Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Life Under The Microscope

As most/all of you probably know from my wife's blog, she just recently got trolled by some grotty little specimen who thought it'd be funny to say things like "dead babies are funny" and "haha you killed your kids" and linked to a childfree forum in as well. Honestly, I'm surprised it took this long, and like I told S., "forget it, Jake - it's the Internet."

But still, they said something mean to my sweetie, so I went to this childfree forum to see if I could detective up anything, see if this chucklehead bragged about it or if they had a devoted section to trolling mom blogs or dead baby blogs. Came up empty on both counts, which was a little reassuring, but I was a little surprised to see the amount of sheer vitriol these folks had for people with kids. Oh, sure, much of it was focused on wholehearted participants in the cult of mommy, the sort of people that years of infertility and child loss have made pretty hateable to me. But so much time and energy devoted to being angry at people, even people at whom I'd be angry, sort of baffles me. 

It makes my own identity more complicated. There's a decent chance that S. and I will never have kids at all, and a better-than-decent chance that biological children are already off the table. So who would we be then? "Childless?" That's, like, one house down from "barren," with all of those pitying connotations. "Childfree?" That make it sounds like you had a bad case of children, and are now child-free. Maybe we're just us, and if anyone asks, we'll just say we don't have kids. If they're gauche enough to push, I will tell them, and they will regret it.

I'm not childfree in that forums' sense. They revel in it and the contempt for people who have had children is palpable. I understand where that vitriol comes from, but it's not me. It will never be me. But part of the reason it's out there is because there's nothing between childless and childfree. Either you can't have them or you think they're disgusting. And you can't not be either. People ask. People always ask. And always judge.

So fine. Pull out the microscope and look at me. The first thing you'll see is a middle finger.

Worth It For The Story

A few weeks ago, I was listening to a talk on counterfactual seeking - our tendency to look for alternatives to outcomes. We're wired as thinking creatures to make meaning, to place our life events in context, to think how things could have been worse in order to make ourselves feel better. "What if" can help keep us sane, as I've told classrooms full of college students.

All throughout the talk, I kept thinking of the next line of my lecture...

"But what if the worst did happen?"

I've been reading a series of graphic novels lately called The Unwritten. If you like Neil Gaiman's stuff, Bill Willingham's Fables, etc., I'd suggest checking it out. In short, it's about the relationship between the world and stories. The protagonist is a story made flesh, at war with shadowy men who control the narrative of the world. Stories frame our worldview, we tell ourselves stories to understand the things that happen to us, the world is made out of stories. Imagine a thought that you could not communicate with language. Try to recount something without narrative. As my wife is fond of saying, "to read the world, you must read the word; to read the word you must read the world."

To understand the death of my sons, I have talked and talked and talked. I have written and I have talked and I have written and I have written. It is part of me now. And I think one of things that has kept me sane in the absence of "what if" is internalizing that story in the context of a much larger one.

Whenever I teach a class on child development (that it's not my area of expertise is doubly hilarious), I bring up my experience when I give the lecture on birth (including miscarriage and stillbirth and ART). I don't give them the whole story, just enough. It is one version of the story. I rehearse the different levels of detail, different types of explanation for different groups of people, the ways I can artfully dodge the ugly details. Who gets to know what when.

My grad school advisor once said to me: "All we have are our words." All I have are my words.

I was talking to S. about this today after a very nice, sunlit lunch out together. About passion for academic subjects and where it went after the boys died. I came back from the break, from the deaths, to my major project for the semester - my doctoral dissertation. How the fuck was I going to give even a fraction of a shit about dual-process models and the merits of an associative/propositional approach over a systems of reasoning approach? How? No fucking idea. It seemed ludicrous on the face of it. I just put my head down, did the stuff I could do, and over time, I began to tell myself that I had to have a life beyond the loss, beyond the deaths, and that something was going to need to occupy it. What was going to occupy it was my curiosity about how people think and act, and my conviction that education is important.  I never said it out loud until today. The words made it real.

It's been going on 3 years now that I've lost my sons. Those days right after are both a distant memory and viscerally present, sitting on the couch, wrapped up in soft, comfortable clothing, staring at the TV and not seeing anything. I can be around children now, it's not so raw. I am not so angry all of the time anymore. They are a part of my story and always will be, but I'm still here and they aren't. There's still a lot to tell.

Every now and then I'll find myself in some improbable situation - the time my flight had to make a refueling stop at my final destination because we'd been stuck in a holding pattern over my connecting airport, or the time I got stuck in quicksand in the middle of my small college town - and every time, I say "this is worth it for the story alone." I would hate to live a life without funny, interesting, moving stories. Every story adds to life, even the tragic ones.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Welcome To Fight Club.

Fight Club might have had a point.

Not the obvious one - that underground bare-knuckle fighting is awesome - because that's retarded machismo.

But the idea that you can't know yourself unless you've been in a fight? There might be something there.

Getting beaten is a direct, specific experience. It isn't another thing, it is what it is.  It is the most basic form of an intensely personal crisis. There's something about the implacability of it - whether or not you want to be, you are getting hurt. Losing the boys was happening, whether we wanted it to or not. It had its own momentum, and we were caught in its center. Begging for it stop would do nothing. So, as a man, I had to stand up in the middle of it. Like a beating, I had to withstand it. This is the lesson we learn from childhood - that we have to learn to take it, to push through crisis and chaos and grief and continue to function. To man up.

At one point in the film, Tyler Durden gives the narrator a chemical burn and prevents him from doing anything but experience it. No going to a serene place, no blocking it out, no mediation. Feel the agony. Be present as you are hurt by something you cannot stop. Think through it. It is an unstoppable force, and in everything - communicating with doctors, calling family and friends, taking care of S., paying attention, weighing costs and benefits, pros and cons, probabilities, having to think even as I could do nothing but scream inside - I had to become an immovable object.

And now, in many things, I continue to be immovable. As bad as it was, never say it couldn't get worse. But the stakes were higher than anything that came before. Life and death, and decisions, and raw suffering I couldn't avoid. It's hard to get really upset or anxious or freaked out about little things anymore. I've seen an abyss. The cold, unblinking eye of circumstance. I don't get as anxious as easily as I used to. I was called upon to do what men are expected to do, and I did it. I grew up that day. Ironically, it was the loss of my sons that made me the sort of man truly suitable to be a father.

I became a man. Like Richard Pryor said, you aren't a man until you've had your damn heart broken. I had my heart broken. This is what it means to be a man who suffers this loss. Toughen up. Withstand it.  This is the moment that defines you and puts everything into perspective. You are in this, you have to be here and still be clearheaded enough to make one of the worst decisions of your life. And for us, that's where our story ends. We go back to work, we continue with life. We soldier on.

The first rule is you don't talk about it.

The second rule is you don't talk about it.

If this is your first night, you have to fight.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


My dreams are full of dread.

This is the earliest I've been up on a Sunday in some time, and it's because despite the comfortable bed, the snoozing dog, the proximity of S, and the decongestant/cough suppressant that I take to reduce my snoring (mostly the cough suppressant part because that shit knocks me out), my eyes snapped open. I don't remember my dreams very well - I think last night there was something about the ghosts of some cult members, possession, and the importance of bell-shaped objects, all taking place in what I think was supposed to be a brand-new Apple Store - and although many of the dream's features would normally push it over into nightmare territory for me, I was just left with the same lingering sense of unease that I'm also getting from my more innocuous dreams lately. Not really sure what's that about.

It might be my medication. I'm on what seems to be a pretty optimal combination of happy pills, and my waking life is on a pretty even keel right now. I've also had some pretty nice experiences lately, just affirming, validating things, and that helps too. S. is doing a lot better, and that helps quite a bit. She's still grappling with a lot of issues, but she's actually dealing with them. It's hard sometimes, and it's painful, but she seems less stuck than she used to.  She laughs and smiles more. I see more of the woman I love every day, and it's good. Besides the fertility drugs, we also took all of the maternity clothes and books on motherhood we'd stashed in my home office after we lost the boys and donated them to a community resource center, a place that exists to provide the needy with necessities for free. A hand up. Even though it's tough to remember it in our pain, there are young women out there who are pregnant and are going to have a healthy child even though they aren't ready, and I have to know, even if I can't actually empathize with them, that that is fucking terrifying. Getting rid of that stuff made me feel lighter, less burdened somehow.

I'm still pretty angry, but it's at a narrower range of people. I'm at the point now where I wish Discovery Health would just subdivide itself into Discovery Gruesome Medical Stuff and Discovery Holy Shit Babies Everywhere so I could just avoid all of the pregnancy shows altogether and focus on the gross E.R. and autopsy shows. I've always had an easier time dealing with the wreckage of injury than the miracle of birth on a visceral (ha-ha) level - even before we were trying, we used to watch the show "Maternity Ward" (back when a healthy, typical person having one baby was considered interesting enough for TV), and the births always looked like bad monster effects to me - rubbery-looking babies covered in slime squicked me out way more than a guy whose legs were pointed at impossible angles.

So if I was grossed out before, I'm ruined for it now. Even above and beyond shows like "Paralyzed Dwarf With Autistic Quadruplets" or "I'm Not Middle-Class And White, And Yet I'm Pregnant" or "Is The Next Baby Going To Actually Kill Michelle Duggar And What Does This Say About Our Value System", the whole miracle of birth thing is ruined for me. My only experience of it is a dark, horrible parody, a nightmare-dimension version of blood and screaming and sharp, expressionistic shadows and fading in and out of consciousness. I think I know why I'm so fascinated with horror movies now - half the most useful tropes of the last forty years were there in that delivery room. That's where my trauma lives.

But I was talking about anger. I think finally being able to articulate my biggest gripe with modern parenting in the U.S. has helped some of the free-floating rage. Just being able to express that it seems like there's something about parenting that makes some people develop a blind spot for civil behavior around their kids - as if being a parent gives you license to be ignorant, irrational, rude and shitty about issues around parenting, and makes some people consumed with the most trivial shit all of a sudden - seems to have made that easier to deal with. Some of the stuff I say to the TV would still turn most people's hair white, but fuck'em.

I still don't know what the dread means, though. Maybe it's because S. is doing much better - the last time she was doing well (which was when we still thought we had a chance at having our own kids biologically), I started feeling my own grief more because I wasn't looking over her. That might be it, it's like an ache. Dull, diffuse, but still an ache. The throb of an old wound or injury when the weather turns. I'll live, I'll be happy, but this may be my legacy - the quiet ache when I see fathers holding their children, living alongside them. Whether this is okay with me or not is immaterial - it just is, whether I want it to be or not. I think we'll be okay. We'll probably never be whole, but we'll be okay.

The sun is out, and the sky is a cloudless blue. It's a quiet Sunday morning, and the cats are asleep on the couch, S. and the dog are sleeping upstairs. I'm glad for this moment, and I'm glad that I have what I have. If my dreams have to be laced with quiet dread, that's okay. Because at least right now, the world when I am awake is not.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Meaning of Just

adjective - guided by truth, reason, justice, and fairness.
adverb -  only or merely.
The word "just" keeps coming up.

It was one of those words that grated against us as we were trying to conceive. 

"Just relax...it'll happen!" 

"Just stop trying...you'll get pregnant in no time!"

"Just put your trust in the Lord and it will be fine."

"Just." As if it is simple, as if it is effortless. The easiest thing in the world for others.
It has been a struggle for us since day one. And it has not been a mystery for us. We know why we can't have kids.  Coming by this knowledge wasn't simple or effortless either. Lots and lots of tests. Operations. Meds. "Speculation" shares a root with "speculum."

Nothing about this process at any point could be described as "just" doing anything.

And there is the other meaning of the word.

If nothing about this process has been simple, then even less has been fair.

I used to pay lip service to the idea that the world is cold and arbitrary, that any meaning in it is the meaning we impose upon it. I thought I believed it. But being unable to conceive and losing the children we were able to have, and watching that tragedy burn a swath through my life...

I used to believe it, but now I know it.  There is nothing just about what happened to us.

Maybe I'm surrendering. Not to the despair, but to the idea that struggle is not enough. Ironic, since the idea that hard work isn't enough is something I've had to explain to my students over and over again. Finally learning my own lesson, I guess. So I've internalized it, this idea that just wanting it and working hard for it is no guarantee. I've surrendered to the idea that the world does not care about my problems. People do, but the world at large does not. The world moves on whether I grieve or not. And it is not going to wait for me. 

S has been struggling a lot with the sheer unfairness of all of this. So much effort, so much money, time, life lost to it, all for something other people can even do by accident. There's even a TV show, "I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant." Struggling with the cold, hard slap of the world. A world that moves on, that does not wait, that watches our grief with a lightless, unblinking eye.

A world that just is, and is not just.

Saturday, August 14, 2010


S and I took a big step today. We got out of bed (before noon - that would have been a big step two years ago), did some housecleaning, and then did some more housecleaning.

Specifically, we gathered up all of the leftover drugs and medical paraphernalia from our fertility treatments so we could get rid of it. Deep breath, the thing hanging over our head as we ate lunch. Want to do it but don't want to do it. Hurts facing it but hurts to have it looming over our heads. Little reminders in every corner of the house. Time to get rid of it.

So we went through every room, pulled together all of the various and sundry bags of medication bought and donated to the cause. Found all the sharps containers (including the one we kept in the liquor cabinet along with the Ativan - our one-stop vice cabinet, it was - and gathered everything together on the living room floor. Where we sat, sorting. This has expired, this hasn't, these are still usable, these aren't. Box up the stuff that's still good, gather the containers, separate regular garbage from garbage with expired drugs in it (probably not a good idea to pour hormones and blood thinners into the water supply) and go, go throw it away, get rid of it.

For S it felt like another failure. Years of trying, hope, and heartbreak, reduced to a few boxes and plastic bags.

For me, it felt like something between the removal of a tumor and an exorcism. Something offending yanked and tugged out. The hole is open and raw, but fresh air is getting in.

The day is gray like slate, hot and humid. An oppressive day, not a day for joy.  It's quiet. We've indulged in some comfort food - potato chips for her, beer for me, ice cream for us both.  As we pick it out, my mind returns to the days after we lost the boys, the thought "why am I buying junk food? Fuck you, dead babies." That was the mantra, the war cry after the boys died. "Fuck you, dead babies."

I'm thinking more in terms of war with regard to our experience lately. In a recent post I referred to people who haven't struggled with child loss and/or infertility as "civilians." And today, as we were disposing of the expired drugs, I thought of all of the vials crushed, and it reminded me of some dialogue from The Wire, a/k/a "one of the best pieces of television ever created and probably the best cop show of all time"...

Detective Leandor Sydnor is preparing to go undercover to do drug buys. He and the other officers solicit the opinion of one of their informants, a longtime addict nicknamed "Bubbles." Bubbles comments on the relatively clean soles of Sydnor's shoes...
"You walking down them alleys of the projects...
you stepping on the dead soldiers."  

"Dead soldiers?" 
"Yeah, empty vials. You can't walk down a Baltimore street without them cracking underneath your feet. You want to know if a fiend is for real...check the bottom of his shoes."
So I'm thinking about all the dead soldiers. All the vials, all the needles. The ruin left in the wake of all our attempts. Every war has casualties, every military operation (huh, "operation") does collateral damage. The veterans who return (and it occurs to me that S used to read a forum for people doing IVF called "the veterans board") have memories they won't share with anyone else - the blood, the screaming, the loss. One minute they're alive, the next they're dead.  You make life and death decisions, and the deaths happen in front of you and there's nothing you can do but keep them from suffering. We make horrible jokes, cruel jokes, and find it hard to be sympathetic or sensitive to the problems of others.

We have come home from a war, but we brought the war with us.

An old joke:
Q: Why did the Vietnam veteran cross the road?
A: You wouldn't know, man! You weren't there!
I don't know that it's a hard and fast line, but in my head I've divided up our friends into "the ones who get it" and "the ones who don't get it." They're all still my friends, but some...know. They've had their own losses or their own struggles conceiving, or they were there for us when it happened. They get it. Others don't, and I don't tell them stuff, it's not for them to know. Just like fathers and grandfathers don't like to talk about what they did in the war. I still love them, I still enjoy their company, and our loss doesn't define me, but there are some places in my head and heart that are mine and mine alone.

Maybe the anger is my desire to survive, to keep this from winning, as it were. To try and rise above the trauma and live well. Today felt like a step in that direction.  Coming home from the wars.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Bliss, Ignorance, and Myth

So let's talk about privilege.

It's one of the trickier things I have to teach - trying to get across the idea that privilege (in a social sense) doesn't mean getting extra favors or benefits. It means that the social system actually works for you the way it ostensibly works for everybody. Social privilege is a very subtle thing for the recipient, an invisible pair of hands opening doors, smoothing the path, cushioning you when you fall. It's a very different view from the outside, where those invisible hands are at best absent, at worst giving you the finger or punching you in the face every day.

S and I both deal with the idea of privilege in our respective fields - white privilege, class privilege, male privilege, the multiple ways groups of people go through life without being aware of what awaits on the other side of the wall.

So I'm beginning to think in terms of fertile privilege.

Babies are everywhere. Not only are babies everywhere, but everywhere you go they are celebrated. Which is understandable, because making more little versions of us is pretty much Job One of any species. Babies are assumed - if you're an adult, you're going to have kids. It's just a matter of time. Don't want them? You'll change your mind. Having trouble having them? Just relax - it'll happen when you least expect it. Babies are defended - I have seen otherwise rational people make ridiculous decisions around their children and justify it as "mothers' intuition" or knowing better than any expert what their child needs. Sometimes I feel like there's something around the act of conception and parenthood that makes it easy to be thoughtless and rude, because children trump pretty much everything else. I'm not saying they shouldn't, but as someone who has been denied this privilege, I feel like I'm becoming more and more aware of the blind spot many people have around our situation.

I recognize that S and I are in a unique place - infertility, child loss, secondary infertility. We're the triple threat. Our chances aren't good, but the only people who really seem to get that are the people who have been down that road. The incomprehension and discomfort that surround any awareness of our struggle or our loss are palpable. It's like infertility and child loss are catching. We might infect other mothers with our dead baby germs. We're walking reminders of the one thing they're trying to forget - that children die, and something can always go wrong.

It's an uncomfortable truth. We don't have the luxury of denying it, but others do. If you've been raised to believe that you can have a child whenever you're ready and it will happen pretty much right away, and it will be beautiful and perfect and it will be hard but it will all be worth it in the end, then dealing with the idea that it might be a struggle to conceive, it might take years, there will be risks, there might be death, and the whole process might leave you permanently changed, even cost you your marriage and friends and job, and you can still have nothing to show for it in the end? Yeah, that's not happening.

We all know the cliches: "God has a plan." "Everything happens for a reason." "It will happen for you someday." They're meant to be comforting to us (even though they aren't), but they're also comforting for them.

Alongside the idea of privilege, I also teach the idea of the legitimizing myth - the stories a culture tells itself to explain inequality or injustice. Myths like the Protestant Work Ethic (hard work is rewarded), or the Just World Belief (everything happens for a reason). In the absence of these explanations, the world is cold, uncaring, and arbitrary. These stories are torches against the dark. Without these mantras, we are adrift. All bets are off. Bad things happen to good people, and happen to them for no goddamned reason whatsoever.  I don't blame people for not wanting to believe this, but their blithe dismissal hurts. To my many other jobs and roles, I can add cautionary tale. Not sure how I feel about that just yet.