I have a guilty secret to confess. I know I’m modern and educated and the possessor of many useful skills. I know I have far better things to do with my time than to watch reality television. I hate to admit it, but the truth is that I’m kind of obsessed with watching shows about those Duggars. You know, that family in Arkansas whose qualification for television stardom is having given birth to 19 kids.
For many years I didn’t own a television. I had started motherhood planning to avoid the influence of tv, but when my son was 12 months old I was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer and all my life plans got changed. I found myself frequently quarantined at home on chemo with my toddler son looking for ways to pass the time. My son was feeling isolated and craving interaction with other children, and I stumbled onto the show while looking for kid-appropriate programs that showed live children behaving naturally and unscripted. At the time the Duggars were working on kid number 18, and my son was immediately fascinated with this massive family of kids and their house humming with constant play. He would beg to watch the Duggar kids. “What dose Afeem kids doin, mama?”
In those lonely days when our tiny little family of three was narrowing down to two as my first husband faded out of our lives during the course of my illness, my son and I repeatedly watched episodes. We were both carrying heavy dreams of a different life for ourselves, a life of health and a happy marriage and the pitter-patter of friendly little brother and sister feet. It was a struggle to adjust to a life of single-motherhood and a future knowing that my body would never be able to conceive a sibling for my son, that brother or sister that we both missed.
As time passed, I remarried and as my son rejoiced in having a man in our home who loved his mama and loved him, life got easier, but some of the heavy dreams remained. I had the joy of a devoted husband who loved my son, but I missed some of the hopeful feelings of new marriage. I missed the feeling of confidence in my health and the ability to plan for my future. I missed having functional ovaries. I missed having breasts. I missed having a normally functioning heart. I missed the chance to hope. No hope of giving my new husband his own child. No hope of ever feeling a baby kick in my belly or nurse at my chest again. No hope that any month could bring a surprise new addition to our family. Yet still, I obsessively watched those Duggars pop out more babies. I watched them say that children are the blessing of God and that God plans every baby’s birth, and I wonder how to explain why God planned to never bless me with another child. I would hold my dear son close and wonder how poor infertile people who have never held even one baby of their own can handle it seeing other people have unimaginable numbers of children. Sometimes I would cry, maybe I watched it in order to cry, because I still kept watching.
Today, a cold, rainy sick-day for me, I re-watched the episode where the Duggars’ twentieth child, who died in the womb, was memorialized and buried. I don’t begrudge them their tears or their actions. I think that every child’s life is precious and worth honoring and that a memorial service for a stillborn baby is good and right. What awed me about the episode was how good and right such a service can be. All the members of this massive family were suffering and yet each expressed the feeling that being able to publicly share their grief and disappointment and receive the hugs, kind words, shared tears and prayers with others gave them comfort. The ritual of a funeral helped them to manage their grief.
I wish there was such a ritual for the barren. A time to gather up all the people who love you and explain your situation to them once and for all in a way that would put all awkward questions to rest. Formally announce you are not capable of bearing children and that you need to bury your hopes for that little child who would be the perfect combination of the two of you, the ultimate expression of your loving union, and who unfortunately will never exist. I wish for some ceremony that everyone would recognize and be comfortable joining in that would walk me through the process of grief over my infertility. I wonder if I would feel better if I could have just one day dedicated to receiving hugs and prayers for this loss. I wonder how would it feel to collectively share tears for this grief in a real validating way that doesn’t attempt to diminish the experience with platitudes. I wonder if such a ceremony could actually bring closure in a meaningful way to what seems like an unending situation of ongoing loss. I think the world would be better for such a ritual. I wish this ceremony even more for all the childless people in the world whose pain and grief must be tremendously greater than mine. For all those carrying heavy dreams they don’t know how to put down, I wish a ceremony to honor the loss of the child that only existed in these parents’ hearts.
I’ve heard that you can’t miss what you never had. I just don’t believe it. Some of the things I never had are the things I miss the most.