“A moment came not long after my niece was born that encapsulated the sense that joy and jealousy could both inhabit the same space.”
JEALOUSY. There! I’ve put it in capitals because it is a very human response and it’s okay to say it out loud. But so often jealousy is an unwanted, shameful whisper – or worse, a silent scream. Someone has what we really, really want and BOOM! – there it is in all its neon green glory! But we’re taught very early never to own up to this very real and often perplexing feeling. I guess jealousy can spur us on to ultimately achieve what we want. But the thing with childlessness is that others are achieving the very thing we know we can never have. And the evidence of others’ success is all around us every day and being enjoyed not just by strangers but also by the people we are closest to. Feeling jealous of Beyoncé is one thing. We can avoid looking at the press releases of her holding her newborn twins. But we can’t always avoid friends, family and colleagues. Being forced to confront our childlessness and our feelings of jealousy can be a dual trial – one that led me to engaging an Outer Me (brave smile) and an Inner Me (sad and seething). But gradually I found strategies to hold both my joy and my jealousy together and to rid myself of the sense of shame that my feelings of jealousy provoked.
The Loneliness of Jealousy
There was a point when it seemed like there was not a month went by when someone else in my social circle or family didn’t announce another pregnancy or a birth. All I can say is ‘thank goodness’ social media wasn’t a thing when I was going through the throes of grief for my childlessness. Now it must seem like torture to see yet another post of a 12 week scan or a photo of a newborn, the happy family pictures that encapsulate everything the person living without children so desperately wants.
I’m not afraid to say now that I often felt really jealous. But we’re taught early on that we should banish jealousy; that it is forbidden and ugly and we should instead feel happy for someone else’s success. In short, we’re given the message that jealousy is something to be ashamed of. So I hid my jealousy till it morphed into a loneliness that was almost impossible to contain. This feeling was so out of kilter to how I saw myself: I’m not a horrible person…am I? I was a loyal friend and a loving daughter, sister and sister-in-law. But these bouts of jealousy were changing the way I felt about myself, and had the potential to affect my relationships.
Back then I was reluctant to admit to anyone that I was having jealous thoughts. The couple of times I actually did put my head above the parapet and intimated at a lurking jealousy at someone else getting pregnant I would receive a gentle admonishment. “It’s not a competition”, someone once said. I truly think the comment was meant to be helpful but all it succeeded in doing was shutting down any avenue that would lead to my being able to say how much I was hurting. And it made me feel ashamed. I wish at that point, I’d been able to read Andrea Benoirs’ words :
Your first task when you feel it [jealousy]? Acknowledge it—even if only to yourself—and forgive yourself for being human. Why wouldn’t you feel a little sad if your friend got pregnant easily when you’ve been trying without success for two years? It’s natural, because it highlights what you’re missing.
What I really needed was someone to tell me that my jealousy was a natural response; I needed understanding rather than the admonishments that just deepened my shame.
Jealousy’s Link with Shame
Shame is a powerful and potentially destructive presence. And my shame was taking me round in a seemingly unbreakable loop: I was ashamed I wasn’t ‘making the cut’ in the fertility stakes; this shame made me jealous of those who ‘achieved’ parenthood; my jealousy made me feel ashamed of my instinctive reaction towards others who ‘succeeded’ in what I felt should be the simplest, most natural process of conceiving, bearing and having a child.
So if admitting to being jealous meant I would lay myself open to being thought of as a horrible, resentful person, better to swallow my parcel of jealousy, grief and shame and continue to smile when the birth announcements arrived, continue to buy baby presents, continue to pretend that I was just fine at the toddler’s birthday party as the room filled with scenes of paternal and maternal idylls from which I was excluded. Admitting to being jealous would mean revealing my vulnerability and it seemed no one (apart from my husband) was able to hold my vulnerability gently and lovingly. As Brené Brown says in her book, Daring Greatly:
A sense of worthiness inspires us to be vulnerable, share openly, and persevere. Shame keeps us small, resentful, and afraid.
Gradually, it started to dawn on me, the more I rejected and criticised my jealous self, the less likely I was to forgive myself, inspire myself or to allow myself to feel worthy. And the less able I was to forgive my jealous ‘me’, the greater the power my jealousy and my shame had over me.
Something had to change and somehow I knew I had the power to change it. Here’s what I did.
1 I gave my jealous me worthiness
This might sound crazy but go with me on this! It seems ridiculously obvious now but I was jealous because I was grieving. So, first, I gave my jealousy a companion – I hooked my jealousy up with my grief. Looking back now I realise that previously, both my grief and my jealousy had been lonely, isolated characters in my head. Put them together, make them buddies and instantly my jealousy had a reason to exist. Previously jealousy had been a scared, free-floating entity, unable to find a safe place to rest. Grief gave me – complete with my jealousy – the worthiness that Brené Brown talked about and, in turn, that worthiness gave me the courage to risk the next strategy…
2 I ‘fessed up to my vulnerability
To my usual response to a friend’s good news, (Oh, that’s wonderful news. You must be thrilled”), I was able to add, “I hope you’ll understand if I get upset/can’t see you just yet/cry when I see you next. I’m truly pleased for you but still very sad for me.” This new response allowed me to acknowledge my friend’s joy whilst at the same time flag up my vulnerability.
To my relief, the response to my expressions of vulnerability was loving and sympathetic. It gave my friends ‘permission’ to ask questions, to find out what they could do that would make it easier for me. Of course, there were a couple of occasions when the recipient of my new-found honesty appeared to feel that I’d stolen their thunder or was taking the edge off their joy. That was hard but I felt I had to be honest and not to be held an emotional hostage to that other person’s negative response. Opening up a conversation about the nature of my grief – that it doesn’t just disappear in a year or two – gave me the opportunity to take back a little control and to include my friends and family in my next strategy…
3 Where, when and how
I made it as widely known as possible that my worst nightmare was to be told about an upcoming pregnancy in a big reveal at a party or get-together. For me there would have been nothing worse than being surprised both by their news and my emotional response in amongst a room full of people. Of course, the risk with this strategy was that I might be excluded from the party or get-together. But to my absolute amazement, many of my friends – and my lovely brother – got this completely and found ways to ‘pre-warn me’ of a big announcement in a quiet and private way. When my brother told me about his and his wife’s first pregnancy he held my hand and cried with me. It was one of those rare moments when both absolute joy and a shared and deeply understood grief existed at the same time. As my sense of self-worth and self-determination increased, my jealousy was weakening and an emotional space opened up in which I could start to look outwards towards my next step…
4 I acknowledged my friends’ courage
I can only imagine how hard it must have been for my friends and family to tell me that they were pregnant or that they’d had their baby: to lift up the phone and to feel they had to ‘get it right’; to find the right words; to feel apprehension about how I would react. I would often picture my friends before that phone call or meeting. What must it have been like for them? So I told them how much I appreciated their understanding and their love. If I was told important news before other friends or family, I said that I honoured this precious information. It’s hard being the friend, brother, sister, mother of someone going through fertility issues and I believe that my friends’ and family’s experience of my situation also deserved to be acknowledged.
A moment came not long after my niece was born that encapsulated the sense that joy and jealousy could both inhabit the same space and that it could be okay. We were on holiday and my sister-in-law was having a cuddle with my niece on the beach. She placed her head gently on my niece’s forehead and there was a second when both of them were so beautifully framed in this amazing moment of togetherness that my heart sang and broke at the same time. And I took a photograph of them. It felt like a breakthrough – to actually allow both my jealousy and joy to co-exist and to be able to take a photo that froze in time that shame-free moment.
There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for coming to terms with the jealousy of other people’s fertility or children. I think we can often employ strategies unconsciously and it’s really only in retrospect that I can see the ‘flowchart’ of mine. Make no mistake, I didn’t always get it right and, looking back, I think my grief and my (even suppressed) jealousy must have been difficult for those close to me to negotiate.
Do I still get jealous? You bet I do! But I believe if, ultimately, we can learn to love ourselves complete with our jealousy, to give ourselves the understanding that we try to give others, we can lose the shame and give our jealousy a bit of a hug – it needs it.