Ghost Life

One of the things that's so hard about resolving without parenting is mourning a ghost life. Everyone's experience is different -- there are so many layers of loss that can take you from wanting children, striving for children in a variety of ways, losing that dream, and coming to the decision that it is just not going to happen for you. The cost of continuing down paths that pile up heartache becomes greater than the ever-shrinking possibility that It Could Happen. 

I can really only speak to my own personal haunting, but I would love to hear from others. Recognizing this loss and grief doesn't mean that I am not resolved, or that I regret my decisions. Resolution and grief are ongoing processes, they don't really have a defined endpoint where you can say, "Well, that's done! I am OVER that" and your losses never pop up to haunt you. For me, it's comforting to know that I can feel these feels and be introspective about them, but they don't utterly derail me anymore, because I'm at peace with the life I ACTUALLY live and don't long for the ones that I could have, not anymore. 

I do think about them, though, from time to time. 

The other day I was in the library with the English class I co-teach, and in two separate periods there were two separate books that featured a character named Edie, short for Edith. That was one of the names that we had chosen, not a top-tier one (it was one of my favorites but not one of Bryce's), but one that I could see in my head. A little girl named Edie, who I could see once upon a time running around our old house. It didn't make me sad, but it did make me remember. 

It's so hard, because how we pictured our children changed as our methods for growing our family changed. When we were using our own genetic material it was pretty easy -- curly haired towheaded children I could only see from behind, toddling away from me. Huh, that's an image that a psychotherapist could have a field day with...that I could only ever see my ghost children walking away from me. 

Even when we moved to donor gametes, the image got a little fuzzier but not by much, because of the way you can choose donors to mimic your own traits. 

Then with adoption, I lost the ability to see toddling children, even walking away from me, because there was really no way to predict what our child might look like. It shifted to me peering into a crib with a sleeping baby that was more of a shadow form than something concrete. I could visualize this baby when I peered into our actual crib in our actual nursery, faceless but not creepy. The sketch of a baby. 

I mourned this possibility in every cycle, every profile opportunity. I mourned the transfers that ended in a negative test. I mourned my little wayward baby that was only ever going to be a miracle against the odds due to crazy low numbers that rose just enough to make my hopes rise and then kept rising even after my uterus proved to be empty, indicating an ectopic that had to end in surgery. I mourned my miscarriage hard, because that pregnancy started out so promising, and ended so cruelly. Both of my losses were drawn out and brought out the miracle stories everyone told to reassure me but only left me feeling more bereft because there was no miracle for me. My ectopic was dramatic and resulted in an overnight hospital stay and a weeks-long recovery. My miscarriage started with a scary bleed and cramping, followed by a period of bed rest where I hung onto hope and the many stories of bleeds-turned-babies, but ended with a crash of my bloodwork numbers so severe that we reran them to make sure there wasn't a missing zero or two in the report. I had one ultrasound on the day of my bleed that showed me a sac, the only such picture I ever got (which is why pregnancy announcements with early ultrasound pictures like that make me insanely sad and catch me off guard every.single.time), and then a fancy ultrasound after bedrest and bad bloodwork that just showed detritus. I didn't get a picture of that one. 

As hard as those losses were, they were easiest for people to understand. They had tangible loss attached -- I had something, and then it was gone. It was a fast turnaround from joy to sorrow, but it was more understandable than mourning a negative test. Or a failure to even get to transfer, which came at the end of our treatment journey. But ALL of those were losses. A moment of hope, an investment of time and money and damage to my physical and mental health, that ended without even a smidge of what we'd hoped for. A death of a thousand cuts. 

Adoption ghosts are hard, too. The first time we were profiled and not chosen it was okay -- I wasn't super sad, I didn't cry. I hadn't let myself believe that it would actually happen on that one. I felt a little removed, and I was glad -- it was, to me, proof that I could handle this, that this kind of loss would be easier. I was so, so wrong. 

Not all profile opportunities hit hard, but the second one did. The expectant mom was very late in her pregnancy, whereas the first one was earlier. I got information that the baby was a boy. I spent time in the nursery holding my "boy" onesies, hoping they would magically puff out with a real live baby if I just believed and hoped enough. (In my mind I imagined the exorcism scene in Beetlejuice, which I thankfully kept to myself as that doesn't seem too terribly maternal now, does it?) We were being seriously considered, but another couple was chosen over us, and that hurt. I could see this one. I could imagine it. I could see a little boy. I could attach some of our boy names to this tiny human who might have become our son. 

The next ones to hit hard were late in our journey and were similarly late in the game and easier to imagine, the hardest being a baby that had just been born and if we were chosen by the birthparents, we would go to the hospital the next day -- we went to bed possible parents and woke up with so much hope that maybe this was the moment, this was our time -- and by 9:30 in the morning we got news that we weren't chosen and it was absolutely crushing. Bryce wondered if we should pack a bag, and I didn't want to pack something that had to be UN-packed. So we updated our names list for girls, since it was a girl. Funny to see looking in the old notebook that Edith had been relegated to a middle name at this point. 


When we made our decision to end our parenting quest, there was so much mourning. All the things we would no longer have or do. A whole life unlived. A future legacy uncertain. It was the biggest of ghost lives -- this feeling that out there, there was an alternate universe where we did have a child. When people said things like, "you can't give up!" it was insanely painful. When friends who had struggled as well were finally chosen we celebrated for them, but it hurt so much to see comments like, "dreams do come true" and "See what happens when you open your heart up to possibility?" because even though that wasn't said to me and there was no direct comparison, my heart heard it like "YOU GAVE UP." "IF YOU'D HELD ON A LITTLE LONGER...WHO KNOWS WHAT COULD HAVE HAPPENED." I felt like a loser. It helped to think about how friends of ours were chosen, but there was another couple who was not, and in all likelihood we would have been the couple to have been told, "I'm sorry, this isn't your time," which honestly would have probably killed me at that point. I could not handle any more loss. By the end of our journey, we had mourned 35 embryos, 6 profile opportunities that could have possibly made us parents, and the process of placing our remaining frozen embryos for adoption that resulted in negative tests for another couple (no horrible guilt there...). SO MUCH LOSS. 

So many ghosts. Even the embryo adoption came with the ghost of a fantasy where they would get pregnant where I had not, and we would get letters and pictures of this child, and go on a road trip someday and have a weird family picnic together, and so have a sort of vicarious alternate parenthood experience. Denied.


What has helped immensely, that I do realize is a privilege, is that we moved. I had no problem moving into a house that Bryce had shared with his ex-wife, but staying in a house where our ghost family lived was untenable. I didn't realize just how important this was until we moved into our new home, which has never seen an injection or a nursery or a homestudy social worker. It is not a child-friendly house. It is a perfect childless couple house. Our new life really started when we moved here. There have been sad moments, for sure, that happen when we're caught off guard, or there's an anniversary. But this house represents our future as is, and not the future from our past that could have been. We don't miss the old house and we thought we would. I miss the gardens, but that's not the same. One reason may be that the family who moved in had two kids that, no joke, are pretty much the kids we imagined we'd have. One sits out on the roof outside the second floor bathroom and reads his books, and the other is a curly-haired, towheaded boy who engineers things in the backyard. That was so painful at first, and it felt like a cosmic practical joke. The house could have those kids as long as we weren't there. They are sort of like living ghosts of the life we wanted but did not get. 

But this house, this house is all reality. Beautiful, book-filled, garden-rich, woodsy, cozy, light-filled reality. Everything we are and nothing we're not. No ghosts here unless I invite them. 

15 comments:

  1. Oh Jess, I just want to hug you. That's what people don't realise about infertility/adoption - there is so much loss, not just an absence. And so much of it isn't recognised, or is dismissed. But it is real, and it lives with us, even when we have moved on and embraced our lives as they are. (You've touched on a theme I was going to write about soon.)

    I am so pleased you love your gorgeous home, and that it is exactly what you need right now. And I love your last line.

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    1. Thank you so much, I will take that hug! And yes, it is so wonderful to have a fresh new start in our home. I'm glad the last line resonates, I loved it too!

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  2. This is amazing, Jess... just so much here to chew on. I was perfectly happy in the house we'd planned to grow our family in -- or at least, that's what I've always told myself -- and I still think I like our old community better ;) -- but living here in our condo feels much more in synch with the life we actually have now, and the life we're hoping to have as we age, versus the family life we thought we'd have.

    I love that last line too. :)

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    1. Thank you so much! It's funny how changing where you live when your life changes can be such a part of the transition. The community thing is funny -- we went from far more populated to far less populated (by humans at least), but we actually like that now. I can imagine that it would be different to live in a more communal setting. Thanks for the love!

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  3. Great post!! So many thoughts. In no particular order:

    "As hard as those losses were, they were easiest for people to understand." So true!!

    With regard to names, I admit that I automatically have an affinity for anyone I meet that has the same name that I would have named my children. :) I definitely had my son's full name decided on and ready to go and I definitely knew my daughter's middle name as well.

    I have also felt the sting of "never give up" and "it was worth the wait" type sentiments from people on social media after they became parents. I have since deleted that account (FB) and never looked back. I learned it was not a healthy online space for me.

    Moving out of the house I bought for my children was the biggest and best thing I could have done for my healing from my experiences with infertility. That house was freaking beautiful, but I couldn't live there. Like you, the family that bought it had kids and it makes me happy to know they live in that very family-friendly home. Plus, I know they wanted to buy that house because an aunt lived one street over, so, in a way, I helped facilitate an extended family living closer to each other. <3

    I love reading about the life and home that you and Bryce created together. It makes me happy (especially learning about and seeing pictures of your gardens!).

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    1. It's funny, we had our first girl name and our first boy name all figured out. It was really, really weird to look at the Passages section of People recently and there was a Scottish supermodel who had the name of our daughter (not sure about the middle name of course). That was just plain weird. :) Names are tricky when you're in education, right? I remember each year being like, "Please don't ruin this name for me..." HAHAHA.

      So funny how moving can be such a healing transition. And that it can be the right house for a particular kind of life.

      I am SO EXCITED for gardening season to start! I cannot wait. Thanks for all the love!

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    2. Yes!!! Hahaha being in education did change my perspective on some names I had previously loved. I loved all of my students, but of course some were more challenging than others. I remember one name that I scratched off my list after teaching a particular student with that name. Like I said, I love all of my students, but that name didn't stay on my list...

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  4. I also want to hug you. Not only for the pain you've endured over the years, but for your ongoing determination and resilience, as well. You have faced it all, even the ghosts. You have not shoved anything into a dark corner of your heart, encasing it in a crypt of sorts. You are a model for feeling the feels and releasing them, even though that process is anything but speedy. In short, you are a hero of mine.

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    1. Aww, thank you Lori -- I'll take that hug! Oh no, no crypt-shoving here. I can't pretend that these things didn't happen and that those ghosts don't exist. I feel like a huge part of my healing is to share the experience and talk about it. I have a complicated relationship with the word "normalize," but something like that! I am blushing. Thanks for the love!

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  5. Here to provide another hug. Gosh. I have written so many blog posts about this topic that I hardly know where to begin. Well, let me start here. Let me say, Jess, that grief and mourning and imagining your ghost life will be a regular part of your healing. I've found that certain movies also helped me make sense of this twinning effect. Here's a blog post I wrote about one such film: https://www.blog.silentsorority.com/identity/
    You can read more about other similar posts if you search 'grief' on my blog. Sarah at Infertility Honesty has many soulful posts about it, too. Hope our experiences help you navigate these tricky waters...

    p.s. You might appreciate that unexpected sucker punches start to sting less with time. Today a well-meaning older neighbor sent around an unsolicited announcement about another neighbor becoming a young grandmother. Yeah. I needed that like a kick in the head. I actually responded rather matter of factly with a message titled - At the Other End of the Spectrum. I included a link to a newly posted podcast wherein I describe what it feels like to live a life of IVF Survivorhood -- the subtext being this here woman you emailed not only didn't get the opportunity for motherhood, grandmotherhood ain't in her cards either. We educate one person at a time…

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    1. Oh, thank you for the hug! Wow, that movie is a perfect analogy. Those first two years were particularly hard, and like you wrote in the blog, those smells or images would smack you right back to that darkest moment of loss and pain. I'm glad to know it keeps getting less sting-y. And jeezum, why would it be necessary to announce grandmotherhood in a grandiose way? Although I guess social media had a friend of my mom's announce a new grandchild-to-be with her daughter's toddler holding up an early ultrasound and wearing a "Big Brother!" t-shirt. Ouch. I appreciate you sharing your experience and Sarah's, too. And yeah, I guess that's another facet of the loss -- all these milestones that others have that get amplified on social media and email groups, that we'll never have. Some of my friends have children who are getting to be high school age, and so while the baby showers have ceased the graduation pieces, the "empty nest" stuff, the continuation of markers of a life I don't live, those will keep coming up through grandmotherhood (and lack therof). Blergh. Thank you for your thoughts and your love!

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  6. I know, so many losses. I have had 10 failed IVFs. I have mourned the loss of aproximately 25 embryos. But I was never pregnant so with the eyes of many from the fertile world this isn't consider a loss. Since how can you mourn something you never had. We know how deep our mourning is.

    There is a name for a baby girl we had chosen: Lucija (our version of the name Lucy). I had an awesome childless great-aunt named Lucija and I have loved this name since I was a little girl. Since I loved my great-aunt. It isn't an often name nowadays, but whenever I hear this name, it brings back the memories...

    Sending you a big hug from sLOVEnia,

    Klara

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    1. That is a lot of loss! It bothers me so much that there is a misunderstanding of how you can mourn ghosts this way. I love the name Lucija -- how beautiful. The name Edith was actually a great-aunt of mine, through my stepfather, who also never had children and when she passed she left some money to us "to help you in your quest for parenthood" which was insanely meaningful and lovely (and then felt awful when we failed). So I wanted to keep that a part of our child's legacy if we had a girl, somehow. Isn't it funny how we remember those names so viscerally? Thank you for the hug, and sending you one back.

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  7. Jess, this so exquisitely written. Thank you for sharing. I love your comment about Aunt Edith...

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  8. I agree with all that has been said. Hugest hugs to you and Bryce. Xxoo

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