Do you have kids?

I think figuring out a tactful way to answer this is pretty simple really, and not really the issue.

“No, we don’t have children.” Is sometimes enough for the person asking.  And it’s the answer that is easiest to give, because it doesn’t give anything away.  It doesn’t elude to the heartbreak that is infertility.  The inability to have a child no matter what you do.  It’s the simple answer to the basic and simple question.

When I was younger, and in my “prime child bearing years”, often the question was followed up with a more probing question of “why not?” or “when are you planning them?”.  Sometimes I was brutally honest, and very blunt in my response, “I was born without a uterus and can’t get pregnant.”  And sometimes, I would give an answer along the lines of, “we are considering our options for adoption, but the timing just isn’t right yet.”  I tried not to get too involved with the details, giving just enough information that the questions would stop.  I didn’t share the hurt that comes along with being told at 18 that you are infertile, that you will never carry a child in your body.  I would never shop for maternity clothes, I would never pee on a stick and wait with wild anticipation of the results.  That option was ripped away from me when I was diagnosed with MRKH.

I still wanted to have children.  I would adopt.  I would get that perfect newborn baby to love and cherish, and that would somehow make me normal and my life would be as I had perfectly planned it to be.  And a couple years later I would get another perfect baby and be a doting mother to 2 charming children – maybe even 3.

Things were falling into place in my life, and so I started really thinking about motherhood and adoption.  I met with social workers, attended support groups, wrote biographies, and talked with doctors about pursing parenthood.  I bought baby clothes and supplies, knowing that if I could just get a baby then my life would be complete.

Over the course of a few months, things changed pretty rapidly in my life.  Or rather, the accumulation of events led to some difficult decisions.  I put the brakes on starting a family in an attempt to truly have control over my life.  I comforted myself in the thought that I could always start again, but first I needed to get MY life in line.

In the months and years that followed, I had several friends start families either through planned or unplanned pregnancies.  I just kept waiting for the right time and worked on filling my life with other activities – putting my infertility on the back burner.  I stumbled around for several years trying to figure out just what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I listened as my biological clock ticked telling me you need to get busy with this parenting thing…you need to get that baby by the time you’re 30.  As I got closer and closer to 30, I thought…well maybe 35.  I could get my life together by the time I’m 35 and still be a mom.  I’d be more responsible and “ready” then to truly give my child the life they deserved.

I wanted to be a mother, but I started to question if I needed to be a mother to be complete in my life.  Was I destined to be a mother, or was my purpose in life to be something else?  I wasn’t sure anymore.  I enjoyed the life I was leading, and I knew that I would be a good mother if a child came into my life. But I had a choice.  My husband and I had a choice, and we could chose to NOT be parents.  After-all, our default option was to not be parents.  There was no way we could accidentally become parents, get unexpectedly pregnant.  We truly had to make a choice – just let the default option be the answer, or actively pursue parenthood. In all honesty, we pretty much just let the default option take over.  We didn’t talk for hours and hours about the pros and cons of parenthood.  We didn’t discuss financial implications of adopting a child or pursuing surrogacy.   We didn’t talk about savings accounts and college funds and baby nurseries and family friendly cars.  We just let the default option be.  We were complete in our individual lives, and in our married lives.  We loved our nieces and nephews, and we would have loved a child.  But we didn’t NEED a child to be whole.

So now, when people ask us, “Do you have children?”, we usually answer “No, we never got around to that.”  Somehow, in your mid 40s if you state that you haven’t had children, it’s an acceptable thing.  Whatever lead to the choice isn’t as important, and they just accept the fact that you chose not to be parents.

I now use the question as an opportunity to talk about infertility and MRKH.  Sometimes I share just a little, and sometimes I spend close to an hour talking about it.  We begin with a recitation of facts:

  • 1 in 8 couples struggles with infertility in some form
  • up to 25% of pregnancies end in miscarriage in the first trimester
  • 1 in 33 babies are born with some sort of congenital birth defect
  • 1 in 4500 women world wide are diagnosed with MRKH

And then I start to discuss my own diagnosis, being born without a uterus, cervix, and the upper portion of my vaginal canal.  I tell them about abnormal kidneys and skeletal and joint issues.  I explain that I do have ovaries and hormones, and all the outward signs of being a woman.  I explain that I still have hormonal cycles – PMS if you will – I just don’t have the punctuation in the form of menstrual bleeding – no period.  Often a full discussion follows where my anatomy is discussed in great detail, to include how I had to stretch my vaginal canal in order to have penetrative vaginal intercourse.  We sometimes talk about other treatment options of vaginal dilators and surgical creation of a neovagina.  And I talk about WHY I talk about it.  How I went over 25 years thinking I was so different, never meeting another woman who had the same thing as me – feeling ashamed of my “otherness” – depression – adoption – surrogacy.  I never want another women to feel so utterly alone.

While I don’t particularly enjoy talking about my physical differences, I feel it’s important – no VITAL – to remove the shame associated with having MRKH.  I am no less a woman than someone who is born with one blue eye and one brown eye.  I am no less a woman than someone who is born with a cleft palate.  I am no less a woman than someone who is born without a fully developed hand or foot.  I am in a unique position where I can say that while I will forever carry this diagnosis – but my diagnosis will not hold me back.  Plenty of my MRKH sisters are mothers.  Some have adopted children, some have used gestational carriers, some are foster parents, and many more of us are pet-parents.  And we are scientists, teachers, engineers, veterinarians, authors, fitness coaches, yogis, accountants, farmers, librarians, politicians, pastors, truck drivers, day care workers, business owners, beauty queens, doctors, counselors, sailors, soldiers, MRKH Warriors.

We are stronger than we ever thought possible.  We are compassionate.  We are fighters, survivalists.  We learn to make a life with what we have, and not focus on what we don’t have.  We learn to improvise, adapt and overcome.  Our path may not be clear, well lit, and obvious – but we will follow it none the less.  We are Courageous.

“How few there are who have courage enough to own their faults, or resolution enough to mend them.”  Benjamin Franklin

Basic Training

I joined the Army in November 1990.  I did my basic training in Fort Dix, New Jersey.  Joining the military was not a shock to my system, it was more like coming home.  I understood the roll drill instructors held, I understood the basic expectations placed on me as a recruit.  I actually thoroughly enjoyed my basic training.  Well, not mornings – but I’ve never been a morning person!  I wrote letters home to my husband and my family.  I wrote letters to former teachers, the pastor of my church.  I was able to call home occasionally.  I was completely comfortable, and in my element.

I was so comfortable that I often got in trouble…for laughing at inappropriate times mostly.  I laughed at my squad members.  I laughed at my drill instructors.  I laughed on the firing range.  I laughed in the chow line.  I did a lot of push-ups for laughing at the wrong thing, or at the wrong time.  I did KP a few extra times for laughing too.  So you are probably wondering – what exactly did I find so funny?  Well, mostly the fact that the drill instructors LOVED their jobs…they loved being able to intimidate young recruits.  They loved to yell and boss us around.  But their façade had cracks…they were human, and sometimes the drama of 60+ women between the ages of 18-25 is just too much.  The sheer idiocy we showed was just funny sometimes.  And the incredulity of our drill instructors when we did something really stupid…well I just laughed.


You’ve seen it in the movies I’m sure, some hapless recruit being screamed at by a larger than life drill instructor unable to do anything but respond with a “Sir, yes Sir”.  It cracked me up, and when asked what I found so funny, Private?  “You, Drill Sargent” was apparently not the correct response.

One evening in particular, most of the way through basic training we were out on Bivouac – that’s camping for you civilians – I was with a couple other recruits and we were tasked to watch over a pile of gear and wait for the truck to come so we could load it up.  Other recruits near us had some other job, and I don’t even remember what started it…but pretty soon those recruits were being punished for something.  The drill instructor had them running in a tight circle, raising their weapon up and over their heads, and chanting “I am not a knucklehead, I am not a knucklehead.”  “Knees up, soldier…higher…higher…keep that weapon in the air…knees up” It was HILARIOUS…and it was raining of course.  My group got caught watching, and of course then I was laughing…and the whole, “What’s so funny, Private Miller?”  “Just you, Drill Sergeant” thing got me and my group added to the running group of Knuckleheads.  For the record, the drill sergeant was also named Miller, and he was also laughing at the group between yelling at them.

Another memory I have from basic training was pretty iconic.  It’s even written in the margins of my Drill Book.  You see, I was in basic when the bombing began in Tel Aviv – the start of the first gulf war.  When the world became acquainted with the war on terror, and the man, Saddam Hussein.  This was an OMG kind of moment – even when that particular phrase wasn’t in wide use.  I was 19 years old, had pledged my life to the US Army, and a WAR started.  We were gathered in the common room of our barracks, had mats out on the floor for some training activities, and on the schedule was some tactical and combat training exercises.  It wasn’t conducive weather for outdoor training – rain, cold, mud, etc…so we were on the mats combat crawling as quickly as we could from one end of the room to the other while drill instructors were lobbing erasers at our butts telling us to get down, duck your head, crawl faster.  Yes, I was laughing…No, my drill instructors were not amused.  For the record – I was NOT the only one laughing.  We were having fun on a rainy afternoon…crawling around racing back and forth with one particularly funny Puerto Rican drill sergeant really letting loose on us.  Drill Sergeant Figueroa was so stereotypically Puerto Rican most of what he did was funny.  About 5’7”, stocky build, thick PR accent…and constantly yelling at us in English and Spanish.  Finally after the millionth round of stop and give me 20 to our whole group for not focusing and too much laughing…he attempted to get us to sit in a group and pay attention.  We needed to take our training seriously, because someday soon it could be Saddam Hussein launching scud missiles at us instead of just drill instructors launching erasers at us!  We aren’t just killing time here, we’re trying to teach you how to survive in a battle! That kind of brought us up short.  We were in the US Army.  There was a war that just started.  Our country and our lives, values, family, and FREEDOM were at risk.  It was a reality check, and much of the next few weeks were full of quiet conversations about our advanced training coming up and how close to “combat” we might actually get.  Back then, the roles that women were allowed to have were limited to non-combat, mostly support roles.  But I will probably always remember the combat crawling on those mats that rainy night with Drill Sergeant Figueroa launching scud missiles at our butts in the form of chalkboard erasers.

I will also remember basic training, because it was the first Christmas that I was away from my family.  Most of us called home and talked to family.  Many sat in groups with our ranger buddies talking about life and war and home.  At one point that morning I happened to be walking past the cadre offices when Drill Sergeant Figueroa was calling home.  It was like an alien had possessed him.  This grouchy mean obnoxious Puerto Rican man was talking baby talk to his 3 year old daughter.  “Daddy loves you sweetheart, I’ll be home soon.”  Aww…my heart melted.  And I laughed to myself as I quickly kept walking to avoid being caught eavesdropping.

I loved my time in the military.  I loved serving my country, and I truly enjoyed most of the men and women I served with.  I’m sure I’ll share many more stories of my time in the Army, as it was a time of great personal growth for me.  And I will certainly remember a few key phrases, words of wisdom imparted by drill instructors – and most of them are accompanied by more laughter.

“I am not a knucklehead”

“I don’t care what color your skin is, you’re all a bunch of little green shitheads to me”

“No more Drill Sergeant Figueroa, No more Drill Sergeant Figueroa” (sang in formation on our way to the parade deck for graduation day!)