The Dreaded Holiday Question
The holidays aren’t easy when you’re struggling with infertility. Actually, it’s simpler than that. Family gatherings aren’t easy when you’re struggling with infertility. The holidays just amplify all of your insecurities and anxiety about struggling to conceive because you see so many people, some of whom you may only see during the holiday season.
Many people who haven’t experienced infertility assume that the biggest problem with family functions is the babies. Between my husband’s family and mine, we have seventeen aunts and uncles, so it’s almost inevitable that a baby will be present at any gathering. I’ve been fortunate enough to never get to an emotional place where I want to avoid babies. I love their squishy faces and fat legs. I adore snuggling them; I don’t remember ever saying no to the opportunity to hold one. Yes, they tugged at my heart strings. Yes, I felt a twinge of jealousy when I spoke to their parents. Yes, I wondered why I still wasn’t the one passing around a bundle of joy. Despite that, I still held the babies. The peace that comes with cradling a child was worth it.
If it’s not the babies, what is the problem with the holidays? It’s the Question. The inevitable Question that pops up when you’ve been with your partner for what your family deems “long enough.”
Picture this: your plate is full of delicious food. Your favorite aunt sits on your left and your significant other on your right. Everyone is talking, laughing, and enjoying the meal. Then someone, most likely well-meaning, brings up the fact that you haven’t had children yet. You laugh it off, smile weakly, or utter a lame response as you clutch your partner’s hand under the table and try to hide your pain. How many times does that or a similar scenario play out during the holiday season?
“When are you having kids?”
It’s the Question every infertile couple dreads. I especially love when it’s supplemented with something like, “You guys better get moving.” Ugh.
We decided to try to conceive about a year-and-a-half into our marriage. At first, I was excited and welcomed the Question. I would blush—I’m a chronic blusher—and tell people that we were trying. Then the months stretched into years. Two of our three sisters had children. The Question started to feel inevitable. After all, when you’ve got such a large family, someone is bound to say something.
When I think back to those family functions, it’s the A side—as I’ll call it—of the family that I remember asking the Question along with a wink, nudge or laugh. It was simple conversation on a holiday. Except it wasn’t. Each Question was a reminder that we should be conceiving, we should be having babies. Each Question brought feelings of sadness, anxiety, and isolation. When you’re in the middle of a family with children of all ages running around, your environment highlights the fact that your body or your partner’s body is not performing the way you want it to.
In 2014, we left my parents’ house the day after Christmas to drive back to Syracuse and meet with Dr. Kiltz. Did I tell anyone what we were doing while we celebrated the holidays? Nope. Looking back, I realize the main reason was being afraid of judgement. When they asked the Question, I thought they wouldn’t understand the truthful answer: we’re struggling so we’re getting help. Talk about an awkward conversation around the dinner table or next to the Christmas tree. My instincts told me they wouldn’t understand.
But the point really isn’t what my family thought or said. It’s that being infertile brings with it a whole set of hurdles. It’s unfortunate that one is the holidays, but, in our culture, marriage or long relationships naturally evolve to having children. Can you imagine being a woman one hundred years ago who struggled to conceive? What people must have said about her! What she must have thought about herself! At least we have the growing awareness of infertility as well as the expanding trend of not having children to help buffer curious minds. But still, especially in family situations, the Question remains.
I’ve had a lot of time to reflect back on those days when I dreaded the Question. In each situation, I wish I would have done one of two things. The first is to come clean, for lack of a better phrase. I wish I would’ve had the guts—or, more accurately, the confidence—to say, “I have PCOS, and we’re struggling to conceive. We’ve been trying for this many years; hopefully, it will happen soon since we’re going to do fertility treatments. Please keep us in your prayers.”
As simple as those words sound, I never found the courage to say anything like them, even with my favorite aunts and uncles, until after I was pregnant with our first son. At that point, I still only told a select few family members. That fear of judgement did not go away until our little miracle was almost a year old.
The other response is something I can only fantasize about. A part of me regrets not shoving the Question back down their throats. Although I consider myself a nice, fairly calm person, I wish I would have lost it, just once. I wish I would have told someone how much it hurts to see all the babies and not understand why I don’t have one. How much I love holding little ones, but it also makes me want to cry. How much the Question completely sucks, and that they shouldn’t assume I can easily conceive just because they have four kids and barely had to try. Or how about the fact that being married doesn’t mean that you have to have kids and why didn’t it ever occur to them that maybe we were trying and it wasn’t working. Oh man, that rant would have felt great.
Great for the moment, but awful for the long run. Because the other thing about family is that it doesn’t go away. And, no matter how satisfying it may have been to let those words fly, it wouldn’t be worth the broken bridges they might cause. The first option obviously would have been the smart one, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone. It was too much to explain or even express, especially because I wasn’t sure of the reaction. What if they had told me I was doing the wrong thing? What if they convinced me to stray from the course we had chosen? What if they judged me harshly and the bridge burned anyway?
So, instead, I laughed or smiled or shrugged. I specifically remember one incident. We were with a pregnant cousin. A well-meaning cousin, who I adore, asked the Question. My breath caught. I can still picture his smiling face. He didn’t mean anything by the Question; he was genuinely interested in the response, not realizing that we had been trying for four years. I don’t remember my response, but I do remember that moment. That deer-in-the-headlights feeling followed by a vanilla comment.
Maybe that’s the true issue with the holidays. When you’re struggling to conceive, you can feel the expectations even if the Question isn’t being asked. When you’re looking around and seeing growing families while yours stays the same size, you’re unsure how to tell anyone that you’re infertile, and you think you need or are using medical science to conceive. Maybe the issue really is that infertility, for some reason, is still taboo. The assumption is that you can conceive, that you just aren’t ready yet or are dragging your feet. It doesn’t cross people’s minds that maybe there’s something else there, something else going on that explains why you’re not holding that squishy baby.
Do I think you need to go out and declare your infertility to your entire family? No. What I am saying is that the Question is out there, and it will be asked. Do better than me. Come up with a response that works for you, even if you ask your partner to say it because you can’t. One of the worse things about infertility is the feeling of isolation and maybe, just maybe, this year’s holidays are the perfect time to get at least some of your family behind you.
If that’s not what you’re comfortable doing, at least prepare yourself for the inevitable. Figure out how you will answer the Question. Make a signal or decide on a word that tells your significant other that you need to be rescued from a conversation. Determine beforehand if you’re going to hold the offered baby. Don’t be afraid to say no and certainly take a moment to yourself, if you need it. After all, the holidays are a time to celebrate, and you need to keep yourself in a positive mindset as much as possible.
Most of all, don’t forget that one of the best parts of the holidays is the spirit of hope that they bring. Hope is the greatest emotion that you can embrace if you’re trying to conceive. Hope is what keeps us trying, is what makes up get up at 5 a.m. for a blood draw, is what makes us move forward with the next step in treatment. Hope is what keeps us going. Whatever you do, don’t lose hope, especially during the holidays.
By CNY Grad: Ashley