My Integration Is Fire

image credit: Moein Moradi

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It seems my years of hibernation are wending their way out.  But not completely out, as in a simplistic black and white, light switch sort of way.  I’ll always crave and delight in solitude.  It’s more so like a top (anyone old enough to remember those things??) that is winding down from a rapid spin, perhaps a bit wobbly but also more revealing in its less blurred state.  

Yes, the sequence of trying to conceive, raw grief and trauma recovery, an autonomic nervous system disorder, and then a pandemic (from which I had to protect myself to avoid a relapse of the autonomic nervous system disorder) – all warranted much hermitage.  Of all kinds.  

However this now eleven or so years long exercise in “How do I protect myself?” has been afforded the opportunity to budge as of late.  The question of “How am I going to be in the world now?” has started to peep through from time to time.

I get that this is a broad question.  A question we childless folks inevitably wrestle with at one point or another.  Or, more likely, most of the time!  Being that there’s still much of my longitudinally splintered life to figure out going forward, and I’m still affected by my ans disorder, I’m starting small.  Like as in “Are there little ways I can be more present in my neighborhood?”

We all know neighborhoods can be quite the bulky pill to swallow when you can’t have children.  Especially when you move to said neighborhood for said exact purpose. I’ve written periodically about my ongoing tumult, starting with my first Halloween without children here.

And so my subconscious criteria for the above questions are:

  1. Whatever I do should not exhaust me or in any way harm my mental and emotional health
  2. My participation in it has to be authentic (not just going through the motions in other words)
  3. I need to be getting something out of it
  4. It has to work with MY life in some way

As you can hopefully see this is not an effort to align with someone else’s privilege or hustle for approval and acceptance.  I checked those things at the door long ago.  

So what to do then?

We’ve decided to opt out of the neighborhood block party as the block party construct is quite parent/kid centric and is not a fit for people like us.  Not to mention it’s just too much of an onslaught of that which we lost.  

I’m toying with the idea of getting out earlier to water my plants in the warmer months, which will have me running into my neighbors more.  But I’m in no way a morning person – neither medically or vocationally – so hauling myself up and out only to be met with people walking their children to the bus?  Hardly a motivator. 

And so for now I’ve settled on passing out Halloween candy.  Yes, that’s right.  Not necessarily the obvious choice for a childless IVF survivor I know, however it has the potential to meet all of the above criteria.  Plus, the social pickens are slim here in cnbc land.  So it’s all I’ve currently got.

And I have to say, for the sadness – or at least half heartedness – inherent in my new life Halloween, it was nice to feel more sure this year.  I knew, for the first time ever, I’d at least be okay enough (criteria #1).  The ever draining and time consuming “Should I or shouldn’t I?”, the “Why can’t I still after ALL of these years?” and the “How am I going to escape MY OWN HOUSE and where should I even go?” – all of these well worn scenarios now seem to be ghosts of the past.  

I don’t consider where I am now to be an achievement.  Summoning the bravery to sit, and I mean truly be present in the inescapable aforementioned states is the real achievement here.  That said.  As for the hiding out in dank restaurant basements, forced five hour long exoduses to Starbucks, and the unpredictable “gotcha!” mental health splatterings forcing my soul to scream every time an adorable costumed child showed up at my door?  I’m fine to leave all that behind.  Perfectly, perfectly fine.

The childless not by choice experience is never without nuance though, heaven forbid.  And so this year’s Halloween passing out candy extravaganza was the usual potpourri of human perspective and emotion I’ve come to expect on this unchosen path.

There was the huge lump that vaulted right up from my heart oozing tears into the backs of my eyes as my husband greeted our first tiny trick or treater.  The first timers always get me.  My husband’s sweet interactions with them even more so.  I let the wave rise.  And then I let if fall.

The young ones also need more parent instruction, something I’m still tender around nine whole years after the fact.  As “just take one, sweetie”, “say thank you!” and “say Happy Halloween!” chirp through the air I feel wistful.  I can’t help but think: I’d have been SO good at that part!   

I also found myself with plenty of space to just enjoy the kid scene.  Much more space than ever before I noted (criteria #2). As in, there was a part of me that just really, thoroughly enjoyed it.  

Even more oddly (hold onto your hats folks!), I was able to wave back cringe free at the parents on the sidewalk.  I still make as little eye contact as possible with anyone accompanying a first time trick or treater though.  Rest assured I haven’t completely fallen off the deep end.

All of these micro moments and boundaries were laced with a debate on the best way to hand out candy – I hand it out and my husband lets them take it from the bowl so they get the tactile experience.  Which of course led to reflecting on the parenting of our unborn: “You’d have never set limits and that would have driven me bat shit nuts!” I said to my smirking husband.

We also spent the lulls in between trick or treaters weaving in an important discussion on the future of our business endeavors (criteria #4).  A bit fraught combining the two no doubt.  However, whether we like it or not, adorable children dressed up in costume really has nothing to do with OUR life.  Whenever it’s possible – and reasonable – I like to try to stay grounded in MY world.  After all, how many of the parents bringing kids by my house are taking an afternoon off at any point during the year to spend in MY reality?  Hey, it may not be as cute by a long shot, but I’d bet the farm my life is waaaaay more dimensional and interesting than most would assume.

I’m normally confident in my ability to communicate with children.  But I also noticed a prominent sensitivity coming up in me towards the perception that those of us who don’t have children can’t handle them.  I was sure fielding a bout of FONFI (fear of not fitting in)….assuming that’s even a thing.  While communicating with and relating to children hardly takes a genius, I have to admit: not being around them at all and suddenly having random kids between the ages of two and twelve plus at your door is kind of a lot.  A valid pivot that deserves credit to say the least.

People who get to be parents also get to be in their own world most of the time, lest we forget. As much as some of them may like to bemoan it. We childless folks, on the other hand, perpetually have to shapeshift.  This requires an expenditure of energy and a stronghold of agility that typically goes unseen.  And thus unappreciated. 

People who get to be parents also get to be in their own world most of the time. We childless folks, on the other hand, perpetually have to shapeshift.  This requires an expenditure of energy and a stronghold of agility that typically goes unseen.  And thus unappreciated. 
-Sarah Chamberlin, 

I also noticed the potential value of appearing at the door together with my husband.  While it could be irrelevant in many cases, we took the opportunity to be visible as a proud interracial couple in the presence of young people (criteria #3).

And of course, I found myself whispering “I miss you” silently into the void at least a few times throughout the afternoon.  The presence of what should have been’s pitter patter.

As the afternoon wore on, reality was naturally clanging in the background.  That reality panning into view as we buffered our childless landing with a wholesome dinner of filet mignon and mashed potato pared with a decent bottle of cabernet.  And then that saturated “where am I?” feeling and its accompanying cloud hovering low over me for most of the next day.  The “other people’s children hangover” I call it.  

There are endless harsh truths that holidays put quite the magnifying glass on. They are condesed presentations of “All that we’re missing” and “Other people get to have this and I don’t and furthermore there’s no good reason for it”.  They can drive home the reality that the main way to have a connective place in most communities is still via other people’s children.  As opposed to through your own volition.  

And Halloween in particular is a billboard for unawareness – unawareness towards the hard hitting internal voyage many of us must go through in order to be able to do things that others get to do so mindlessly (like handing out Halloween candy for example).  All amid the misperception that childless lives are inherently easier and less weighty.  

So I mean really, what grieving person needs an overdose of all THAT?

These unforgiving realities once torpedoed my space constantly, particularly on holidays, baking the notion of normalcy into a wicked satire.  This year felt decisively different.  It seems I’ve transitioned from getting clocked by these things to having them a fluid component of my reality.  What has for so long been breath stopping to one degree or another, such as all that my husband and I are missing for example, now functions as an almost impatient “Yeah, yeah….I KNOW.”

After years (and years!) of being plowed under by these injustices, of being kicked around and sideswiped, it’s as if they have, on some level, become a shoulder shrugging part of my reality.  I find this both awe inspiring and disturbing.  It’s like having adjusted to walking over endless beds of knives or being able to live in a space that is mostly taken up by an elephant – and I mean a literal elephant – in the room.  My grandmother did used to say “You can used to anything except hanging.”  Perhaps there’s some truth to that??

And so there I sat, amazed and somewhat unnerved at all to which I’ve adapted, made space for and most of all integrated.  Not relented to, mind you, but integrated.  I wrote about the concept of acceptance not serving me well here.

I’m grateful to myself I went through everything that came my way in my grieving process, never compromising an inch on the depth of my losses or the harshness of my experiences.  I’m thankful I never tried to tap dance, rationalize or bypass any part of my reality.  And I never once tried to make this whole thing any better than it really is.  

This kind of an approach to loss, and especially childlessness, can be unpopular.  And it often draws criticism for being negative and unempowered from those who just simply don’t get it.  If I had the opportunity to edit the way I’ve navigated grief and trauma recovery though, I wouldn’t change a thing. 

Reflecting upon it all with my husband I summed it up like this:  “You know what?  My integration is fire.  My integration is complete and total FIRE!”  

10 thoughts on “My Integration Is Fire

  1. “People who get to be parents also get to be in their own world most of the time, lest we forget… We childless folks, on the other hand, perpetually have to shapeshift.” Ooh, EXCELLENT point, Sarah! 🙂 I’m so glad this year was a better Halloween for you.

  2. I was reading this post and saying “yes, yes, yes!” in my head… But when I got to the “People who get to be parents also get to be in their own world most of the time” sentiment, I scrolled down to start writing a comment… And see that the exact same quote stood out to Loribeth!

    We ARE excellent shapeshifters.

    Yes. It’s so true!! I always feel like I’m entering other people’s worlds (and it’s exhausting), but no one ever enters mine. They just drive by, glance over, and make passing judgments.

    You also got me with the “other people’s children hangover.” I love kids, but I feel this so hard.

    I love your use of the word integration. I’m gonna have to apply this to my recovery experience as well. I agree with you: your integration IS fire. I am proud to be your friend.

    1. Aww, thanks! Belated response I know, but reading that made my day.

      I LOLd at this: “They just drive by, glance over, and make passing judgments.” I’m like “Yeah, that sounds about right…..”.

  3. Comment from Pamela Tsigdinos of the Silent Sorority/Finally Heard Blog:

    “Like Loribeth, I highlighted the shapeshift sentence but also the two that followed:
    “We childless folks, on the other hand, perpetually have to shapeshift. This requires an expenditure of energy and a stronghold of agility that typically goes unseen. And thus unappreciated.”

    The act of shapeshifting requires tremendous mental and emotional gymnastics. I would add that the fact that this agility goes largely unrecognized and unappreciated by those outside our IF community is what makes the fire burn so hot.

    Like you, Sarah, the intensity of all you describe has lessened for me over the years, but it can still flare when I least expect it. And, yes, the end of year holiday season acts like something of a prism. That’s why it remains so important to verbalize and bear witness to our experience and to chronicle the reality and the grief and the coping required. Thank you …”

    1. Agreed. All of the mental and emotional labor – well, I prefer your term “gymnastics” – we do needs to be highlighted first and foremost so we value ourselves. Common with our lived experience to feel at times like you’re drowning or depleted but can’t put a finger on why. Easy to start blaming ourselves. And sometimes when we do recognize these lopsided expenditures it’s still easy to fall into the trap of believing it’s solely our job.

  4. I love love LOVE your four criteria for doing something. I especially like “my participation in it must be authentic.” Yes!

    I also love your point that parents get to live in their world most of the time. “Of course!” I thought when I read it. Then you got me thinking about interactions with my friends and family. So I also ask, “or do they?” Is that maybe just our perspective? Feeling as if we are looking across to where the grass is greener? Maybe they feel out of kilter when they are out on date night, or the kids are with the other parent, or when they’re at work? Maybe they don’t feel authentic when they are parenting? Or maybe they are doing their own shapeshifting? Even if it is the type of shapeshifting that we would have liked to be doing? I don’t know. You’ve really got me thinking about that one! And I thank you for that. Because it always, always helps me when I think about my situation. Like you, the fire we’ve been through shapes us. I wouldn’t be who I am without that.

    1. Thanks for bringing up another possible angle Mali! I thought of this to, however for me I think we do shapeshift exponentially more due to a few things. Most of all due to the currently invisible nature of our lived experiences – when there’s no awareness that childless people have a different, but equally valuable perspective on things, then there’s no effort to meet that in any way. And because we are a minority and also, again, an unseen one, daily life in most respects is much more centered around parenthood than it is around people without children.

  5. “Shapeshift” really hits the nail on the head. Thank you for this, Sarah!

    In some aspects women have to shapeshift thoughout their lives regardless of whether they have kids or not, but I guess the CNBC sort of specialize in it at the highest level imaginable…

    1. Definitely! Our current societal invisibility (circling back to the conversation between me & Mali) is I suspect the main thing that pushes us into that “highest level imaginable” (love that!).

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