Thoughtful Thursday: Jinx

January 29, 2009

Thoughtful ThursdayFor last week’s Thoughtful Thursday, we explored the topic of luck — specifically, whether you can improve your luck. In the comments, some people thought that you can change your luck through lucky charms, positive thoughts, actions, etc. Many other commenters agreed with me that lucky charms don’t actually work, but it’s still nice to try to believe. A couple of commenters have come to abandon luck, since no lucky charm has ever helped to bring the good fortune of children.

This week, we’ll explore the flip side: bad luck, also known as jinxes.

In her comment last week, N from Two Hot Mamas said:

It’s funny, because I don’t believe in luck, but I’m still superstitious. I guess I believe in bad luck, if it’s possible only to believe in that.

It’s human nature when bad things happen to look at the preceding events and work backwards, trying to figure out possible causes. In the future, we then avoid whatever we think might have made the difference last time. Those of us who have experienced infertility or loss often make concerted efforts to avoid jinxing pregnancies (potential or actual). In some cases, it’s a concrete action — for example, in the case of one person I know, an airplane flight closely preceded a stillbirth; this has led to her refusal to fly at all during subsequent pregnancies, even though the doctors don’t think that flying would make a difference. At other times, we can’t pinpoint what we’re avoiding. In An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, after her first pregnancy ended in stillbirth, Elizabeth McCracken describes deliberately doing everything exactly the opposite with her second pregnancy.

Some cultures have fashioned entire lifestyles around avoiding bad luck. For example, many cultures fear the “evil eye.” In her comment for last week’s Thoughtful Thursday on luck, Mel mentioned her hamsa, a common charm in both Judaism and Islam. The purpose of a hamsa, though, is not to bring good luck… but to fend off bad luck. Many hamsas actually have an eye on them, representing the evil eye that they hope to ward off.

Here is one of the hamsas in my house. Like all hamsas, it is shaped like a hand — supposedly the “hand of G-d.” This one does not have the eye in the middle. I display it prominently in my house because it is pretty and because it belonged to DH’s late grandmother. I do not believe that it wards off bad luck; I just like to have it around.


There are numerous cultural traditions associated with avoiding jinxes for pregnancies and babies. For example, some cultures, including stricter sects of Judaism, prefer not to have a baby shower or buy anything before a baby is born. Many cultures have specific rules about when pregnancies should be announced, often with much fanfare and ceremony.

In North America, not announcing a pregnancy until a certain point (often, the end of the first trimester) is common practice among all women, not only those who have experienced infertility or loss. There are plenty of women who blab to everyone before the pee has dried on the stick, but most people are more cautious. But I would argue that the true purpose is less about avoiding a jinx, and more about not wanting to untell the news if something bad does happen.

Other than people following specific cultural customs, it seems very rare in North America to put off purchases and arrangements until after the baby is born. At minimum, almost everyone obtains a car seat so that the baby can come home from the hospital. In actuality, most people buy (or receive as gifts) everything they could possibly need in advance, expecting that shopping will become near-impossible with a newborn as well as satisfying the nesting instinct. But for those who do observe the custom of waiting to make most purchases and refusing a baby shower (which in my own life I’ve seen in people of Jewish and Indian backgrounds, but I know there are other cultures that do this), I again wonder about the true purpose. The cultural explanations are focused on tempting fate. But many of us who have dealt with infertility and loss also hold off on preparations — not because of jinxing, but because we are afraid of ending up with a nursery that’s fully furnished but is missing the baby. We are afraid of the Babies R Us equivalent of untelling, of getting stuck between not being able to get rid of the baby items but not bearing to see them around the house.

Let’s change gears for a moment and talk about baseball (maybe it will bring in some male readers!). In baseball, when a pitcher is several innings into a no-hitter, people start to realize what’s going on, but they’re not supposed to say anything. Anyone who mentions the burgeoning no-hitter is immediately shushed by friends and strangers alike. My husband is unflinchingly logical, yet he joins this superstition. His explanation is that he doesn’t actually believe in jinxing the no-hitter, but he enjoys participating in the tradition, and it’s fun for a stadium full of people to collectively cheer the pitcher on.

How does this baseball analogy relate to infertility and loss? Like my husband does with no-hitters, I have seen pregnant women go through the motions of respecting the tradition. They acknowledge that they’re not supposed to tell people too early, then in the same breath they do it anyway. Through the acknowledgment, they evoke the don’t-tell tradition enough to avoid the jinx, and they also invoke a collective wish for the pregnancy to go well. Usually, “I’m not supposed to tell anyone this early, but I just can’t keep it a secret anymore!” is answered with, “Oh, I’m sure everything will be fine, you have nothing to worry about.” In its own way, those reassurances are a form of avoiding the jinx, as if saying everything will be fine can make it so.

Personally, I have toyed with the idea of refusing a baby shower when the time comes, to be consistent with observant Jewish practice (for new readers, I am not Jewish but in our home we practice many elements of Judaism consistent with my husband’s Orthodox upbringing). Instead of the charade of being a normal oblivious pregnant woman, which I don’t know that I could pull off at a baby shower or anywhere else, I would instead don the persona of being anxious, superstitious, and culturally respectful.

Let’s get real. The Real Me wishes that I could have lived a life where obliviousness at my own baby shower was possible. The Real Me anticipates that when the time comes, nobody will throw me a shower — definitely not in the city where I live now, and probably not in any of the cities where I used to live; the only possibility for a shower is in one city where many of DH’s friends and family cluster. But if that hypothetical baby shower does happen, the Real Me doesn’t want to field questions like “What took you so long?” or tolerate innuendo about the sex that created the baby. In addition to giving the impression of religious observance, refusing a shower would be a defense against the anxiety that none of my friends care enough to hold a shower and an avoidance of “normal” bullshit. Refusing a shower would also be a passive-aggressive act to withhold my joy from the people in my life: I haven’t deemed most of them worthy to share in all of the pain that it will have taken to get to that point, so maybe they don’t get the good stuff either. Would I really let them off so easy, letting them eat sheet cake without ever having fielded a sobbing phone call about a BFN? Would I give them the satisfaction of letting them coo at onesies when they never earned it by sending a miscarriage condolence card? Yes, refusing a baby shower would have its purposes, but for me none of them having anything to do with avoiding a jinx.

And so, as you must have guessed by now, I do not believe in jinxes. I go through the motions of avoiding jinxes, not to hedge my bets in case they do exist (as I do for good luck charms), but because the jinx traditions have real functions. I will insist on waiting longer than usual to announce a pregnancy, having made the opposite mistake with my first miscarriage and told too many people too early. The bad “luck” I am avoiding is not some nebulous evil eye, spirit, or will of G-d, but the pain of sharing my past and potential future heartache with others. I am also avoiding the bad “luck” of most people behaving in a way that is totally unhelpful if something bad does happen. Similarly, with purchases, I will probably put off pregnancy and baby purchases longer than most. The dozens of children’s books and toys in my house already raise eyebrows; when people have to trip over a stroller to get past your foyer, fake explanations become progressively more difficult. What is this jinx that we imagine we are avoiding by refraining from making purchases? Part of it, I think, comes from doing anything we can not to make a potential loss even more real, even more painful. I know that there are people who truly believe in bad luck, in tempting fate, in drawing the anger of the gods (and I’d love to hear from you in the comments); for me, the jinxes I’m trying to avoid are the ones in my head.

Your Thoughtful Thursday question for today:
Do you believe that you can do or say things to jinx an outcome?

First, for your listening pleasure:

This week, Between the Lines had a wonderful post about Paul Simon’s brilliant song Graceland. I listened to the album hundreds of times in 6th grade, my musical formative years. Like a baby gosling, I imprinted onto the album, particularly the title song.

Graceland warms my soul, but it has been years — decades? — since I really thought hard about the lyrics. Thanks to Between the Lines, I considered them carefully once again. So much has happened, and the meaning of many lyrics has changed for me. In particular:

She says losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow

This is very true if you’re talking about a breakup, and it’s true of many kinds of loss. It’s not, however, true of the babies I’ve lost. Blown apart, yes, but almost no one has been allowed to see anything — no knowledge of what has happened, and usually no clue that anything has gone wrong. The curtains of the window in my heart have been closed for years.

And then I realized that the window is now open, at least to the blogosphere. You all have a clear view to both the bad and the good.

If you tap on the window, I might even invite you in for cocoa.

Perfect MomentHead to Weebles Wobblog to see more Perfect Moments.

Spoiler alert: One of the moments is about me!


October 20, 2008

Once upon a time, I didn’t have an answer to the question, “What was the worst day of your life?” There were several contenders, all of which were very personal but none of which was truly horrible. Since my first miscarriage, I now have a real answer to the question.

The year was 2004. Britney Spears’ Toxic was climbing the charts. Kerry was in the process of clinching the Democratic nomination. During the two week wait of the pregnancy I’m about to describe, Janet Jackson’s boob shocked the nation and renewed American interest in censorship. I had experienced two years of infertility, and after eight months of treatment including Clomid, IUI, trigger shots, and progesterone suppositories, I was finally pregnant.

Pregnant! It was fantastic. I was nauseous — not too much, just enough to feel really pregnant. I had told a few friends, but no family — we didn’t plan to tell them for weeks. DH had a male bonding trip with a bunch of buddies coming up and doubted that he could keep the secret from all of them. I experienced the most blissful moment of my life (more on that sometime in the future). My betas were rising beautifully. Eight days of joy after two years of sorrow.

And then, the betas started falling.

23 DPO, I got a phone call from the RE’s nicest nurse, the one who had experienced and conquered infertility herself long ago. The call came later in the day than usual, which was a little suspicious. I was about to head into a meeting, so I let the call go to voicemail. When I finished the meeting, I called the nurse back.

She said that the beta had gone down. It wasn’t 100%, but it was likely that I was losing the pregnancy.

Okay, thanks. I moved on through my day calmly.

I was headed to the mall in the evening with a friend, along with her 3-year-old daughter and her 8-month-old pregnant belly. This friend had been with me every step of the way, and had experienced almost a year of secondary infertility and an early miscarriage before conceiving her second daughter. She was the first person I’d shown my pee stick to, hours before I showed my husband — just as I’d seen her pee stick a couple of days before she showed her husband. She was with me every step of the way.

As we got in the car, I told my friend about the nurse’s phone call.

“Do you want to skip the mall?”

No, things like this shouldn’t interrupt our plans. Let’s go.

My friend said one of the wisest things I’ve ever heard:
“We can talk about it if you want. Or, if you want, I won’t mention it all night and we can talk about anything else. We’ll do anything you want, and we won’t do anything you don’t want.”

She is always like that, but she was extra-fantastic that day.

We shopped and had dinner. We mostly didn’t talk about it. I was a little off, but it was fine. Strangely, we ran into a friend of DH’s — one that I never particularly liked. It’s not strange to run into someone, it’s just strange that he ended up making his way into the story of my big day. But there he is.

Anyway, we finished our pleasant outing. I dropped off the ladies and drove home. I held it together for the 20 minutes it took to drive home. I held it together for the 90 seconds it took to get from my car to my front door. I held it together while I opened the door and walked through.

And then I lost it.

My husband found me in a heap against the front door, sobbing like he’d never seen me in the 10 years we’d been together.

“Oh my G-d! What happened???”

I coughed out between sobs: I-lost-the-baby.

He was so sad too, but brave and sweet for my benefit. I’m sure he felt the loss as much as I did, but he never got a chance to express it.

Until October 20.

While I was pregnant, I had put a little post-it flag in the calendar on the due date, October 20. It was a weekly calendar in which we charted our exercise, so the flag wasn’t apparent until you turned to that page.

On October 20, he turned to that page and saw the flag. “What’s this flag for?”

That was the baby’s due date.

“Oh.” We hadn’t talked about it for months. It went from a mundane moment of charting his workout to a knife in the gut. We cried and hugged.

I remember so many things about that day, and about the moments of sobbing in a heap. I don’t remember the exact date it happened (though I have it written down, so I do know it). But I have never forgetten October 20.

Even though I always know the date, I sometimes forget the year. I just have to think of the age of my friend’s daughter, who was born a few weeks after my miscarriage. She is 4 now. She is starting to read.

I don’t even know the due date of the pregnancy that I lost only a few months ago. After my first loss, I just couldn’t put my heart into the next pregnancy, even four years later. When my next pregnancy happens (not if, but when, dammit) I will try to put my heart into it, but it may take a few milestones to really convince me that this one is here to stay. Several betas, certainly. Ultrasound with heartbeat? Maybe. Past the age of viability? Perhaps. Birth? Possibly. High school graduation? Definitely by then.

I will have many other dates to remember in the future, hopefully mostly good. But no matter how many dates make it into my calendar and my brain, I don’t think I can ever forget October 20. And since I can’t forget, it means that baby will always be remembered.

Thank you for remembering with me today.

Empty and Frantic

September 3, 2008

To quote from the Radiohead song “Fitter Happier” after which this blog is named:

no longer empty and frantic
like a cat
tied to a stick,
that’s driven into
frozen winter shit

I feel like my baseline mood is neutral-to-cheery, but lately “empty and frantic” is a pretty apt description a good proportion of the time. Mostly as a result of infertility, with some work, financial, family, and other stress thrown in to round it out. Without infertility, those other stresses would be manageable. Of course, without IF I would either have a kindergarten-age child, or I would be purposely child-free, depending on which alternate reality you are imagining.

I think back to the time before I started TTC. Without idealizing, I can honestly say that I was happier in a lot of ways. Not that I was always happier than I am now, but for several years before we started thinking about children, our marriage was great, and other aspects of my life were on the upswing. Oh, mid-20s, how rosy you were.

The first change occurred when I started charting, even before we actually started TTC. I used to sleep like a log, all the way through the night no matter what. All my life I slept like a log — too soundly, even; I have slept through major earthquakes, fire alarms, and too many alarm clocks. As soon as I started charting, I kept waking up many times throughout the night, wondering if it was time to temp yet. Never mind the fact that DH would wake me at the proper time. I was so eager — it’s funny to imagine now. I have barely slept through the night in the seven years since then, even though I gave up on charting over 4 years ago.

The next change came with the dawning realization of infertility. I have gone through every imaginable emotion. Most people reading this have experienced all of those same emotions, and many of you have described them eloquently on your own blogs, so I don’t need to catalog them here.

Perhaps the biggest change came with my first miscarriage. I was so naïve and hopeful, it never occurred to me that I might lose that baby. Since then, I have found it hard to imagine that a pregnancy will last.

Increasingly, I have gotten increasingly bothered by “innocent” comments, pregnancy announcements, and in a paranoid turn of events, even the potential for being around someone who might have children.

Sleep got even worse after I stopped charting. There have been so many nights that I couldn’t fall asleep until 4, 5, 6 a.m. Countless hours spent Googling infertility or IMing with my friend the vampire (okay, so he’s not really a vampire, he just works at night and sleeps during the day). And then, during my first injectables cycle, I also had the worst flu of my life, and for a month I barely slept yet couldn’t get out of bed. It wasn’t just the flu, though. I didn’t sleep at all the night before the egg retrieval for IVF #1; I hadn’t slept 0 hours since my first and only all-nighter in college.

One thing that hasn’t change is my need to plan, both during the early days and more recently. What has changed is that I relished it before, because planning is in my nature. Now I beat myself up over the foolishness of planning.

Some of the changes have been good. Regarding other people, I have gotten more sensitive, more careful with my words, more open-minded. In regards to myself, I also think that I have gotten more introspective, more deliberate, more in touch with my emotions. A lot of that has occurred quite recently, in conjunction with blogging. For that, ALI blogging community and Baby Smiling In Back Seat readers, I thank you. I have also stopped consulting Dr. Google for hours on end — somehow, getting a little fix of infertility every day through regular reading of others’ blogs has quenched my formerly insatiable thirst for knowledge and shared experience. So, community, thanks for that too.

I’m not at the point where I can declare that I am “no longer empty and frantic.” Some days I feel more empty than others, some days frantic but most days not. It’s nice to have a goal aside from making a baby. I hate to admit it, but looking into the immediate future, “no longer empty and frantic” feels more likely than “baby smiling in back seat.” But I will keep working on achieving both.