My oldest son celebrates his birthday this week. His birthdays are always bittersweet for me. Yes, there is the bitter because he’s getting older (and I am, too) but I’ve made peace with that sentiment (at least for now). The bitter for me is still in how long and how hard it was to finally be able to celebrate his birthdays.
This birthday is a turning point of sorts. This year, my son turns five years old. Five years is how long I waited before he finally arrived – five years before I knew, for certain, whether I would be a mom.
Six years ago this week I laid next to my husband on a beach in Santa Cruz, and despite wanting to embrace the purpose of our visit – to relax, take a break from the four-year roller coaster of trying to get pregnant, have some fun, reconnect – all I could do was sob…uncontrolled, primal, heart-destroying sobs. We had just finished our first, brutal round of in vitro fertilization and found out that I was not pregnant.
In the midst of my grief, my thoughts kept turning to a woman I had met a couple of months earlier. I attended a dinner for work and was seated next to a stranger, the wife of a work associate. She looked to be a little older than me and had a smile that invited conversation. We chatted about small stuff and I quickly learned she was the mother of twins from whom she was happily enjoying a night away. She asked if I had any children and I gave her the answer I gave everyone who asked at that time in my life, “No, not yet.”
By that point in our quest to have a child, it really meant, “I desperately want children but can’t and I’m holding onto my last thread of hope that I will someday.” But I couldn’t really say that. I could hardly say that to my immediate family and closest friends, let alone a perfect stranger.
She went on to share that her twins were the result of multiple tries of in vitro fertilization. It was a personal revelation and one she shared in confidence, maybe somehow knowing it was very relevant to me. She related a familiar story of desperately wanting children with years of failing absent a clear reason why the usual medical interventions didn’t work. Her eyes became wet with tears. I was touched but a little baffled. I thought, “She has kids! She has a happy ending to the infertility story! Why is she on the verge of tears?” As I wrestled with this, she looked me in the eyes and said, “The heartache is unbearable, even now, and this was years ago. I hope you get to have children soon.”
It was obvious what she shared with me was not for public knowledge. She lowered her voice and spoke slowly, with measure, to make sure I heard her. I still wonder what it was about me that made her think she not only could tell me this private experience, but that she should. She had no way of knowing that my husband and I had our first appointment just that morning to begin the process of in vitro fertilization. After years of trying unsuccessfully to have a child and talking to countless doctors, trying various medical procedures, having surgery, receiving acupuncture, and taking up meditation, we were still childless – and heartbroken. She couldn’t have known that I spent most of my morning sobbing, cradled in the abyss of hopelessness and I knew the unbearable heartache she spoke of very well. Until this night at this dinner talking with this mom of twins, I had not found comfort in any other person’s words. Not my husband’s. Not my mother’s.Â Not my sister’s. Certainly not any of the doctors’.
But here she was. Her hope for me was genuine. Her sentiment was heartfelt and not condescending or patronizing. She didn’t give me false hope by saying, “Oh, I’m sure it will work out.” She didn’t insult me by telling me, “Just relax, it will happen.” Instead, she simply reflected the only thing I had left. Hope.
And so, laying next to my husband, sobbing on that Santa Cruz beach, I took a deep breath and realized that hope really was what I had and that it was what would get me through until I answered the question whether or not I would have children. I also realized that even if I were lucky enough to have a child, the pain of the experience, the perpetual, seemingly never-ending grief I felt each month when I realized – again – I wasn’t pregnant, would be something that became a part of me. I would always be willing to cry with a stranger over the heartache of not being able to have children (which I have done in the years since).
A little over a year after I laid on that beach in Santa Cruz, our oldest was born. The joy was endless, my gratitude immeasurable. But grief is a funny thing. It is triggered by memories and events and the passing of specific days on the calendar. So, while I celebrate my son’s fifth birthday, all of the amazing things he has brought to my life and the wonderful human being he is, I also give a nod of my head to the road I took to get here – grateful it is the road behind me.