I laid in bed early yesterday morning, scrolling through Facebook’s daily reminder of what I’d done that day in history… and since I started Under the Tapestry, I’ve pretty consistently spent New Year’s Eve reflecting on a big theme, a lesson learned, a summary of the year about to end. I wanted to do that again, but my head was pounding and I hadn’t slept well and I needed to be up at and ’em for reasons I’ll explain momentarily, so bliggity blogging remained on hold. Even thinking remained on hold, to be honest.
Instead, I closed Facebook down, took a deep breath, and dialed my nextdoor neighbor. To my profound relief, he picked up the phone.
I’d left Lyle in his bed the night before, honestly unsure of whether he’d still be alive in the morning. He was so weak and confused, short of breath, complaining of a back ache. But all he wanted was sleep. He hadn’t eaten all day, just a bit of water, the glass of OJ his niece and I begged him to drink. He us to leave him so he could sleep. I called the hospice nurse as soon as I got home and though somewhat reassured, I still cried a bit, thinking of what that day somewhere in the near future is going to look like… when one of us finds him in the morning, having passed on. I know that’s the point of hospice, but I also thought the point of hospice was supposed to be comfort… a good death. This doesn’t seem good. It seems hard and scary and uncomfortable. What I’m learning though is that what hospice is truly about is autonomy… about saying enough is enough and living what’s left of your life on your own terms. We don’t always choose the best terms for ourselves, but that’s the thing about choices. No one else gets to make them for us.
As I sat in the maroon recliner at Lyle’s house that morning after the phone call (and a quick run to Dunkin Donuts for an uneaten breakfast sandwich and undrunk cup of coffee), Lyle dozing, in and out, in the blue recliner next to me, I began pecking this post out on my phone. Vague ideas and misspelled, fat-fingered words, just a start. Because I’d realized, despite the headache and the fear, that the idea of what exactly constitutes enough is what I learned in 2016.
Most recently, I’ve worried desperately about Lyle. We’ve lived nextdoor to him since moving in o our house in the summer of 2012, and in that time, we watched Lyle care for his rapidly declining wife, Marlene, Mar, through an awful battle with Alzheimer’s disease that ultimately ended with a broken hip, brief hospitalization, and rapid death last December. In the year since, Lyle has declined even quicker. I’ve seen what a broken heart and battered psyche can do to a man’s body and all the while, I’ve worried about whether what I’m doing to help is enough. As I watch Lyle suffer loss of appetite, mobility, strength, weight, will to live… I’ve constantly wondered about whether I could have done more. I feel like I tried so hard, but had I really tried hard enough, wouldn’t this be a better process? It was yesterday, on New Year’s Eve, as I emptied out Lyle’s catheter bag that I knew suddenly, in no uncertain terms, that I had indeed done enough. Because enough, in this case, is my best… in the face of what Lyle has chosen to be enough for his life. Lyle and I, both imperfect, are both doing our best. For ourselves. For one another.
When I realized that, all the other moments of “enough” throughout this past year flooded into my mind.
After our miscarriage late last year, I needed to demonstrate that I could make my body do something I really, really wanted it to do — for that, only a marathon was enough. And it was exactly what I needed, extreme catharsis.
I desperately wanted (and still want, really) a family, but every aspect of our infertility battle has taken a lot out of us, mentally, physically, emotionally, financially, temporally We were fortunate to find a doctor that understood me, both medically and psychologically – she knew I needed to “leave it all out on the field” or I’d have questions, always wonder, and she advised me accordingly (Christine Broadwell at Generations in Madison, should anyone reading ever need such services). After the second round of IVF with donor eggs, third round of IVF this year, all with no success, we’d finally had enough. Somehow, despite the sadness, profound grief, feelings of failure… there’s also incredible relief in saying “enough!” and believing it.
Likewise, I desperately wanted to make things better for myself and those around me in my place of work and I felt like I fought the good fight for a long time. Actually, I know I did. I tried really hard. But I couldn’t keep doing it. It had become so hard to get out of bed in the morning. So I put down my sword and took a new job in a new department. Two weeks in and I am already profoundly certain that I’ve done the right thing… and I feel good knowing that I did everything I could do to try to stay before saying enough and making the choice to move on.
Enough, upon reflection, is a beautiful thing. It’s a step back from must-be-perfect to as-good-as-it-gets and I’ve-tried-my-best. To say “enough” and really mean it is a huge relief. Yes, even to give up on a baby, to say enough to infertility treatment, though sad, honestly feels like a relief. We’ve had enough.
Getting to “enough” reflects my autonomy to make a decision about what’s right for me, and to have that kind of autonomy and the wherewithal to use it is a blessing. So, hasta la vista, 2016 — I’m glad to have learned from you, but have really had enough. I suspect I’m not the only one.
Happy 2017, friends! May this year bring you the courage to say “enough” and really mean it!
“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” – Your Mom
Or maybe not your mom. Maybe it was your dad or a great auntie. Maybe a principal or a well-meaning member of the safety patrol. Whoever it was — someone said it to you at some point. And you got the point. Unless you’re trying to fix the problem, you are the problem. We’ve all internalized it. And since no one ever ever wants to be the problem, our natural inclination is to offer solutions, to fix it.
And then we all grew up a bit. If you’re anything like me, you became even nerdier. Maybe you even got into the chem scene (which makes chemistry sound cool, don’t you think?). If that’s the case, you may have latched onto this alternative adage — my personal favorite:
“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate.” – All the Nerds
It made you laugh and laugh (not as much as the ether bunny or the ferrous wheel, of course), but you knew deep down that it was only a chem joke. Not a real life lesson.
Or is it?
I posit that it’s a better saying, really. More accurate for particularly complex problems, like infertility. Because to extend the chemistry metaphor a bit further — in the case of infertility, there are only two solutes in solution. My partner and myself. Anyone else can really only be part of the precipitate. A precipitate can’t fix anything, it just hangs out in the tube, separate. But that doesn’t make it part of the problem.
In the wake of our most recent crappy news, we’ve been offered a lot of love, a ton of support, and so very many ideas for next steps — ranging from “just relax” to offers of surrogacy and referrals to adoption case workers. These fixes come from a place of love, good intentions, and probably also a subconscious devotion to the first quote above. Unfortunately, it’s no one’s problem to solve. Instead, it’s Seth and my path to walk and because I know it’s hard to understand, hard not to want to fix, I thought it might be nice to share some aspects of infertility from my own perspective.
But you ain’t got no eggs!
Infertility happens for a million and one different reasons. Or even for no discernable reason at all. There’s male factor and female factor infertility. One or both partners can be affected. There can be no eggs, poor eggs, an inability to release eggs. Similarly, no sperm, poor sperm, immobile sperm. It can be mechanical — related to the shape or size or functional ability of the uterus, the shape or size of the vas deferens. It can be scar tissue, the result of surgeries, childhood radiation treatments. Genetic, chromosomal, hormonal issues. All of the above, none of the above, anything in between, or something else altogether.
We started out with “unexplained” infertility (i.e. everything seemed to be just fine). While it’s good to have nothing obviously wrong, lack of diagnosis makes treatment much more difficult — everything is just a guess at that point. However, after lots of tries (see below), we ultimately ended up with a diagnosis of diminished ovarian reserve. That means that despite being just 32 (and only 27 when we started trying to conceive), my eggs are just about out. The tank is approaching E and the few eggs I do have left are poor in quality — hence the miscarriage late last year. That’s our reason. And ultimately, it has the greatest impact on our potential solutions. So while I appreciate the offers of uteri for rent and the like, that’s not actually going to help me one bit. My body is technically quite capable of carrying a healthy pregnancy, we’re just missing half of the equation.
Grieving the loss of imaginary piggies.
Miscarrying last September was really hard. It was the most difficult experience of my life to date and the grief still comes so fiercely sometimes that all I can do is hold on and ride the wave for a while. I still had hope though, I thought that pregnancy would be followed by another. That we would have our own children. As it turns out, though, the lack of eggs means that the thing I’m really grieving is an imaginary future — one that was never going to exist, but always felt real to me in my mind. I’ve spent years wondering about the curly blonde babes Seth and I would someday bring into this world. I’ve always imagined us like Piggy and Kermit — all the girls would be pigs, all the boys would be frogs. Would they have my green eyes or Seth’s blue? My ready, beaming smile or Seth’s slower, more mischievous, lopsided grin?
And then just like that — I’ve been removed from the equation. No piggies at all. I can’t pass on the Vonck mouth. My genes won’t ever go anywhere, no matter what we decide to do next. That’s a hard pill to swallow. Something I have to wrap my mind around. Another loss to grieve, but how? There’s no memorial in the cemetery for this loss and it’s hard to know how to let it go.
All magic comes with a price, dearie.
After more than a year of trying to conceive on our own, we sought medical care for infertility and decided early on that we wanted to exhaust our possibilities to have biological children. And exhaust them we did. We’ve spent many, many, many thousands of dollars on diagnostic testing and assisted reproductive technology ranging from simple clomid and timed intercourse to intrauterine insemination (IUI) and finally two rounds of in vitro fertilization (IVF) over the course of 4+ years. Side-effects, needles, injections, ultrasounds, surgeries, procedures, tears and snot and stress and rage and bloating and month after month after month of disappointment. We did it all for a chance — all at great cost.
None of it worked for us. Now we know why. And because we’re quite certain that we do indeed want to be parents, we’re left looking at the next set of alternatives.
Egg donation, adoption, fostering. And even those options have sub-options — fresh or frozen, international or domestic, public or private. And those sub-options have sub-sub-options — how do you pick a donor? Physical characteristics? Genetics? Occupation? Personality? Psych profile? And if you adopt — are you prepared to wait for an eternity? Are you willing to let a birth parent pick you? What if they change their minds? What if you fall in love with a foster child and then they get sent back to their biological parents (Wisconsin focuses on reunification whenever possible)? Can you bare that? Can you bare any of it?
It’s a lot to think about. So much to process. And all of it — every last option — comes at great cost. Physically, emotionally, financially. On top of everything we’ve already been through, every time we hear “at least” (e.g., at least you know you did everything you could, at least you can afford it) or “just” (e.g., why don’t you just adopt?) it’s like salt in the wound — minimization of everything we’ve done so far and the difficult road ahead to family. Yes, we are fortunate that we can consider options, but that doesn’t make the necessity of considering them any easier.
It’s not you, it’s me.
The ugliest truth about infertility is that it colors everything. Over these last four years, infertility has become increasingly woven into my being and I have a hard time separating who I am from this thing I can’t do. I’m not proud to admit it, but in the face of cutesy pregnancy announcements, #blessed ultrasound pictures, and bow-decked baby bumps, happiness for those that I love and a sense of jealousy and bitterness are always there in equal measure. Of course, I wouldn’t wish infertility on my worst enemy, but that doesn’t mean I handle fertility with any kind of grace and I’m issuing a blanket apology for my poor reactions. It’s not you, honestly, it’s me. And presumably, someday it will get better, easier, to just be happy.
But here’s the most important thing: the announcements, photos, bumps, hashtags, motherhood memes — none of them have anything at all to do with me. So you shouldn’t stop doing them. It’s all worth celebrating and my scroogey attitude shouldn’t take away from that.
Conversely, radical self-care and self-preservation means that some Facebook friends are hidden and I won’t be RSVPing yes to a baby shower or making any more baby blankets for the foreseeable future. It’s too painful. I don’t ask for forgiveness or even understanding, just patience.
All roads lead to Rome.
Ultimately, there are a lot of different paths to parenthood. At present, I struggle because I don’t like any of the choices. Or, more accurately, I don’t want to have to make a choice. I will come around though. I always do, but as I said above, there’s no “just” about any of the paths. Once pregnancy via sex and waiting is off the table, nothing feels simple anymore.
In my present state of mind, egg donation proves that Seth really should have married someone else and fostering/adoption is unlikely to work out considering that even God wouldn’t choose me to raise a child — why would anyone else? Thankfully, Seth is much more capable of rational thought at the moment and I’m slowly starting to wrap my mind around some of the options. One foot in front of the other, all the way to Rome.
Not everybody wants to go to Rome.
But then again — Rome isn’t for everyone in the end. And there’s nothing wrong with making that decision for yourself. Families come in all shapes and sizes, Seth and I are a family all on our own and puppy makes three. Ultimately, though, the societal assumption is that if you’re infertile, you want to have children in any way possible and there’s the tendency to push couples struggling with infertility to pick a road and get to parenthood, one way or another.
Right now, Seth and I are pretty certain that we want to find a path to parenthood, but I think it’s really important that people accept any choices we do decide to make from the perspective of the precipitate. These things are incredibly personal and based only a little on biology, medicine, and rational thought. More than anything, we have to trust our emotions, our hearts, and each other to make the right choices for us moving forward. We both have to be on board with something 100%, no judgement if not.
The same goes for any other couple, any other family, and if you find yourself interested in learning more, I highly recommend perusing CNN’s recent infertility awareness week series. I shared this article on Facebook this morning and got a great response to it:
I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with the writing of Brene Brown and Anne Lamott and Jenny Lawson. Brave women who share their stories in an honest and beautiful way — they’ve opened me up to a whole new level of comfort in the idea of vulnerability and struggle and story telling and I think that for me, infertility is another avenue for that. The ranks of the infertile… not a tribe I’d have chosen to join, had it been a choice at all, but it’s a fierce one and I’m in good company. Someday, I’ll have a very intentional family and Seth by my side and I’ll be in good company then too. Thanks so much for being here through it all <3
My cousin Tegan recently graduated from Michigan State with a degree in art and a minor in Mandarin. Because what normal English-speaking teen contemplating a minor in a foreign language doesn’t go for an ancient, tonal, character-based language over say, oh I don’t know, Spanish? Tegan, that’s who. Also, she’s an absolute self-taught wiz of a computer programmer. No bigs.
Clearly, Tegan chose a path. A weird path. And she absolutely excelled. That’s awesome.
Yesterday, though, I thought back to my (non-)role in some of those moments where she was deciding on a path and had to laugh a bit at myself as I thought about the concept of validation. You see, back when Tegan was maybe a junior in high school, she was basically good at everything and trying to figure out where to go with that — both school- and major-wise. Naturally, my dream for her was a four year tenure at Michigan Tech for a chemistry degree. Because of course that’s what a bright young woman should want to do. See how well it worked out for me?
Obviously, I had zero effect on Tegan’s choice (unless she was actually leaning toward a chemistry degree at Michigan Tech and my life somehow turned her off, but I choose not to entertain that possibility with any real seriousness), but I sure as heck could have been a lot more supportive and/or helpful. I could have said, “It’s a tough choice, dear Tegan, maybe we should talk about what lights you up… so what do you love? What beautiful things do you imagine for your future? Where do you feel at home? Do you want me to share with you how I made my choices?”
All of this came flooding back over lunch on Friday. I had traveled two hours north to Minocqua for a day long meeting and spent the brief lunch break chatting with Mike, a local pain psychologist. He said something about all psych folks being “fruit cakes” and I said that’s why I loved my psychologist so much — because he validates my crazy (good news: my grief process and dealing with depression appear to be normal as of Wednesday, also my injection of humor to serious situations is a good thing, sweet validation). Then… I’m not sure how we got on the topic, exactly, but Mike’s high school aged son is interested in a career in scientific writing (he sounds to be a grade-A introvert and super into learning, definitely a good candidate) and when I recommended a more scientific route (as opposed to a more English/writing-based approach), Mike mentioned that that was his son’s goal after having seen the husband of one of the local pediatricians perform some chemistry demonstrations at his high school.
Those chem demos? Performed by none other than my sophomore year p-chem lab partner from good old Michigan Tech, John (because small world). Ah ha! And I instantly started pushing — oh he’s just got to go to Michigan Tech for a chemistry degree, both John and I did, obviously the best of decisions. See!! Seeee!! Seeeeeeee?!?!
And in that record-scratching-to-a-stop-moment, probably because I had just admitted to requiring validation from my psychologist only minutes before, I recognized what I was doing. Did it stop me? No, I don’t think so. But it at least made me think about it. And how much I hated this very thing and yet, I saw it everywhere and all the time and I was guilty of it constantly.
I first recognized that need for validation when I was finishing up in grad school. I knew, like deep down in my weary bones knew, that I did not want to go into academia. I didn’t want to come up with the ideas or write the grants (ha) or run my own lab or be responsible for other people’s careers in a competitive, fund-limited field. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life studying one small thing. I wanted something different, something that used my talents and passions in a different way, but it was hard to even see any other options. Honestly, I’m just ridiculously lucky that I stumbled into scientific writing. I barely even registered it as a choice before coming across the job that I ultimately got. And when I did get it, people were pretty pissy with me — for opting out of academia, for going in not just a different direction, but the wrong direction.
I was mad about that for a long time. I wanted my professors to be proud of me, but as I walked away, I felt like everyone behind me was shaking their heads in disappointment instead. Then again, how could any of them know anything other than academia, the path they chose? And given that that was the case, how could I honestly expect them to encourage me otherwise? Who doesn’t like to be validated??? Who among us doesn’t honestly feel like they need it, especially when the choice they’ve made was a hard one? And no doubt, academia is amongst the hardest.
After the meeting in Minocqua ended, I got back in my car and drove south past home and all the way to Milwaukee for the annual Call To Action meeting. I made it just in time to hear Zach Wahls speak; you probably remember Zach as the eloquent young man who, raised by gay parents, went viral on YouTube after testifying in favor of marriage equality in front of the Iowa legislature a few years ago. That young man is now a few years older and a polished and professional advocate for equality and social justice. It was an amazing talk; many would disagree on principle. Similarly, this morning, I heard one of the most brilliant and prolific theologians of our time, Sister Joan Chittister, speak about the importance of the public intellectual for the evolution of social and institutional change; again, many would and do disagree.
And, in bringing these beautiful talks back to that idea of validation that I’ve been turning over in my mind, I’m left wondering: how much of this religious strife does validation account for? How much of that worry about the eternal salvation of that-guy-over-there-doing-the-wrong-thing’s soul is really a worry about the validation of our own???? I mean, if that guy is somehow doing the right thing, what does it say about my personal prejudices?
I don’t know the answer. Maybe it’s not at all. But it seems related. Like maybe most of our arguments against equality, change, growth, evolution might actually be about fear — about lack of validation for the status quo, for the habits, patterns, and beliefs we hold dear. Maybe instead, we should all consider saying what I should have said to Tegan all those years ago — you do you, whatever lights you up.
PS: I met Joan Chittister today. In person. So, yeah, that lights me up. No Mandarin necessary.
I tend to spend tons and tons and tons of time mulling things over, pro-ing and con-ing, and all of that. But ultimately, I go with my gut. So far, it has not led me astray. (Metaphorically speaking, of course… in the literal sense, I have been led very far astray.)
My senior year of high school, I was certain that I was going to go to NYU– no matter the debt! I was going to live in the big city, I was going to major in political science, and I was going to be cosmopolitan and amazing. But then I visited Houghton, where I had applied to major in chemistry at Michigan Tech, and despite the fact that I was in the middle of nowhere in the UP and I had a raging fever, I knew I was in the right place. I filled out the paperwork, accepted my scholarship, and became a Husky. I met Aimee and Adriane my first day there and knew that even though it wasn’t my original choice, it was the right choice.
My senior year of college, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so I decided to go to grad school. (That’s the default, right?) I interviewed at four different schools and was pretty much settled on Penn, the first of the four… until I went to DC to interview at USU and met Jess. Penn may have wined me, dined me, and put me up in a fancy schmancy hotel, but USU sent Jess to the airport in her Nissan Altima and made her put me up in her apartment. She let me stay an extra night since getting back to the UP was nearly impossible and we went out to Rock Bottom in Bethesda in a snow storm and chatted and laughed… and again, I just knew that USU was the place for me. I’d make the same choice all over again.
Things got all stressful and choice-y again at the end of grad school. I didn’t want to go into academia, but I needed a job and a post-doc seemed like the right choice (head-wise, anyway). I tried and tried and tried to get one… then this science writing thing at the Marshfield Clinic came about. We talked about that before.
It was my first post-graduate interview and the only one in person. But after I had it, I knew it was the place for me. The thing that did me in in Marshfield, that had me hooked right from the get go, wasn’t a thing at all– it was two people: Marie and Michele.
I had applied to be a scientific research writer in the Office of Scientific Writing and Publication. My interview was on Valentine’s Day of 2011 and I interviewed with lots of different people. Marie and Michele asked legitimate questions, good questions, but not hostile questions. Plus Marie was crazy stylish and Michele was super nice and by the time I had had lunch with them and was headed back to my in-laws’ house in Mosinee I was certain that I had to work with these women. Once again, I just knew… and it was Marie and Michele that did it.
You know how this story ends– Marshfield Clinic offered me the job, I accepted, Seth and I moved to Wisconsin, and here we are. Most importantly: Marie and Michele are my co-workers. More than that; they are my friends.
I could not ask for better!
Marie used to be a surgical tech (ew, right?) in urology (double ew!) and now she’s an editorial specialist (i.e. really, really good at grammar and super detail-oriented, thank goodness she is!). She’s the most faith-filled person I know and also the best at wearing scarves. She is my style hero. I feel like every time she tells me a story about her life I’m just more and more in awe. (Good news– you can hear some of her stories, too!! She’s a bloggess right here!) I’m seriously so lucky to get to work with her every day!
Michele is a writer like me and she’s a genius at everything that has to do with dogs– everything! Also, she’s just a genius. She’s leaving us to go get her doctorate at Vanderbilt University in Nashville soon (also a dreamy country-music singing boyfriend) and I couldn’t be any more excited for her! She was hand picked for this opportunity and it is well-deserved, let me tell you.
Both Marie and Michele make it worth coming in to work every single day. Just like Jess made it worth going in to the lab during those long years in grad school and how Aimee and Adriane made Michigan Tech home. Marie and Michele, Jess, and Aimee and Adriane are all totally different– I really can’t put my finger on the common denominator, except to say that I loved them all instantly. I was overly familiar just as quickly as I was with Melissa and I felt comfortable around them right away… as early as the interview, the ride from the airport, the hall-bonding exercises… they let me be me and my life is better because they’ve been part of it.
Michele may be leaving, but Marie and I will stick together and we’ll be cheering for her from Marshfield. We’ll be sitting in the front row at her defense… and right behind the paparazzi at her wedding!
M is for Marie and Michele. It’s for those people who just get you… who make you know that you’re in the right place, doing the right thing. The ones who make it worth it.