Confessional Fridays: Secondary (Circumstantial) Infertility?

As most of you know financial realities have forced us to postpone our TTC#2 plans indefinitely. Originally we were going to start trying again in October. Our thinking was, if we (miraculously) got pregnant right away, and everything went off without a hitch, the baby would be born right after Isa turned two. This age difference felt a little close and overwhelming to us but we believed we could handle it. And of course we assumed it would not happen right away and wanted to give ourselves plenty of time to let it happen. Even if it took a year, or longer, we wouldn’t feel particularly stressed (hah, well in theory anyway).

I have to admit there was a part of me that was sure we’d get pregnant right away, just because we were scared to. And I was so looking forward to trying without the pressure of having it happen quickly. Now none of that matters because we are not trying in October. We’re not trying in the foreseeable future. I don’t know when we do plan to start trying again, in fact. And it kind of terrifies me.

With that in mind, cut to pregnant bellies.

I have always been kind of obsessed with pregnant bellies. Even before I was TTC I’d look longingly at them. When I was in my early twenties, long before I really felt (or was) ready to have a baby, I was jealous of pregnant bellies. They are just so, I don’t know, awesome. I truly hope that my obsession with pregnant bellies will stop one day. I don’t think anyone condones a 60 year old woman staring wistfully at every burgeoning baby bump that happens by.

Of course when we started TTC my pregnant belly obsession became markedly more pronounced. Especially after my loss, I immediately checked every woman in the vicinity, wondering whether she were pregnant. It got marginally better after I had Isa, but I I still felt drawn to pregnant bellies, now longing for that idyllic (as I always choose to remember it) time of excitement and potential.

I will admit that now, if I see a pregnant woman walking alone I no longer feel jealous of what she has, after all, I had it to once (though I might feel a twinge of envy that she still has it). But then I remember how when I was pregnant and I saw people with babies I coveted the assurance that everything would be alright. I do remember (vividly) how uncertain that time was and I have no desire to resume the anxious worry that accompanied my pregnancies.

Oh course seeing a woman with a pregnant belly and a small child in tow? That has felt a little different. That woman has something I do not yet have. And even when I wasn’t ready to have it, it still stung. But now? Now that TTC#2 is postponed indefinitely? Now I it stings something fierce. Now it’s more akin to a dagger in my heart than the small but persistant paper cuts of before. Now it’s really hard.

I don’t know what it is exactly that hurts so much about seeing someone with what I want. Is it just a reminder of what I can’t yet have? Or is it the reminder of how easily others achieve it? Does it just suck when it’s pointed out that we are being prohibited from growing our family as we’d hoped? Is it shameful that we can’t manage what others so easily afford? I really don’t know. All I know is it hurts. More than I expected.

Yesterday I took Isa to a children’s museum. In the Tot Room, which is for children who are no taller than 42 inches, there were dozens of mothers and their kids. I would venture to guess about 1/3 of them were noticeably pregnant. So many beautiful pregnant bellies being rubbed incessantly. It was kind of overwhelming and it made me want to leave. It was the first time, since our postponed family planning, that I’d seen one pregnant-mom-of-a-toddler let alone 10+ in an enclosed space. I was even informed of a totally un-pregnant (and super skinny) looking well-to-do mother’s “fragile state” when she barged into the room (which admittedly did wreak of poop – someone’s kid needed a diaper change STAT) proclaiming that as a newly pregnant lady she could just NOT TOLERATE the stench. And then she went on to repeat how newly pregnant she was multiple times, lest we had other more personally relevant issues to consider.

Recently someone posted an article on Prompt-ly about “circumstantial infertility”. The author was a 40-something woman who had always wanted children but never found the right man. She claimed that her suffering was similar to her medically infertile counterparts – after all, they all wanted a child but were denied the chance due to circumstances outside of their control. This article inspired a really interesting conversation about the idea of “circumstantial infertility” and if someone who can’t have a child when she wants to because she lacks a partner or her partner is currently deployed or otherwise unable to participate in the necessary physical act should be considered infertile. What about same sex couples or single moms by choice (SMBC) who have to pursue ART? Are they also circumstantially infertile, even if they do achieve pregnancy through medical means? Does my (financial) inability to have a child now, when I want to, make me a sufferer of secondary circumstantial infertility? Is there such a thing as financial infertility and if so does someone who has to wait a mere year to continue building her family even quality?

I want to clarify that I in no way believe I am circumstantially infertile. Nor do I claim membership in the infertility community. I have always flashed my loss card in this space and when commenting on others’ blogs (though I believe my history of amenorrhea and the thousands I spent proactively on acupuncture blur that line somewhat – more on this forthcoming). I would never assume that my current frustration and pain mirrors that of a woman who needed to pursue ART to achieve her first pregnancy and isn’t sure she can afford it, or if it will even work, a second time. I personally believe the suffering when one has to pursue ART due to what might be perceived as a “failure” of one’s body is of a different caliber than of those who can’t build a family because of other circumstances.

I remember waiting for Mi.Vida to be ready to have a child. I remember being frustrated and angry when others got pregnant during that time because I wanted so much for us to be at that place too. But it was a different pain than when we were actively TTC and not getting pregnant. The disappointment of “we’re doing that too, but for it’s not working for us” was much more visceral than what was felt when I was waiting for it to be our time. For that reason, and many others, I believe that the truly (medically) infertile suffer a different kind of loss than those who might claim circumstantial infertility.

I remember when we started trying again after my loss. When my fear of amenorrhea was overshadowed completely by fear of another ectopic. I remember bargaining in my stages of grief, that if I could only have one child, I’d be happy. I only need one, I pleaded, and I’ll be okay. And you know what. It’s true. I will be okay with one child. The desperation I felt of just wanting to be a mother, is not there this time. I am a mother and while I will grieve deeply if I can’t build my family the way I’d hoped to, I will always be so thankful for the daughter I have. I know how lucky I am to have experienced pregnancy and motherhood and I will let my desire for another child overshadow the gratitude I feel for those special blessings.

Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t really want to have another baby. A lot.

What are your thoughts on “circumstantial infertility”? How would you compare it with medical infertility? How would you compare primary and secondary infertility? Or is it infertility is infertility, is infertility?

17 responses

  1. Maybe it’s the late hour, but I don’t think I have it in me to be eloquent about the issue of circumstantial infertility.
    What I do have to say is this:
    I think that for me at least, I’ve learned that when I see a pregnant woman my sense of urgency becomes more pronounced. It becomes a sort of competition, even though it isn’t supposed to be. I keep on doing the math – she’s 29 and 6 months along, and I’m 30 and not even close, etc. etc. It was to the point where my sense of urgency was clouding my judgement. I made some decisions purely out of that competitive impulse.
    The decision to wait is almost always harder than the decision to push forward. And most times – it’s also the smarter way to go.

    • I do feel a sense of competition when I see another woman with more than I do. Today I was at a birthday of a little girl who lives down the street from me. I’d met her mother one time at the park and she’d invited me and since I had nothing better to do and I’ve been complaining about having no friends in the area, I went. Well it was full of posh, uber-fertile San Franciscans with 3-4 kids under the age of 4, all well dressed and beautiful. And the woman had a gorgeous apartment that I’m sure she owned, with a huge backyard space (unheard of here) and our neighborhood is very sought after (I could NEVER afford to buy here, EVER) and I just thought, fuck, she has so much? How did she get here already when I can only rent here because my lease is 7 years old and rent-controlled?! It’s hard not to compare and find myself and my life, lacking. And I have so much! Anyway, I don’t want it to be a competition but I don’t know how to turn it off.

      I think you’re right that the decision to wait is almost always harder. I hope I can embrace it for it’s positive attributes and not just condemn it as something forced upon me. Thanks for reminding me of that.

  2. I think that your reaction to baby bumps is a pretty universal reaction for anyone who desires a child. For the longest time, I was very ambivalent about having children. I loved life the way it was and just didn’t feel the pull. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks and all of a sudden there were pregnant women and small babies everywhere even though I literally hadn’t noticed a single one until that moment.

    As for the circumstantial infertility. I’m having a hard time understanding exactly why it matters, not that I’m saying that it doesn’t, because if it matters to someone then it matters. I guess I think that any two people who have a deep desire to parent a child but no child in their lives, for whatever reason, can understand each others pain.

    • I think that labels and qualifiers are about validation. It’s about someone being acknowledged for their situation, and in this case, suffering. And I think with infertility it’s especially important because it’s a largely ignored disease and those who suffer from it don’t want it co-opted by others who would either invalidate their pain (in the eyes of others) or confuse their condition (which is medical, despite insurance companies insistance that it’s not). So I get that people in the community are defensive and I don’t fault them for it. I just find the whole thing fascinating but maybe that is because I’m a linguistic major and this kind of semantics debate is very interesting to me.

  3. What an interesting concept- one I’d never thought about before, I mean, in terms of infertility. But it totally makes sense, and I think it’s a valid term. I don’t think it’s the same as medical infertility, but in some cases, probably just as painful.

    I know how you feel about pregnant baby bumps. I just found out one of my friends is oops! pregnant with twins (she’s thrilled, but it was totally not planned- she’s jumping from 2 to 4 kids- yikes). I am NOT ready for #2 and we are doing everything we can to prevent it right now, but I still feel pangs of jealousy when I think about her. I often joke that I just want a baby alien to live in my belly and kick me during the day- that’s what I miss SO much- the kicks.

    Oh, and I’m sorry about the lady at the museum. I don’t think people like that realize at all they are obnoxious, which makes me think, I wonder if I’m obnoxious about anything and don’t realize it? Probably 🙂

    • I am probably obnoxious all the time. I think about that a lot when I hear two people saying dumb stuff to each other and I think, god, 99% of what I say must sound like that. Ugh. Mi.Vida also doesn’t feel ready for #2 really, not yet, and I don’t really know if I am but there is something inside of me that seems content to just ignore all the realities of what two kids would mean and wants to forge ahead anyway. Then I tell myself, other people do it, why can’t we. But evidently there are lots of things other people can do that we can’t do so I need to shelve that argument for the time being. Blerg. Family building is so difficult.

  4. First of all THANK YOU SO MUCH for the amazing Winnie the Pooh book, we got it in the mail yesterday and I LOVE it!!! I’m so excited to read it to Ian and know it will be one of our favorites, You’re seriously the best, thank you so much!
    I feel the same way about pregnant bellies, especially before having Ian but even still now that I’m up visiting him in the NICU every day I pass pregnant women on their way to L&D on a pretty much daily basis and always think why does it get to be so easy for some people and not for others? As you said I’m so incredibly thankful for him but I can’t help but want more in the future too and worry so much about what might happen with future pregnancies. Ugh, and the lady at the museum, that would drive me nuts too. There is a friend of a friend who is that way and she is constantly throwing her fertility in my face, it’s so frustrating!
    Sending you love my friend, sorry I’ve been so behind on the commenting. Hoping life will not be so hectic here soon!

    • So glad you got the book! It’s truly classic and I hope you will never tire of reading it. I know I couldn’t. And please don’t apologize for not commenting. You have much more important things to be focusing on now!

  5. I don’t think I feel comfortable comparing primary and secondary infertility … it feels too much like a game of one-upsmanship to me, when the reality is that it’s all infertility, and how you feel about a body that doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to doesn’t change when you already have one child. Yes, you have one child to be happy with. But every pregnant belly reminds you about what you can’t have … or have had and repeatedly lost … as you’ve pointed out. I don’t think I buy “circumstantial infertility,” but I do know people who are single and can’t adopt (for a number of reasons), and the grief there is very real, too … and saying “just adopt” isn’t the answer for them, either. I think we ought to be sensitive to anyone who can’t have children and wants them … because there is a loss there, and a longing, that is like no other.

    • I also don’t feel comfortable comparing 1st and 2nd infertility but I see it happening all the time and I’m curious how other people view the two. It seems there is an undercurrent of “it’s not as bad, you don’t understand” and maybe that is true, at least the not understanding part. But there are so many things that others can’t understand, why do we always need to point to it as if it were a signifier of some kind?

      The conversation on Prompt=ly about circumstantial infertility was really interesting. People feel very defensive about the label infertility; some for political reasons, in that they want to make sure it’s understood to be a medical condition that should be covered like others by insurance companies and some seemingly for standing in the “pain olympics”. Again, there is no way to know whose pain is greater so why try to impose some ineffectual metric. I think when people are hurting so much, they just need validation and allowing others in different circumstances to co-opt their suffering is too much for them, it takes away from an acknowledgment they desperately need. I remember needing validation when I was hurting and I would never begrudge others theirs.

      I was someone who always assumed that if I wasn’t with someone by 35 I would have a baby by myself. I never stopped to think that maybe financially or physically I wouldn’t be able to. That must be devastating. You’re right, anyone who longs for a child they can’t have is hurting in a horrible way. They, we, all deserve compassion and empathy.

  6. wow. I don’t know that I even should comment. CI I don’t even think that begins to cover what I feel/have. I am HFA and 41. I had PCOS, IC and endometreosis but was given a “please reconsider” from my doctor when I had him do a full hysterectomy on me at 34. I don’t know if people even see me in this blog world really. The few that do, I am forever grateful, truly, because I am different, I talk different, I am blunt, loving, weird, eccentric and so on and the way I feel and am treated (just today, I was basically called stupid by someone I like a lot) I would never pass these genes on to a baby, so I did what I felt was right. I don’t regret it. But even woman like me desire to be mothers. I adopted a teen girl, I have grandkids, But the desire to have my own has still not gone away even knowing its not gonna happen.

    • Hello, and thanks for commenting. I think CI doesn’t cover your situation because you have medical infertility. You had a condition that caused you to make a decision about your reproductive help that made it impossible for you to carry a child. That is not circumstantial infertility. I cannot believe that people in this community don’t even see you. I don’t understand that. I see you. And I think you are an amazing and brave person for choosing the path in life that you have. Thank you again for commenting.

  7. Ok, I have to admit, I read this as soon as you tweeted it (like I do with all of your posts) and I sat and thought about it for awhile. I’m going to say something that I hope makes sense and doens’t come across silly – I love reading your writing but I don’t comment as much because I feel stupid. Like, I feel stupid in the literal sense. Yup. Your writing is so eloquent and beautiful and I feel as though my comment should reflect the same amount of thoughtfulness and, well, I don’t know the words I’m looking for here ….
    Basically what I”m trying to say is that I never feel, after reading your work, that it’s appropriate for me to drop a comment and say “yeah, I agree” because your work deserves better than that type of a response.

    Ok, now that is out in the open, I can imagine that circumstantial infertility would hurt just as much, if not more than primary or secondary infertility. The want for a child is pain enough, and when you can’t fulfil that wish, it’s a raw unnerving pain that eats away at your soul. I feel for you. I really do.

    • And now I’m going to say something silly – please comment on my posts! I’d love to hear your point of view and seriously, I’m not that eloquent, I just use the thesaurus a lot (and that’s the truth).

      I have to admit, I don’t know if I agree with you on this circumstantial infertility thing. I think what you are going through right now is more difficult and painful than what I am going through, by far. At least, I think if I had to endure both, what you are going through would be more difficult for me. And I’m not trying to create qualification for the pain olympics here, but I do believe it to be true.

      Thanks for commenting. I hope in the future you will not be swayed by my thesaurus-derived vocabulary to omit a comment. 😉

  8. My sister and I were just discussing this during her visit. She’s what I’d classify as CI. 34, single, no SO (rarely ever dated) but would love a child. She almost had the opportunity to adopt a now-11yo but that fell through (former student of hers whose mother died before she wrote a will of any type but all parties wanted Sis to raise him unfortunately without a will that couldn’t happen and now an aunt is raising him who doesn’t want him but likes that he comes with $$ from the state). She was/is devastated. She’s talked about going through the process of adoption but it’s out of her range/budget. She will most likely never have children to raise. It’s tough to see because there’s nothing that I can do about it.

    I’m not sure I added anything to the discussion but wanted to let you know that this has been on my mind.

  9. Hmm. I’ve actually been thinking a lot about this lately. Lots of my local moms are pregnant with their second child (most of J&H’s little friends are around 18 mos old or so), and it stings. The more H and I talk about it, the more we realize that the timing is terrible to add to our family. H has some academic responsibilities that will take him (and me and the boys) away from home for 4-5 months, during a time when it would be ideal for us to be cycling and/or already pregnant. Waiting much longer after that means I’d be older than I’m comfortable with, and the boys would be older than I’d like to be introducing a new family member. And cycling now is out of the question for financial and lifestyle reasons.

    So, does that make me both circumstantially AND traditionally infertile (and secondarily infertile, too… and also infertile-by-choice, since we had a tubal ligation after the boys were born)? I guess so. All in all, I have to say that the circumstantial part of it stings worse than the actual infertile part (no guarantee that the FET would work, or that we’d want to pursue a fresh cycle if it didn’t, but still.). I look around me and I think– gee, it’s so easy for them. They just get pregnant when they want to, they say, “hmm, I’d like to have kids two years apart!” and presto! Life just works out for them. Working on an academic schedule (as you know…) and with other babies already in the mix, it just doesn’t make sense to NOT time an FET to coincide with a late-spring/early-summer birth. I mean, if we were a normally-fertile couple, we could just try to get knocked up during his sabbatical and see what happened. But adding treatment into the mix means I need to be here. And it means that it behooves me to actually stick around for doctor appointments during the early part of a pregnancy (were I to actually get lucky a second time).

    ANYHOW, I think what I mean is that I totally get the longing, the knowing that were it not for circumstance, that you could (most likely) have what you want right now. And knowing that you not only can’t have it right now, but that because of circumstance and timing and money and everything else that it *may* never happen, probably *won’t* happen? That’s hard. It’s harder for me than it was before I got pregnant, because before then, all I knew is that I couldn’t get knocked up, period. I didn’t know if IVF/ICSI would work. I didn’t know if I would make enough eggs. I didn’t know if the embryos would be hearty. I didn’t know if my body would accept them and let them implant. There were no promises. And now, I know that those things all DID work for me, at least once. Yes, there are no promises that FET would work like the fresh cycle did, but I’m currently listening to two of those embryos softly breathing in the next room. It’s hard to know that there are a few more of their cycle-brethren slumbering on ice across town, and that they could become living, breathing siblings, were it not for crap timing, and crap circumstance. And seeing the round-bellied reminders that other people aren’t caged by circumstance really sucks.

  10. This is so interesting, and well-written like all of your posts. I can’t say that CI is any better or worse than primary or secondary infertility…. but the concept makes a lot of sense to me. It’s sad how women (including me) can be jealous/competitive about these things rather than compassionate.

    We struggled to have our daughter, but now she’s here and wonderful, and I don’t understand why it’s hard to be happy for friends (even those who’ve dealt with infertility!) who are pregnant. We aren’t having another baby, about 50% because of finances, and while I’m confident that’s right for us, I STILL feel this sadness about it. My husband thinks I’m crazy.

    I used to work with a woman who’d been trying for a baby with her husband for years. He left her when she was 38. She wasn’t the type to try to adopt or have a child on her own. When I knew her, she was in her 40’s and obviously in pain about not having had a baby. I think that’s a very valid sadness, whatever someone wants to call it.

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