Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Infertility amnesia vs. healing

One of the things I absolutely love about blogging and this community is the feedback from readers. I learn a lot reading not only posts from other bloggers, but also by reading the comments section.  The same holds true for each of my posts, as ideas are expanded upon or I’m given a different perspective.

This was most certainly true of my last post. Being at Friday Harbor again brought back such a sense of peace and rejuvenation, with my heart experiencing the benefits of this healing place. Unfortunately, because my mind has been in a less than optimal state, I failed to communicate what I had relearned there. What came out instead was something that was at points harsh and judgmental, and also frustrating in its lack of continuity. Thankfully, Josey from My Cheap Version of Therapy left me a comment that sparked an email conversation that not only unblocked my mind, but also changed the way I view certain behaviors. What makes this interaction even more exciting is that this conversation lead to a discussion that gets directly at the heart of what I’ve been feeling and also touches on something that needs to be addressed.

After some back and forth, I managed to gather the courage to ask Josey to write a joint post on this topic, and I am so pleased that she has agreed. So, with Josey’s help, here is “take two” of my jumbled post that has now morphed into a post that I hope begins a long overdue discussion on an incredibly important topic: the difference between infertility amnesia and healing.

So, let’s start with the obvious: why is it important to heal after living with infertility and loss?  A recent post from Mali at No Kidding in NZ makes a profound case for how refusing to heal can be so destructive.

I have seen so many women who have pushed against the idea of acceptance and healing. I have seen them stamp their feet, as I have done at times too, determined not to like their new lives, determined to keep trying or keep grieving, terrified that acceptance means forgetting. And so they haven’t healed. And they wonder why they are so angry, so bitter, so stuck. Yet I doubt they could articulate that, filled as they are with so much grief and anger and turmoil. And so they stay stuck, often for years. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be angry. Anger is a part of grieving. But we need to move on to the next stage. I wish I could hug them and tell them it really will be okay. Tell them that they don’t need to stay angry. That it is okay to heal.
Mali's message is a powerful one: regardless of the specifics about how infertility/loss have turned your life upside down, if you have any desire to live it is important to heal. It is neither an easy task nor is it something that happens overnight, but resolving this trauma is necessary in order to go on in life. It’s important to put aside the anger and the bitterness.

Unfortunately, healing isn’t something we promote in our society, as anyone who has lived with infertility/loss can attest too. As women, we’re taught from an early age to put ourselves second, to focus on others and their wants/needs. Hence, we are tempted to put off the healing process, resulting in two separate ways of coping. One is to remain bitter and angry, which is what Mali has observed. The other is to do what I believe Grey’s aunt was forced to do: develop “infertility amnesia.”

Despite what may initially be perceived, there’s a big difference between healing and developing “infertility amnesia.” Unlike healing, amnesia is defined as a deficit of memory, caused by psychological or physical trauma. Infertility amnesia is a specific form of amnesia, where memory loss is limited solely to the experience of living with infertility and/or loss. Characteristics of someone suffering from this debilitating condition range, but generally fall under the following: insensitivity to others living with infertility/loss, frequent use of platitudes and suggested quick fixes, denial of infertility diagnosis/recurrent pregnancy loss and denial of any intervention needed to conceive children. This form of amnesia is destructive on many fronts: first being that the individual who is suffering from the affliction is actively alienating those who are living with infertility/loss. But secondly and more long-term, the individual is ultimately unable to heal from this trauma, which can lead to further complications down the road.

For the record, I need to admit that I have very little tolerance for infertility amnesia. This is mainly due to my experience with this phenomenon that occurred very early in my journey through my interactions with Angie. Since that time, I have periodically run into infertility amnesia, both in real life as well as in cyberspace. It’s always hard to see, as I really do believe the people involved are doing more damage than good, both to this community as well as to themselves and their children. But I’ve also learned that confronting the offenders rarely works. That the best course of action is simply to move on, while making it known that you’re willing to talk if they are open to a discussion.

Unfortunately, infertility amnesia and genuine healing are often confused. This is mainly because at first glance to the untrained eye, it can be hard to distinguish between the two. I’ve witnessed many bloggers who were falsely accused of infertility amnesia when they are actually in the process of resolving, with people accusing them of abandoning the community and being selfish. And, like many, there have been moments when I was firmly enmeshed in my own grief and despair when it’s been hard for me to distinguish the two.

So what does it really mean to heal from infertility and loss? Frankly, this is something I’m still exploring, as I’m only in the early stages of this pregnancy and haven’t really begun the process. Truthfully, I don’t think there’s a specific formula for healing, just as there is no specific formula for life. But, there are a couple of things that consistently hold true.

The first is that healing involves moving on from the trauma of infertility and loss, not forgetting. Though many would argue that these two acts are actually the same, the reality is they are very different. Instead of blocking an experience, healing requires you confront the trauma head on and make peace with it.

The second is a genuine effort to move beyond. It’s not that the person doesn’t reflect back on their time in the trenches and all the pain, grief and despair that they lived through. But they chose to no longer dwell there. In truth, I believe this is where some of the best advocates come from, as they had the ability (and the energy) to see the whole picture as they are not in the middle of battling this disease. 

Over the past 3 yrs, I've had the opportunity to observe those who had truly heal, helping me form a definition of what the process looks lik. But since Josey and I have started talking, I’ve had an epiphany. An epiphany which has expanded my definition and has allowed me to identify examples of healing all over the blogosphere that I was previously missing. One example of this is the “bump” date posts. 

Now comes confusion #2: I’ve never been much of a fan of “bump” dates. Seeing these posts, especially from bloggers who posted nothing else, usually resulted in me no longer reading. It's not that I no longer respected the blogger or was no longer interested in their journey, but it was more that I have very little interest in people’s pooping patterns nor what they were craving. My discussion with Josey made me take a second look at the purpose of these posts, though. Like a switch flipping, I realized that for some, the “bump” dates weren’t simply a weekly chronicle of one’s pregnancy, but actually a way to heal from the trauma of infertility/loss. That by filling out a survey, the jittering newly pregnant IFer/RPLer who would otherwise be worried about miscarriage was instead able to identify what milestones they were reaching weekly and to celebrate them. It was with this realization that I also realized that this isn’t limited to “bump” dates, but also includes belly shots, posting 2week wait symptoms, posting adoption profiles, posting about nursery plans, photos of newborns and even ultrasounds. Each post isn’t simply documentation for future generations; it’s a way to regain some of the things infertility/loss robs all of us of.

The problem is, only so much of this is tolerated in this community. I’ll start this part by saying, once again, I greatly support sensitivity when talking about one’s pregnancy. But a lot of the time, that sensitivity is one-sided. For example, the second a blogger complains about severe pregnancy symptoms that leave them incapacitated, fears about their changing body/relationship, voices frustrations with being a new mother or (heaven forbid) mourns not being able to have more children (secondary infertility especially), they open themselves up for attack. The most recent example of this I witnessed first hand was with Mo, with members of this community attacking her simply because she was pregnant and they were notThe whole time, the ones who are attacking feel justified. After all, they know about infertility amnesia. And that’s what they assume they’re witnessing. Little do they understand that they are inflicting the same abuse that they are seeking refuge from.

The truth is, those who are unresolved (in the trenches, so to speak) are going to have a very hard time distinguishing between healing and infertility amnesia. I know I most certainly did. After all, you’re in survival mode and one rarely is at their most reasonable and rational when they are fighting for their family. But as a community, it’s time we stop assuming that no one is allowed to go through the healing process openly out of fear that those in the trenches will be hurt. It’s time we help those in the trenches see that they are not being abandoned. I spent 3 yrs battling infertility and living through loss and those dark days are still very much on my mind. But I also know that if there is no hope for healing and moving on, we might as well all give up on life now.

I’ll end by advocating something that I advocate with my students. Do I believe that those who have resolved have a responsibility to reach back and support those in the trenches? Absolutely. But, I also believe that those who are in the thick of their battle with infertility/loss need to be open to help. Or as I tell my students “help me help you.” It’s unrealistic to expect someone to continue offering support when their hands are being slapped away. And it is also unrealistic to assume that those offering support don’t have problems they are facing too. If we are going to change the way the world views infertility and loss, we need to embrace the healing process. We need to celebrate all forms of it, even if a particular road is one we would never go down ourselves. 


  1. I loved both Josey's post and this one. It took me a long time to recognize I was healing and not forgetting. With my first pregnancy that lead to my daughter, I never posted an ultrasound picture. I never posted a belly shot or did any of the pregnancy memes. I was too afraid to document anything just in case something happened and I lost the pregnancy.

    This time around, I've already broken one of my own rules and posted an ultrasound picture. It's a pic of my daughter looking at the screen and seeing her sibling for the first time. This was one of the most amazing moments in my life and I had to share it. It's still early and I could still lose this pregnancy, but for now I want to enjoy it. I took my first belly shot at 10 weeks. I have only one belly shot from my pregnancy with my daughter because I was too afraid. I have allowed myself to heal some and have embraced this pregnancy for all that it is right now: A very lucky outcome from a long line of treatments.

    Healing is a process....it takes time...here's to allowing ourselves to heal.

  2. This is a great post. I think everyone heals in their own time and own way. At 32 weeks pregnant, I'm still worried every time I go to the doctor that there won't be a heartbeat or I'm heading for pre-term labor. I hope that I can heal more fully of everything once the baby is here, but it's hard to say.

    I admit to becoming one of the people who posts just weekly updates on my blog. I have always been a journal-er in hard times only and have a really difficult time thinking of what to write when life is good. I keep up with the bumpdates because I want the baby to have the letters I write one day, to see what I was doing and thinking while pregnant with him. I'm not so sure I will continue to post after he arrives. I might change over to a family blog for distant relatives to look at. Or maybe I'll become the next Dooce;-)

    I also feel bad writing about the stuff that bothers me in pregnancy, since I am so grateful to be here and don't want others to feel bad. And definitely do not want to be attacked for writing about it. I also have seen commenters post that they had a hard time reading something and then the white knights of a blog attack that person, who was stating their opinion in a polite way, which I would never want to see happen on my blog. It's a hard community to exit out of, unfortunately, and also hard to stay in.

  3. I really love this post, and Josey's. I think it's important to heal and to grow. The most important thing I've heard about healing is that it's a non-linear process (kudos SRB) and that it happens in its own time. I realized that with my older daughter I was so panicked about losing her after she was born that I hesitated to celebrate anything in at least the first 6 months of her life, so now I'm doing weekly updates about the baby because I want to celebrate what I can. Life is short.

    In my experience, some of the infertility amnesia happens because healing can't happen for some reason. There's a couple in their early 70s I know who have one child, and the way she talks about her son, it's clear to me that there's more to the story than "we got started late" but since it was so taboo to talk about, she hasn't in 35+ years. I understand where that can happen. It makes me sad, but I understand it.

    I also feel like moving on from the pain is important and I'm glad there are little spaces where it's safe for me to do so. Thanks for making the effort at creating that space.

  4. What a well-written post - full of honesty and wisdom. You did an excellent job discussing a tough subject. I actually started my infertility blog when my daughter was about seven months old. So although I experienced 2 1/2 years of loss, waiting, failure, and despair before becoming pregnant with her, all of my posts are post-baby. We are now trying for our second child and I feel like I am CONSTANTLY considering other bloggers (especially the ones who don't have their kids yet) when I write about this journey through parenting/secondary infertility. I try to be really careful with people's feelings, but it's definitely possible to be too careful. Censoring ourselves is never good...for us or for the community. I sometimes find myself not wanting to present my situation as too good (because people might think I'm bragging) or too bad (because people might think "well, at least she has a kid! what's she complaining about?"). But I always go back to just being real and writing about what's on my heart. I respect my readers enough to give THEM the responsibility of clicking away (sometimes permanently) rather than muting my thoughts and feelings for "their sake." How patronizing that would be! So anyways, thanks again for this excellent post. For opening up a really important discussion and for helping us remember that healing is hard and complicated and sometimes kind of ugly...but crucial. I hope that this pregnancy has many moments of healing for you. I'll be following you from here on out.

  5. Wow, this has given me lots of food for thought. I like the distinction between healing and infertility amnesia. Thanks!

  6. Thanks for this lovely dual post from you and Josey. I really appreciated it in light of the last few months when I decided I didn't want to blog any more as I felt so irrelevant for the way I had decided to heal. Thank you.


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