Pamela Mahoney Tsigdinos was in the first wave of friends I made in BlogLand back in the old days (2007) when, already in our 40s, we were senior-ish in the infertility community. We got to meet in person in 2008 when we shared a panel at BlogHer.
As one of the pioneers for the least understood path out of infertility — living as a family of two — Pamela knew from early on that she had something to say, a viewpoint that needed to be shared, and in 2009 she released her book Silent Sorority: A Barren Woman Gets Busy, Angry, Lost and Found. Her original blog, Coming 2 Terms, has morphed into A Fresh Start, where you can find her posting these days.
As I said in my Amazon review of Silent Sorority,
If you’ve ever wanted to get inside the head of someone who has experienced infertility, this is a must-read book. Pamela shares how devastating the diagnosis and treatments can be physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Of all the ways out of infertility, living child-free has been the least understood, and this book shows how one couple endured it.
I had some questions for Pamela, and she agreed to answer them here.
When you set out to write your book, what part of your intention was for catharsis, what part was to document, and what portion was to inform the world what it’s like for women who must come to terms with living as a family of two?
All the infertility memoirs and profiles I’d ever come across had one thing in common: the stories ended with the successful delivery of a baby.
As much as I wanted to bury my trauma-inducing infertility experience and erase it from my memory, I found I couldn’t. My sole writing motivation – you could say it was a calling – was broadening the infertility narrative with some truth telling about what happens when conception and pregnancy proved elusive. I knew I could not be the only woman who had devoted years to deciphering an infertility mystery who came away without the successful pregnancy we (not just me but many women) had worked so hard to achieve. It was time “our” story was told.
I was literally driven to write. I woke up many mornings as early as 4:30 am with passages in my head. I’d climb out of bed and write for several hours before going into the office. It was as though I didn’t have a choice. It was my destiny. It clicked one night when I heard Bob Dylan say on 60 Minutes, “Destiny was looking right at me and nobody else … I don’t know how I got to write those songs. Those early songs were almost magically written.”
I’m no Bob Dylan, but that’s how I felt about Silent Sorority – at times it felt magically written.
I had two audiences in mind as I wrote: 1) women who felt disenfranchised by the disproportionate share of voice given to mothers after infertility and 2) their immediate social circle – family and friends who were ignorant of the physical, emotional, and societal challenges faced by couples who are unable to successfully conceive and deliver a child together.
The catharsis that resulted from reliving and reflecting on my own nightmarish experience was purely a bonus.
In the intervening years since your book came out, how well do you think your book has served each of your purposes mentioned above?
Silent Sorority has clearly struck a chord with women who are struggling with disenfranchised grief and don’t know how to process or explain their experience to family and friends. It’s become a proxy for a bigger discussion. I’ve also heard from therapists who counsel couples struggling to heal from the heartbreak of an unrealized dream.
Not a week goes by that I don’t hear from readers who express gratitude for hearing familiar thoughts and emotions shared in an unvarnished and heartfelt way. Just today I heard from a woman in the UK who wrote:
Thank you – two small words but meant so very sincerely. I bought your book. I am two-thirds of my way through it and felt compelled to come find you and say thank you. I felt quite alone in the post-treatment world and your words and story whilst different to mine resonates so strongly that I could not wait till the end of the book to come find you. Thank you so very much for sharing your story with the world.
For me, aging out of childbearing years has helped heal infertility wounds. I know you’re having a milestone birthday this year. Have you found the same to be true?
It gets much easier with each passing year; however, I am amazed at the pressure women well into their forties still have to conceive. One of the questions on the Oscar red carpet fired at Jennifer Aniston who turned 44 this month (and will be married again this year) was “are you pregnant?” At 44, I had long set aside any dreams of motherhood.
One thing that I recognized in myself was the predicament of being prickly. You mentioned that you simultaneously tried to hide your anguish from co-workers and others, and also felt anger when they didn’t notice that you were in obvious pain. I remember holding those two opposing states, as well. What do you wish you could tell those around you at that time about how to deal with such prickliness? I remember people around me saying, Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. I wouldn’t let them help but I was also mad that they didn’t.
My prickliness was not always just about infertility – it also came as result of encountering ignorance or judgment about my life as a “non-mom.” I hope, one day, there will be a generally recognized understanding that pregnancy and childbirth aren’t a given – that Mother Nature and science have limits even in today’s advanced age of technology. I also hope that a new language and etiquette develops around infertility so that couples aren’t forced to have to explain themselves or to educate at the same time they’re in distress. My experience has taught me to be in better tune with others, to read their body language. Life does not always unfold neatly or down one path only, so we all benefit by giving each other space.
I loved this quote: In order to truly come to terms with infertility, I had to stop using the fertile world as a measuring stick. I would forever be an alien if I had stayed in that mindset. How did you come up with new measuring sticks? And have they changed over time? If you’d known where to look, could you have shortened the healing process?
It wasn’t easy to find a new measuring stick. Society thrusts the nuclear family (a social unit that consists of a mother, a father and their children) at us at a young age and follows with constant reminders to see if we’re measuring up. It’s one thing for me (and others like me) to recognize our lives need a new measuring stick, but many of us who don’t meet the nuclear family ideal still routinely face questions about why we don’t have children. Just to turn this on its head, when was the last time you saw parents put on the spot to explain why they have children?
The first step in establishing new metrics is to find others whose lives look more like ours. I hope my writing and outreach has helped shorten the healing process for others. One of my newest measuring sticks involves determining how far we’ve come in reshaping the dialogue concerning lives that unfold along a different trajectory.
I also loved this: I slowly realized that submitting to the pain, not trying to control or deny it, was the first step to healing. And you realized that in order to feel joy again, you had to allow yourself to fully feel the pain. You used the apt analogy of Humpty Dumpty, with the aha that outside help wasn’t coming to patch you up. What role did your blog, your writing have in this revelation and what came after it?
The blogosphere opened up a whole new world for me. In my darkest hours I craved a sense of community, a connection with others who understood my alienation, loss and emotional fragility. In connecting with kindred spirits online, and through the kindness and compassion I was unable to access in my “real” life, I began to truly grieve. I received virtual casseroles that helped me heal. You, Lori, were one of the angels who helped me find the strength to patch myself back together. I have since worked hard to smooth the path for those coming after me.
I’ve heard you say (for example on a Bitter Infertiles podcast), that you don’t like to be the object of pity, for that demeans the full life you have. What can you say about the fine line between compassion and pity, especially as it relates to people going through infertility?
Society doesn’t know what to do with “infertiles.” We make people – parents in particular – uncomfortable because they don’t want to consider a childless life. They view our lives as a rejection of theirs. Readers tell me the biggest challenge they face in moving on and finding a new normal is hearing from others “not to give up” on parenthood. It took me a long time to realize that after mourning my losses and setting aside one set of dreams, I hadn’t give up. I embraced something else.
Infertility – like any disease that alters lives – is best managed with care and concern not pity. I have asthma that prevents me from certain activities. It frustrates me, but I don’t want to be pitied for it. I want to be accepted as I am, acknowledged for the added strength it takes for me to stay fit and do my best to engage in life as fully as I can — faulty lungs and all.
Those of us with faulty reproductive organs, with bodies that prevent us from bearing children don’t want pity. We simply want to be treated with kindness and compassion for the losses we’ve suffered, and accepted — without judgment — for who we are.
What’s next for you?
I’m excited to be engaged with a film producer. We’re focused on generating grassroots support for a documentary on infertility. Readers can help with a Facebook like on Vodar Films. Every show of support helps as we head to the next phase: grant writing.
Pamela Mahoney Tsigdinos is an award-winning author, blogger, and infertility survivor. In her book Silent Sorority, she explores the stigma associated with infertility and the complex effects of living involuntarily childless. Pamela and her blog have been profiled in the New York Times, The Globe and Mail, Sacramento & Company, and Yahoo Shine. Her writing has been featured in online outlets including The New York Times Motherlode blog.