I’ve sometimes joked that “hope” is a four-letter word.
But the truth is that some days I am only half joking.
Managing expectations has been a coping mechanism for me for many years.
When I was an adolescent and young adult, my mother struggled with depression and anxiety. Plans were often cancelled at the last minute because she wasn’t feeling up to it. It was easier to assume that plans wouldn’t work out than to allow myself to become hopeful and risk disappointment.
This dynamic became magnified my senior year of college, when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer during a particularly acute bout of anxiety. Her fear of medical treatments and their side effects became so pronounced that she refused all conventional medical treatment. At first she tied her hopes (and mine) to alternative treatments. But soon her anxiety attached itself to those too. Treatments were stopped as quickly as they were started, abandoned as soon as the first glimmer of a side effect or downside appeared.
After several months of high hopes and deep disappointment, I found it was too painful to pin my hopes on treatments that I could see were unlikely to be successful. To preserve my own mental wellbeing, it was better to accept the likely outcome than to weather the high highs and low lows of a psychological storm that was beyond my control. And so a pattern of self-protection was born.
With a lot of work, I managed to find just enough courage and hope to achieve life’s milestones. The leaps of faith needed to start a new job, meet and marry a partner, and plan for a family aren’t easy for a person with my history. Yet a decade after my mother’s passing, I found myself with a fulfilling career as a geriatric social worker and a happy home life with a caring husband and wonderful son. Perhaps I had given hope a bad rap after all.
Then our struggles with secondary infertility and pregnancy loss began. Several rounds of unsuccessful fertility treatments were followed by the high highs and low lows of two pregnancies that ended in first-trimester miscarriages.
After taking several months to grieve our losses, we began trying to conceive again. A few months later, I was pregnant.
Characteristically, I was reluctant to allow myself to become too excited. I braced myself for a sad outcome at each first trimester prenatal appointment. But with each healthy sonogram, hope began to inch its way back in. As second trimester gave way to third, I allowed myself to believe that we would bring home a new addition to our family.
So as you would imagine, I was devastated when, at 7-1/2 months, I went to the doctor for lack of fetal movement and heard the words expectant parents dread – “I’m sorry, I can’t find a heartbeat.”
In the weeks and months that followed, I experienced not only profound feelings of grief and loss, but also an intensification of my lifelong struggle with hope and disappointment. I was awash in a sea of painful and at times illogical feelings: foolish for having allowed myself to feel hopeful; betrayed by the doctors and friends who had reassured me that this time all would be okay; and most of all deeply, deeply saddened and disappointed.
I felt tempted to retreat into a shell of self-protection… and perhaps some days I did. The inner monologue that told me to guard my feelings and keep my expectations low so that I couldn’t be disappointed again sounded compelling after what I’d been through.
But even as I stopped to lick my wounds, I felt on some level that this couldn’t be where our story would end.
And so, around the time that our stillborn son should have been turning 1-1/2 years old, my husband and I received our court certification as qualified adoptive parents. We entered the world of independent adoption – putting information about our family online and in newspapers, in the hope that it would catch the attention of a very special woman who was pregnant and considering an adoption plan for her baby.
Our adoption journey is ongoing. In this new and frightening world of adoption, the opportunities for disappointment are plentiful, but so too is the possibility for something amazingly beautiful to happen.
The final chapter of our story is yet to be written. I hope that in the end, the lesson of our story will be that it is possible to endure life’s deepest disappointments, and still survive with the courage to approach life’s next challenges and opportunities. What an amazing legacy that would be for those we have lost and what an important lesson for our living son and his future brother or sister.