Just kidding. 🙂 We’ve still got a couple of feet of snow on the ground, and no end in sight! But somehow, as the days gradually get longer, I feel like I’m emerging from one of the deepest, darkest winters I’ve ever known.
Maybe it’s just the optimism that hits me with every new cycle, but this weekend I finally started to feel a little bit like my old self again — you know, the self that was joyful instead of bitter and miserable all the time. For a long time this fall and winter, the only things I was doing or thinking about were work and babies (or lack thereof). There are two things that I think are helping me get out of the funk I’ve been in since our daughter died (well, three, really — with the third one being the simple passage of time), and I thought I’d share them with you today:
1) Scheduled fun
I’m part of a peer mentoring group of early-career female scientists in my field. We meet every two weeks (via internet video chat) to talk over and support each other through any issues that we’re experiencing in our careers/lives. At the beginning of the semester we set personal and professional goals for ourselves, and asked that we be held accountable to those goals. I thought about how so much of what my husband and I talk about and deal with these days is the loss of our daughter and trying to get pregnant again, and about how I missed the fun and spontaneity of our previous, more carefree life. Or, to put it bluntly, our relationship has just become too serious. Everything is life and death and unfulfilled longing. And when we aren’t talking about baby stuff, we’re checking off a list of tasks related to the house we bought this summer (necessary, but also serious). So one of my goals for the semester has been to do at least one fun thing with my husband every weekend.
Sounds obvious, but somehow our focus on “being there” for each other (which we have been, and it’s been great) has become counterproductively serious. Support is one thing, and enjoyment is another. My goal to do at least one fun thing per weekend with my husband has been helping us move from support to true partnership again. Halfway through the semester, it’s clear that it’s been making a difference. And it’s not as though we’re necessarily doing dramatic, exciting stuff: this weekend we went to a concert. Last weekend was a drive to a nearby big city to visit with friends and see a performance by one of our neighbors (who is arts faculty at my university). Two weekends ago we had friends over to play board games and eat cake (it was our joint birthday celebration, since my husband and I have birthdays two weeks apart). Stuff like that. It’s a simple goal, and easy to fulfill, but it’s been making a difference for us.
In November, when we were told that we’d need to wait and go through more testing before getting pregnant again, I didn’t know how I’d handle the wait. Pregnancy loss is already a long road, but back when I was first told that it might be an even longer road than I’d feared… it was torture. And that was the point at which I really began to feel that my life had narrowed to only two things: work and babies. I had spent my 4.5 months of pregnancy preparing for major life changes, and all of a sudden there was a gaping hole in my life that I was mostly filling with worry and fear that I’d never have a baby of my own.
So I started thinking about worthwhile things I could do that would give me something new and non-baby-related to focus on. Not something too time-consuming, because my work is already quite time-consuming, but something I could do for a couple of hours a week. And I immediately thought about volunteering. I’ve volunteered much of my life, including all through my five years of grad school — at that point, I was considering a career in science outreach or museum work, so I volunteered at a science museum. But instead of being drawn to the physical science exhibits and demonstrations that reflected my work, I found myself drawn to the live animal center, where they kept animals of different species that volunteers could learn to handle and bring out to meet visitors at the museum. I learned to handle several different species of snakes, rats, rabbits, flying squirrels, owls, and a kestrel. It was so different from my daily work, but so amazing: to work with these animals, to learn about their biology, and to see the delight on the faces of visitors when they came face to face with an animal they’d never seen up close before. (To be fair, it wasn’t always delight: a lot of people are very afraid of snakes!)
In my current town there isn’t a nearby science museum, and I do so much science education every day that I’m afraid it would feel too much like work anyway. But I do still love animals, and there’s an animal-based volunteering opportunity less than two miles from my house: a therapeutic riding center. I grew up in a rural town and, like many girls, took riding lessons at a nearby barn. But unlike most girls, I held onto the horse bug for over a decade, and became quite proficient. We never had the money for horse shows or a horse of my own, so I was a horsewoman on the cheap: I paid for lessons, but worked as a riding camp counselor and exercised horses for wealthy families who didn’t have the time to ride regularly. It was one of the best parts of my childhood. In college I drifted away from it, because it was too expensive to ride in the big city where I went to school, and I developed other interests. But when I saw the therapeutic riding center right down the road from our new house I thought, “I can do that.”
I signed up for a volunteer training session in December. I went, and started to remember all the skills I hadn’t used in over a decade. They said they’d call after the holidays to set up a regular volunteer slot. They didn’t. I started the semester, got busy, occasionally wondered what happened, but never followed up. Last week I got a call: they had gotten a new volunteer coordinator who found my application languishing in some dusty folder. She apologized for the delay and wondered if I was still interested in volunteering. I was. Yesterday, I went for my first volunteer slot, and it was glorious.
The smell. It hit me as soon as I got out of the car. Some people might not love the mixed aroma of hay, manure, and sweat, but if you’re a horse person, it’s home. I knew a little about therapeutic riding, but had never seen it in action before. I was assigned to be a “sidewalker” (walking next to the horse and making sure the rider is seated securely) for a middle-aged woman with a developmental disability. We were working with her on verbal skills — if the instructor asked “Do you want to trot?” we were supposed to make sure we heard a clear “yes,” and we were supposed to encourage her to give verbal commands to the horse, like “walk on,” “trot,” and “whoa.” We were also working on building her confidence, so as sidewalkers we were essentially her cheering section. She tried a new skill yesterday — half-seat with one arm held out to the side — and when she finally got it and gave a huge grin I almost cried. It was easy to be effusive.
It was also easy to feel my spirits buoyed in a way they haven’t been in months. Being back around horses is one thing, and that alone is therapeutic for me. And it’s incredibly rewarding to help make possible what is clearly a bright spot in a difficult life, and to work on helping someone overcome significant challenges in their life, even in a very small way (e.g., encouraging this woman in her verbal and physical skills). It was exactly the sort of meaningful and non-baby-related use of my time that I’d been searching for. And it evened the footing a little to realize that while I was in some small way helping the woman I worked with yesterday, she was helping me at least as much. Because after all, what else is being human about?
So, between volunteering and scheduled fun, things are looking slightly rosier than they have been in a long time. Today is 3dpo, so no idea yet whether or not this cycle will be a success, but at least for the moment I feel that maybe I can handle it if it’s not. And if this cycle doesn’t work out, hopefully we’ll have one more shot at a 2015 baby. Happy spring to all, and I hope it’s warmer where you are!