“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
—Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
At the beginning, I got really good at counting to nine.
I was living in the future, skip counting ahead of everyone else, calculating the moment that I could potentially become a mother. October plus nine equaled July. November became August. I knew it was dangerous addition, but it was too tempting not to count it out on my fingers. (Can you imagine, by next summer, we could be parents!) January passed. Then February. I was getting discouraged—already feeling the twinges of hope and disappointment. But I had faith that it would happen. Every plan I’d ever made had come true. Why wouldn’t this one?
Like many girls with the good fortune of being born in the 20th century, I grew up hearing I could achieve anything I wanted, if only I worked hard enough. Through middle and high school, I dreamed of being a lawyer or the President. I was ambitious—so much so that at age 12, a friend and I started an entrepreneurial venture, organizing a kids camp that earned $1200 in four weeks. When my seventh grade history teacher asked me to argue a court case before the “Supreme Court” (a group of eighth graders dressed in black robes), I opened the phone book and called the first lawyer I could find to seek out legal advice. I started my first job at 14 and kept working straight through college. Dreams of policy change and influence filled my mind. I wanted to be somebody.
As time went on, I realized that I had to make choices about who I wanted that somebody to be.
If the world was wide open when I was a child, it grew more narrow as I made those decisions. Going to Furman meant that I wouldn’t graduate from West Point. Turning down a language immersion program in China meant that I wouldn’t join the State Department. With each decision, the dream of “anything” was replaced with the specific–things I’d chosen.
I remember sitting in my advisor’s office senior year of college—well aware that the child that had dreamed of leading the free world had no plans to actually do so. His office was small and stuffy, with a window that looked out onto a patch of grass. Books lined the shelves on either side of the window; treatises written by Machiavelli, Plato, Hobbes, Locke. I wondered if any of those political philosophies could help me now. America was in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. I’d given up the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. I just needed a job.
My professor leaned back in his chair and asked if I’d considered applying to graduate school. I shook my head.
“I think grad school is great for someone who knows what they want to study. I’m not ready to take on a bunch of debt if I’m not sure of what I want to do next,” I told him. “The only thing I know for sure is that one day I want to get married and have a family.”
Suddenly, I was embarrassed about how un-ambitions and un-feminist I sounded. I didn’t even have a boyfriend. I’d spent more hours in the library than on dates, which was how I’d failed to earn an MRS degree, instead earning my way into Phi Beta Kappa. I wanted him—I wanted everyone—to take me seriously. “I know that’s probably not what I’m supposed to say.”
Surprisingly, he looked at me with an expression of respect and admiration. He was in his mid-forties, with a long nose, curly hair and sharp blue eyes. He was married to another professor and together they had a two-year-old-son—(I knew this because I babysat for their boy—and loved it). A picture of the child sat on my professor’s desk just beside his computer. Looking back now, I wonder if they, too had struggled with infertility, because before he responded, he paused meaningfully, then cleared his throat.
“As you might imagine, I’m not really allowed to bring up that kind of thing in a meeting like this,” he answered, rubbing his chin. “But a lot of times, I sit here and listen to people spouting their plans, and it makes me wonder if they’ve even considered how marriage or children would fit into their future. I’m glad you’re thinking about that.”
It was the best advice he ever gave me. He didn’t look down his nose at my dream. Instead, he validated my desire to be a wife and mother. He didn’t spout the lie that I could do it all and have it all; he honored me by listening and taking me seriously.
Five years later, I was living the embodiment of that conversation. I was married with a job I liked, and my ultimate plan was to still to become a mother. That’s how this Phi Beta Kappa got really good at counting to nine.
But the math backfired in March of 2014.
(Side note: If you’re like me, living in the future, I offer you this as a word of warning: the math of March is brutal. It will sucker-punch you if you’re not prepared, and I was not prepared.)
March plus nine equaled December. But we didn’t get pregnant that month—and so suddenly, adding nine months to the date took me into an entirely new year. Looking at the calendar and my fingers, I felt empty, hollow, out of breath. The year had only just begun, but in my mind it had already ended. It was like I’d seen into the future, only to have a black hole open up and suck it all away. I’d made a plan to have a baby in that calendar year. But that plan wasn’t going to come true. I’d planned who I was going to become—a mother. And in that moment, the future me died. At the same moment, the past me got put on trial.
Suddenly, all of my past decisions were re-interpreted through the lens of infertility. I should have taken the CIA up on that offer to go to China for that immersion program. I should have sucked it up and gone to law school. I shouldn’t have been so stupid, sitting in that professor’s office, imagining that life would unfold just like I planned. I’d gotten married so fast. I chased my dream to become a freelance writer, primarily because I loved writing, but also because it was a job I could see myself doing as a stay-at-home mom. Now, staring down the barrel of another year behind a screen, I doubted that decision too.
This is what infertility does: it steals from the future and distorts the past.
Questions circled like vultures in my mind during those dreary days. An orchestra of emotions (anger, resentment, sadness, jealousy…) sprang up inside me, as well as a host of judgements about those emotions (you’re just selfish, stop worrying). As spring rain fell outside my window, the future grew just as foggy: did I waste valuable time steering my ship toward a family, when I should have been building a career? What was I supposed to do with the year ahead? And what if it took even longer than a year to become a mother? What will I do next year, or the year after that?
If I never become a mother, what will I do with my life?
In other words…
If I’m not becoming a mother, what am I becoming?
In the classic children’s story, The Velveteen Rabbit, a stuffed animal longs for the magic of becoming real. But, as the story goes, “he wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him.” I feel much the same way.
When my plans imploded that March, I thought I was beginning a journey that I simply had to survive. Like taking a treacherous walk through a valley. I would walk down where it was dark and lonely, get beat up a little, and then emerge on the other side, essentially the same person that started the journey. But I was wrong.
Infertility isn’t a journey that is taking me from Point A to Point B. It’s a transformation that’s taking me from Person A to Person B.
This has been very difficult for people who loved Person A.
Many people that loved Person A thought they could walk with me into that valley and emerge with me on the other side. Many people that loved Person A didn’t realize that that person was dying. Many people that loved Person A haven’t taken the time to get to know Person B. She is just as lovely. I believe this wholeheartedly.
So what am I becoming? Who is this Person B?
I’m not becoming a mother, but I’m becoming honest about my feelings rather than judging myself for having them.
I’m not becoming a mother, but I’m becoming comfortable with imperfection.
I’m becoming aware of my weakness.
… sensitive to others’ suffering.
…mature in my perspective of pain.
…practiced in the ways of peace.
… gentle with myself.
…generous with grace.
I’m not becoming a mother, but I’m becoming intimate with God.
I hesitate to share these things because it can sound like a silver lining. Hear me: what I’m becoming is not a silver lining. I would still rather become a mother than become any of those things I just listed. But if I’m not becoming a mother, at least I like who I’m becoming. And I will cherish the new qualities that have been revealed in me because they are precious and costly.
Suffering gives me a choice: regret the old me, resent the present me, or honor its mission to reveal the true me. And I can’t reap the benefits of suffering if I ignore it. That thorn in my side, if completely ignored, will become a vine that traps me and hurts anyone that tries to get close. So instead, I will acknowledge the thorn. I will tell God that I hate it. And then perhaps—when the time is right and some of the ache has passed—I can thank God for its fruit in my life.
But don’t hear me saying that you just need to be more grateful. No. This is not a call to be more grateful. This is a call to grief.
Imagine a veteran. She leaves for war, then, upon returning home, discovers that not only has home changed, but she has changed, too. Her doctors call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as if the only trauma she experienced was a traumatic event that happened elsewhere. But there is an additional, unspoken grief of losing the person she was before. It’s like a widower who awakes the morning after his wife’s funeral to discover that part of him, too, has surely died.
There’s the grief of the thing, and then the grief of losing the person you were before the grief.
I can’t love, accept and honor Person B until I grieve the loss of Person A. She was important. She was me. She had dreams that died. She had a body that hadn’t betrayed her. She had children with her eyes and her nose and his freckles. She was innocent and loved to count to nine.
I don’t hate her. I’m not afraid of her. She is not a fool.
I honor that girl that counted up nine months into the future. And I am grateful to the woman who can look at the calendar, and stay right here in today.