Over the past two weeks, I’ve been getting these awful headaches that come and go as they please. When I mentioned it to Audrey, a regular guest I I see often at one of my part time jobs, the first thing she said?
“Do you like Christmas?”
And it was like a light bulb went off. I’ve always loved Christmas, ever since I was a little kid. And when I think about why I love the holidays and always have, it wasn’t because of a mountain of presents or anything like that, it was the whole picture and experience; getting an entire day with my mom and dad, sisters, grandparents and extended family on Christmas day, seeing my dad’s side of the family either just before or just after Christmas, and after Christmas, staying up way past my bedtime on New Years Eve, crammed into my grandparents’ bungalow, with all of my mom’s side of the family.
Noticing a theme? Everything I enjoy about the holidays, revolves around spending time with family. And I’m extremely lucky to have pretty awesome memories of Christmas, even after my parents got divorced, and acknowledge that for some, this time of the year is hard for a plethora of reasons. And I’ve come to realize one of the reasons can include if you’re battling infertility.
Infertility just sucks in general, but at the holidays, its overall suck factor increases tenfold. Particularly if it is one of the rare occasions where you are forced
to spend time with family members who make you feel alienated, anxious, sad, or any other emotion you shouldn’t have to feel during the holidays. to make a choice between sitting the day out and missing seeing people you would really love to see, or spending time with family members who make you feel alienated, anxious, sad, or any other emotion you shouldn’t have to feel during the holidays so that you can see the people you are so looking forward to spending time with.
(Yep, that’s an edit. Because sometimes I’m wrong and I realize the things I type definitely don’t come across as I intended and I inadvertently hurt people. So if that was you, I’m really sorry.)
It dawned on me while talking to Audrey (who was also the one that told me “Never tolerate behaviour from family, that you wouldn’t from a neighbor” over here), that for the first time, Christmas wasn’t the busy, fun, happy, short-lived and well-rewarded stress it had been in years past; this year it was different. Whether I wanted to admit it or not, the reason I was getting headaches was the stress of trying to figure out just how the heck I was going to navigate the holiday season when two of my family members weren’t talking to me, another blatantly disliked me, and the tension was stressing almost everyone else out.
Now I’m pretty lucky. I’m “out” and freely talk about my and my husband’s journey to the point of maybe being a little too honest sometimes, but I know I have most of my family’s support. But some couples struggle in silence, sometimes for years, sometimes together, sometimes in isolation of each other, and for awhile, that was us.
Two Christmases ago, I remember my father-in-law innocently mentioning grand kids, to which my husband replied “we’re working on it!”. At the time, neither of us knew the extent that infertility would touch our lives, but there was this voice in my head, getting louder, more insistent as time went on, that something was wrong. The innocent exchange circled round and round in my head the rest of the night. At that point in time, I was convinced something was wrong with me because we’d already been trying for more than a year with no success.
Many of my fellow infertility warriors are bracing themselves for conversations just like these, for seeing pint-sized nieces, nephews and cousins, comparisons to other relatives who have already had kids, and for those dealing with secondary infertility, questions about when their child is going to get a sibling, maybe even snide remarks about being selfish for not wanting another child, or incapable of the chaos another would bring.
My days of gracefully skirting my own infertility and the fears around it were finished the day my brother and sister in law announced their pregnancy at a family dinner and I couldn’t keep my composure enough to stay at the table and hold back the tears, so I excused myself. And that action was like someone flicking over the first domino in a rally, each reaction afterwards causing another until we find ourselves here.
So this is the first holiday season my husband and I will face where everyone in our family knows about our struggle with infertility. It is also the first Christmas with a brand new baby in the family, the very first grandchild on my husband’s side- truthfully, a title we both thought our first baby would get. It’s not like being “first” was exceptionally important to me- my little sister had her two beautiful kiddos before I’d even got married- it’s that my sister and brother in law’s success in such a short time frame, compounds the battle my husband and I have been fighting against this awful beast.
I’ve talked about it before, but my brother and sister in law weren’t exactly graceful or compassionate when they found out my husband and I were struggling. Things got so bad that for the most part, we don’t speak to each other anymore. In fact, things are so tough that my own, “don’t rock the boat” husband proposed to his parents that this year, it would be best for everyone if we celebrated Christmas separately from J and A, save for the one extended family gathering where seeing each other is going to be unavoidable.
My brand new niece has now arrived and I just… don’t know how to feel about it. I know I should be excited and happy, like I was when my own sister gave birth to her son and later, a daughter. I remember being so excited to see their tiny faces for the first time at the hospital, marveling that my sister had grown those babies in her own body, and somehow gotten them out- and couldn’t keep the smile off her face. But this time that magic just isn’t there and I just feel kind of…indifferent. But that may change the moment I am sitting in the room with this brand new baby and I have no idea how I’m going to react.
What if I have the opportunity to hold her? Would I actually feel comfortable doing so? Will I get dagger eyes for holding her? What if they don’t let me hold her because they are angry at me? What if I don’t appear happy enough? What if I break down in tears because this is a gift I might never have? What is going to be said and done next? How am I going to screw up now? What kind of emotional tailspin will this send me into?
I am lucky enough to have a lot of family members in my corner, who would understand just about any reaction I could possibly have. But I also know some members in the family will be watching my every move- even if they feign having no interest in it.
All of this leads to one thing: I am stressed out about one of my favorite times of the year, which sucks to say the least. If you’re in the same boat, you aren’t alone, so here’s what I’m doing to make the holidays suck less:
Focus on the positive
If you’ve always enjoyed the holidays, stay focused on the parts you enjoy. What gives you the warm fuzzies? Is it the cheesy Christmas sweaters? The great food? Watching friends and family open gifts you carefully chose for them? Looking around the room and seeing your favorite people in one place?
I’m choosing to focus on seeing some of the family I don’t get to spend enough time with, versus dwelling on the fact that members I’d rather not see will be there. It is definitely a battle of wills but I am consciously choosing happy.
One of the most stressful aspects for most infertile couples is the fear of the unknown; being unable to predict what their family might say or do, and being unable to predict their own emotions.
Right now, this is the hardest thing I’m struggling with. I have no idea how I’m going to respond to seeing a newborn baby, watching my brother and sister in law be parents, seeing my mother and father in law fawn over their grandchild. Maybe it will hurt a bit knowing that those days might never come for me. Or maybe it will inspire the sense of patience I’ve been embracing lately. I just don’t know.
I don’t know if I’m going to have to deal with some less than compassionate or friendly behaviour either, and I don’t know what I might say or do in response to it. I don’t know if I’m blowing everything out of proportion and my anxiety is just doing it’s spinning hamster wheel thing again. So I have to try my best not to worry about events that haven’t happened yet.
The only thing I can do, is the anxiety-sufferer’s only option- make a plan. So if you only read one part of this blog entry, make it this next part;
Have boundaries, and a plan
I’ve discovered that boundaries are key when it comes to talking about your infertility with friends and family, because so many people just don’t understand just how consuming it can be unless they’ve experienced it- and therefore, they don’t know where your boundary is. I try and temper any hurt feelings I get with understanding. Often when friends and relatives say or do things, their words and actions aren’t deliberately to hurt you. But setting boundaries- and letting people know when they’ve been crossed is imperative to your happiness, no matter what the context.
My husband knows that if someone crosses a line with me, he needs to be prepared to either leave, or stand by a wife who has become completely unafraid to say exactly what is on her mind.
So come up with a plan with your support. It might be to confront the issue head on yourself, it might be that your spouse deals with things while you take a minute alone, it might be that you directly let a person know you are leaving because of their actions, or it might be that you quietly slip out unnoticed.
So remember this…
Where ever you find yourself during the holidays, know that you aren’t alone. There are thousands of couples everywhere who are dealing with the same expectations, anxieties, and sometimes secrets when it comes to their infertility. Don’t let this ruin something you love. Instead, focus on your happiness, and do right by yourself. If that means missing a party, skip it- go have a date night with your partner. Or maybe it means going with the knowledge that you can just leave. Or maybe its taking some of the pressure off and organizing smaller gatherings with the family members you want to see, so you feel less pressure to convince everyone that this time of the year isn’t tough for you. Whatever you plan on doing, know you aren’t alone and you aren’t wrong as long as you’re doing the right thing for you.