When people find out that I—a childless woman in my early thirties—will be having a hysterectomy, the first question they inevitably ask is, “How are you feeling about that?”
And I will be honest with you, after attempting to be diplomatic, after trying to come up with the “short version” for acquaintances and patiently articulating the long version for those closest to me, I have this to say: STOP ASKING ME HOW I’M FEELING (please). I’m so sick of being asked this question—because the answer is not what everyone asking this question wants or expects to hear. People want me to be broken up about it. People expect me to be devastated. And I think it offends some of them that I’m not sad about it. Of course, all of these expectations are rooted, however loosely, in the ancient belief that childbearing is the only thing women exist to do in this life. And I guess if I had that perception of myself and my life’s purpose, then sure, maybe I’d be heartbroken over this development. But dealing with the realities of my pending surgery has been loads easier than trying to walk on the eggshells of people’s expectations of my devastation and their devastation on my behalf.
Only a few people knew this before now, but I’ve always suspected I would never be able to have my own children. I could never explain exactly why or how this was the case, but from the time I was seventeen, I just somehow knew that my womb wouldn’t grow children. I told one person back then—and it’s doubtful she remembers such a prediction because it would’ve sounded ridiculous. And yet here we are. Because of this instinct of mine, I acclimated many, many years ago to the idea of expanding my future family through adoption. And so this fork in the road isn’t some great tragedy for me. It is a newer adjustment for my husband, and he is probably and understandably a little sadder about it than I am. But overall, we are fine. And I am fine.
But I’ll tell you about a time when I was not fine. I won’t recount the details of 2010—2015, from the time the fibroids were discovered to the time of my first surgery to remove them while leaving my uterus intact—a period during which I was also less than fine. But I’ve recounted at least some of those details elsewhere.
What I want to tell you about is what happened after that first surgery. I had been married all of eight months when I had surgery in November 2015. I had broached the subject of a hysterectomy multiple times with my doctor, both while I was still single and after I was newly married. I somehow knew all along, in my gut, that it would eventually come to that, and I wanted to feel better, sooner. I wanted to get it over with, sooner. I was ready long ago to embrace the idea of potential, someday adoption.
I was not ready to pull the trigger on pregnancy during my first year of marriage. And yet my doctor was adamant about a hysterectomy not being solely “my” decision (even when I was single!). She was adamant about preserving my uterus and my ability to bear children, even after I got married and even after David and I, together, expressed that we would rather do a hysterectomy than risk a surgery that might not solve the problem. She was adamant that we not rush into making that decision, and even though I disagreed then and it has now come to what it has, I don’t resent her. She’s seen a lot more than I have, experienced a lot more than I have, and she’s the medical expert. I respect her expertise, and I appreciate her objective in looking out for regrets I might have later. I did, once, try to explain to her my “feeling” that I might not be able to get pregnant anyway, once I was ready to begin trying. As a practitioner of science and medicine, it is her job to dismiss anything that has no tangible, explicable basis, and she did just that: “Why would you think that? There is absolutely no reason to believe that you cannot get pregnant.” And I let the conversation end there.
So, fast forward to after my first surgery. I recovered, I went back to work, and six months later, I went for the follow-up ultrasound the doctor insisted I receive. The goal was to find out whether my uterus was still uninhabited. I expected the fibroids to be back, and they were—with a vengeance. At the time of surgery, the doctor removed six and left four. Six months after that, the ultrasound showed too many fibroids to count. Too many to count. A literal invasion. For those last six months, I had also been on a contraceptive that was injectable. Its aim, beyond keeping me from getting pregnant, was to shrink fibroids. It had been unsuccessful.
My next birth control injection appointment was scheduled sometime in July 2016, but after the less-than-desirable results of the ultrasound, David and I had a decision to make. According to the doctor, it was now or never. “If you’re going to use your uterus to have children, you’ve gotta do it now. I don’t know how long your uterus will remain a safe environment for a fetus. The fibroids that are in there now are small—but they’re numerous. And there’s no telling how fast they’ll grow. The clock is ticking. Not to mention, you’re about to be 32. You just don’t have time to lollygag about this.”
So here we were, now sixteen months wed, and forced to decide whether we were ready for me to be pregnant. Our original plan, upon marrying, included an adjustment period of about five years before we started talking children. So, in short, no. I was not ready to be pregnant. We both had low-paying jobs with no improvement in sight. I’m still paying on a student loan. Our house is really too small to build a family that includes more than one child, especially if they’re of different genders. We only have one bedroom besides our own. And we didn’t want to have an only child. One thing we agree on is that, if we expand our family through children, we want it to be multiple.
So I went off birth control. We didn’t tell a lot of people about this development because it was fraught with pressure, with anxiety, with fear, with uncertainty. The people we did tell used a term I hate: trying. I preferred to go a different linguistic direction and told people, “We’re not preventing.” But those were the months, as opposed to now, when I needed to be asked and to articulate how I was feeling.
Earlier in this post, I used the word invasion to describe what the fibroids have done to my uterus. In early January of this year, I went out for dessert with a close friend, just after making the decision to have a hysterectomy, and when she asked how I was feeling about it, I described to her my thoughts about needing an emotional outlet six months ago rather than now. In that conversation, I said that “my uterus was drafted into service,” partly without my consent. Near the end of January 2017, in a text conversation with a different friend who was, again, asking how I felt about it, I had this to say: “I feel great about it. I’m tired of being at war with my reproductive system. I’m a pacifist!”
I was half-joking, but it wasn’t until I used the word invasion in this blog post that I remembered my phrases “drafted into service” and “I’m a pacifist” and realized that, all along, I’ve been subconsciously using war-themed language to describe my difficult, emotionally wrought, and long-suffering experience with the childbearing parts of my body. And it shouldn’t have to be that way. My body is supposed to work for me, not against me. Or, if not for me, at least with me. Biologically speaking, my uterus is supposed to sit relatively quietly until I’m ready for it to serve its designed purpose. It’s not supposed to wage war, bring its own army of soldiers too numerous to count, and wreak havoc inside me.
And so, during the months between ultrasounds (July—December 2016), when I went off birth control and we started “trying,” I was constantly on edge. I was excited about the possibility of having a baby by that time next year (summerish 2017), but I was also terrified, which I think is pretty normal. We started to sketch out plans: Okay, suppose I get pregnant by this date, at the earliest. That would give us this many months before we really NEED to start thinking about a new living situation. We tentatively imagined how we would make an announcement. In our church parking lot, there are a couple of reserved spaces for “new and expecting parents,” and we casually joked about an announcement that included a picture of the reserved sign with accompanying text that said something like, “We are eligible to park in this space now!”
We told both sets of our parents that we had stopped preventing, which just added a new level of tension every time we had something to talk to them about. When we got our kitten, Zuri, we had to spit out the news immediately because we knew that if we dragged out the “we have something to tell you” part, they would all four jump to conclusions and inevitably be disappointed. Living in that constant tension was difficult for me. I don’t want to be a disappointment to either my parents or my husband’s parents. Inevitably, I feel like one anyway. Once parents get to a certain age, and once their children are married off, it seems like their only dreams are of grandchildren. And, if my parents are any indication, it only gets worse once they get their first taste of it. Grandparents always want more grandchildren. It’s difficult to be a harbinger of bad news in that respect. It is not fun to crush a loved one’s dreams in that way.
My doctor, for her part, talked as if she fully expected us to be nearing the end of the first trimester by the time of my next scheduled ultrasound in December 2016, and we left her office in July with instructions on what to do—call and schedule an appointment immediately—were I to find myself missing a period or showing a positive on a home pregnancy test. I knew that was unlikely. And yet, every month when I did get my period, I experienced a legitimately mixed reaction of disappointment and relief. It was exhausting having that much emotion tied to a spot of blood in my underwear.
The worst, most difficult emotion I worked through during those months between ultrasounds was a feeling of failure. I have never been pregnant and I’ve never been someone’s legal guardian, but nonetheless I felt like I had failed as a mother—simply because I could not guarantee that my body would be a safe place for an embryo to grow into a fetus to grow into a human being. I think it was natural for me to feel this way because, even if childbearing isn’t a woman’s only purpose in life, it is a biological purpose that is designed into a woman’s cells and DNA. And to realize that I cannot participate in that basic, natural facet of “being a woman” did make me feel like I had failed in some way. Thankfully, that place of despair isn’t where my emotions ended.
At the end of 2016, I had another ultrasound that showed worse results than the previous one, which I had been expecting. And I was so relieved—more than any other competing emotion—when I finally heard my doctor say, “It’s time to consider a hysterectomy.” As disappointing as it is in the minds of some people not to be able to create life on your own, disappointment was not really in the pantheon of emotions I felt that day and during the following week as David and I discussed our options and a plan for moving forward.
Let me tell you, since so many of you have asked so many times, what I was feeling: Relief, that my reproductive nightmare was finally going to end. Hope, that David and I could decide to expand our family when we truly wanted to and were ready, rather than being pushed into it too soon. Joy, at the idea that if we do someday decide to adopt, we will have the opportunity to offer love to a child in need. Excitement, wondering what God has planned for us and where our adventure will take us next.
I fully recognize that I may feel differently about all this later, after it’s all over. Hopefully how I feel post-surgery won’t change a lot from how I feel now, though. They’re leaving all my hormone producers in, so I shouldn’t experience anything too drastically different. But I’m prepared to feel a sense of loss that I can’t quite imagine at this time. I hope, in that event, that I will grieve appropriately and move on, just as we do with any other loss we experience in life.
Some people have said to me that, when they try to imagine putting themselves in my situation, losing the ability to choose is the worst part of it. To an extent, yes, that is difficult. I will never be able to choose to be pregnant and carry a child to term in my womb. But on the other hand, I am choosing to go forward with a hysterectomy. That is my choice. Certainly it’s a choice that is a result of other factors, but it’s still a choice, and it is one I feel good about.
So if you’ve asked me recently how I’m feeling, this pretty much sums it up. Please don’t feel sorry for me—because then I feel obligated to feel sad just so that your sorrow feels appropriate. But I’m not sad. And your sorrow for me, in this situation, is not appropriate. I will, however, gladly accept your prayers and well wishes for a successful surgery and a smooth recovery!
The journey is ever changing, and I’m just grateful to be on it.