Justine Brooks Froelker said her infertility journey, which has not resulted in that “adorable picture of the ‘complete’ family, baby and all,” makes people uncomfortable and sad.
She and her husband, Chad, are unable to have children, and after two unsuccessful rounds of in vitro fertilization, they have decided they are done with fertility treatments. When people hear that, they immediately move into problem-solving mode, she said.
“People’s first reactions, even my pastor’s reaction, is ‘Well, why don’t you just adopt?’ ” said Brooks Froelker, 35, a mental health therapist in St. Louis.
“And I know that question, for the most part, comes from a place of love and they know I would be a great mother. They want to take care of my pain. They sure as heck don’t want to sit in pain with me because it’s so uncomfortable, so they’d rather have sympathy for me and fix it,” she said during a phone interview.
Instead of getting angry and frustrated when she gets the question, as a therapist she shifts into educator mode and tries to help people understand that adoption is an “awesome option” for many families but it wasn’t on the table for her and her husband.
Her husband was always open and honest in saying that adoption wasn’t an option for him, she writes in “Ever Upward,” a beautiful book about her infertility journey released this month.
For herself, she said she almost feels like she knows “too much” about attachment disorders from her work as a therapist, treating patients including mothers struggling with an adopted child or adopted children who never feel like they know who they are or where they belong.
“We have not made this decision in a place of fear because we really worked through it,” she said.
It is OK to say adoption isn’t for you, she said. It is OK to own that decision, she writes in the book.
“It takes a lot more courage for me to stand up and say, ‘I know adoption is not right for my family,’ but the only thing harder than that would be to not listen to my truth and my husband’s truth and what I know is right for our family and to just adopt because that is what we are supposed to do.”
When you can’t afford to adopt
During her five-year battle with infertility, Christy Harris, 27, of Calgary, Alberta, said she too would constantly get the question why doesn’t she just adopt.
“Like it’s that easy,” she said during an interview. “People think you can just walk down to City Hall and say, ‘I want a kid,’ and they go, ‘OK.’ ”
She and her husband started looking into adoption and determined that financially they couldn’t swing it. Adoptions through private agencies can cost $20,000 to $30,000, she said.
“We couldn’t even consider IVF because I didn’t think we could afford IVF. So if we can’t afford the $15,000 they want for IVF, I can’t spend $30,000 to adopt,” she said.
Public adoptions in Canada, which are provided through government or public agencies and don’t involve hefty costs, weren’t an option either because they typically come with multiyear waiting lists, she said.
There is also an emotional side to the decision, Harris said.
“You’re letting go of this idea of carrying your own child, of having that kind of bond. You won’t be able to breast-feed. You won’t be able to feel them move,” she said.
“Letting go of the concept that you won’t be able to carry your own child is really hard. It’s really emotional, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with adoption. If I could afford it, I would absolutely be all over it, but it’s one of those things where I don’t think it’s fair that people assume that just because you can’t have kids you are now responsible to go and adopt.
“People consider you selfish if that’s not what you’re looking at, and it’s not that you’re selfish. You just want a chance to have a family and kind of be like everybody else,” said Harris who learned earlier this year, after taking fertility medications to increase her production of eggs, that she was pregnant.
She is now in her fourth month and documenting every part of the journey on a blog, just as she detailed on her blog and the site Unspoken Grief, the “roller coaster” of her life during five years of trying to conceive.
“I think infertility is something that people should talk about. We need to get rid of the idea that people just need to relax and try and think about adoption and you’ll instantly get pregnant because that’s not the way life works,” she said.
‘Single and barren: Don’t label me’
So often, when we hear about infertility stories in the media, they involve a successful outcome, which we know, from experiences such as Brooks Froelker’s, is not always the case.
We also tend to hear about people in relationships who are trying to conceive, not single women such as Ahuva Constance Scharff, director of addiction research for Cliffside Malibu.
Scharff, 43, shared her story with CNN’s iReport and called it “Single and barren: Don’t label me.”
She said she always had a suspicion she might have trouble getting pregnant, because she was badly sexually abused from the age of 7 until 10. When she got her period, her menstrual cycle was never right, which made her wonder if she suffered physical damage because of the abuse. She never looked into it because she wasn’t with a partner and trying to have children.
Years later, in her late 30s, she started hemorrhaging, and was literally bleeding to death, she said. Her uterus ultimately had to be removed, which meant she would definitely never be able to carry her own child.
She comforted herself by knowing that she would be the best “auntie” she could be. But when her brother married outside the Jewish religion and had only one child, with whom she doesn’t have much contact, she hit rock bottom.
“I was like, ‘Oh wait a minute. I’m not going to be the auntie that I wanted to be and I don’t have a choice of having my own child,’ and those two things were absolutely devastating,” said Scharff, author of “Meeting God at Midnight,” a book of poetry.
She didn’t get out of bed for months, she said. For probably two years, if a pregnant woman or a child under 2 entered a room she was in, she left. “I just couldn’t even handle seeing it.”
Even today, she said she still can’t quite talk about her inability to have a child without crying, especially as a Jewish woman committed to a faith and culture that traditionally revolves around family.
“There’s so much pressure for everybody to have (a) child, or many children, to rebuild the community in the traditional sense And so I get hammered constantly by everyone from the rabbis to the old ladies to the young parents who are like, ‘It’s your responsibility to do this,’ and I’m like, ‘I can’t. I physically can’t.’ ”
Their response often is “adoption is always an option,” but it’s not, she said.
When she was younger, she didn’t meet the financial threshold to win approval for adoption. Plus, internationally, there are challenges trying to adopt from orphanages, which are often run by Christians, when you are a Jew, she said.
Even now when she makes enough money to qualify, she knows adoption would always be tough, she said.
“Really? Like a middle-aged single lady is going to beat out a lovely young couple? Of course not.”
Scharff has since decided she is not cut out to be a single mother. “The season for me to be a mother is over. It’s gone.”
What ultimately saved her during her darkest days was the realization that she either had to go and live her life, or she was going to die.
“I kept looking at the barrenness and finally a friend of mine said, ‘You are not barren. You have so much to give,’ and that’s what I focused on,” she said, pouring herself into her work as an author and speaker, and her expertise on addiction research.
“Every single day I try to help save people’s lives and I write beautiful books to inspire people,” she said. “It really is what saved me … having that friend (say), ‘You are not a waste of space because you can’t reproduce. You have so much to give.’ ”
When you feel like you just have to keep trying
The question Nelwyn Luman gets from time to time is why can’t she just be happy with her two healthy children, who are 5 and 8.
Luman, 40, a registered nurse in Marianna, Florida, grew up in a family of three siblings, and always wanted three children of her own. But she is suffering from what is called secondary infertility, which is the inability to have children after the birth of one or more biological children.
She has lost seven pregnancies, ranging from four weeks to 16 weeks, and miscarried five times since the birth of her second child, a daughter, in 2010.
The losses have led to anxiety attacks, severe depression, sleeplessness and mental and physical fatigue. Some days the “grief hits full force and it seems there is no letting up,” Luman wrote in an email.
“There’s a drive in you that you … feel like you just have to keep trying,” she said during a phone interview. “It’s just a nagging feeling. It’s overwhelming at times, and it’s not so much that I think you are feeling incomplete or anything. It’s just that something was taken from you. You are helpless.”
When she was in the emergency room during her last miscarriage — waiting for doctors to tell her and her husband what they already knew, that there was no heartbeat again — her husband suggested they try to adopt.
“The desperation of wanting another child consumed me and all my energy went forth into the paperwork and calls that were necessary to get the adoption process going,” she wrote.
Deep inside, though, there was just something that “didn’t feel right” about adopting. She had concerns about being able to bond with an adopted child, the way she bonded with her biological children, and the thought of what the child might have experienced before being adopted and how that could affect the child’s development.
So right before they were about to have someone come to their house to do a home study, a necessary step before you can be approved for any adoption, she and her husband stopped the process.
They have since turned their attention to fertility treatments, and were about to begin the process of IVF when, at the last minute, her husband said he was not ready yet, so they backed out.
“He’s watching me go through so much that I think it’s kind of hard for him,” she said.
The experience is draining, she said. What helps is when people are compassionate about how difficult infertility can be no matter where you are on the journey, she said.
“I think it’s best for people to know that it’s OK not to have the right answer or the right thing to say,” she said. “It’s OK to just be. You don’t have to mend anything.”
Defining a ‘happy ending’
When infertility journeys don’t lead to children, people often think there is no possible “happy ending,” said Brooks Froelker.
But her book and her blogs for The Huffington Post are all about conveying the message that every woman, no matter what her infertility path, can find her own happiness.
She said she and her husband have found different ways to parent and have kids in their lives, making their lives “childfull” not “childless.”
They are guardians and godparents to many children. They are also close to the family of the gestational surrogate they used during their two rounds of IVF. They reached out to a surrogate because Brooks Froelker had two back surgeries when she was younger and did not know if she could carry a child.
A few months after their surrogate miscarried with their last embryo, the surrogate became pregnant with her own child. Brooks Froelker said the surrogate then called her, which she said “had to be the hardest phone call she ever made.”
It felt like a “huge slap in the face,” Brooks Froelker said, but it left her with a life-changing choice.
“I may never get to know exactly why I’m the one that had to have two back surgeries or I’m the one whose surrogate did not get pregnant with my child … but got pregnant with a third unexpected child,” she said.
“But I can choose what I do with that, and that’s what I call ‘rising ever upward.’ That’s why the book is called ‘Ever Upward.’ It’s choosing my perspective, and I get to choose what the heck I do with that.”
Accepting her infertility and her “childfull life,” which includes relationships with her surrogate’s three children, doesn’t mean she still doesn’t have those bad days where she thinks, “Damn it, why didn’t it work for us?”
It’s a “forever journey,” where she will always be continuing to heal, but what helps, she said, is a society more understanding about what happens when infertility treatments don’t work and adoption is not an option.
“Knowing the difference between empathy and sympathy” is crucial, she said.
“I don’t need you to feel sorry that I am a 35-year-old woman who wanted to be a mother but doesn’t get to be a mother in your traditional sense of the word. When you feel sorry for me, that leaves me feeling more alone … but for you to look at me, and say, ‘That sucks. I’m sorry. You would have been a great mother. What do you do now?’ That’s different.
“That difference between feeling with me and feeling for me, I think that’s a big part of it.”