Growing up, marriage did not bring to mind the image of a white picket fence. I was raised by parents who took backpacking trips with two-month-olds, so I always expected that if I married, my life with a husband and children would be an adventure rather than a burden.
Yet I knew from watching friends, mentors, and my own mother navigate their careers that it was not easy to raise children and follow a traditional career path. When my husband and I got engaged, we worked hard to pay off our loans so I could transition into a part time position while raising kids. I expected to sacrifice for my children. What I did not expect was to sacrifice having children.
After we got married, it took us some time to confirm our suspicion of subfertility. Not much changed with the diagnosis except that we understood why we hadn’t conceived yet. The monthly heartbreak continued, changing the challenges we expected from diapers and tantrums to silent tears and painful hope. While navigating these shifting expectations, I made some valuable discoveries regarding my career.
You don’t have to be a mom to say “no”
Six months into our marriage, I realized that my desire for a child had become dangerously linked with my desire to quit my job. Pregnancy is a socially acceptable reason to leave a position. It’s far easier to tell your manager that you have chosen to spend more time with your new baby than to let them know that your position is overworked and underpaid, and you can no longer support the company. The former leads to congratulations and goodbye parties, while the latter ends in a quiet departure that hopefully didn’t burn too many bridges.
At the time, I was teaching 750 little humans, writing all my own curriculum, and developing the entire arts department of a charter school on my own. Even with a solid administration and a supportive manager, my position had one of the highest turnover rates at the school because it was just too much for one person to handle. When I looked around, however, I saw working mothers in the classrooms next door. Guilt settled in that even without the stress of raising kids at home, I couldn’t deal with my kids at school. I simultaneously convinced myself that I would make a terrible mother and that my job could not be all that bad—I should be able to manage it.
In reality, however, I was terrified that I would never have an “excuse” to leave this situation. The longing to be a mom was real, but it was so mixed up with a desire to be a stay-at-home mom so that I could quit. Clearly, something was off. It was this realization that led me to a deep consideration of why I wanted children in the first place and what I wanted to do in the long term.
There is freedom in infertility
Over a few months of picking these tangled desires apart, some obvious realities became apparent. I didn’t need to be a stay-at-home mom to justify opening an art studio. I didn’t need to have a child to exit an unhealthy work environment. I just needed to value my own desire enough to do it.
So we did. My husband and I moved from Michigan to Scotland so I could pursue a graduate degree in sacred photography (there’s that adventure I was talking about!). When we understood that it was highly unlikely we would be supporting twelve kids through college, our options suddenly expanded. We now have the freedom to consider more meaningful career paths over stable or lucrative ones. We have the ability to host friends and strangers at the drop of a hat, support our artist colleagues at their evening concerts and exhibits, and bridge the gap between our single friends and young families with events that take a wide array of lifestyles into account. My work is all about bringing people together. Infertility allows me to naturally expand my priorities beyond the home into a wider community.
Give yourself a break
Working from my passion does not, however, mean that I can breeze on in whatever direction I want. Pregnancy is a powerful reminder that we need a break—growing another human being does things to your body, and it demands you slow down. So does infertility. A certain week each month has the potential to be devastating, highly affecting my ability to work.
Being childless doesn’t mean I’m perfectly dependable and at the top of my game 100 percent of the time. What may look like an asset on the surface (not having to schedule around unpredictable kids) can actually become an emotional battlefield that seriously disrupts my working life. To properly nurture relationships with colleagues and clients, ongoing grief and stress need a place to live. I know I’m going to be distracted in the three days leading up to my period, so I don’t schedule any meetings during that time. I know there is a high chance I’ll be upset the two days following that, so I work ahead to give myself space to grieve. Learning to anticipate my needs allows me to create healthy margins and thrive in my relationships at work and at home.
Work does not replace children
Even as I learn to work within the cycle of infertility, my professional goals still have room for children. I no longer gear my every decision toward part-time flexibility, but neither do I close that door. The truth is, we never stop mourning the months that pass without a child. No matter how fulfilling my career, no sculpture I create, no event that I host will ever be as beautiful as creating a child. And that’s okay. My work is just one part of my life, and it does not have to fulfill every facet of my being.
Well-meaning onlookers like to remind me of the genius of the childless Mozart or Michelangelo. The intended encouragement usually follows along the lines of, “Look how much you can accomplish without children to slow you down.” It also implies that artistic projects can somehow stand in the place of offspring. Sadly, this way of thinking misses the reality that children are not a product. In terms of hours clocked, any mom can tell you motherhood is more than a full-time job. Yet the outcome is not an increase in sales or even a laudable social impact, but a human being. Parents don’t get to measure their success according to a rubric from their managers. They create children and form them into incredible adults that go off and become their own people. That’s not a job, it’s an entire life.
So my projects are not “my babies.” I put incredible amounts of effort into them and am very proud of them, but at the end of the day they do not receive breath and take on a life of their own. The famous story of Pygmalion warns us of the dangers of this kind of thinking! Instead I enjoy the freedom to delight in my work without expecting it to fill the empty space in my heart that will always be swept clean, ready and waiting for a child.
Like many challenges women face, infertility has a way of expanding our options while shrinking our dreams. Ultimately, this becomes a chance to clarify what is truly best for the family I have (me and my husband), not the family I imagine. The longing for kids helps me know when I’m taking on too much. Just the other day, I thought I was pregnant and was relieved that I would be able to say “no” to a new opportunity we were considering. The pregnancy was (another) false alarm, but the inclination away from the project was a clear warning bell that I can now hear and heed to help me make strong choices going forward. This is the real gift amid the grief. Because a healthy, happy woman who values her own needs and desires is always the most fruitful.