The Art of Balance: Loss and Love

Today’s post is from Maria’s Mother, Therese. Thank you, Therese, for sharing with us.

The Art of Balance: Loss and Love
by Therese Novotny

When Maria asked me to write a blog post for Mother’s Day, I gladly agreed, but the task was thornier than I thought. As her mother, it is difficult to talk about infertility because I never know what to say. My words get mixed with love, longing, and loss.

The day after Maria was born, her Aunt Joanne brought a small bouquet of Brown-eyed Susans to my room. Those yellow petals always remind me of Maria. Nearly 25 years later, she planted some in her back yard in Grand Rapids. When I helped her move from that house for Kevin’s new job, she left the flowers behind, but more seriously, she left behind a dream of raising children there. That dream had not been fulfilled, despite all their painful, heartfelt efforts. It was a loss.

Therese with Maria on her first birthday.

The art of balancing Maria’s trauma, supporting her needs against five other children, is difficult.

First, my background is full of big families. I embrace the interests of all of my children, their friends and spouses. Even though my life on the outside looks traditional in the extreme (suburban, white, Catholic, middle aged, mother, wife), I am very curious about how other people choose to live out their lives. I’m very open to other life choices and respect them – and it often gets me into trouble.

Maybe this is the wrong thing to say, but I don’t understand Maria and Kevin’s need to have a child of their own. I enjoyed feeling a baby kick inside my body and giving birth to a new tiny person, but there are other ways to give birth. You can give birth to an organization, or nurture a latent talent within yourself, or adopt a child who deserves loving parents. Many women who have birthed children have severely neglected themselves, their talents, or even others around them… and that is also a loss.

Finally, I feel helpless because I can’t help them change their infertility. I need to find new avenues of support. I can support them in their new home, their upcoming projects, their dogs, and their careers. I have been in situations where I can change some things, where I need to advocate and change and struggle. But some things I can’t change. I need to know the difference. I’ve learned to grow where I am planted, even if I can’t do very much.

After Easter, my father sent me a card of a famous Monet painting. I have always thought of Maria in that painting. She is the child standing in a lush field of flowers, so tiny, she blends among them. She is perfect. Why does she not see it?  She is part of a bouquet prepared for the world to enjoy.

Infertile couples are made to feel they are broken or incomplete. They feel cheated and scammed and misjudged. They are miserably misunderstood. They have a right to feel that way, but sometimes the broken, slashed parts of us are unavoidable.

At the risk of saying the wrong thing, I offer the well-known parable of the broken bucket.

In a small village in China, a man collected his water from the river, which was about a mile from his hut. Each morning, he attached two buckets over each side of a long pole, which balanced over his shoulder like a yolk. The bucket hanging from the left side retained all the water, but the one on the right was cracked and full of small holes.  When he returned home, the bucket on the left had not lost a single drop, but the bucket on the right had leaked half its contents, with half dripping through the cracks.

One day, the sturdy bucket taunted the cracked bucket jeering, “I am the real bucket here. I do what needs to be done, while you are a broken piece of junk. You just cause the man sorrow because you can barely bring back half the water, and still, you make the man carry you. You are mostly a burden to him. You are just a sorry excuse for a bucket. ”

The man overheard this one day, when he was eating his meal.

So the next day, he carried the broken bucket outside to clean it, and the bucket said, “Why do you keep me? You know I don’t carry all the water home. Am I worth all the effort?”

Touching the holes in the bucket’s side, the man said, “Every day when I carry you to the river, I take the same path. Sometimes the heat is unbearable. But, do you ever notice the flowers growing on the side of the path? They bring me such joy. I’ve always known you had leaks and holes. I always carried you on my the right side. That way, I knew you watered the flowers. In spring, the shoots to grow. Eventually, I see the leaves, and then the petals unfold; I smell the perfume of their scent, and I see beetles climb into the leaves for shade. The other pot – he only brings me water, but you – you bring me joy.”

Maria and Therese today.

My hope for my daughter, as she struggles with the raw sadness of infertility, and as she hears the voices of those who make her feel broken, is that she is perfect… she is my joy. She is a flourishing part of our vast family garden. Love has surrounded her for years, and will only continue to enfold her.

Reflections on Practicing Self-Care This Mother’s Day

For Mother’s Day, Elizabeth and I decided to practice some self-care. The past year has felt a bit like riding a rollercoaster (hoping to hang on) in both our personal lives and the ART of IF. Next week, we will be in D.C. for RESOLVE’s Advocacy Day as well as collecting some more stories for the project. In preparation for another busy week and as a way to refuel our batteries, we are posting our Mother’s Day reflections a few days early. On this Mother’s Day weekend, the two of us will be taking time away from social media. This is for two reasons. One, we know how hurtful social media posts can be around Mother’s Day (and Father’s Day). Two, we are both practicing self-care this weekend — taking time to breathe and reflect on where our infertility journey’s have led us. Below we share our reflections on how we are embracing a moment of self-care during, what can and historically has been, a very difficult day for us to get through. – Maria & Elizabeth

Elizabeth’s Reflection:

Scott and I got married on May 1, 2004. I had dreamed of a fall wedding but in order to get the venues I wanted, I would have had to wait nearly two years after our engagement to tie the knot.  I wasn’t willing to wait that long. I was ready for us to be family.

We didn’t set out in our marriage to have children. We were both undecided. Five years in, we took the plunge and decided to try for a baby. That was just over seven years ago but can feel like a lifetime. I have a photo of the two of us in a silver plated frame on my desk, embracing on our wedding day. Sometimes I look at the photo and barely recognize the people smiling back at me.

Photo by Elli Gurfinkel

Photo by Elli Gurfinkel

It was May 2013 when I had my first frozen embryo transfer. We’d planned on a fresh a couple of months earlier but I had internal bleeding and ovarian torsion after my egg retrieval, requiring surgery. We’d have to wait. Scott gave me my first ever progesterone in oil shot on Mother’s Day. It was both fitting and horribly cruel. As mothers around the country were receiving bouquets of flowers and home made cards marked with their babies’ hand prints, I was being stabbed with a giant needle, just to have a chance that my future would include being celebrated on Mother’s Day.

Later that month, I was surprised to see two lines on a home pregnancy test. I’d broken down and tested the night before my beta and I’m so glad I did. It allowed me extra time to enjoy finally being a mother.  I found out I was pregnant on Tuesday night. By Friday afternoon I knew my beta numbers were going down instead of up. I was experiencing an early miscarriage.

This weekend, Scott and I are traveling to New York City to celebrate our wedding anniversary and, hopefully, give me a chance at avoiding the emotions that come along with Mother’s Day. I hate Mother’s Day. I feel badly because I have a mother and a mother-in-law I love and who deserve to be celebrated but it’s just so hard to do on a day that excludes me. So, we’re mixing things up this year.

Another thing I did differently this year was bought myself a Mother’s Day gift. I’d been admiring some necklaces by Lisa Leonard Designs in my Face Book feed for awhile when the Mother’s Day ad onslaught began. One ad told me that Mom would love a necklace personalized with her child’s name for Mother’s Day this year. I started thinking about how crappy that made me feel and then decided that I deserved a necklace with my “baby’s” name too. So, I ordered Mother’s Day necklaces stamped with artofif for both Maria and me. They arrived last week and we’ll wear them for the first time in D.C. on Tuesday.

art of if necklacesI don’t know what the Mother’s Days of the future hold but I’m glad that I’ve learned to take care of myself on what can be such a difficult day. I hope that you are kind to yourself this year as well and would love to hear about anything you are doing to make Mother’s Day a little more bearable.

Maria’s Reflection:

My mom would normally be with Kevin and I on Mother’s Day weekend. Every year, she travelled from WI to MI for the International Congress on Medieval Studies. As a medieval scholar, this was her “big” conference for the year and it just so happened to take place close to my home in MI during Mother’s Day weekend.

Maria's mom, Therese, helping Maria put on her veil on her wedding day.

Maria’s mom, Therese, helping Maria put on her veil on her wedding day. Photo by Sarah Stephens.

If it were just the two of us, Kevin and I would not venture out that weekend — taking strategic steps to avoid the promotional “Mother’s Day” brunches and “Mimosas for Mom”. But with my mom in town, we always felt obligated to take her out.

This year though, we won’t be celebrating with my mom. Shortly after her visit last May, Kevin got a new job and we put our MI house on the market. Ironically, we ended up back in WI — but not near our parents. As we pondered purchasing a home near Kevin’s new job in Madison, WI, we made the decision to make a different type of purchase — one heavily influenced by our journey with infertility.


A picture of Maria’s dog, Gia, standing on the dock at her cabin.

In September 2015, Kevin and I signed papers for a small cabin in the woods of Northern Wisconsin. This had been a dream of ours for years, yet we never thought we could actually make this move until we were nearing retirement — not nearing 30. But sitting on top of the hill overlooking a small but pristine lake with our dogs wrestling around in the yard, we looked at each other and new this was the best decision we could have made.

The thought of moving into a suburb filled with young families, the thought of continuing to feel not quite normal because we didn’t have kids, the thought of being judged as “dog parents” — deeply influenced our decision to buy a place that could nurture ourselves, nurture our relationship and nurture our path towards the future (whether this is with children or not).

This Mother’s Day, we have opened up our little cabin to some close friends of ours. They recently experienced loosing their child at 20 weeks. Kevin and I were at the cabin when we got this news. It brought us to tears. While we never experienced a miscarriage, we know all too well what that type of lost feels like. Its guttural, its beyond pain, its total and complete numbness.

And so anticipating how hard a Mother’s Day weekend may be for our friends, we invited them up north. Our hope is that this weekend, we can all practice some self-care by taking time to breathe, reflect and nurture ourselves for the future paths we may embark.