My husband and I have been fighting to become parents since 2011 — a declaration fraught with a variety and intensity of losses that I couldn’t have imagined when we innocently decided we were ready to start our family six years ago. I am asked all the time how we are able to keep at this excruciating pursuit. That is, how we continue to have hope in this area of our lives in the face of intense tragedy.
As we gladly put 2016 behind us and look to 2017, I have been highly reflective of what it means to have hope, the real kind that propels us forward to act and change. I sense that is what so many of us are deeply seeking as we start this tumultuous new year.
So to 2017, my resolution of hope:
Two and a half years ago, my husband and I were sent home from the hospital the morning after giving birth to our son. Unlike most discharge stories you hear, our ride home didn’t include a nervous father driving cautiously below the speed limit while a frazzled mom fussed over their newborn in the car seat. Instead, it was just the two of us in the front seats of our Corolla, driving home in complete silence.
The previous evening, our son had been stillborn after battling an extremely rare congenital condition. While our kind nurses said we could stay at the hospital as long as we needed, I feared that if we didn’t leave that morning they would need to admit me forever.
It was an unspeakably miserable ride home, which was mercilessly extended by rush-hour traffic in Boston. I remember closing my eyes until we got home, unable to process the presence of people in other cars listening to NPR and drinking coffee, heading to their totally normal jobs for a totally normal day. How could they do such a thing while we were experiencing such deep suffering?
A final goodbye before leaving the hospital the next morning.
Two and a half months ago, my husband and I boarded a Southwest flight from Wichita, Kansas, back home to Boston that was — once again — anticipated to be with our newborn son. I had brought with me every type of infant carrier on the market and had daydreamed how the flight attendants would fawn over his tiny little fingers wrapped around my pinky. But the mother who had selected us back in June to adopt her child changed her mind just before he was born, deciding to parent him instead.
So again we had to go back to our quiet home with its perfect nursery set up, just the two of us. I put on my headphones but turned on no music, closed my eyes, and laid my head on my husband’s shoulder, praying that no one would say anything to me. Of course I don’t want pretzels or cookies ― how could you even ask me such a trivial question?
Our flight to Kansas in September, blissfully unaware that we would be flying home a few weeks later without a child.
These two lonely trips home bookended a merciless stretch of IVF cycles and miscarriages and adoption research and endless heavy decisions in between. But still, we press on in hope.
“Hope” is both a noun and a verb, but both of those classifications fall flat to the kind of hope that I speak of. As a noun, hope is exceedingly abstract. I bet if you asked 10 different people what the noun hope means, you would get 10 different answers that vaguely allude to other abstract concepts like trust and faith. This type of hope is too hard to grasp for pragmatists like me.
But “hope” as a verb seems so submissive in the way it is typically expressed. To hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow, or to hope that your kids sleep past 5 a.m., or to hope that your favorite soup is on the menu today — this type of hope that we typically throw into daily conversation is completely passive. In fact, I’d argue that this is the type of hope that breeds resentment.
If tomorrow your kids wake up at 4:30 a.m. and it’s pouring rain and the cafe only has French onion soup rather than red lentil, then you may conclude that you had a lousy day even though you had absolutely nothing to do with what made it lousy. To hope in this sense is simply to watch the chips fall and respond accordingly whether or not they landed in your lap.
To me, hope and fight are highly interdependent. To hope without fight is to passively and blindly expect good to come. To fight without hope is to toil in a state of defeat, exhausted. But to fight alongside hope is to have an unwavering belief in the importance of a different future and a willingness to open yourself up to more pain in order to get there.
One of the strange parallels between losing our son and having our adoption fall through is they transpired in exactly the same amount of time, roughly two years apart. Our son received a terminal diagnosis early in the second trimester of our pregnancy and passed away exactly 100 days later in July of 2014. For 100 days we loved and cared for a child who we knew, barring a miracle, we would never get to raise (I wrote about this more extensively here).
The 100 days were not a guarantee — his condition was so rare that our doctors could not predict anything about how our pregnancy was going to continue. So we began each day by waking up and listening to his heart on a portable fetal doppler, a drumbeat that gave us the resolve to march onward and ask for a miracle. On the 100th morning of this ritual, the drumbeat silenced, and life as a family of three suspended.
Remarkably, it was also 100 days between when a woman in Kansas selected us to adopt her child this past June and when she informed us that she had changed her mind in September. For 100 days, we grew to love a child we would ultimately never get to meet. Each night we whispered to him goodnight from thousands of miles away praying he would hear it. Then we stopped with no ceremony or closure. It was over, just like that.
I believe in the importance of living one day at a time when you are in the thick of a crisis; it’s how we survived those times when more than one single day’s worry would truly bury us. But in the moments when we needed to make a major decision about committing to this crazy dream, exiting our present and widening our perspective to the past and future was crucial.
My husband and I are in our 30s, which means that if we live into our 80s we very well may have 20,000 days ahead of us. The prospect of living on this Earth for 20,000 more days without children of our own makes us infinitely more sad than the 100 days we just endured. Protecting ourselves from more pain today by giving up this hope promises exponentially more pain in the future. So we keep fighting alongside the hope that we will someday be parents because we refuse the accept the alternative, and when it gets to be too much right now, we lean on our family and friends and faith to get us through.
This kind of fighting hope — fueled by perspective — is what I am dedicated to live out in all areas of my life in 2017.
In the days after the election, I read (and re-read many times) a short but poignant essay in The New Yorker responding to Trump’s victory by one of my favorite authors, Junot Díaz. In it he wrote:
“But all the fighting in the world will not help us if we do not also hope. What I’m trying to cultivate is not blind optimism but what the philosopher Jonathan Lear calls radical hope. ‘What makes this hope radical,’ Lear writes, ‘is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.’ Radical hope is not so much something you have but something you practice; it demands flexibility, openness, and what Lear describes as ‘imaginative excellence.’ Radical hope is our best weapon against despair, even when despair seems justifiable; it makes the survival of the end of your world possible.”
His piece was of course written in a very different context, but I believe this concept is transcendent and beautifully puts to words the type of hope I also speak of. Not just in parenting, but in all areas of life where I have an unwavering belief in the importance of a different future. And right now, there are many.
I think it’s critically important as we all look to 2017 that we hold on to our ambitious goals in the face of our tragedies, make new ones with passion, and then fight alongside radical hope to get there. There have been many, many times in our hope to be parents where despair was justifiable, but we have survived the end of our world and continue to fight simply because we refuse to lose hope.
Here’s to 2017, a year in which we fight together alongside hope. Happy New Year.
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