As the song so painfully and beautifully goes, motherless children have a hard time. I am lucky I was not one of those children. And I’m not one of those adults. My mom is in excellent health and we have a close relationship. I’m grateful for that. But as mother’s day approaches, I can’t help but feel that life hasn’t been entirely fair to me where maternity is concerned. That’s because, at 37, I haven’t been lucky enough to give birth. I’m what you might call a childless mother.
Growing up, I was indecisive about a lot of things. Do I want to be an actress? An artist? A writer? Where should I live? Close to home? Far away? What about my hair? To perm or not to perm? (I permed it, which seemed like a good choice at the time.) The one thing I did know, though, without a doubt, was that someday I wanted to have babies. That was easy. I didn’t need to weigh the pros and cons. I just knew that my future included being a mom. It was as certain to me as shaving my legs, getting my driver’s license, and graduating from college. All of these things were simply going to happen. I had a plan.
My first dose of reality came when my father died suddenly five years ago. After that the lens with which I viewed the world became warped. I was afraid, lost, and quick to panic. Losing a parent made so many things seem suddenly uncertain, but I still had faith in one thing: my plan to become a parent someday.
Time marched on and I eventually found myself engaged, then married. We had a wonderful wedding in the Adirondacks and a fantastic honeymoon. My husband and I had known each other for over a decade and were already best friends, so we were spared the bumpy, getting-to-really-know-you kind of stuff that I’ve heard can plague newlyweds. Instead, we segued easily into our married routine and talked often about starting our family. We figured we’d relax and enjoy our “double income, no kids” status for six months or so, and then, ahem, get busy.
It was all going according to plan when, one lovely May morning I had the feeling I might be pregnant. It was exciting and a little bit scary, until I found out it was a false alarm. I was deflated. But the sting didn’t last, and we moved on. That summer I went to see my doctor and told her what we were up to. She suggested we both get fertility testing, “just to make sure everything’s working.” She wasn’t concerned, she said, but felt it couldn’t hurt to get checked out. We got right on board. “Let’s get it out of the way!” we figured.
Soon after we got the devastating news. My husband was diagnosed with azoospermia, meaning he had no viable swimmers. Both of us were shocked. It was a lot to comprehend, especially given the fact that neither of us even knew this condition existed. We were prepared, I suppose, for there to be some kind of glitch with my ovaries, but this felt much more final, less fixable. There was a remote chance, we were told, that we could still have children together, but it would cost a lot of money and not offer any guarantees.
That was my second dose of reality.
Fortunately, we had the resources to explore the options. My husband underwent two surgeries over the course of a year and I underwent two rounds of IVF. Unfortunately, neither of those attempts resulted in my getting pregnant. Though, given our odds, the fact that we even reached the point of having several embryos to work with is nothing short of a miracle.
Realizing that Plan A wasn’t in the cards was tough. It was a deeply sad time for both of us, and it took a long time — both in and out of my therapist’s office — to accept the fact that my husband would not be the biological father of our children.
Last year we began treatment closer to home using a donor. It wasn’t how either of us had pictured it, and it certainly wasn’t how we would have preferred it, but we had our health and our marriage was strong. We were both old and wise enough to know that the universe doesn’t always cooperate with our plans, and we’d come to terms with our situation. We went on with our lives, moved into a new house, spent time with our friends, and got a puppy.
Then, in August, I got pregnant. After two-plus years of surgery, fertility drugs, blood draws, and doctor’s visits (not to mention anxiety and despair), getting a positive result felt like winning the lottery, maybe even better. I relished every moment of those first few days, smiling uncontrollably at people on the subway on my way to work. I immediately identified with being a mother. I’m pretty sure I started glowing. I know I felt enormously blessed.
But in October I had a miscarriage. As a friend who had been through infertility with his wife said to my husband, we were really being forced to experience the “full spectrum of pain.” Not surprisingly, I became depressed.
Yet here we still are. It’s spring again, and time, as it so mercifully does, has healed much of my pain. Yet there is this persisting sense that something’s missing, like a phantom limb. I was on my way to being a mom. To breastfeeding and changing tiny diapers. Instead I’m grappling with a grief that catches me off guard when I realize that this is the month when my first son or daughter would have been born.
There are countless women out there like me, women for whom the wish for motherhood has not been so easily granted. But our stories often go untold. Mostly we suffer in silence. That’s because talking about infertility is awkward. It’s also alienating; people not affected by it generally don’t know what to say. We feel an unfortunate sense of shame, for some reason. Things get especially complicated for us when a friend or loved one announces a pregnancy.
Holidays are also difficult. One of the hardest, of course, is Mother’s Day. Moms everywhere are celebrated and adored, and they should be. But for those of us who are childless not by choice, it’s a day filled with grief triggers and constant reminders of what we don’t have.
I dream of the day when it will be my turn to receive pasta necklaces and be covered in jam-sticky kisses. In the meantime I’m keeping the faith — for myself and for all the other childless mothers out there — that my own Mother’s Day comes soon.
Catherine Zuckerman is on a mission to help women feel less alone in the world of infertility and miscarriage. Her lighter pursuits include daydreaming about France, eating pizza, and trying to be good at Pilates. Follow her on Twitter at @MamaVibes and on her blog, itsnothowipicturedit.blogspot.
[Photo via Shutterstock]