Wednesday, June 30, 2010

On Facing the Unknowable

Sometimes I think I spend so much time focusing on the wedding and on building healthy foundations to this wedding because it's all I can do. It's some sort of desperately inadequate insurance policy against our unknowable future. With any luck, we've got another 50+ years together in which we'll celebrate joys and face down terrifying emotional journeys together. We both know that life isn't easy. We've seen illness closeup and watched how it changes families and we know how it can strike suddenly and without mercy. I've seen other friends deal with mourning the loss of their parents, children and partners. We really never know. We hope, and marriage is part of that hope.

I worry sometimes that our marriage won't be strong enough to survive, if things ever get really bad. I already know we can handle bad, but it's the can't-even-mention-it-for-fear-of-stirring-the-devil Bad that I worry about in my darkest moments.  Although we're working so hard on the underpinnings of our relationship, even as we decorate it all in the trappings of white dresses and wedding flowers, I wonder how any relationship survives those sorts of Bad.  I have true and genuine faith in us and how our relationship is built on a foundation of shared values, shared religion/spirituality, shared politics, some shared activities, mutual respect, and a healthy sense of humor about the world. That foundation is absolutely critical, and its our only ballast against the horrors of the sort of soul-crushing Bad that stirs my secret unruly fears.

No one can ever see the future, and so we just stumble on, hopeful and ready to tackle problems as they arise. And 99% of the time, I'm happy to stumble forward, comforted my incredible faith in us. Faith is the only word for it. Faith - not in God, but in Us - is the only thing that that can usually keep that fear of the awful at bay. But, sometimes, the fear of the unmentionably dark Bad creeps in anyhow.  And right now, my fear is centering around babies. Not the fear of having babies, but the fear of being unable to have them, and what that years-long struggle can do to a couple.

As I was reading Offbeat Bride yesterday, Ariel linked to a post on her sister site Offbeat Mama that detailed her years-long challenge with infertility. By the end, I was an emotional wreck. I've had babies on the brain lately. My best friend since age five just had a baby. One of my closest friends from college just got pregnant. A blogland friend just announced her pregnancy. One of my colleagues is about to have his second baby. I'm filled with so much baby-related joy that I could burst, even if it hasn't pushed me to reconsider our three-years-from-now timetable. (Sorry, Mom.) But Ariel's discussion of her five painful years struggling against infertility was a glimpse into how the inability to have a baby can wreak havoc on a life and, I can only imagine, a marriage. It's the sort of Bad I worry about. It feels close and possible and like it's an all-too-real Bad that could snake into our lives and slowly poison love. It feels all the more real because we have friends who are going through this suffering right now, mixed in with the loss of multiple miscarriages. 

They, however, are my inspiration. I cannot begin to fathom their pain or understand their struggles over the last few years, but I've only watched them grow closer. I know they've been ripped apart - individually and as a couple - by their experiences. But I've also marveled at their strength and how their relationship has actually seemed to pull in tight around itself and survive. It's grown harder and less rosy-eyed, perhaps. Their love now carries fragments of their loss. But, somehow, it's remained whole and somehow became stronger where other couples have easily failed.

Their relationship is the reason I know marriage is about so much than just love, even as it's entirely rooted in the fierce love we have for each other. Because it has to be more than just emotion, and yet it needs to rely on something so primal and raw that it can hold us together is we ever need to face down the truly Bad. I need to believe we're one of those couples whose marriage will be forged into something stronger if we ever face down an unmentionable terror. We both have clear examples of this in our parents, but it's different, somehow, seeing it with the patina of age and distance from their initial troubles. With our friends and peers, their struggles are happening in real-time, just as we are preparing to promise our lives together. In sickness and in health. With bonds forged in legal, spiritual, and communal promises. It's terrifying. Marriage and love can't protect us from whatever there is to come, but I'm finding faith in the examples of our friends who have protected their marriage and love despite it all.

Regarding comments for this post - I really have no interest in fertility scare stories about age. It's not the point of this post and it only serves to create more stress on couples who have made their choices as they see fit, oftentimes with full knowledge about the correlation between age and fertility. And, to be clear, the two couples mentioned in this post started trying to conceive well before 30. My mother had me in her late 30s. These Bad things can happen to anyone, anywhere, and are not contingent upon age. And that's the point, more than anything about tips on conception or ideal age.


  1. Is that not the point. The future is unknowable. (Although that word does make me think of Rumsfeld!)

    However you will prevail because you care enough to fear the worst. You will continue to be strong and fight for each other.

    You make me want to be strong and must inspire so many others too.

  2. I am going to have to wait to read the Offbeat mama post until I am at home and can cry without having to explain myself to anyone. I have ahd babies on the mind for quite sometime but more lately I keep thinking 'what ifs'. like what if I don't get pregnant right away? what if i miscarry? what if i have issues with infertility? it seems like i'm "borrowing trouble" but like you said, thinsg can like can rock a life as well as a marriage. i am so glad to have a partner who i love but also someone who is such a good friend i can rely on if things don't go as we planned. very nice post. i hope the good baby news keeps coming our way.

  3. I read that post on Offbeat Mama too (pretty obvious I'm thinking about babies more since I even read that site at all). The process of becoming parents...or trying to, is such a huge undertaking that I wonder what kind of stresses it will but on a (my) marriage. It is one of those things that is so personal, and also something that we really have *no* clue about before we start working on it. You are right, love can't protect us, but hopefully it can help us get through it.

  4. Lately, I've been seeing more articles addressing infertility. They are saying that doctors haven't done a very good job of communicating how fast fertility drops. A recent study showed that it begins to drop at age 27 and that by age 30, fertility can decrease as much as 50 percent. Of course women still get pregnant after 30, but it takes longer to happen as the years go by . Since most women overestimate their fertile years, we see so much press about infertility now.

  5. @Sunny - your comment reminded me to add a disclaimer at the end of this post about the type of comments I have no interest in seeing. I'll nearly be 31 when I get married and it's not like I want to jump into babies the next moment. I can't turn back time and find my partner in my early 20s, nor would I have appreciated him then nor been financially prepared. Many of us have life paths that don't fit the standard kids timetable and we don't need guilt and stress because we chose to wait and find someone right for us at the right time for us. We are where we are, and we'll deal with the cards life dealt us. And, for the record, I know lot of women with healthy, happy, uncomplicated, quick-to-happen pregnancies in their 30s.

  6. Absolutely. There is no way I will be ready for children before 30. If that means I am to be without children then so be it. I would want to give all both financially and emotionally.

  7. I'm going to talk about age but not with regards to fertility and diminishing possibilities. Rather, I can tell you about my sister who married at 32 years old and wanted children immediately. So much so, that within a month of returning from the honeymoon, they were pregnant. And then within the first year of having that baby, she was wanting to get pregnant again. They started trying and she was bawling almost weekly because they had been trying for 3 or 4 months and nothing was happening. 3 or 4 months! That was it! I love my sister dearly but she was driving me crazy! I mean, like this post, some couples try for years. She put so much pressure and doubt on herself. She wanted to have children right away mostly because she didn't want to wait until her late 30's to have kids...she already felt 'older' at 32. So silly. Nowadays, women are having babies at 40 years old! There is no rush to get married and have kids right out of high school anymore.

    I got pregnant (out of wedlock) at 22 years old) and didn't get married until 2 months ago at 37. I never would have wanted to marry my daughter's father just for the sake of what seemed right or seemed like what I wanted on my fairy tale timeline of my life and the ages at which I would hit key milestones.

    I work with young 20 something women in a bible study and I hear them talk about wanting to get married so badly. And now 4 of them are married. But none of them wants children right away. And I tell them to wait...enjoy your marriage, enjoy your life. Whatever is meant to be will be.

    I don't want to come across as insensitive to a women's innate desire to breed, but I have had friends who struggle with infertility and I tell them the same thing. "I know how much you want a child of your own, but there are so many precious children in this world already born who need loving families. If your own pregnancy never comes about, then perhaps it is a sign that you can look into adoption or fostercare." Two of my aunts were taken in by my grandmother as infants and raised as her own and as siblings to my mother and her brother and sister. I never look at them as anything but our family and my aunts...I can't imagine what would have happened to them had my grandmother not taken them in as one of them had a mother who was a prostitute and the other had a mother who had extreme mental disorders.

    The world is a scary place full of unknowns, but as loving women, we can make the unknown fears of unwanted children become real loving familial homes.

  8. Obviously I don't RECOMMEND this path, but when my sister got married last summer I feel like there were never any doubts regarding "can we handle the shit of the world together?" because her relationship with her now-husband survived our parents dying and her taking in our teenage brother as a ward. So I think they have a safe bet of their relationship surviving pretty much anything short of a zombie apocalypse.

    I think the way this relates to people who hopefully haven't had that kind of experience is, as much of a cliche as it is, you're stronger than you know. And given everything you've written in this post and in others, I'm firmly convinced that in your marriage you will pull strength from each other.

  9. I'm going to buck the trend and not talk about fertility at all. This is just one of many things out there that could undermine a marriage.

    There are no guarantees with marriage, but there are things you can know and do from the start to limit the risks.

    I am currently searching for marriage classes. Not pre-marital counseling or therapy, but classes (of the non-religious sort, that is). I firmly believe that you can learn how to listen to one another, how to speak to one another, how to read one another's cues, and how to make sure you are meeting your partner's needs and vice versa. In my book, a couple can handle anything as long as they stand strong together. It is when they go off and hide in their separate corners and stop listening that seeds of doubt creep in.

    I'm not saying that it's easy to deal with infertility, job loss, a sick child, a sick parent, or any of the other myriad disasters life can throw at you, but you can grow closer if you are able to reach out to one another in times of need instead of recoiling.

    In planning the wedding, as long as you remember to plan for the marriage, you'll be equipped to weather the storms.

  10. It's so hard to address, because how do we even know what we can handle, on our own, until we face it? All you can do is continue to build a strong foundation and to have faith that you'll both be able to fall back on it in a crisis.

    And definitely take heart from the couples who become stronger after being tested by fire. I'm pretty sure that what pushed me over the edge into knowing I was ready for marriage was a night where D shared a twin sized hospital bed with not just me but also my mom, taking turns all night getting up to take care of my stepdad. It was a hideous year for our family, but D and I learned so much about each other and we emerged battered and more committed than before.

  11. Wow. Tough stuff. Thanks for pointing us to Offbeat Mama - Ariel's story is amazing. I've been thinking about this stuff alot, as friends who got married around the same time as us pop out babies left and right. I don't know whether it's in the cards for us or not... But right when I got really angsty about the Unknown Future, I found out that a dear friend, just a couple years older than me, a healthy-living athlete with two small boys, had a recurrence of cancer (in her brain this time!), and the prognosis was not good. Suddenly, I began dealing with the Known Present: how can I support my friend and her family, and treasure her friendship for as long as I can have it?, rather than the Unknown Future. On the scale of Bad, I would say this is up there, and I have absolutely no idea how she and her husband can face down this monster everyday. But they do. And that gives me so much courage.

  12. Kids will happen when and if it's meant to happen, is my motto. I've had friends struggle with infertility in their 20s and others get pregnant on their first try at 34. You can't predict how things will turn out. You can choose how you meet whatever comes your way. This has been the Big Conversation for us over the course of our engagement. What do we choose when things get really shitty? We can sit and wallow in it and whine about how it smells, we can throw it at each other cause we're pissed, we can high tail it out of there and leave the other one to clean up the mess, or we can wash up and keep moving forward together. The latter is the hardest, of course, but your writing this tells me that you and Jason are at least aware that Bad Stuff happens and that's always the first step towards making sure you're prepared to do the work when it does.

  13. I reacted to this along the lines of Sarah...I'm not so freaked out about the future and the babies, but just the future in general. The fact that you can't ever really know, and as much faith as I have today, at this moment, in our relationship and foundation - I don't think anyone can say/predict what happens in 5, 14, 21 years down the road. I don't think that overwhelming percentage of divorced people thought that they would be in that demographic as they walked down the aisle.

    With all of that said, and the fact that I constantly comment that I'm expecting at least 50 years minimum out of this (!), we have made a conscious effort to touch base every few months on our goals, priorities, our feelings about the big stuff - we're pretty much constantly talking about all of these kinds of things already, but I think if we get in the habit now of always making sure we have a sit-down, open conversation about things several times a year, it'll help when we're married 6 years and 11 years, and not in that we're planning a wedding/marriage so we're talking about everything stage.

    And on the baby thing - my mom was 41 when she had me, and I know people in their 20s who had problems. It's just one more piece of our unpredictable lives...

  14. My mom had me and my sister at 36 and 38, respectively... after several years of trying and one miscarriage. My great grandmother had my grandmother at 45 (the last of nine children, so they certainly weren't TRYING).

    Like KC, my philosophy is that kids arrive if and when they're goddamned ready. And if they don't come on their own, there's lots already born that need homes...

  15. Paragraphs 1 and 2 are so true. I think we throw ourselves into wedding planning and get so caught up in the "MUST make it PERFECT" stress because we're hoping it will make our marriage better. The future can be really scary!

  16. Faith is a scary thing at times. I struggled with these same kind of thoughts so much in the lead up to our wedding. You can never really know - which is why it is scary - but I figure you have to find the one that makes the possibility of the scary things happening worth the risk.

    We have babies on the brain at the moment too. Our best friends had a baby two weeks ago and everyone keeps asking you when you're newlyweds. We hope to have children, but sometimes I get that niggling thought too - what if we can't? We've talked about it and think we'll adopt if for some reason we can't have our own babies.

    Glad to know other people think these same things!

  17. I've had this on my mind, too - but not regarding infertility. One of my cousin's children (age 2-1/2) was just diagnosed with cancer and while they (and we) are hoping for something miraculous, the odds aren't good.

    And I was wondering: how on earth can you prepare a marriage for that? (let alone mentally handle that kind of news). I mean, as far as I know, my cousin and her husband are all right, but I have heard many stories about marriages breaking up over the death of a child -- and I'm not surprised. That's some really tough stuff to weather.

    But I guess... as my therapist once told me, when I confessed my fears about the rest of my family dying (after losing my dad so suddenly), you are stronger than you know. But you can't really prepare for worst-case-scenario emotions or know the depth of that strength until it's needed.

    As a side note, is it terrible to confess that I sometimes wish I had this "baby fever" so many women speak of? It's such a foreign emotion to me, even at 28 yrs old. I keep wondering if that will ever change? It kind of irks me how ambivalent I feel about parenthood... I think we'd both be fine with opting out, but then everyone once in a while, I wonder if we'd ever regret that? But no one can really answer this. sigh.

  18. doctors thought i wouldn't be able to conceive. i painfully wanted a baby (in 3-5 years- whoops) but never dreamed i'd be able to have my own. as a result, miscarriage is very much in the forefront of my mind. (and the baby is accompanied by much guilt- i'm always afraid to gush to anyone for fear that they've dealt with miscarriage, infertility or abortion and will be pained by my joy)

    before the wedding, i would call josh with the most bizarre questions. "what happens if i can't have babies?" was one, yes. but others included, "what happens if my dad dies in a car accident and my mom is severely injured and needs to move in with us?" and "what are we going to do if one of us gets a terminal illness?" and "what happens if something tragic happens to my lower extremities and i can no longer have sex?"

    i may have an issue with worrying.

    that aside, in discussing our plans for these situations (which believe it or not, was actually reassuring) i realized that these very situations were the reason i was marrying josh.

    when shit hits the fan- as it does for everyone- i'll be able to face it better because josh is there. i knew that about him, as a person, and as a part of my life.

    they say the truly traumatic stuff (loss of a child, for example) either divides couples, or drives them closer. we're determined to be the driven-closer ones. and i imagine it's like anything else in life. you can be personally defeated, or personally determined to overcome.

  19. @A Los Angeles Love,

    My comment was not intended to make you feel guilty. You chose to take it that way.

    I thought it was interesting because so few women know.

  20. @ sunny- i'm not sure LA responded defensively. i believe she was just making it clear that she is disinterested in statistics that may or may not support her own decisions. (and simultaneously, have little to do with a post focused on traumatic life events- not the ages of fertile women)

  21. Elizabeth, I think her words "we don't need the guilt and stress" are completely defensive. How would you feel to be told you were adding guilt and stress?

    I did not give a lecture on how anyone should choose. I only mentioned that this subject has been coming up lately in the news because doctors have done a poor job with the facts. Sheesh.

  22. @Sunny - I've been hearing this information for the last ten years. It's not new and it's definitely used by many (not all) people as a guilt tactic to tell women to just settle down and have babies already (because that's every woman's epitome in life, obviously), when life is rarely that easy. I'm not saying that's how you meant it, and you may have come across this information more recently yourself, but these reports come out every year with a big to-do and definite undertones of, "Wimmins are too independent! Stop with the careers and pickiness and just get knocked up already with someone." And the "too picky" is a big part of it, which my girlfriends and I heard alot, as if we should just settle for adequate instead of right, in order to hit the ideal conception age. As if our happiness didn't matter and we were just baby makers.

    And yes, as for the post, the question of babies was really just an example of the sorts of fears I worry about. And it's one of the foremost in my mind right now as our mid-twenty-something friends struggle with miscarriage and alternatives now.

  23. Hi there Sunny,

    How would you feel to be told you were adding guilt and stress?

    I would feel bad. And then I would apologise for unknowingly causing guilt and stress, say I commented with only the best of intentions, and indicate that I would be more careful in the future.

    Did you know that LA Love is in her thirties? If so, not cool. But if you're a regular reader, then maybe you didn't know...

    It's a bit like if you commented on the blog of a black single mom, linking to an article about the barriers and predjudices her children will likely face.

    A) These kinds of articles have a fear-mongering tone I, for one, don't much care for. (As a teen, I read an article in a teen magazine that basically told me if I didn't eat a banana a day, I'd be puting my future children at risk for horrible deformities. Nice.)
    B) People can't change their age, race, relationship status, economic situation, etc. And if they could have made a change (e.g. had kids younger, married rich, stayed with an abusive partner for the sake of the kids), they probably have a very good reason for not doing so.
    C) Statistics don't tell the whole story. Individual situations (e.g. family history, health, educational background, support network) are much more important, IMHO.

    I do believe that you made your original comment with the purest intions... to information-share, not fear-monger, as it were. And I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you didn't know LA Love was in her thirties.

    But please do understand that she has reasonable, valid reasons for not wanting to read scare stories about age and infertility. Which she outlines in her comment above very, very well.

  24. This post is right on track with things I've been thinking about lately... Last night I was watching True Life (love me some MTV... jk) and it was an episode involving couples with trust issues. One of the couples couldn't communicate well, so the boyfriend was shutting his girlfriend out... or something along those lines (it was late and I caught it halfway through). Anyways! They went to counseling and by the end of the show were looking at apts to move in together. Then there were the white-font-on-black-background updates on where the couple is now. This one said, "One month later, [the boyfriend] died from an undiagnosed hernia in his stomach."

    Like... WHAT?! Just another example of what could be out there in the Unknown waiting for anyone. Gotta live for today.

    P.S. Sorry if this post is kind of all over the place. Me + red eye flight = very little sense.

  25. I had my first and only child at 43, prompted by the many friends my age who had gone through horrific troubles with infertility. I never endured any sorts of treatment, just stopped using birth control and after almost a year turned up pregnant. I had the world's easiest pregnancy and birth, and just now am preparing to move our now-18-year-old child to UC Berkeley, so not to worry about putting off chidbearing!


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