December 31, 2009 Also published on iVillage:
By Kate Johnson
“There is a residue of experience in life that continues to shape us long after the actual experience has ended. We stretch and grow and learn a lot while living through it. Then we learn a little more after we’ve had some distance. We carry from such experiences indelible memories, and if it was a particularly bad experience there’s usually some unfinished business.”
So writes Pamela Mahoney Tsigdinos in her book Silent Sorority the story of her journey through infertility, and finally her coming to terms with childlessness. At 46, Pamela is two years older than me. Like me, she is coming to the end of her reproductive years, which for both of us were scarred by infertility treatments and failures.
I have never met Pamela, but she contacted me a few weeks ago and asked me to read her book. I doubt she knew my story.
Over my years of infertility I have honed my journalistic skills into an expertise in reproductive medicine – writing for both physicians and the public. But I rarely write about my personal battle. Pamela wanted my comments on her book – which I gave her. But I also took a risk and shared my story. It was a risk because, while my journey through infertility was very similar to Pamela’s – my road branched away from hers when I finally conceived. I am the mother of a 13-year-old girl – our one success in a string of failed treatments, both before, and again after she was born.
This huge difference weighed on my every word when I wrote to Pamela. “While I feel that I can relate to your history, and even to your present, I realize that this really can’t be so. So please, take what I have to say knowing that I know I am poorly qualified to say it,” I wrote. Poorly qualified, yes. But not unqualified.
I know that from her position, carrying the grief of involuntary childlessness, having her pain compared to that of someone who struck the jackpot and got pregnant must seem like a cruel joke. I get it. But yet, we do share much in common. While I am blessed with motherhood, and she is not, we both have broken dreams. As she writes, we had both “spun buoyant, cotton candy plans” for our futures – which included normal conceptions and several births. I got the one birth, for which I am eternally grateful, but my daughter’s conception was high-tech, expensive and painful. And for some of those who knew me back then, my angst-ridden quest for motherhood was so strange and foreign – they couldn’t relate.
Still, to this day, sitting in a room full of other mothers, I realize sometimes that I feel alone. I am a veteran of a war they never fought. I am an “infertile mother” – a strange concept, an oxymoron.
Pamela’s book was hard for me to read. It brought back a lot of the pain of infertility – the unfinished business that she writes about. Now, I am facing some of that unfinished business – the end of my reproductive potential – the end of pregnancy hope – just as a new milestone is reached in the world of infertility.
Last month the World Health Organization recognized infertility as a disease – a huge step forward for those of us who have experienced this ambiguous loss. As William Gibbons, MD, President of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine so aptly stated, “For too long those suffering from infertility have had their condition slighted or even ignored. Insurance companies don’t pay to treat it, governments don’t put adequate resources to study it and consequently patients suffer. We hope that this international recognition that infertility is, in fact, a disease will allow it to be treated like other diseases.”
Pamela’s book offers rare insight into what Dr. Gibbons describes – how infertility patients often feel slighted and ignored. They are the silent sorority – and fraternity – whose suffering is often very isolated because the fertile world cannot relate. Whether our personal journeys end with a child, or with childlessness, the fact that the war we fought has finally been recognized by society offers validation of our suffering.
Silent Sorority is a brave book and a gift to all infertile women, whatever stage of the journey they may be on. While it is mostly about Pamela’s struggle with infertility, the final chapter is about her settling with it. This is the chapter that brings me peace. “In a way, this book was your labor, and the last chapter was a birth – or rebirth,” I told her. Pamela also shares her thoughts on infertility on two blog sites: Coming2Terms and Barren Not Beaten