August 30, 2013

A Dream Deferred

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?
                                                              Langston Hughes

I thought I understood this poem when I read it sophomore year in American literature class.  I thought I understood this poem when I taught it numerous times to hundreds of students.  I did understand it.  But understanding something on an intellectual, sympathetic level and living the subject matter one's self differ substantially.

I could never appreciate Hughes' genius in illuminating the complex psychology of having an unfulfilled dream until I was lying in bed a few nights ago pondering my own struggles with having a baby.  The roller coaster of the past three and a half years--well, the roller coaster metaphor just isn't articulate enough to express what it feels like to keep dreaming of something only to have it elude you time and time again in various ways.  Thank you Langston Hughes!  Thank you for having the understanding, the imagination, and the very words to evoke something so complicated and multifaceted through a series of seemingly simple comparisons.  

I remember debating in class both as a teacher and as a student, arguing over which of the poem's six main images best encapsulates the pain of a deferred dream.  Hughes seems to set up the debate himself by using 'or' to connect many of the comparisons.  As I lay in bed making the connection between this poem (seemingly long forgotten) and my own life, I was startled by the realization that these aren't either/or images for me.  Sometimes (most times?) I feel like I am carrying a heavy load.  Sometimes I feel the sore festering.  Other times the stink spoils things beyond imagining.  Don't get me started on the drying up!  What a horrible image for an older woman struggling with infertility.  

Things do crust over from time to time, though I'd say it's more like a scab you feel certain will reopen than a syrupy sweet.  Aspects of the dream have crusted over and dried up for certain.  Gone is the notion of having as many kids as I decide I want, for example.  Two kids sounds good, but the option of more was there at some point in the distant past.  Maybe it's a possibility that would never have been selected, but that possibility is gone.  Now we have firmly joined the "we will be lucky to get one" faction.  Good bye to the dream of being a young mother, as I always thought I would be.  Not too young, of course, but just the "right" age to merge the energy of youth and the stability and wisdom of being a little bit older and settled.  You spend so much time worrying about an unwanted pregnancy when you are not ready to be a mom: one of the great ironies of infertility, as each one of us struggling with this diagnosis knows.  You plan things out as though you and you alone will dictate exactly when--down to having a baby during school's summer vacation perhaps--that you really never seriously consider that your dream won't accommodate your whims and fancies.  These and other aspects of the dream have been put to rest simply because you have no choice in the matter.  Time is like that; it will decide things for you.

This poem's brilliance lies in the way it depicts a real life struggle.  I may have worried in a general way that my dream would not be easy to achieve, but what happens when you carry your dream for so long that you actually believe for certain it may not come to be?  The final haunting line evokes terror in me.  My dream has not exploded, but could it really?  (It does often feel like a ticking bomb.)  The dream has already morphed and changed and adapted as it has had to wait for my readiness to be able to fully embrace it.  Altering the dream is one thing, but letting it go is altogether different.  Of course I am not there yet, though some days it feels oddly liberating to wonder what would happen if the dream did explode in some definitive way, freeing me from the not knowing and allowing me to settle at last into the next phase of my life.  Part of the pain of the deferred dream is the interminable struggle--the weight of it; the pain of it; the uncertainty; the hours, days, months, and years.  The struggle makes you question the dream itself.  Is the dream the problem?  Is it the dreaming?  You are simultaneously living your life and living in limbo all at the same time.  You ask yourself if the limbo is all your life is anymore.

I'm sure I'm not alone in holding a deferred dream.  Perhaps you have had one or two of your own, some gone and buried and others still just out of reach.  Hughes doesn't ponder what happens when a dream deferred becomes a dream achieved, but I can only hang on to the hope that all the desiccation, the soreness, the scarring, the stink, and the heavy lifting will enable me to never undervalue or take for granted becoming a mother, when and if that event comes to pass.  I again look to the words of another man I studied in American Literature, Thomas Paine, to express this hope of mine far more eloquently than I could:

What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly
it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.

August 29, 2013

The Scarlet Letter

If you have ever read Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, likely you were forced to as part of your schooling:)  If you haven't read it or have banished it from your mind, the gist of the story is that Hester, a Puritan woman, turns up pregnant while her husband has been away and missing.  That's kind of a big no-no, so the town punishes her by having her wear the letter "A" on her clothing at all times, marking her has an adulteress worthy of shame and scorn.  Her identity becomes her letter, her sin/error.

I often feel like I am wearing a big fat scarlet "I" on my chest.  I basically threw all of my eggs into this start a family basket when I got married, left my career, moved off into the country, and prepared for what I was anticipating would be the best phase of my whole life.  When people asked whether I would be working, I replied that we were going to start a family and that I would be taking some time off to focus on and enjoy that.  Now that the years have continued to go by, I have felt more and more like my identity IS my infertility.  Maybe I am paranoid, but I imagine people seeing my "I" instead of seeing me at various gatherings and holidays.  People do seem reluctant to ask you about that big old fat letter blinking on your chest.  They don't ask for all the kindest of reasons--not sure what to say or not say, not sure whether it will upset me, not wanting to be nosy, etc.  I get that, but the fact that they don't ask when clearly it's happening imparts this feeling that infertility is something to be ashamed of on some level.  It's not "normal" conversation even though it's my personal norm right now.  If I had a baby or child, I am sure people would ask me about motherhood and my children, but my "lack" of motherhood seems taboo.  At times I do feel a little shunned like Hester.  I feel like an outsider who sees everything differently than those around me.  The experience of infertility marks you.  It changes you, maybe forever.  It colors your thoughts, your reactions, your worldview, and your self view.  Every plan you start to make is affected by your infertility treatment and/or your hoped pregnancy achievement.  Your life of monthly cycles, frustrations, and failures seems to be on endless repeat, or as I say each month after not getting pregnant: "guess it's time to get right back on the hamster wheel."

And yet, the flip side of this obvious alienation is the private torment of infertility.  In the book, the "baby daddy" is spared condemnation because Hester won't name him publicly.  However, when the father's identity is revealed at the end of the novel, he removes his shirt and seems to have his own version of the scarlet "A" marked on his chest.  (Yes, that is creepy, and it is unclear whether his A is self-inflicted, a curse, or some sort of physical symptom manifested from his inner guilt.)  Whereas Hester gradually overcame her shunning and maintained her dignity over the years since her affair, the hidden shame and guilt have devastated her lover.  He has suffered more in silence, it seems, than she ever did, perhaps because he was holding on to his 'unmarred' identity at all costs.  I have heard somewhere that people "are only as sick as their secrets."  For me, being open about my infertility and starting to embrace it as part of my identity helps me to cope with it.  I don't want to carry a secret burden.

Reading other infertility blogs has been a life altering, life affirming experience for me, helping me survive this mess by realizing that I am not alone and that I am normal.  I am hoping that writing will help me come to grips with the many issues of infertility and keep me sane.  I am hoping that putting my own experiences out into the (sadly) very crowded infertility blogosphere will help me escape the irrational shame feelings that creep in despite my best intellectual defenses.  I hope to connect with others who can relate to my journey and the ever changing way I have been marked by infertility.