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TELL ME ABOUT IT

The difference between single grief and childless grief

By CAROLYN HAX

This article was published April 3, 2014 at 2:51 a.m.

DEAR CAROLYN: I get you are a strong believer of the be-content-with-yourself theory of singlehood. What I am not getting is when someone is longing for a baby, we “get” this and understand if they skip other people’s baby showers, etc. We can understand their pain. When someone is single and longing for a partner, we assume something is wrong with them for craving something outside themselves. Your advice has really followed these lines and I don’t see the longing as all that different. Please explain.

  • Anonymous

DEAR READER: Thank you for the opportunity to.

Before I do, though, I’ll note that I don’t “assume something is wrong with” anyone who has such a fundamental longing; suggesting I do misrepresents my long-standing position on this.

Which is indeed to seek contentment with oneself - not because only defective people do otherwise, but instead because doing otherwise is flat-out self-defeating.

What else is there but self-contentment? To curse your bad luck (or good taste)? To blame past partners for not being marriage-worthy, or not regarding you as such?

No life goes exactly as planned, and so our happiness with the one we have will depend largely on how productively we respond when it takes an unwanted turn.

Infertility is indeed a similar, unwanted turn, but with significant differences. For one thing, you can know you’re infertile; you can’t know you’ll remain single in perpetuity. Plus, infertility is a physical condition for which there are treatments, and,when those fail, alternatives; the alternatives are imperfect, yes, and often prohibitively expensive or challenging, but they’re part of a defined set of choices, typically made within a defined period of time. By contrast, an adult who wants to be someone’s spouse cannot turn to medical intervention, surrogacy, fostering or adoption. Instead, that adult controls only him- or herself. Thus the long-range, make the-best-of-what-you-have advice to someone single versus the short-range, manage-your-emotions-as-you make-your-choices advice to someone facing infertility.

Both of these situations have the power to derail someone emotionally for a time; in that, they are terribly alike.

The main difference here - and the gap in which your distress has found purchase - may just be that infertility allows for a logical grieving point, which people like me can then account for in advice and expressions of concern and sympathy for dodged baby showers. There is no such Moment, no last round of IVF, on which a lonely person can hang his or her grief.

Indeed, the undefined window of time can aggravate the pain of pining for a mate.

So that is where I’d amend my advice: Pick a point, and grieve. Grieve what you hoped or planned for that hasn’t materialized - maybe when you first form the thought, “I thought I’d be married by now.” That goes for someone pining for a mate, but also for someone longing for a child, left adrift by an indifferent nuclear family, immobilized by thwarted ambitions. Dodge that baby shower or wedding or reunion.

But keep letting grief make your decisions? No.

I wouldn’t be so understanding of baby-shower avoidance ever after in response to infertility. Eventually, all advice flows here: Do the hard work to be content with yourself. Maybe you’ll like it better as a tenet of Buddhism: Learn to want what you have. It’s not theory; it’s peace.

Chat online with Carolyn at 11 a.m. Central time each Friday at washingtonpost.com. Write to Tell Me About It in care of The Washington Post, Style Plus, 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071; or email tellme@washpost.com

Weekend, Pages 31 on 04/03/2014

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