By Heather Schultz
Some people like to keep their personal business to themselves. I am not one of those people. If you have had a conversation with me during the past few years, chances are you know that I am a woman who has struggled with secondary infertility. After one miscarriage in 2004, I gave birth to my now 7-year-old daughter Annie. One miscarriage is very common. I figured my body now knew what to do, as I’d had success getting pregnant and carrying a child. I was in no hurry to conceive again, enjoying the luxury of many hours of one-on-one time during Annie’s early years.
Annie turned 4 in 2009 while I trained for the Illinois half marathon. My husband Charles and I decided to try to conceive again after the race. One before 30, one before 35. That was my plan. Immediately after the race, I became pregnant for a third time. End of story? Our family complete? Not by a longshot. Had I known then what the next three and a half years would hold for me, perhaps I would have given up before I even began. I would eventually question whether my many losses and years-long struggle were worth the grief they caused me and those closest to me.
Roughly three years and a total of five miscarriages later, while dozens of friends and acquaintances so easily accomplished what for me seemed impossible or at least improbable, I shared publicly some of my feelings of anger, frustration, and pain. A handful of other women in my life approached me and shared their experiences of loss and longing. We cried and prayed for one another, we exchanged messages of frustration or encouragement. Some of them were not as open with others about their struggles. We all find our own ways of managing grief and frustration.
Last winter I had an awful realization as I shared a cup of tea with one of my more fertile friends, one of the few I’ve managed to maintain a close connection with throughout my ordeal. Anne is a great listener and incredibly sensitive soul. I can speak freely to her without editing myself. She hears me through my sometimes tangled mess of thoughts. She finds me acceptable, understandable, and reasonable even when no one could possibly reason with me. And she has always hoped and believed on my behalf that I would indeed somehow manage to bear another child, even when I did not share her optimism.
In the safety of that setting, in my hopeful friend’s gaze, over my steaming hot beverage, a terrible thought occurred to me: What if I get what I want? I had already discussed at length with my therapist whether I truly wanted to have another baby or whether I was simply in the habit of wanting. Over time it can be difficult to distinguish. For various logical and illogical reasons and with an extended view of my future, my daughter’s future, and my family’s future, I had concluded that yes, I did truly desire another child.
But I thought back to each and every time when I felt a jab of instant pain and jealousy upon seeing a pregnant woman walk into the room. I may not even know her, yet her success reminded me of my failures. I thought of all the conversations I’d had with my fertile friends as they shared their pregnancy news, letting them off the hook and assuring them of my support and happiness on their behalf in that unfortunate scenario in which the hurting person must reassure others: Let me make you more comfortable with my pain.
I thought of each Facebook post of sonogram photos or belly shots that made me say inside, “You suck!” And the nagging guilt on top of my sadness: How can you fault people for something so natural and necessary to life? I remember making that desperate plea to my fertile friends: Please don’t leave me in the dust! If the wanting and losing and waiting were not enough, add to it the self loathing and criticizing: Why can’t you be happy for everyone else? The truth is, I was not happy for everyone else. I wanted to be happy for them. I wanted to be happy, period. But much of the time, I was miserable.
What if I get what I want? For the first time that evening in the coffee shop, I began to consider what my successful pregnancy would mean to the women with whom I have shared in this struggle. And the thought of becoming a catalyst to their pain in the way that so many others had brought fresh my own left a sickening feeling in my gut. I thought of three women in particular for whom my happy news would create the same bitter angst upon which I’d been feasting all these months and years. I could not bear the thought.
Is it easier knowing I have done my time in the land of pain and loss? Would they forgive me two beautiful children if they knew there were five I will never know? In my mind, it was all about babies. But in speaking with my brother about this fresh concern- my fear of becoming a catalyst for others’ pain- he pointed out to me that there is more to life than babies. There is more to loss and pain than pregnancies. Still in the midst of my fertility drought, he assured me that I could already unknowingly be the cause of another person’s hurt. My healthy body. My lasting marriage. My beautiful daughter. My financially-stable lifestyle. My close-knit family. We all have something that someone else desperately wants. Second baby or not, I am likely already the catalyst for someone else’s pain, bitterness, or insecurity.
When my younger brother and his wife of four months announced at Christmas that they were expecting, my ability to accept and celebrate others’ success in the midst of my failures was fully tested. And at times, I fully failed. “We have been trying for twice as long as they have known each other! The ink isn’t even dry on their wedding thank-yous!” I ranted to my mother. “I cannot watch my new sister-in-law have a baby. I cannot do this.” But I had no choice. As I battled my bitterness, my mother said to me more than once, “You are not angry that Jess is pregnant. You are angry that you are not pregnant.” I failed to grasp the distinction.
What we experience as humans, the good, the bad, and the unbearable, we do not experience in a vacuum. Our lives are so intertwined that every experience we have, from great joy to abysmal despair, we see on the backdrop of everyone else’s circumstances. Yet how accurately do we interpret others’ experiences? How many times has someone said to me, whether about my miscarriages or my brother’s illness: I know exactly how you feel? And I’ve wanted to say, “You haven’t a freaking clue how I feel.” Even if their experiences were remotely similar to mine, which most times they were not, I was pretty sure no one could possibly know exactly how I felt unless they were me.
Must I own anyone else’s pain? Or can I simply claim my own, and then do my best not to make others’ worse? The truth is, we can never account for the heartache we cause one another through our words, actions, inactions, or simply our life’s circumstances. We cannot account for the many ways in which we inadvertently cause others pain. The best we can do is to claim our own pain, not placing blame or making comparisons and walk through life as compassionately as possible, giving others the space to react badly, choose distance, say the “wrong” things, and disappoint us.
Today I heard my baby’s heartbeat, saw her beautiful profile, watched him wiggle his arms and legs inside me. We are 10 weeks along, farther than any I have miscarried. He/she measures perfectly. I am beginning to believe that this season of infertility is at long last coming to an end. And I am considering how best to break my happy, devastating news to the handful of women it will hurt. Even as catalyst, I can exercise caution and care. I do not know exactly how they feel. But I have some idea. And I would do anything to help ease the relentless ache, to somehow help buoy them along toward the place of peace and fulfillment where each of us longs to safely land.
Heather Schultz grew up in northern Michigan and has lived in the Champaign-Urbana area for 14 years. Her passions include singing, kickboxing, and volunteering in the community. Heather lives in Savoy with her husband Charles and their 7-year-old daughter Annie. They are expecting their long-awaited second child in March.