Passport Children (Revisited) – Emotional Infertility as a Parent after Infertility

I originally wrote the post below in November of 2009. Last night as I was beginning to organize my thoughts for my next post about emotional/mental infertility and the effect it is currently having on the ALI community, this post, called “Passport Children” came to mind. I went back to read what I had written more than two years ago and was blown away by what I had verbalized. Back then, I was writing only about my personal struggles with feeling like I was straddling two worlds, with one foot in infertility and the other in the parenting world of fertiles. I explained why I sometimes hesitated to write about my children. Because I just coined the phrase “emotional/mental infertility” only yesterday, I didn’t use the term “emotional infertility” in this post. However, it is clear to see that though I was parenting after infertility, I was still very high on emotional infertility. The original post received over 50 comments. If you read through them you’ll see that this post resonated deeply within many in this community.

This post is so very relevant to the ALI community’s current state of affairs. I was going to just leave a link to this post at the top of my next post on the topic, but I find it so relevant and important that I thought it would be better if I just post it again. This way, it will open up a new discussion that is relevant to our current issue.

If you haven’t already read it, it might also help if you read yesterday’s post: Mental Infertility and Its Impact on the Adoption, Loss, and Infertility Community. Please read and respond to that post, because I’d truly like to hear people’s thoughts about that concept. Respond here also, if you feel so inclined, because I think it strikes right to the core of the current question that is looming in our community:

How can those who’ve resolved their infertility (either as parents or as living childless) coexist in harmony in the ALI community with those still in “the trenches” without causing a chasm between the two?


In April of 2008, I wrote this in a post titled “The Girl Who Knew Too Much:”

Sometimes, a lot of the time, actually, I feel stuck between two
worlds. I identify more closely with the infertility community, but I
have four beautiful children
. Four. The abundance and life
that are they is what it makes it possible for me to feel comfortable,
if not somewhat unbalanced, in the fertile Land of Good and Plenty. I
feel like they are my passport into that world. I am allowed to 
be there, but I am not from there.
I can speak the language and know the culture, but it’s not in my
blood. I sometimes feel like I am a traveler in a foreign land. At
child-focused venues such as birthday parties, playgrounds, and school
functions, I can’t help but wonder how many of those children are also
passports, and if they are, I wonder if their parents feel as out of
place – as lonely – as I do.

In the eight years since I’ve become a parent, the presence of the aforementioned loneliness has waxed and waned depending on whether or not more pressing thoughts like trying to conceive and making it safely through pregnancy again (and again) took priority over mulling feelings of separation from the general mothering community. While working for and carrying the second and third pregnancies, my thoughts were so consumed with the babies within and the ones I already had to fret much about my interactions (or lack thereof) with other mothers. However, in the spaces between the delivery of one pregnancy and the attempts to achieve another, my thoughts again turned to separation I felt from the general population of mothers – the other 90% who luckily landed outside the spectrum labeled infertility. Now that we are completely finished with building our family, there is little reprieve from the question that begs to be answered: Why do I still feel like an outsider?

I’ve thought long and hard about this and the answer, while there are several splinter causes that lead to the effect of feeling out of place, it all boils down to one truth – being a mother after infertility splinters even as it fulfills.

Mother after Infertility – even the phrase itself is splintered, implying that I am not just a mother. I am a mother after a condition and not just a mother in the natural order of life. Fertile mothers, especially those without any losses, just are. 

Even as a mother, I’m still surprised by how often ease of conception comes up in conversational playground/birthday party/school function chit-chat among mothers.

Mother One: I have two, how many do you have?
Mother Two: We have three, and you?
Me:  I have four, plus my nephew. (but I’m infertile *thought but not said*)
Mother One: WOW! You must have your hands full!
Mother Two: Yeah, that’s why I got ’em tied; if my husband and I kiss for too long I get pregnant.
Mother One: Baby Me here, except he got snipped. I had the babies, so he can get the sterility!
Me: wince at ‘sterility’ but rebound quickly with an insert of fake laughter
Mother One: What about YOU? You probably BOTH had to get snipped to keep number five from popping up!
Me: (DIDN’T YOU HEAR THAT I WAS INFERTILE, BITCH?) Uuh…we don’t have to worry much about that.

Blatant boasts of fertility/blithe unawareness of infertility is actually easier for me to deal with, because then it’s clear where the other stands. They’re fertiles. Check. Got it. Be on the standby for potentially-stupid comments. 

When among mothers and there isn’t any mention at all about the ease of achieving pregnancy (which at least in my experience seems to be a rarity), that is when I wonder if there is anyone else sitting there feeling like they are on foreign ground, readying themselves for the possibility of bombs that they must deflect away from their infertile hearts.

This splintering of being a Mother after Infertility is at the forefront of my mind even more so when I am in a situation of meeting new women when there are no children present. Children are like little status symbols. When children are present and I can connect them to their parents, my thoughts go something like this: 5 women present, and all have been referred to as “Mom” by one or more of the 9 children here. We all have the label of “mother” so we all speak the same language, even though some of us are natural-born citizens and others, like me, speak Mother as a Second Language. Try to relax and avoid speaking with an accent. When in Rome, and all that.

However, when there aren’t telltale passports running around, my thoughts go something like this: 11 women present, err on the side of caution and assume that all are infertile or have dealt with infertility. Tread lightly, because the talk will invariably turn to children and babies and it’s possible that someone here hasn’t made it that far yet, and when someone asks and I have to answer, “Yes, I have four,” someone else might be mentally yelling at me, “BITCH, DIDN’T YOU HEAR THAT I WAS INFERTILE!” I don’t want to unwittingly have to force someone into playing the Wince and Rebound game. I understand. I remember all the times in the 2.5 years of trying that I had to hope that my plastic, fake smile would hold back tears and act as a protective shield against conversation about stretch marks and morning sickness. I remember what it was like to not have a passport, to have to hide the fact that I was an illegal alien.

So, when in the company of women whose mothering status is unknown, I have basic rules of etiquette which I follow with almost flowchart-like precision:

1. Don’t mention children until it’s mentioned to me. Answer quick and dirty — “I have four plus my nephew” — then move on as quickly as possible.

Which, let me stop right there, because the fact that I am raising the equivalent of a small African village makes me somewhat of a freak of nature in both camps. Moving on as quickly as possible is almost never possible. As much as I try to downplay it, others magnify it.

Woman A: I have three kids, and you?
Me: I have four, plus my nephew.
Me: Mmmhmm.
Woman A: Oh, my gawsh, girl, I don’t know HOW you do it!
Me: We make it work.
Woman A: Well WOW, it must be CRAAAA-zzzy there!

No, Woman A didn’t notice, and why would she when she seems to have no grounds for needing to know defensive moves like the Plastic Face and the Wince and Recover? And how could Woman B possibly know that I’m originally from the Land of IF and that I also speak her language of dpt’s, dpo’s, IUI, IVF, HCG, HSG, TESE, MFI and so on?

Now that I’m typing all of this out, I’ve had something of a revelation. Much of my social awkwardness stems from projected assumptions. With one foot still planted in infertile memories and the other planted in the present motherhood, I know how the Moxie of Ten Years Past viewed a woman who, like the Moxie of Today, has 4+1 children. The Moxie without Passports would have assumed that it was easy for the Moxie with Children to get those children. She would have probably been a little sadder on the day she met Moxie with Children, as those children would have magnified all the ways in which her body was failing her.

That image of myself is projected onto the face of every woman I meet. It’s like a reflex – a muscle that I can’t relax. I don’t want to inadvertently hurt women who are still where I was ten years ago. So in social situations, it still feels awkward when discussing children and babies. Even here in my own space, the term “mommyblogging” makes my skin crawl, though essentially that is what I do when recounting the hilarity of life with el Cinco. Whenever I publish those posts, there is a part of me that can’t help but feel like at least a few people who read them are hurting just a little bit deeper than they were before they read it. It may sound strange, but I always send a little mental apology out into the Universe when I click “publish” on el Cinco posts. What surprises me time and time again, is that those are the posts that tend to receive the most comments. I subconsciously exhale a sigh of relief and think, “Whew — no one screamed BUT DIDN’T YOU HEAR THAT I WAS INFERTILE, BITCH! at me.”

The bottom line is that I probably over-think things when going into social situations with other women, and most of the awkwardness I feel is probably self-created rather than imposed upon me. However, if my awkwardness and reservation keeps someone else from having to revert into the Plastic Face, it’s worth it.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if there will ever come a time when I will be able to view my children as just children and not also as walking metaphors for my passports out of Hell. No…I don’t think I want that, either. I think that keeping sight of the fact that my children are passports is what keeps me grounded and empathetic, and I know it is what drives me as a surrogate. I think what I really want is balance, some sort of reconciliation between between the two sides of me and how those joined sides interact with others.

And therein, I think, lies the answer to my original question, which isn’t really an answer but is more a case of one question begetting another:

I still feel like an outsider because infertility hurts.

Why, after everything, does it still hurt so much?


I have much more to say about parenting after infertility, especially as it relates to the different ways in which infertility is resolved (including adoption and donor gametes). This post serves as a sort of springboard for further ruminations in the days to come. In the meantime, please comment, if you can:

*If you’re a mother after infertility, do you find yourself still feeling awkward in social situations with other mothers? How do you handle it?

*If you’re still in the process of trying, do you feel like you’re always walking around with a Plastic Face shield up, preemptively on the defensive just in case conversation heads down THAT path (like I once used to do)?

*If you’re a mother but have not had to experience infertility or loss, do you feel socially-awkward when around other mothers? I ask this question because I have no basis for comparison. In my mind’s eye, it has always seemed to me that mothers without difficulty (as opposed to mothers after infertility) must have it easy as I have it complicated. I realize that this is an assumption on my part and that there may be factors that I am unaware of that make it difficult for you to talk about your children and parenting as well.

photo credit: LucasTheExperience via photopin cc

18 thoughts on “Passport Children (Revisited) – Emotional Infertility as a Parent after Infertility”

  1. I’ve been walking around with the “plastic face” for years, especially at baby showers and family gatherings. However, I have a much easier time dealing with total strangers than I do with family and some friends. Probably because a total stranger is less likely to bring up how easily they conceived, or that they weren’t even trying, or that the pregnancy wasn’t really wanted but they’re against termination due to religion so now they’re going to become parents. Total strangers also don’t say “What’s wrong with you two? You’ve been married for a long time; haven’t you figured out yet how this whole baby-making thing works?” Because on my husband’s side of the family, it’s unusual to make it a year into marriage without pregnancy, rare to go 3 years, and 7 is unheard of and probably the record (even though the first 3 years we were in college and didn’t want kids yet).

    Usually when someone asks me if I have kids, I’ll say “Not yet, but we’re pursuing parenthood through surrogacy.” That usually opens up a conversation about surrogacy, wherein I can educate that person (or at least dispel some of the uglier myths). Maybe talking about being childless is easier for me because I have a very good medical reason to avoid getting pregnant–as opposed to just not being conceive or carry a pregnancy to term–so the stigma of infertility doesn’t attach to me the same way.

    The time I needed the face the most? At my cousin’s baby shower, when her pregnant sister told me, “Pregnancy is hard. You’re so lucky you don’t have to suffer through it to become a mother!” I never knew it was possible to feel such rage and sorrow simultaneously.

    P.S. Sorry for the novel. Maybe I should start my own blog, so that I stop writing entire posts in your comment section 🙂

    1. Never apologize for leaving a “novel”-length comment (although I would LOVE to read your blog if you ever decided to start one!). I needed my strongest plastic face when I was halfway through my 2nd year TTC and hosted my 17-year old sister’s baby shower.

      I KNOW.

      As hard as any boneheaded comments are, it’s almost easy to excuse a stranger who doesn’t know who you are. When a family member hits you with one, it does have a certain sting to it, doesn’t it?

  2. Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. Yes!!! I do feel awkward in situations with other mothers, especially baby showers because talk will inevitably turn to labor and breast feeding and rips and tears and I have nothing to offer. At my best friend’s shower recently, I sat there with the plastic face on b/c I had nothing to contribute. The only time I could contribute was when conversation moved to insurance costs for labor & delivery. I posted on this very issue last week and it’s why I want to find others parenting after IF and why I joined PAIL.

    1. Yes! I don’t have to bring out the plastic face nearly as often as I had to once, but I still have to slap it on here and there. I am also glad that PAIL is in existence. There does need to be a more active, organized place where conversations like this can be discussed where people “get it.” That’s at the root of ANY sub-community within the greater ALI community, isn’t it?

  3. I have had the good fortune (misfortune?) to be surrounded by a variety of people with different paths to motherhood. Miscarriages (early and late), fertility treatments, adoption (domestic, international, GLBT), secondary infertility…you name it and they’re within my circle of friends. Also, I am someone who has never fit in properly, so my issues with carrying/creating babies don’t set me apart any more than my intolerance for small talk.

    I always feel awkward. But I feel most awkward when someone is pushing my buttons (“Oh, your daughter REALLY NEEDS a baby sister or brother!” No shit, Sherlock. I’ve tried to make that happen. It ain’t that easy), and my internal dialogue threatens to become external. I’m not really good with the filter. I know the intention is harmless fun, but by the 3rd time someone says it, they’re about to get an earful.

    1. I was going to say that I hadn’t met anyone who has used a surrogate, and then I thought of my friend/coworker and his partner – since they’re gay, I’m guessing a surrogate was involved in the birth of their twin boys. But it would be rude to ask.

    2. Those “harmless fun” questions were the worst, because you can’t help but feel like everyone is looking at you and they see some sort of countdown clock pasted to your forehead. Since when does anyone else’s idea of when we should do things dictate our lives? It’s an easy thing to take for granted, I guess, when children usually come easily and either by complete surprise or by a schedule which YOU determine, not your body.

  4. Wow, you wrote the original post when I’d been a mother for one month. Mother as a Second Language resonates even more now.

    I am terribly awkward, but it’s not about infertility that much — I’m just awkward. I can be tremendously vivacious but at playgroups where the only thing I have in common with these women is living in the same neighborhood and having kids the same age, I become really awkward and boring. It’s even worse because they’re lounging on the couch (with their feet up!) chit-chatting to each other as their singletons play nicely while I’m corralling my twins who either won’t stop clutching my legs (one twin on each leg, usually) or are running wild trying to do things like turn on the host’s computer or eat the entire snack table. Being new in town, I have nothing to say about which kids shoe store is best etc. And as someone who works more than full-time, I really have nothing to say when the SAHMs complain about how they can’t fill their days and they are desperate for someone to talk to. So it’s not just our path to motherhood that makes us different or that makes me awkward.

    But on your actual topic, my ALI radar (ALIdar?) is on all the time. I’m constantly calculating spacing between kids or estimating parental age or looking for hints. I was so excited when I discovered that one of the nursery school classmates has two mommies, not just because I want Burrito and Tamale to be comfortable around all sorts of families, but because it means that at least one other kid in the class was hard won.

    1. ALIdar – I like that. I never quite thought of that heightened sense of awareness as a radar, but the analogy surely fits, doesn’t it?

      I can definitely see why the presence of the two moms were comforting to you. We all want to feel a connection to the people around us, even if it is only slight.

  5. I read both of these posts and want to say – simply – I am in awe of you; your bravery, strength, honesty, GENEROSITY.

    I believe everyone should read your words because (I’d like to think) people are probably generally not intentionally hurtful; but ignorance of the emotions involved doesn’t help the one who’s wincing. On the inside of the outside. So if people KNEW how painful their flippancy was or their intrusive questions or rude assumptions – perhaps they’d be more likely to hold their tongues.

    Of course, some people are just fools. Or they’re mean. Or insensitive. We can’t save everyone, right? But this is SUCH food for thought for me – an individual who cares deeply about the feelings of others.

    So thank you. For all of it.
    You’re kind of my hero.

    1. Julie, when I originally posted this 2 years ago, another bloggy friend of mine who wasn’t “in” the ALI community commented and said something very similar to what you’ve said here. Most of us have some sort of issue that we hold inside of us that we are hyper-sensitive to, and an outsider would never know what that was. When we jokingly and sarcastically mention divorcing our husbands because he never sorts out the laundry right, we never know if someone puts on their plastic face because they’re going through a tough divorce and to them, we’ve just made a complete mockery of a good relationship that they wish they still had.

      We just never know…but we don’t mean any harm at all. Though this post was written with the infertility community in mind, it does serve the larger theme of remembering that everyone has their personal struggles, so we should all be mindful, understanding, and warm with our words.


  6. yes. I still cannot have a conversation about pregnancy or babies without somehow pointing out how incredibly infertile I am (and subsequently how outrageously miraculous our children are). awkward still, though perhaps the tiniest bit less so after I was actually able to grow a real live baby (for 7.5 months at least), birth her (ie, have her forcibly removed from my womb before I bled to death) and nurse her (finally, something I can do!).

    the feelings are still there, but so is that triumph.

    before that, there were often awkward situations because I had nothing in common with these women (eg, oh, I was pregnant once but the baby died! and yeah, I had a c-section but no baby, just a really huge fibroid!). so yeah, awkward. plus I didn’t always necessarily want to share our child’s adoption with everyone who presumed I gave birth to her.

    I remember the first (and last) playgroup I took Jaye to (other than our adoption peeps). women were sharing birth stories and nursing and baby wearing and all of it. at first I had the usual uneasy response, hoping to just stay out of it (I was trying to decide how much I felt like sharing). I felt scorned when I took out a bottle (the horror!) to feed her. later they were talking about how they wanted home births but all ended up in the hospital. that’s when I piped in, saying that Jaye was a “perfect” home birth, born on her due date. they all wanted to know more! then I took pleasure in explaining that she was not born to me, but I was there, caught her and everything. not many women can say they caught their baby. heh.

    but other than that, I’ve never had m

    1. Score one for luna! Not many people can say that their babies were delivered right into their waiting arms. Jaye’s birth story is one of my favorites that I’ve EVER read…I mean EVER. I just get all teary with happiness and relief and joy. You described it so well that I can still see it so very clearly in my mind.

  7. I remember reading this post the first time around. Rings just as true now when I do have a child, as it did then, when we were without. Gosh, i heart you, Kym!

  8. i remember that april ’08 post – we were just getting into TTC the first time and it wasn’t working and many of my friends were going through IVF.

    but in response to your guestions – i am at this point, more conclicted than ever before. the first time, we were subfertile – like, it took just under a year to conceive but all was well and fantastic afterwards. now? we are officially battling secondary infertility, trying to figure out how to deal with repeat losses and constantly fielding questions of “when is G going to have a brother or sister” – so i put up my plastic face, and try not to scream at people for asking innocent questions. but i hate the pushing – when i give my canned “as soon as we can” answer to that question – if i wanted to go into it, i would. but i don’t.

    i always connect so well to your posts. xoxo

  9. I remember this post from when you first wrote it. I think that this is how I will feel if I ever get to have children (which is looking less and less likely all the time).

  10. Just found your blog from LFCA so looking round, and liking what I see/read.
    I’m in Scenario #2, and yes to the Plasticface (although I have always referred to it as the Parkinsonsface – nothing derogatory meant towards people with Parkinsonism AT ALL, but had been working closely with a lady with PD when the need to coin this term arose, so I guess it was stuck in my head), constant defenses up. Most people closer to me know the score here, and its the one who don’t know us, or just make assumptions, that I dread seeing.
    I completely agree with comments #10 and #11 (probably more of them, but these stand out to me) about not knowing other people’s triggery sensitivities, and while you can’t expect to prempt every.single. potential. issue. . . there’s something to be said for how we approach potentially painful topics. i dunno, we all have off-days, or preoccupied days or whatever, but we’re also receptive, whether we’re conscious of if or not, of non-verbal communication (and if people aren’t, then maybe they could take a deep breath, STFU yapping, stand back, and look for it!)

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