I need a new dream

I put everything I had into the hope of raising children. It isn't going to happen. Now what?

By Cary Tennis
Published March 13, 2008 10:28AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My husband and I have been happily married for 11 years. We learned some time ago that fertility might be a challenge, and it has been. We hoped to see our abiding love and commitment writ small in toes, sweet cheeks, milk burps. Instead, we've seen success turn into soul-crushing defeat over and over. Often there are no successes -- there is just more defeat. We are sad and tired.

I keep thinking that being infertile must be a little like being an addict. Early on, when everything still seemed possible, we said to ourselves, things might be bad but I'll never ... I'll never (lie, cheat, steal, turn tricks) have a screen name like "MOMMY2B," or mortgage the house, or ask strangers on the Internet for their interpretation of my menstrual period, or resent the effortlessly fertile, or measure my grief against another's, or buy Ancient Chinese Secrets, or name a baby whose heartbeat you never get to hear. You know, like these other poor bastards. But you go down the road and these are the things on the road. You do things that surprise you, good and bad. You let people down and hate yourself for it. You wonder if you should stop, but can't.

The meds and the tests and the advice and the waiting and the hope and the money slowly took over our life, until nothing else seemed that important. Our circle of friends changed. We become more isolated. People who don't know invariably ask when we're having kids (you guys love kids so much, you should have some!). People who do know look at us with pity. Sometimes they can't look at us at all. I think they fear having to see our naked and writhing heartbreak, or having to consider the many times they complained about their sleepless, colicky nights and envied our freedom.

Many couples like us choose adoption. We could love any child that entered our home. But we will not, cannot, get on a new merry-go-round of waiting and disappointment. We're out of resources in all the ways that matter. Many people won't understand that, given the strength of our desire for a family. But that decision is "right" for us given our circumstances. We made it together and we will live with it the best we can. So the end of the road could really be the end: childlessness.

Our grieving began some time ago. But I did not expect the overwhelming sense of purposelessness I get every time I think about being childless in the end. I believe we are here to live in service. Very few of us have the experience of a saint or a martyr, and give everything. Most of us are simply meant to strive to be vital, happy, grateful, respectful, generous, loving, kind, productive. To give as much as we can as often as we can, but to be basically just ... ordinary. I thought my contribution would be the quiet and humble goodness of that striving, and that we'd offer our community a family raised in that way.

I work hard and am successful professionally. I'm strong. I was lucky enough to have choices, and smart enough to make good ones. My husband and I have accomplished a lot together. We try to live consciously. This isn't about baby fever. We planned for and dreamed of a certain kind of life, knowing it would make us profoundly, contentedly happy -- but it will never happen. I can't think of anything to do next that would be as fulfilling as raising our family. Make more money for corporate America? Get a dog? Travel? Go back to school? That stuff seems reasonable, but only for the short-term. We are regular and enthusiastic volunteers, but sorting cans of food-bank green beans isn't deeply fulfilling compared to, say, the first day of school. Nothing I can think of gives me the peaceful contentment I felt imagining 20 years of family dinners followed by the chance to do it all again as a grandmother. I've come to a blank spot that I can't fill, and it stretches past the horizon.

I know many other people's problems are much worse than ours. We do try to be patient and grateful. Our love for one another has grown, a blessing and comfort. We didn't think we wanted a lot for ourselves, but I guess it was still too much. I don't know if I can get over it. When the life you wanted and sacrificed for is gone before it even starts, what do you do next?

Barren: adj., lacking inspiration or ideas -- Merriam-Webster

Dear Barren,

This is a very moving letter. You have poured your heart out. I feel as though there isn't much I could say that wouldn't sound trite. You have probably heard it all.

So let's say the simple, basic, true thing first: You are suffering.

You are suffering the loss of a dream.

Let's just sit here with you a minute. We don't have answers. We are not gods. We can't change biology.

So what do you do?

I suggest that you grieve seriously and hard, that you dedicate yourself to your grieving and that you make of your grieving a project as robust as your quest for a child.

I suggest that you go on retreat somewhere alone. Take a week or two weeks alone somewhere, a spiritual retreat if you are spiritual or a secular retreat if you are secular, but a retreat that fosters quiet. Rest. Just rest. Rest and do not speak much. Sleep a lot. On the first couple of days just rest and sleep and walk and do not speak much. Eat and read and write in your journal and walk around and sleep and rest and do not watch TV. Do not talk on the telephone or use the Internet. Let your senses come back to you.

Avail yourself of massage and heat, water and sun, herbs and oils and meditation. Heal yourself. Be taken care of.

Take notice of the things around you and their beauty.

Let a new dream come to you.

You need a new dream. That's the thing. You had a dream and perhaps because it did not seem such an outlandish dream you invested everything you had in that dream. So now you're depleted. You're grieving the loss of this dream.

I know you will get through it. I know that. You would get through it regardless. But will you get through it in a gentle, strong and beautiful way, or will you get through it violently, by lashing out, by allowing your hurt to take shape as blame and resentment? That is why it would be a good idea to go away for a week or two and be taken care of.

You must grieve the loss of this dream and prepare for something new. You must find something to look forward to, some joy, some vision of life to sustain you.

A reader sent me a book a few weeks ago called "When Things Fall Apart," by Pema Chodron, a Tibetan Buddhist.

Buddhists talk about suffering. They say we struggle against the truth and in struggling against the truth we suffer.

The Buddhists say relax, slow down, take notice.

I like the Buddhists! I like their style!

You are facing the truth. You see it. It is right in front of you.

So what do you do? You grieve.

You feel this.

And you wait for a new dream to come to you. It will come. Don't worry. It will come.

The Best of Cary Tennis

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