Sisterly Reflections on Mother’s Day

May 13th is Mother’s Day. In my family, it is also our Mom’s birthday. Last week was a string of texts between my sisters and I discussion how we were going to celebrate my mom’s birthday this year. Realizing that my Mom’s birthday fell simultaneously on Mother’s Day, the question of how we were going to celebrate both events emerged. These conversations made me think about the awkwardness of navigating “celebrating your mom” while also being sensitive and respectful of those in your family without kids.

Maria with her four sisters on a family vacation to Wyoming.

Ever since I was diagnosed with infertility 7 years ago, this feeling of awkwardness has grown. It’s hard to show up at the combo “Mother’s Day and Mom’s Birthday” party and greet everyone with a smile and say “Happy Mother’s Day”. But I do. Mainly because this day isn’t about me — it’s about my mom. I do this also because I come from a big family – 4 sisters and 1 brother. For my sisters, Mother’s Day is still a big deal. It is something they enjoy celebrating with my mom. They also know, though, that Mother’s Day is a difficult day for me. Given that, this year for an ART of Infertility Mother’s Day blog post, I asked a two of my sisters to reflect on what Mother’s Day means to them now as they navigate how to celebrate my mom while also being sensitive to me and my infertility. – Maria

Reflections from Kate:

It’s Mother’s Day and even though I don’t have kids, I find myself thinking of what the day would look like if I did. Breakfast in bed, crisp white and blush roses on the kitchen table and little fingerprint cards lining the refrigerator. I imagine no cooking, no laundry and sleeping in until 7:30 am. I also think of my friends with kids and how they amaze me with their ability to juggle nursing schedules and daycare pickups while meeting deadlines at work and finishing PhDs. I think of my mom, a working mother of six kids, who tirelessly manages the needs of children ranging from thirteen to thirty one. I think of the individuals I know who froze their eggs due to the onset of cancer treatments. I think of the mothers who have lost children and the children who have lost their mothers. I think of my friends who suffered miscarriages and struggled to get pregnant.  And I think of my sister Maria, whose personal experience with infertility has transformed my impression of motherhood.

Maria, with her sisters and mom at Kate’s wedding.

Maria and I are fourteen months apart. If you do the math, that means that my mom was pregnant with me when Maria was just 5 months old. This made us inherently close as siblings, but distinctly unique in personalities. Nonetheless, I remember wanting to be just like Maria as a kid and begged my mom to let me go to preschool when Maria started kindergarten. I also remember Maria telling me what to do as a kid, and me being happily compliant. She enlisted me to paint the kitchen in red finger paint while my mom was violently ill with the flu, she convinced me to play the “ugly” Barbie when we played dolls, and she insisted that I “be her assistant” whenever we ran our imaginary McKay’s Bar and Cafe.

As much as I wanted to be just like my sister, I could never compete with Maria’s clear ambition and punctual nature. Maria always had timeliness in her deliverables and a goal driven mentality to her thoughts. In high school, she ran the neighborhood carpool and if you weren’t in the car at exactly at 3:15 pm, she would leave school without you.  At home, she completed all of her homework from 3:45 pm – 4:30 pm in order to make her closing shift at the local hardware store. In college, Maria was the only person I knew who worked from 9 am – 5 pm in the library so that she could cook, watch tv, and relax at night.

So when I found out that Maria and her husband Kevin had been trying to get pregnant for over a year without success, I was surprised. I imagined Maria applied the same punctuality and determination to getting pregnant as she had throughout other areas of her life. But as the years passed, the objective of becoming a mother and having a child was confronted with the diagnosis of infertility.

We as sisters rarely talk about Maria’s experience with infertility, but this Fall it came into focus while we were together in Philadelphia. Maria suggested that my sisters and mom come see the ART of Infertility exhibit she had curated and celebrate my 30th birthday. Over lunch and plates of dumplings and dim sum, my sister threw out a question none of us were ready to answer. Some may say, she has a gift of being direct.  “Do you think my infertility has influenced your decisions to have kids?” Silence.

I watched  one of my sisters choke on her pork bun as the other burnt her tongue on jasmine tea. Our eyes met in silent desperation as we waited for one of us to speak. This moment of hesitation was resolved by our own mother’s intervention. We didn’t talk much about this moment until after we returned home from the weekend. Motherhood is a personal decision and that question felt thrust upon us. Choosing when or even if we want to be mothers is not an open conversation in my family.

Growing up in an Irish-Catholic family of six, it has been an assumption and an actual vow made within the marriage ceremony to welcome children into your life. I know that for myself and my sisters we do eventually want to have children.  Maria’s loaded question called us to consider the influence of her infertility on our personal decisions. While it made all of us uncomfortable to discuss in public, I’ll do my best to honestly answer it now.

Maria’s  infertility has influenced my ability to understand the complexities in the very definition of “motherhood.” Before Maria was open about her struggle to get pregnant and the pain and stress it brought to her life and marriage, I had a very narrow framework on how I thought about motherhood. Growing up in a seemingly fertile family made it difficult to identify with the  hardships that so many women undergo to become pregnant. Yet, in witnessing  Maria’s journey  and hearing the stories of couples though the Art of Infertility, I have adjusted my assumptions around motherhood.  It has afforded me much needed sensitivity and compassion when having open conversations with friends who walk similar, difficult paths.

I can’t say that Maria’s infertility has directly influenced my decision to become a mom, but it has shaped how I think about embracing motherhood in the future. Seeing Maria apply her dedication and purpose to build a supportive community for couples struggling with infertility is inspiring. Watching her walk at MSU as a PhD candidate made the kindergarten Kate want to be in school too. Witnessing the reaction of couples at her curated art exhibit in Philadelphia made me proud of how she has channeled her creativity and inspired others to come forth with their stories.

Maria with her sister Julia, Kate, and her mom.

In light of the struggles to become a mom, Maria has continued to “mother” us as we embark upon new chapters in our lives. She’s been the support as we have moved to new cities, taken new jobs and opportunities, welcomed new brother-in-laws and said goodbye to family members who have passed. She has reminded us that motherhood is not an entitlement, but a true gift worthy of celebration. I now have a broader sensitivity to the struggles of those with infertility, those who have suffered loss as a mother, and new mothers in need of postpartum care.

Maria’s experience has also reminded me that there is no set timeline to motherhood. As my thirtieth birthday approached this year, I could almost feel my biological time clock start ticking. While my sister’s struggle with infertility presents looming questions of my own ability to have kids, I recognize that there are other ways I can be motherly within my life.

By honoring my mom, my aunts and grandmother, I celebrate the gift of life that they continue to nourish. In visiting new moms, I can help tend to postpartum needs. In listening to a friend after her most recent miscarriage or encouraging a mom-to-be with an unexpected pregnancy, I can lend my comfort and support.

As I begin embrace the idea of becoming a mom, I know that I will need Maria’s recognition and support. I also acknowledge that our dialogue around motherhood will shift if I do become pregnant. That’s why it was so hard to give Maria a concrete answer when she asked us about the influence of her infertility this Fall. Her inability to become pregnant has not adjusted my desire to become a mom, but it has required me to deconstruct my concept of motherhood and embrace a framework that is much more inclusive, honest and forthcoming about the challenges of fertility. Maria has forced me to conceive of motherhood on new terms and in a new spectrum. And if I’m lucky to celebrate Mother’s Day with my own kids, I can only hope that Maria will be there to help mother me through all the pains and celebrations that come along with it.

Reflections from Martha:

Mother’s Day is here again. Although I am not a parent myself, this holiday is one of great significance to my family members and me. Not only is it a time to appreciate those women who are closest to us, but also a time to be reflective and humble in the midst of those who face infertility.

Maria’s mom and Martha viewing an ART of Infertility exhibit.

I can recall spending Mother’s Day as a girl surrounded by friends and family. This day usually aligns with my mother’s birthday, so we would frequently host many individuals that day and celebrate Mom, aunties, grandmothers, etc.

When Maria got married, people frequently asked her “…so when are you going to have a baby?” As a newlywed, she would shrug and smile, assuring them it would be soon. As months turned to years, that optimism faded and Maria changed her tune. The smile and assurance switched to an uncomfortable laugh and the answer, “I don’t know.” Soon, we learned that she and Kevin were struggling with infertility.

As an outsider to their relationship, I do not understand all that they have gone through. I’ll admit that to this day, I still do not fully understand. I have never walked a mile in their shoes. I don’t know the words spoken behind closed doors. I don’t know the feelings of loss for something you’ve never held. I don’t know their sadness. I don’t know their pain. But, I do know it is valid. Their pain is real.

One of the greatest things I struggle with as being a sister to someone who has been diagnosed as infertile is learning how to comfort her. It is challenging to gauge if I am being supportive in an effective manner. Every Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, I envision myself in Maria and Kevin’s shoes. I wonder what it must feel like to experience an inescapable sense of stimuli centered around fertility. Whether you’re walking through the grocery store or scrolling through your phone, those days are filled with moments of joyful expression from mothers and fathers everywhere. There’s no place to hide: no way to retreat. As her sister, all I can do is reach out. I send a text or give a call, expressing my love for them and sharing with them that I’m thinking of them that day.

Infertility can cause people to close their doors to the outside world and shut themselves off from loved ones who don’t understand the pain, but we need to understand. As a family member, I’m requesting two things: patience and education. Give me what I need to know to be there for you. There’s no manual that comes with this position. At times, I live in fear of putting my foot in my mouth.

I cannot relate to feeling branded “infertile” on Mother’s Day. It must be gut wrenching to look around you and feel teased, taunted, and angered by what others have that you continue to lack. To see something you’ve wanted for so long and something you treasure so deeply and yet, it’s the one thing that you cannot control. That frustration and sense of exclusion on that day must feel awful.

In light of my sister’s infertility, I still choose to celebrate Mother’s Day by taking a moment to honor the women I love. I see it as a holiday that offers a platform for thanking the all the women (not just biological mothers) who have given themselves to me unconditionally. After all, that’s what motherhood is: an act of undying, devotional love. It is a day to be inspired by those who have come before me and appreciate those who walk alongside me.

I’m proud that Maria continues to transform her mourning into an outlet of creativity that inspires others. My hope is that on Mother’s Day we all take a second recognize the strength of the women in our lives and stand in solidarity throughout the journey, not only as mothers, but also as sisters, granddaughters, and friends.

 

 

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.

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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.