Breathing Is Hard: Thoughts On Crying And Singing.

There are infinite ripples. There are infinite rooms.

It’s not a question of “getting over it”. That’s the lie. It’s such a pervasive lie that we believe it and shame our own selves when the grief bubbles up from well-managed dormancy, messes up our “I’ve Been Through Infertility But Came Out Awesome” faces. This is not linear. If it were linear, you wouldn’t be infertile anymore.

Today I accidentally, unexpectedly hooked into grief during my singing lesson and ended up doubled over with my hands pressing in my guts, watching tears scatter across the lovely blonde hardwood.

First, the obligatory update, since this has become a very occasional blog.

We are great. There have been ups and downs, and things that we thought would happen didn’t, and things that we thought would never happen did. But all in all we are well – savoring the sweetness and facing the tragedies, floating like butterflies and stinging like bees. We are in the final stage of the foster care certification process, and there will very likely be a small human under the age of 5 living in our home within the month. Our friends and family are throwing us a shower, which is awesome, because it lets us feel like expectant parents. You aren’t really encouraged to feel like expectant parents in foster care training – more like expectant combat veterans. I keep meaning to sit down and write all the craziness of the certification process, but I find myself a little itchy about the prospect of bringing foster parenting and failed baby-making into such close proximity – maybe I need to end this blog and begin a fostering blog. Whatever, I’ll get there when I get there. Onward and upward.

Recently we had a massive snow storm here in the Pacific Northwest. It was my first, being a California girl, and it was fucking impressive. My beloved husband was on tour in – wait for it – Australia and New Zealand, which meant that not only was I snowed in all by myself but I was snowed in all by myself while my life-partner sizzled in the Outback like a nice kangaroo steak. Bitterness and copious amounts of Doctor Who on Netflix happened. And not just Doctor Who, but broadway musical revivals and Royal Shakespeare Company productions happened. I will, under duress, admit that David Tennant may have largely featured. At some point during those four days I had a bit of a private revolution, the kind that is only possible after many hours of sci-fi/fantasy, spectacular BBC production values and the inescapable helplessness of an extreme, yet fundamentally boring, weather event. I decided to return to my musical theatre roots and take singing lessons. I had quite a set of pipes once upon a time, before the hammer of life and years of Lucky Strikes prevailed. I wanted to reclaim some of what I gave up by becoming an academic rather than a performer, taking this road rather than that. Musical theatre is a muscular and aerobic activity, and I wanted to step back into my body after several years of being at war with it in the Infertility Crusades. In a sacred moment of “Fuck It, Why Not” I booked a lesson with a local studio.

And it’s been really fun. It’s an archaeological act, scraping and dusting the axe-hewn stone and silt of decades off of something golden and seemingly long-gone. There are times when I sound like curdled shit, but there are more times when the old strength and clarity come bursting out like bats from a tomb. My voice coach is a talented young woman who quickly made me feel comfortable re-acclimating to all the weirdness that the art of performance demands, which is a very lot.

But lately I’ve had the devil of a time working on my own, outside of lessons. I warm up and try to remember all the precise muscular corrections she gives me – direct the sound through the head, release the jaw, center movement just around the mouth, engage the breath – but I end up with my throat closing up around strangled sounds that feel weak, small, disconnected. I get frustrated and helpless, and I have actually wept in defeat. After I reported all of this today, she announced that we were going to work just on my breath.

I know all about breath. I’ve mentioned before – I work with trauma survivors, and my therapist’s equivalent of the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver is the breath. It lowers the blood pressure, reduces anxiety, re-establishes connection to the body and generally makes people feel better. It is the powerhouse of healing, the alpha and omega of self-regulation. I am not at all unfamiliar with breathing. I tell people to do it every day.

About 5 years ago in a yoga class, I was asked to put a block under my lower back and lie there, breathing and releasing. Although this was long before we started trying to conceive I had already had a significant amount of trauma to that general territory. A terminated pregnancy, years of crippling barbed-wire endometriosis, an abusive relationship rife with non-consensual sex, a sexual assault when I was a teenager. And even though none of this was in my conscious mind as I lay there with the block under my bum, it was as if an egg had cracked in the space between my hips and uncontrollable weeping came pouring out. I was engulfed by wracking sobs, the ugly barking gasping kind, these weird and desperately un-pretty noises filling the peaceful space of the yoga studio. I was mortified by my loss of control and felt like I had peed all over the floor, but the instructor was very kind and didn’t make a big fuss. He just came over and knelt by me while he continued talking the class through the poses.

Today was kind of like that.

She had me lie down and breathe. It’s kind of amazing how difficult that can be. We worked toward vocalizations just from the breath, without the throat or the chest interfering, straining, controlling. Slowly, slowly, she asked me to allow the release of all the steel scaffolding that holds me up, holds me in, holds me back. When I finally sat up I found that there were tears in my eyes.

All of a sudden that feeling of tightness and strain in my throat that I’d been struggling with in practice came into context and focus – it’s what your body does when you’re trying not to cry.

Infertility is all about pushing down the awful and moving forward, bucking up, choosing to stomp on all the grief and opt for hope instead of despair. I did a pretty damn good job of it until I couldn’t anymore, and then I stopped. But I think my insides stayed pushed down – like bin garbage you step on with all your weight to compact it so you can cram more in, all the grief and loss stratifying into that steel scaffolding that holds me up, holds me in, holds me back.

And something about lying there breathing from the center of me, from my belly where little lives have started and ended, where our hopes have started and ended, where my whole identity as a woman who bears children has started and ended – something about it cracked that egg between my hips again and all the weeping came out.

You would think that therapists might feel totally comfortable having big feelings in front of others, that we would have internalized all the times we tell our clients that this is a safe space and crying is totally OK. You would think that, but you would be wrong.

I had that same feeling of having accidentally peed on the floor, of something ungraceful and unacceptable taking hold of me and spilling all over the place. My coach fielded it beautifully; no seasoned therapist could have done better. With unshakable calm she took me through various vocalizations, telling me over and over that it didn’t matter what I sounded like, that my job was to “be out of control” so that I could begin the process of reconnecting with my breath and all the broken places it needed to pass through. We were working on “Someone Like You” from Jekyll and Hyde, at first just on vowel sounds and then trying the words. The sounds were indeed small, weak, disconnected, but like a doula she just kept returning me to my breath, to fighting the urge to take control and push all the crazy incongruous grief back down so that I could bring my voice to heel. We made a stab at words instead of vowels, and I did pretty good until “The past is holding me/keeping life at bay/I wander lost in yesterday”, and then I lost it.

Which is where we find me at the beginning of this post, doubled over pressing my hands into my gut to keep it from spilling over, watching the speckle of tears as they hit the studio floor.

Here are a few insights I took away from this.

One is that no matter how many times you consciously make a space for other people to cry and snot and bleed all over the upholstery, it always feels nigh-on impossible to accept that someone is willing to make the same space for you. When people cry in my office and express shame or embarrassment about doing it in front of me, we explore what is so uncomfortable about allowing another person to see them cry – fear that the other will be disgusted and judgmental, fear that crying exposes weakness, fear that a mess will be made. Almost always there is a fear of being out of control, of making the weird noises and contorted faces that are inevitable in deep-belly, bottom-of-the-spine weeping that leaves you feeling like you have no bones left. When it happens in my office I receive it without reservation, without hesitation, and certainly without disgust or judgment. And yet when the same thing happens to me, my first instinct is to apologize and get on with things. So that’s interesting.

Another is that this archaeological field project of renovating my voice is a deeper and more important thing that I originally thought. It is about breath and sound, about remembering what was and accepting what is, about being heard and letting go, and that is some pretty fucking significant shit. I’m curious – and a little afraid – about what might come up.

And finally is the realization – AGAIN – that moving forward is just that. It’s just a direction, one out of many, and it doesn’t mean that anything is left behind. If I leave one room and go into another, I cannot by the almighty power of my footstep cause the first room to disappear, to never have existed. It is silly and hubristic to imagine that there is a linear process by which “it” shall be “gotten over”, “moved on” from. My body has many rooms, and none of them are empty. Perhaps it is just a question of expanding the blueprint.

PS – If you’re in the Portland metro area and you’re interested in voice coaching, you should check out Resound NW. My awesome coach is Jennifer Davies, but you can’t have my spot because I’m using it.

Fertility Privilege, Part 2

Ok, here’s where the academics come in. Most folks have heard something about the dynamics of power and privilege, but not everyone, so please forgive the review if you’re ahead. Here is a quick and dirty outline of privilege and what it does/fails to do:

Privilege is any societal advantage you hold because your skin color, your gender, your sexual identity, your able-bodiedness, your age, your class, your education, your language, or your religion are accepted and prioritized by dominant culture. Privilege means that there are benefits you enjoy – whether consciously or unconsciously, and that part’s really important – because of something about you that society values more than something else. Frequently these are things you were born with, or into. People get very upset when it is pointed out to them that something that is not their “fault” carries implicit potential to harm and dehumanize others. This is usually the place that most folks shut down and say, “I didn’t own slaves, so I don’t know why Black people are so angry at ME”, or “Hey, things are hard for me too!” or “Some of my best friends are (fill in the disenfranchised identity blank).” It is uncomfortable to confront the ways in which we unintentionally contribute to suffering. I don’t like it; you don’t like it. I’d say tough titties, but titties are kind of a privilege battleground with so many different possible interpretations that it’s probably best to leave them out of it for now.

Here are some examples of privileges I inhabit.

  • I am white – dominant culture values white people above people of color. Yes, I know that we have a Black president. We also have the Tea Party, which arose in terrified and enraged response to a Black president. You do the math. I promise, racism still exists in America.
  • I am educated – yes, it’s true that I fought and clawed and persevered my way to that degree, but it’s something about me that makes available to me many things that are unavailable to others.
  • I am middle-class – again, haven’t always been, mostly been dirt-ass poor my whole life, but here I am with a three bedroom rented house and a steady job with health care, frantically banging away on my touch-screen laptop while the central heating takes the edge off the winter chill. That’s about as middle-class as it gets.
  •  I am straight, or (more accurately and, in the eyes of society, more importantly) in a heterosexual partnership that is recognized by the state we live in. Can you fucking imagine what it would feel like if your partnership – your love, who takes out the garbage and does the taxes and holds you when you’re broken and laughs with you when you’re joyful, and all the mundane and exquisitely miraculous things we do for and with each other when we make a promise – were condemned by the government? Just sit with that for a moment. No, seriously. Just sit with it.
  • I am cisgender – this means that my assigned sex reflects the gender I perceive myself to be. I have girl parts, I feel like a girl. No one questions what bathroom I should use, no one reacts with ignorant fear and disgust when I walk down the street dressed like I feel like I should be dressed. I bet you take that for granted.

There are more, many more, I’m sure. Unexamined privilege is just that – we don’t know it’s there. I am stating my privileges first off here to show you how easy it is to not notice that you occupy privilege. I embody all sorts of ways in which patriarchy, racism, capitalism and hegemony inflict harm upon those it deems valueless. We all do.

So, that’s privilege. Now let’s talk about fertility privilege.

Maybe it wants another name, I don’t know. I’m pretty sure I made it up, considering that when I googled “fertility privilege” mostly what I got was welcome letters from fertility doctors saying what a privilege it is to serve their clientele. Breeder privilege? I-can-get-knocked-up-and-carry-a-baby-to-term-and-successfully-push-it-out-of-my-vagina privilege? Or possibly I-can-knock-up-others-so-that-they-carry-and-successfully-deliever privilege? Or how about My-relationship-and-physical-appearance-is-sanctioned-by-society-and-therefore-no-one-looks-at-me-funny-when-I-say-I-want-a-baby privilege? I don’t know. It’s a work in progress.

I can only tell you what it feels like to not have it.

Multiple times over the course of my week I find myself in a room full of people who have given birth or sired children. I am often the only childless person, and since people talk about their children constantly and with the easy, flippant cadences of “Oh, you know how it goes!”, I frequently feel ostracized and alienated.

Many times a day I am confronted by a constant stream of information – from social media to commercials to the fucking baby food samples they’re STILL sending me from Similac – representing pregnancy, childbirth and parenting as the norm. It’s so normal people don’t think about it. Unless they can’t do it. And not just the norm, the standard. The end-all-be-all of hope and joy and love and meaning and value. Watch some commercials with this thought in mind, and think about what it might feel like to be on the outside looking in. Think heteronormativity: media, language, public signs, greeting cards, literature, music, just about every bit of cultural production that isn’t specifically geared toward an LGBTQI population just assumes a basic normative state of heterosexuality. That leaves anyone who falls outside of a cisgender male/female partnering feeling utterly invisible and invalid. I’ll have to come up with a new word – fertilinormativity! – to describe what it’s like to be totally unrepresented by the daily expressions of the vast majority of society because I am not able to make a baby.

If I try to talk about the differences between my body and those of people who can reproduce, my experience is often patronized and minimized, even by thoroughly well-meaning people. I am told that someday, I might just be normal. If I just have hope. It’s like telling someone with cerebral palsy that they should just buck up and one day they’ll shake it off. Or that really there’s nothing different about me, I’m just like everyone else, which is essentially telling me that the thing that makes me different is so aberrant and intolerable that you can’t even allow yourself to see it. Or that I am lucky that I don’t have to put up with all the terrible things that parenthood entails, which sounds exactly like a millionaire telling a homeless person how tough it is to have to think about all your money all the time.

At least once a week someone – a client, a grocery clerk, the mani/pedi lady – asks me why I don’t have children with this sort of mix of disgust, concern and sorrow, as if it is some kind of abhorrent and neglectful oversight on my part. Like I have chosen this, and choosing this is a rejection of everything good and wholesome and right.

If I get angry about all of this alienation and isolation and ostracizing, I am often greeted by otherwise compassionate people who lament about how uncomfortable it is for them to be fertile in the face of all my infertility, as though I am committing some kind of unforgivable social faux pas by relentlessly NOT being able to have a baby. There is sort of only so much anger people are willing to take before it becomes too sad for them. The freedom to disengage from the anger of infertility because it’s uncomfortable is a privilege that infertile people don’t have.

Facebook. Fucking, fucking Facebook. A 24hour stream of how totally different and defective you are. The worst, of course, are the pregnancy posts. Yes, you can block people, and I have and will continue to do so. Blessed, blessed blocking. But you have to be careful or else you will end up blocking nearly everyone you know, because nearly everyone you know is able to have children. And you are not. And because fertility is the norm of the dominant culture, I am expected to refrain from being angry or upset or slowly driven mad by the utter ubiquity of it all throughout the very fabric of my social interactions, or at least from describing that upset in an overt way. And yes, people should get to celebrate their pregnancies on their Facebook pages, which are their free-speech podiums and they can represent themselves however they want. But if you had even a few friends on Facebook who were severely disabled by missing limbs, you might think twice before you posted daily pics of your arms and how awesome and full of love and mystery and delight they are. You might think twice if someone important to you had recently lost a spouse and you really wanted to post all your wedding pictures. For some reason, this never occurs to people when it comes to infertility. Because fertility is an unexamined privilege.

What should we do with unexamined privilege? We should examine it, to start with. We should take a look at what we’re putting out in the world and think about microaggressions – those small, unconscious acts of verbal violence that we deal out without meaning to that make other people feel invisible, invalid, inhuman. We should not examine it and then say, “I have examined my privilege! Now stop being all disenfranchised at me! It’s making me uncomfortable!” We should continue to approach people with humility and empathy and the firm understanding that we do NOT know what their experience is, just because we once had a brief moment of the same experience or we know someone who did.

Do some word-swaps with me:

“I totally know how you feel as an infertile person, because before we had our 3rd we tried for two whole months and it was really, really stressful.” = “I totally know how you feel as a person of color, because once I went to Oakland and I was the only white person and it was really, really stressful.”

“You should be happy you don’t have children – it’s a lot of work!” = “You should be happy you’re in a wheelchair – stairs totally suck anyway!”

“I shouldn’t have to feel bad about my fertility, because it isn’t my fault you’re infertile and I should be able to express myself however I want.” = “I shouldn’t have to feel bad about my whiteness, because I didn’t invent slavery and I should be able to express myself however I want.”

“Some of my best friends are infertile!” = “Some of my best friends are gay!”

I know that most people in my life would never, ever, ever in a million years say anything like these swaps. Most people in my life are kind, compassionate, empathetic and progressive people who have spent a lot of time considering their privilege when it comes to race, class, orientation, gender and ability. For some reason though, fertility privilege seems to slip through the cracks. And all over my head.

I also know that comparing infertility to race, class, orientation, gender and ableness is going to ruffle a lot of feathers. It’s because of that fact that it’s taken me almost three years to claw my way out of the silence and alienation and finally put a name on all of this. Because I don’t like to get people mad at me.

But I have a breathing button, and I’m prepared to use it.

Namaste.