Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Spot of Tea?

Dear Jane: Aaron and I tried for 3 years to have a child before essentially giving up. No more charting, temping, opk's, testing, ultrasounds, nada. Just old-fashioned sex. At this point I'm mostly hoping that we won't get pregnant because I'm liking our life as it is. That being said, I still find myself touchy on the subject of having children and sometimes have a hard time being around those that are pregnant. This includes my best friend.

My oldest nephew (by marriage) and his pregnant fiancee are moving into our house. That will take the number of people in this house to 6 1/2 (plus 2 dogs and 3 cats). My best friend is
due mid-October and the fiancee is due in November. The nephew is talking about the idea of living with us permanently. Am I really expected to entertain this idea? Me, live with a baby that is not mine? Listen to it cry and wail and coo and know that I am not the cause or solution to any of it? I think that I might go crazy...yet my husband hasn't told them no outright. He's hoping they'll change their minds and tells me that I have to give them a shot before I decide that. Normally he's pretty understanding and he doesn't really want them here either, but it's family, and he's always there for family. I also don't know if I should introduce my best friend and the fiancee. They're due about a month apart, and the fiancee is really young, where as my best friend is a second-time mom.

I'm so at a loss as to what to do with all this. I want to run screaming, I feel like I'm at my wits end and how dare anyone ask me to do another damn thing where family is concerned--especially the pregnant ones. My best friend is like family too, but at least she's learned to be sensitive. I'm going to have to teach yet more family members what to do and not to do but do I really have the right to do that to them, since we're not really trying any more? How do I move past this stage? Help please!!

The Frustrated Hostess

Dear Hostess:

Jane's characters were not only skilled hostesses, but in Austen's world, family came first. Jane was extremely close to her sister, Cassandra, and this relationship influenced many of the sisterly relationships portrayed in her books. A focus on self at the expense of family would have been considered a major character flaw.

At the same time, manners are everything and the way characters behave towards one another reveal their relationships and status in one another's life. But manners serve another purpose--they help conceal opinions and frustrations. After all, who can tell how much you're seething on the inside if you're smiling sweetly and pouring your guest a cup of tea? When you think about it, manners rarely reveal your true thoughts--instead, they are a dull grey coat you can throw over your bright orange dress, ensuring that you choose who is allowed to see your true colours.

Therefore, if unmarried Jane's nephew moved into her house with his fiancee and wedding planner in tow, she may have been secretly frustrated with the situation and silently cursing the fact that he has what she has been desiring, but she would have prepared him not only dinner, but a huge ball to welcome him to the estate.

That's what Jane would do.

But what should you do?

The reality of infertility is that the emotions almost never end with any of the paths out of the situation. Children cure childlessness, but they don't cure infertility. The problem still exists whether you're trying to conceive or not.

You're really between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, this is family. While friends come and go, family is a lot more complex to navigate--we're judged harshly for our actions and the expectations run higher. At the same time, you need to take care of yourself because no one but you knows exactly what you need. Though John Donne wrote, "no man is an island" we do have to put ourselves central if the goal is to maintain our own sanity and happiness.

Putting yourself central means setting some limits. The situation may not make you ecstatically happy, but you need to find a space where you can balance the expectations everyone has about family with your own peace. And this means being upfront--pleasant, but firm. Being too vague or letting things unfold too much removes any control you have for directing this cohabitation. Once you make the decisions with your husband behind the scenes, they're not really up for discussion and they're stated in such a way that doesn't leave them open for discussion. Perhaps you can live with a two week visit while they get their bearings, but you need them out of the house after that. I would kick off the visit with a dinner telling them how happy you are that you can put them up until they get their bearings and you'd love to help them with any aspect of house hunting since you know it's difficult sometimes to do things when you're pregnant.

It sends a clear message as you serve that roasted chicken and potatoes--welcome to my house, we're happy to have you while you look for your house. The chicken is the grey coat hiding the orange rage underneath a cloth of manners.

If having the fiancee in close proximity is one of the stressors, introducing her to your best friend only provides more entanglements. This introduction probably won't relieve you (at least initially) of interactions with the fiancee--instead, it will make it more difficult to create a child-free space for yourself when you need it. Not only will you be inviting over your best friend, but when you're not up for the company, the fiancee could still be inviting her over too.

Your obligation to family is to provide the essentials: food, housing, and, at times, emotional support. You do not have to be her social director or feel guilty that you're holding apart two pregnant women. Family is not code for all limits flying out the window. You need to navigate a child-filled world every day--your home should be a sanctuary and not an additional stressor in your life.

Now you (yes, you--I'm talking to you. The one reading this advice column) need to weigh in. Put yourself in Hostess's shoes and employ a what would Jane do attitude to give her advice on this situation. Leave a comment for Hostess elaborating or contradicting my advice--just do it in a ladylike or gentlemanly way.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

O. Henry Conception

Dear Jane:

Eight years, $90 thousand dollars, five lost babies and I am crazy enough to want to try again. Months after finding out that our previous egg donor has a rare genetic defect and all frozen embryos needed to be discarded, the donor agency has finally come up with another potential donor for us. She's not an ideal match as she has hazel eyes and both my darling husband and I have blue eyes, but she is a proven donor with a fairly good track record. We are also currently on the waiting list for donor embryos through our RE and have moved up to number 6 on the list. A few more months and we will have first choice on embryos as they become available.

Here's the question part: Should we try one more time with the egg donor and have the chance of having a baby who is biologically related to at least one of us or should we just wait for a donated embryo to become available? The RE is waiving his cost of either procedure but there is still a significant difference in cost. The egg donor process will probably be close to $10,000 while the donated embryo will only cost us the meds to get ready for transfer.

I'm struggling between wanting a baby who at least is related to my husband biologically and feeling like it might be easier if the child isn't related to either of us. I had the long night's grieving over the fact that I will never look at my child and see my mother's eyes or my father's smile. Is it selfish to feel it isn't fair for my husband to have that connection when I don't? That somehow the baby will belong more to his family than to mine? Don't get me wrong, I will LOVE any child who comes into our lives and will never doubt that they are mine in my heart. I'm just feeling so conflicted about which way to go at the moment. What would you do?

Mourning My Genes

Dear Mourning:

At its root, your question isn't really about donor gametes (about which Jane would have shook her head in confusion--poor Jane, woefully ignorant of the leaps in medical knowledge that will take place in later centuries). It's about marriage and the negotiations that take place between couples. There are the small ones that everyone does--the often-quoted one involves toilet seats that are left up or down. And, unfortunately, you've entered a realm that few ever reach--decisions that will define not only the rest of your own life, but that of generations to come. There are great books out there such as Mommies, Daddies, Donors and Surrogates by Diane Ehrensaft that can help you sort through your feelings. But because it is outside most people's base of understanding and experience, the decision requires you to be trailblazers, cutting out a new path. As I've said before, take only my advice that speaks to your heart and disregard the rest--these types of decisions are extremely personal and while others can help you sort through the pros and cons of the choices, only you can know how you weigh each reason on the list.

But back to marriage.

In Mansfield Park, Jane writes on the topic of marriage, "...there is not one in a hundred of either sex who is not taken in when they marry. Look where I will, I see that it is so; and I feel that it must be so, when I consider that it is, of all transactions, the one in which people expect most from others, and are least honest themselves."

Negotiating life with another person requires us to sometimes make choices that we would never make on our own. They're not necessary dishonest in the sense of lying, but dishonest in that they don't really represent what we are thinking or feeling. They're necessary because we compromise out of love for another person. A spouse or partner is that ultimate love that makes us transcend our selfish impulses and consider the other person first.

That's what Jane would do.

Now what should you do?

Everyone in Jane's novels has a series of confidantes, and I deserve a few too when I'm thinking through your questions. I put my head together with the brilliant and beautiful Perspicacious Babe. We both read between the lines of your question and came to the same conclusion--your heart wants to go the donor embryo route but, at the same time, your heart doesn't want to want to go the donor embryo route. There are two main reasons I can see for why you wouldn't want to admit that desire outright.

I suspect that one reason is that you feel yucky having these thoughts--these thoughts about biology and belonging and ownership that are completely natural. I imagine there are few people in this world who are mourning the fact that they are not passing along their genes who don't pause to think about the inequality this situation could create (emphasis on the could because from what I've observed in life and read, it doesn't actually seem to be the case the majority of the time).

The second reason is that you want to know definitively that your husband made the decision with you instead of because of you. If he were to read this question, he may pick up on your wishes and go the donor embryo route not because it is the route that sits best with him, but because he wants to make you happy.

You have three sound reasons for wanting to do donor embryo: timing, cost, and equality. The timing is a bit better, the cost is definitely better, and the equality that donor embryo creates is possibly the peace of mind you need at this juncture of your journey to parenthood. Donor egg felt right at some point (and maybe it still does), or perhaps it has always felt a bit wrong but you did it for the same reasons you fear your husband would act if you admitted your own feelings. However you viewed donor egg before, donor embryo has since become the more enticing option. That's not to say that you're anti-donor egg. You state the benefits of remaining on the same path. I think you will ultimately be okay with whichever path you end up choosing. But having to make the choice is excruciating. Especially when you want to make sure that neither of you will have any regrets or doubts.

Without communication, the most thoughtful marriages can turn into an O. Henry story a la "The Gift of the Magi". Yet instead of selling your hair to buy him a watch chain while he sells his watch to buy you combs, the modern day donor gamete version of this story would have the wife saying, "I didn't tell you that I wanted to do donor embryo because I didn't want to hurt your feelings or have you mourn the loss of your genetic material as I did!" while the husband replies, "I only went with donor eggs because I thought it was what you wanted to do. I would have been happy with donor embryos and becoming a parent through any path."

Even the most thoughtful partner needs information in which to form all those thoughtful actions. You may be surprised that when you present why you prefer one path over another that he counters that it doesn't matter (or perhaps it does, but at least you can enter into a conversation about it and get to a better place of understanding).

So how do you have this conversation?

Perspicacious Babe points out, "she'll feel better if she doesn't have a reason to feel that she has pressured him into it. So the trick is to arrange a discussion where she gets his honest opinion on the subject. It's harder than it sounds, when you get tangled in this web of 'but are you just saying what you think I want to hear?'"

Therefore, you'll have to exchange information at the same time (and this is a method that anyone can use if they're trying to make a decision without influencing the other person). It obviously won't work if you sit across a table and talk simultaneously, therefore, it's time to take out your pens and a piece of paper.

Each person will answer the following six questions (in complete sentences using proper MLA format...) on a piece of paper. They will fold and seal their answers until both people are finished. Perspicacious Babe has given you the added assignment of this: on a separate piece of paper, each person will write down any additional questions they want to ask the other person directly. They will exchange the paper with the additional questions. Each person will answer the additional questions and fold over this paper as well. When everyone is ready, they will give each other their two sets of answers and separate for a moment to read them. Why separate? Because you need to focus on the other person's words and not their visible reaction (or lack thereof) to your words. Once you have given their side some thought, come back together for the discussion.

This is the time to be as honest and open as possible. At the end of the conversation, you'll hopefully have a path set that both parties feel comfortable walking. And, as said by the ever-perspicacious Perspicacious Babe, "you might be ready to cycle and be pregnant again, but if you're not ready to choose a path, you're not ready." I'm sending many good thoughts to you that you find your peace soon.

The Questions

1. What do you see as the benefits of donor egg?
2. What do you see as the benefits of donor embryo?
3. What do you see as the drawbacks of our current donor egg situation?
4. What do you see as the drawbacks of donor embryo in general?
5. What is your understanding of why we choose the donor gamete path over adoption? Do you still want to be on the donor gamete path and why?--I ask this question because it could reveal that he's tied to the idea of control over prenatal conditions and not the genetic ties DE would afford him. Oh...and cut my "why" out before you put this question on the question list...
6. Based on gut instinct, what do you want to do next?

Now you (yes, you--I'm talking to you. The one reading this advice column) need to weigh in. Put yourself in Mourning's shoes and employ a what would Jane do attitude to give her advice on this situation. Leave a comment for Mourning elaborating or contradicting my advice--just do it in a ladylike or gentlemanly way.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A True Celebration

Dear Jane:

The evil diagnosis known as PCOS runs very strongly on my dad’s side of the family. Almost every female in my generation has PCOS and has had trouble getting pregnant, from having to take Clomid, to injectables, to IVF. For whatever reason, I have never felt jealous of any of my cousins who have been able to conceive, perhaps because I had first-hand experience with the battle they had overcome.

My question is this: After three long years and a miscarriage along the way, I am proud to be expecting twins after IVF. During the whole infertility/miscarriage phase, I drew lots and lots of support from all of my family, but particularly from my cousins, who have also suffered and knew what I was going through. Now that I am somewhat safely in the third trimester, I feel like celebrating.My mom has planned a huge double baby shower for myself and my sister (who is expecting after using Clomid to overcome PCOS), and I am really looking forward to it.

The problem is that there are still two cousins who are down deep in the trenches of infertility. How do I make them feel comfortable? I have only spoken to one of them since becoming pregnant, and I know it was a very hard meeting for the both of us. She was happy for us, but at the same time, sad for herself--a totally normal experience. I was also fraught with worries about another miscarriage at the time, so that colored the meeting as well. I would totally understand if they did not want to or were not emotionally able to attend the shower, but at the same time I do not want to exclude them if they want to come. So my question is, if they do come, how can I make the day easier for them, yet still enjoy it for myself? And if they don’t come, should I offer a word of support or acknowledgment that it’s okay, or should I just leave well enough alone?

Sensitive Mama-to-Be

Dear Sensitive:

Showers of any sort--bridal or baby--have the potential to fall into the dual extremes of sense or sensibility like Jane Austen's famous novel. On one extreme you have the neoclassical "sense" which includes moderation, sensitivity, and thoughtfulness sometimes at the expense of personal enjoyment. On the other end, you have romantic "sensibilities" of passion and excess sometimes without being mindful of how your guests are enjoying your joy. Jane would caution you against either extreme in any aspect of life--the best celebrations come from those that balance sense with sensibilities and set-up their bottle-shaped balloons and onesie painting stations somewhere on the middle ground.

That's what Jane would do.

Now what should you do?

I think you should take a page out of Jane's book. Sense is whispering to you that you shouldn't hold a party at all because you're thoughtful enough to realize that it may upset your two cousins. But sensibility is telling you that you've waited long enough for your turn and it's time to celebrate your hard-won children-to-be. How do you find that middle ground?

You have the unique ability to easily slip into their shoes. You know how sad you can be for yourself and your own situation while simultaneously being happy for another person. You also know from being in the infertility world that not everyone has the ability to muster up that happiness for others and it's not a reflection of the love they have for that person. It's simply infertility kicking their ass a little too hard and different coping mechanisms. Infertility teaches us quickly that we gain nothing by judging another person.

If you don't invite the two cousins, you set them apart as pariahs of the family. At the same time, once you take a step on that path, you may take people off the party list who really wanted to celebrate with you and leave on those who would rather be anywhere else than a baby shower. The reality is that you don't truly know how other people--even those with children--are viewing your shower. Perhaps they had to stop before their family was finished and they're still mourning their fertility though they have children. Maybe they wanted twins and are jealous that they had a singleton while you hit their jackpot. Maybe they simply hate parties or when anyone else is happy. You just don't know.

Which is why I would extend the same "out" to anyone I invited if I had fears about how they were going to react to my celebration. I would do it lightheartedly because this is a party and I would make it an insert that you stuff into certain invitations. Perhaps everyone who is of child-bearing age if you want to be really thoughtful. I've included an example below--feel free to take it and personalize it (and perhaps shorten it) and use it with invitations. And after you've done your part, relax and enjoy your shower. Many times when I have done this, I haven't changed a thing about the party, but people view it differently because they know they are there by their own volition instead of through social or familial pressure. So keep the baby-bottle balloons and onesie station for yourself--it's still a celebration and it's your hard-won celebration.

The Longest Baby Shower Invitation Addendum In the World

This is the baby shower invitation addendum we all wish someone would send us when we're in the throes of cycling. Trying to conceive with PCOS just sucks. It doesn't matter if you need a little assistance or IVF: seeing that period month after month is heartbreaking. I have spent too many times dreading showers or having a brief cry in bathrooms during parties to subject anyone else to that. Therefore, this is your out.

There, I said it. You have an out because I completely understand. I know if you don't come that it's not a reflection on how you feel about me--it's just hard to see the big belly and pink and blue balloons without thinking about how much you want it too. If you already have children, it may still dredge up painful memories from the past. I know that it's the baby shower and not the person. In other words, I know you love me and I love you too.

That said, I'm inviting you because I really want you there. Because you're my cousin and I love you and I want to celebrate with you. I'm not telling you this so you feel guilty if you use the out--I'm telling you this precisely because I want you to use the out if you need it.

You have given me so much support already and even if you don't feel up to the shower, you're with me all the time through the sensitivity and concern you taught me through your support. If I'm being overly sensitive right now, it's because I was bombarded with thoughtfulness.

I'll never be offended if you can't be there. I'll miss you a lot, but I'll never be offended.

Now you (yes, you--I'm talking to you. The one reading this advice column) need to weigh in. Put yourself in Sensitive's shoes and employ a
what would Jane do attitude to give her advice on this situation. Leave a comment for Sensitive elaborating or contradicting my advice--just do it in a ladylike or gentlemanly way.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Advice Life

We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.
--Jane Austen in Mansfield Park

Giving advice would be much easier if I kept it to the bare essentials: go with your gut. It rarely leads you astray. More often, when you're getting off-course it's because you've thought everything through too deeply. Go back to the beginning--what was your first instinct? That is usually the correct one.

But since you've taken the time to write out a detailed letter, it feels only right to provide a detailed response going through the whats and whys of it all. But here's the problem with giving advice--I'm limited to the information you've given me. I don't know if your friend is someone you met a few days ago or has been in your life since kindergarten. I don't know if she is part of a larger circle of friends or if she could be excised from your life easily. And, most importantly, I don't know all the complex emotions that go into painting the larger picture of how you feel about her. Has there always been something about her that has grated on you or are you confused because until this point, you've always felt that she was more like a sister. I just don't know.

It comes down to the fact that while I'm proficient in general social codes, I'm not fluent in the unique idioms of your life. Even if I spent every single day with you and you told me everything you thought and felt, I would still never know you as well as you know yourself.

Therefore, here is the key to take away from all of this: another person's advice is only as good as how much it speaks to you. In Mommies, Daddies, Donors and Surrogates, Diane Ehrensaft quotes Flight of the Stork author Anne Bernstein, "as you cut the suit to fit your body and not your body to fit the suit, take expert advice only when it fits." Therefore, if my advice goes against what your heart was telling you to do when you wrote me the question, go with your heart.

Then why even ask for advice? To get confirmation that you're on the right track, to gather ideas on how to approach a problem you already know you need to tackle, to hear how an outsider sees your situation. And sometimes, your heart is simply whispering too softly and it's impossible to hear the message your gut is trying to send. Those are the times when hearing another person's words can help you form your own and send you on your way towards a solution or peaceful acceptance.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Singing in the Rain

Dear Jane:

We are just starting our first egg donor cycle after 3 years and many failed attempts. A very close family member is about 6 months pregnant and will be visiting other family nearby next weekend. I don't want to see her because I am not only envious but the ugly word, jealous. I have never really even asked about the pregnancy. Pretty much avoided the topic at all costs and the rest of the family have been gracious enough to do the same. Thankfully, every one lives out of town.

Question: Do you think it will be easier for me to just take the plunge and see her this weekend or to keep putting it off until the inevitable? I just don't know how I will react and am afraid of
falling apart. On the other hand, maybe I won't feel much and realize the fear itself was worse than facing it.

Avoiding the Baby Bump

Dear Avoiding:

In Mansfield Park, Austen writes of two cousins growing up together, "Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connections can supply."

Just look at Elizabeth clomping through the mud in Pride and Prejudice to come to her sister's aid to get some sense of where Austen places the importance of being there for family. If Jane were here, she'd lend you her favourite dress and sit with you as you got ready so you could steel yourself for the meeting and jump back to that moment in your head any time you needed to escape the room. But she'd make you go for the sake of family.

That's what Jane would do.

But what should you do?

If she were a friend, I would tell you that you should do whatever you need to do to get through that weekend without creating a larger problem for yourself down the road. But, if you were to do what you want to do (avoid the visit), I think you're setting yourself up for more work down the road: family has a funny way of being difficult to avoid at times and you don't want the first visit to be during an even more emotionally-intense gathering (such as a holiday or a life-cycle event).

It's about taking control for yourself and taking power away from that meeting. The control is that you're creating the terms of the visit. The power comes from the fact that the longer you wait, the more your fears build and the harder it will be.

It's not that family should be held to a different standard than friends, but it's harder to disentangle yourself from family therefore it's more important to commit the energy to the relationship. In other words, as much as it sucks, unlike a friend you can avoid, you either have to remove yourself from family events and miss out on important moments with people who have known you your entire life (not to sound like a hysterical elderly aunt lecturing you on the importance of family) or you have to see these people because you can't pick another family to hang out with instead. People who don't have the support of family are probably better at understanding how much is missed by being estranged from relatives than those who do have a strong relationship with their family.

You need to also consider the message your actions send. Think of it this way: there are acute problems and there are chronic problems. Acute problems either come on suddenly or come knowingly and literally blot out your ability to focus anywhere but inwardly. Death, pregnancy loss, and divorce all have an intense emotional period--an electrical storm of mourning followed by a drizzle that can alternate between a summer shower and a grey, dreary, stay-inside steady misting.

Chronic problems such as infertility are more like living in Seattle. It's always raining. Therefore you learn how to work your way around it, even if the rain still gets under your skin sometimes. You bring an umbrella. Seeing this cousin is sort of like choosing to open that umbrella and get to work on time--it isn't pleasant and you'd rather stay in bed all day, but it's a task that must be done. And you'll be happy that you opened the umbrella and got to work when you get that paycheck at the end of the week.

Perhaps too much analogy?

In general society, we usually give a get-out-of-obligations pass to those undergoing an acute problem though even that pass has an expiration date. Yet we rarely excuse those with a chronic problem. Why? Because we're bloody unfair. And because a chronic problem is like living in Seattle--it's not a passing thunderstorm; it's a very wet lifestyle.

In the immortal words of Captain Monterey Jack on The State: you deal or you die.

And by deal, I don't mean going through life pretending that you don't have a chronic problem. I mean that you need to be mindful of your situation and aware of your personal limits and respect them. And at the same time, the rest of the world is expecting you to keep living as if it were bright and sunny outside. Since it isn't, you need to take steps to ensure that you remain dry.

So back to how your actions are interpreted. An outsider, even one who is aware of your situation, even one who is a close relative, may take your absence to mean that you can only be happy for them when you are happy yourself. Not that it's true, but that's how it may appear if you always saw your cousin when you were on equal footing and are now avoiding her since she is happy. An insider would understand self-preservation and the fact that this isn't about the person per se but about the pregnancy. But an outsider is bound to take it personally because it's the only explanation they can fully understand.

Since mending a relationship is harder to do than simply spending an afternoon together at this moment in time (and I am assuming that it is an average chronic day and not a flare-up period where you're processing results from a test or a failed cycle), I would go. But I'd take an extra large umbrella with me and this is how it would look:

I would start by calling or emailing your cousin and being upfront about how you may react and why. I would explain how happy you are for her. Your heart separates the pregnancy from the person and while you can be really thrilled for her that she is six months pregnant, you can simultaneously be feeling an intense amount of pain coveting what she has. It's not that you don't want her to have her pregnancy--you just want a child too. I would admit that you may cry and remind her that it isn't something she is doing or not doing. I would ask her to help you enjoy the day (and here is where you'd have to fill in your own needs and what could make the day easier). If you start from a place of explanation, she has two choices. She can be a caring family member and follow your lead and give you what you need. Or she can be self-centered in which you tried and she failed. But I'm going to guess that she'll come through for you since she also has a relationship to protect for the sake of family and knows the rule of not shitting where you eat.

The second part of the plan is to get ready for the meeting with a friend or your husband/partner. With the understanding that they are helping you steel yourself. They're helping you look good and feel good so you can mentally go back to that space of feeling good when the emotions start to overwhelm you. Take a photo in the moment with your phone and if you have to, duck into the bathroom and glance at that picture for a moment and remember that a half hour earlier you were in this space where you were comfortable and in a few hours, you'll be back in a place where you're dry and comfortable. Right now, you're standing in the rain. And it sucks to be wet (because you'll probably get wet even if you're carrying an umbrella), but towels and blankets are waiting for you at home.

Now you (yes, you--I'm talking to you. The one reading this advice column) need to weigh in. Put yourself in Avoiding's shoes and employ a what would Jane do attitude to give her advice on this situation. Leave a comment for Avoiding elaborating or contradicting my advice--just do it in a ladylike or gentlemanly way.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Sing a Song of Six Rents

Dear Jane: I had an amazing friend. She was a co-worker and we got each other through some real shit times at work. She is like the sister (honestly, the whole damn family) I never had.

When we moved last July, we kept in touch via e-mail. She is well aware of the fertility problems we have been through and I have always kept her up to date on our treatment. She has been there the whole way pulling for us. Until last September when I got an e-mail from her. She said she had good news: she was pregnant and expecting a little girl in March. I honestly had absolutely nothing but happiness for her. I must say I've been blissfully unfettered by jealousy or anything like that throughout our infertility treatment. And then I didn't hear from her again.

In October, I got a long e-mail: the baby didn't develop well, no kidneys, not enough amniotic fluid, etc. She was induced, delivered after 27 hours and the baby died immediately. They named her and buried her. She e-mailed me about two weeks after it happened and explained it was too hard to talk about on the phone.

So I didn't call. I should have. But I didn't.

And I didn't tell her a thing about what was going on with us. How do you tell the person who just lost their baby about trying to get pregnant? Within a few weeks, our infertility treatments really kicked up. We went through a
canceled IUI, a canceled IVF cycle, another IUI, and Clomid to no avail. It is the second hardest thing I have been through after my mother's death. At the time I most needed a good friend, I didn't have anyone to turn to. I didn't tell her anything.

She e-mailed this week (the first time I have heard from her since the bad news) that she is pregnant again. I've sent several e-mails in the meantime with no reply.
I'm still very happy for her, but I feel like I've lost the ability to relate. She seems exceptionally wrapped up in herself — mourning the loss, attending support groups, etc. And I understand that. I don't mean to sound self-centered, but at some point I want to ask — what about the shit I'm going through? My dad is dying. I'm moving overseas. And I can't get pregnant for love or money. She really used to care. I don't know how to proceed with our friendship. Is this something we should try and work out, or have we just grown too far apart? I feel like this is the time I should be there for her the most, and yet I almost hear myself asking, "What's in it for me?"


Singing the Friendship Blues

Dear Blues:

In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy admits, "I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle." And while he may think that he is telling Elizabeth the most original thing in the world, I think at the root of it, we're all selfish in practice though few are also selfish in principle. We have good intentions of being thoughtful, caring individuals. And then human nature gets in the way.

Jane would never let pride be the reason to lose the friendship. She'd take a stroll through the garden and discuss Life with a capital "L" and by the end of the walk, both friends would come to an understanding. And we'd all learn a lesson and shut the book.

That's what Jane would do.

But what should you do?

If you take your problem back to its root, you would probably see that it has nothing to do with your infertility or her loss or any of the other factors we could point at to shoulder the blame. At the core is the fact that people are self-absorbed. You feel your own emotions so intensely that you can't believe someone else can't feel them vicariously--even a toned down version. If I were to rate my own emotional pain that I feel about infertility, I would give it a fair 10. It has literally driven me to my knees. So how could you not feel the emotions radiating off of me, even if you only receive the residue of my pain at a paltry 5? Or 3? Or even 1? Pain is still...painful. You would expect the person to feel something.

But maybe pain also has an oily outer coating that pushes away what anyone else is feeling, leaving each and every one of us self-absorbed. I think it is the rare person who is always thoughtful before being told.

I think the success of Rent by Jonathan Larsen is the proof in the pudding. We recognize ourselves in those characters even if we're not bohemians living in Alphabet City. Take a little listen and you'll notice that each of the characters barely acknowledges what anyone else tells them. They just stand on the stage and sing about their own pain (and though it's obviously a theater technique to cheat the body towards the audience, I think it's the perfect stance for these characters because no one actually seems to give a crap about what anyone else is saying).

At the funeral for one of their friends, two former couples get into a graveside fight. Joanne spits out to everyone: "We used to have this fight every night, she'd never admit I existed." Mimi responds without even acknowledging the point Joanne makes except to use it as a jumping board to sing about her own shit: "He was the same way! He was always run away, hit the road, don't commit, you're full of shit!" Beyond the fact that they're so self-absorbed that they're ruining everyone else's attempt at mourning, they're actually a damn good example of our natural tendencies to focus on ourselves and use another person's experience to explore our own thoughts and feelings.

Knowing that, don't take her actions personally...yet. The great philosopher, Maimonides, had a theory about the best way to give that can be co-opted to think about how we dole out attention to others. The lowest rung of his 8-rung ladder is that the person gives begrudgingly and not enough after being asked. So apply this to attention: the lowest way to give attention would be that the person needs to point out to you the fact that you're not listening to them and you partially tune-in and then bring it all back to you, giving a brief nod in their direction to indicate that you listened.

A much higher rung of this attention ladder would be that the person gives more than enough attention before being asked, not only providing a patient ear, but also asking pointed questions to help the speaker come to a better understanding of their own situation. In between are all the shades of grey where most of us exist. I think that all of us are capable of attaining one of the higher rungs with just a bit of effort and humility on our part: once the speaker points out how we're not listening, we need to apologize and start giving them what they need. Even the best mind-readers sometimes need a boost to know exactly what you're expecting at that time.

Mend the friendship by calling or writing your friend and explaining the situation. Start by apologizing for not calling after her loss and explain your reason and how you made that decision. Talk about how you regret that decision now because it may have sent the wrong message to her about how important she is to you or the distance you want from her. Explain not only that you need her now but how you need her now--"I need to be able to talk about our fertility treatments and get that support from you." Give her the space to admit her own needs. She may be so wrapped up in her fears about this pregnancy that she needs to focus inward for self-preservation. Think about whether or not you could live with that. Are you willing to allow her to turn inward and not be there for you during this time and leave the door open for her to return once she feels able to do so (there's no right answer--it's just a matter of drawing your own comfort zone)? Be clear about your needs while still trying to keep it natural--I mean, it's not completely helpful to say that you need a weekly email when you may need constant communication at one point in your cycle and barely any at another point. Instead, point out that need for support--via email, phone calls, visits--and explain that you want to be there for her as well.

After you've put your heart on the line and explained your needs, it's up to her to step onto the ladder and for you to determine which rung you're willing to accept as her upper limit. If she doesn't step up and meet you halfway, you have my full permission to turn your focus away from this friendship. But if she's the sister you never had, she sounds worth an explanation.

Now you (yes, you--I'm talking to you. The one reading this advice column) need to weigh in. Put yourself in Blue's shoes and employ a what would Jane do attitude to give her advice on this situation. Leave a comment for Blue elaborating or contradicting my advice--just do it in a ladylike or gentlemanly way.

Monday, July 2, 2007

The Tangled Web Indeed

Dear Jane,

We've been trying to conceive for a little while now - long enough that some of our friends have conceived, carried, and delivered not one but two consecutive children and are thinking about number three. Mostly, I try not to stomp all over their happiness with my grief.

However, I recently got an email from a friend to say she is moving in with her new boyfriend, and I bet I know what's coming next.
A little history: after we started trying, this friend decided she wanted to get married and have kids, but unfortunately her then-boyfriend didn't agree. So she "accidentally" got herself pregnant, and when he left in disgust she had an abortion. A couple of months down the track they got back together and she did it again. This time, after the second abortion, he didn't come back.

Obviously, you have to be pretty fucked up to run your life like that, so I do feel for her. On the other hand, her actions make me kind of ashamed as a woman. I thought we dropped the dishonest manipulation when we got the vote? In any case, it doesn't seem fair that she should be able to fall pregnant with her new boyfriend when we're still trying.
So my question is this: when (if) the announcement comes, do I really have to be happy for her?

Signed, How Do My Green Eyes Look To You

Dear Green:

Let's start out with the note you shouldn't send back when the announcement comes:

Congratulations! Looks like the third time is a charm!

Listen, you said it--not I--she is the embodiment of dishonest manipulation. And while Jane would certainly approve of resourcefulness, I think if we left the two of them alone in a room, Jane would kick her ass twelve ways to Sunday for marring the name of womanhood with dishonesty and cruelty. When you read her books, you can just tell that Jane Austen had mad ninja skills when it came to protecting the sisterhood.

That's what Jane would do.

But what should you do?

First and foremost, the worst thing you could do if that announcement comes would be to do nothing. You have to be proactive if you want to save yourself from the highly-uncomfortable "why aren't you happy for me" email or phone call that will come if you linger too long over the decision. Because what are you going to say? "Actually, I'm really not that happy for you because you have no business being a parent with your fucked-up ethics."

Truthful, but not very ladylike. Even Jane bit her tongue from time to time.

I don't know how much your emotions actually have to do with jealousy over her fertility and how much they have to do with your own cognitive dissonance over being friends with someone who is so untrustworthy. There are two pieces of information missing from your letter: why you two are still friends and do you feel comfortable confiding in her about your own situation.

To figure out your own course of action, you need to think about why you still have her in your life. I'm certainly not saying to drop-kick her as a friend. Camus (who perhaps isn't the best philosopher for thoughts on friendship considering his falling out with Sartre) said, "Friendship is not so simple. It is hard to get and takes a long time, but when one has it one cannot get rid of it, one has to face it."

And talk about having to face it--I mean, what's more in your face than a big round baby bump the third time around?

The fact that she is still in your life after everything she has done speaks loudly to the fact that there is probably more history here than you have shared in the letter--either she is part of your circle of friends and therefore comes with the package or she has been a friend for so long that your lives are too deeply entwined to simply cut her off with a simple snip of the garden sheers. I think you need to establish what you are still getting from this friendship before you can chart your own reaction.

If she simply comes as part of the package with a larger collection of friends, I would take her immediately to arm's length. If she's untrustworthy towards her boyfriends, she's probably not someone you feel safe confiding in with highly emotional information. When the announcement comes, offer a terse but pleasant congratulations. Don't ask more questions than necessary to be polite. Beg off baby showers and trips to maternity clothing stores with prior commitments. Send a gift or a response quickly when necessary. It cuts off many of the opportunities for your friend to push the issue about the genuineness of your happiness and it holds her firmly at arm's length.

It gets more complicated if she has somehow overcome the lack of trustworthiness to remain within your inner circle. At that point, this comes down more to you and how you see yourself. A fellow blogger once wrote a long post about why she writes thank you cards even though she never gets them in return for her gifts. She was the type of person who sent thank you cards. And it felt right to send thank you cards. It didn't matter what anyone else said or did in return, she sent them simply because they were part of who she wanted to be. If she is in your inner circle, this begs the question of what sort of friend do you want to be. It makes life a lot easier when you base your own reaction not in their worthiness or what they've done but in the person you want to be.

If you're the type of person who sends onesies the second the announcement comes and plans everyone's baby shower, I think your largest source of discomfort when the situation comes to a head will come from the fact that you are not behaving like yourself. When that happens, you're going to turn the anger onto yourself rather than the woman who has brought out this reaction in you. Screw that! You have enough on your plate to also be angry with yourself at the same time.

Remind yourself how you usually act, grit your teeth, and proceed to lessen the chance of cognitive dissonance. If you're the type of person who sends back a congratulations email and the requisite gifts but rarely becomes more involved in other people's pregnancies, I think you can do your bare minimum and feel good knowing that you remained true to your own vision of yourself. Again, this time, it may take some teeth gritting to be yourself, but if she is part of your inner circle and you don't want to lose the friendship, you need to extend to her the same actions and words you would anyone else in your inner circle.

If she knows everything that you're going through and she still thrusts her pregnancy information upon you, add freakin' insensitive to dishonest and manipulative. Beg off by pointing out your own situation. It's sort of like inviting someone who just lost their hair to chemotherapy to your big make-over party with an expensive stylist. Why the hell are you dragging them through that emotionally?

If at the end of all of this advice you realize that she is someone who can easily be cut from your life, it may be in your own best interests in the sense of self-preservation. I can't imagine that you get as much out of this relationship as she does knowing what you know. You don't need to make a big deal out of the ending of the friendship if she's far enough on your periphery of friends. A lady doesn't burn bridges when she's not forced to light a fire. Slinky slink away and sigh a deep breath of relief that you're not her boyfriend--past, present or future.

Now you (yes, you--I'm talking to you. The one reading this advice column) need to weigh in. Put yourself in Green's shoes and employ a what would Jane do attitude to give her advice on this situation. Leave a comment for Green elaborating or contradicting my advice--just do it in a ladylike or gentlemanly way.

What Would Jane Do?

Jane Austen knew how to create a good sassaholic--those women who both buck and embrace the social codes of their time. Emma declares herself a matchmaker and goes about butting into everyone's business in an effort to create couplehood. She meddles--but always in a way that has kindness as the driving intention. And Elizabeth, I mean how can you not love Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice? When her sister is ill, she treks through the countryside to come to her rescue and shows up splattered with mud (that's the sassaholic in her) yet still has time to accept some good woo from Mr. Darcy (that's a chickie who understands that social codes exist for a reason).

At the end of the day, while they may be meddlesome or forward or brutally honest, they are also always ladylike. And when I am having one of those days when I'm finding it difficult to swallow what I really want to say, I take a deep breath and say to myself:

"What would Jane do?"

It's a question that serves well in coming up with a response that has a foot firmly planted in kindness (because my motto, like all doctors, is "first, do no harm.") while still kicking up that other foot in protest at all the insensitivities and thoughtlessness of this world.

So what can you expect from me when you ask for advice? An answer that first and foremost is well-intentioned and grounded in kindness. A solution that keeps in mind social codes while still helping you to buck the system with ladylike sensibilities. Social codes are there as guides--not boundaries. You can say "no" and you will say "no" and there is nothing unladylike about the word. Lastly, you will receive ideas that will help you find your own inner sass and remember that you have the potential to kick more ass than a ninja. Because you rock. In a nutshell.

After all I may sometimes come off as a bit in-your-face, telling strangers about my childrens' conception when they ask me if my twins are natural, but I also will always be kind. And I'll stop before I explain the inner workings of my hoohaahooterus. Because, come on, I'm a freakin' lady.

So welcome--grab yourself a cup of tea and a comfortable chair, yank off your white gloves and let's get down to business.