I once believed that I was less of a woman because I was not a mother.
What are the birth defect rates?
What is the chance that the pregnancy will go to term but without a live birth?
What is the chance of having multiple births?
What is the success rate of Intra-cytoplasmic sperm injections (ICSI)?
These are the questions, I, matter-of-factly, posed to the doctor of reproductive fertility.
In the National Survey of Family Growth (2006-2010), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that 1 in 8 couples (12.5%) have trouble getting pregnant or sustaining a pregnancy. In 2005, my husband Phil and I were one of those couples.
Phil and I, as many couples do, sought medical assistance. I daringly faced a rigorous schedule of subcutaneous hormone injections, antibiotics and birth control pills to stimulate and restrict the necessary pregnancy hormones. I endured numerous ultrasounds and blood drawings to monitor the levels. I experienced mood swings that were pretty unsettling and stressful. Phil and I went through uncomfortable procedures for fertility tests and egg retrieval.
After a single cycle of the procedure, the doctor advised us against trying the procedure again — because the probability of success was zero. My questions at the beginning of the process seemed in vain. I felt deflated.
The hard-coding of thoughts begins when we are children.
Growing up in the city of Chennai on the southeastern coast of India, I was the youngest of three girls in a Catholic family. As a little girl, a path had been set for me — like many Indian girls growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, finishing school, getting married and having a family were obvious next steps… just as obvious as breathing.
I believed that having children was guaranteed. And in fact, I had an attachment to this idea — it was as if my self-worth was tied to this… as if my value to society rested on my ability to birth a child.
But with one statement from a doctor back in 2005, that surety was ripped out of my hands. It felt like someone punched me in the stomach without any warning. And I was terrified about losing the one thing I thought would allow me to be myself — that would allow me to shine.
Social stigma and personal beliefs are equally stifling.
Every time I received an invite to a baby shower, I cringed. I sincerely wanted to celebrate my friends and so I endured it quietly. Inside, I was screaming to be free. To be free of feeling left out, to be free of the feeling that I somehow didn’t count, to be free of the feeling that I would never be able to truly empathize with someone giving birth. I avoided seeing commercials on TV about babies. I disengaged if I heard someone say that only a parent would understand.
Talking about this wasn’t an option. I worked in the male-dominated engineering world, and there was no room for me to let my guard down — I had to stay tough. Not realizing that I was experiencing a loss, I didn’t really think seeking guidance or counseling was necessary. Besides, socially, I felt it made people uncomfortable — and so, I began to believe I just needed to “suck it up” and stop what I was feeling.
Family and friends were supportive, in ways that I allowed them. I remember one friend in particular. She told me that my feelings reminded her of what parents feel when their kids leave home for the first time; that empty nest feeling of sadness. This somehow encouraged me to feel less alone. It opened a little window for me to explore this differently. My father had been a lifelong meditator and so I began to explore meditation.
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I would sit in silence, allowing the anger to pulse through my body, allowing the tears to flow down my face, releasing grief, loss and pain. I was guided by teachers to wonder about the questions that surfaced during meditation. The one question that repeatedly surfaced was this: who am I?
Was I a wife? Surely if I was only a wife, then how could I explain all these other roles I had. Or how could I explain everything I felt or thought about? So, if I wasn’t a wife, then who was I? Was I an engineer or a senior leader of the management team? Surely I was more than that. So, then who was I? Was I a reflection of my bank account? That didn’t make sense to me. So then who was I? Was I a mother? The answer was a resounding no. So then who was I? You get the idea.
My discovery in these moments of stillness was that there was somebody making all these observations. Somebody that realized I still had value, even though I wasn’t a mother. Somebody that loved me even though I couldn’t play the one role that nature intended for me. Somebody that showed me compassion in the truest sense possible. Somebody who could give me the positive affirmation I needed. Somebody who understood that I was hurting. Somebody that realized that what I was not, was not who I was. This somebody was me. This was the beginning of the answer to my question of who I was.
This realization encouraged me to dig deeper. I started to challenge the notion that motherhood was the only path — as if being childless makes one’s life meaningless. I allowed myself to feel the sadness and the anger and loss — it was my right. Frequently I repeated to myself all the things I was not — to get closer to who I was. I started practicing action with clarity and conviction while staying detached from outcome. In meditation I created space for the knowledge of who I was to emerge — it could only happen in that space of stillness and silence.
What you are is not who you are.
As a woman leader, if you find yourself at odds with your beliefs or social stigmas, like I did, I encourage you to:
- Practice first and foremost, self compassion, self acceptance, and self love.
- Challenge the notion of a “normal” or “standard” path to solutions, goals, or life.
- Gently ask yourself if you show up in life as more than the roles you play.
- Practice decision-making with conviction and clarity while staying detached to outcome.
- Explore your relationship with being uncomfortable… your relationship with discomfort.
I learned what I was not… but that does not stop me from being who I am.
About the Author
Rita Devassy, the founder and CEO of Deva Seed, brings leadership experience from the tough corporate world of tech. Conforming in a male-dominated culture left her personally depleted, but then called to bring mindfulness back to the corporate space. Now, she builds up business leaders who believe that self-inquiry, generosity and compassion are required hallmarks of an effective, successful leader.
Rita holds degrees in Business Management and Computer and Information Science along with a certificate in Authentic Leadership from Naropa University and is on the faculty for The Foundations program at the Authentic Leadership Center. She lives with her husband and their miniature pinscher dogs, Oliver and Oscar. She meditates often, can’t parallel park to save her life, and seeks the American culture she missed in her childhood vicariously through re-runs of The Brady Bunch and Leave it To Beaver.