What is Success?

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pregnant woman with child photoWhen people hear that I’m an acupuncturist specializing in fertility, often the first thing they want to know is how successful I am. In other words, how many of my patients actually get pregnant? I used to rummage through my brain, hunting for the statistics. Let’s see, this month eight people got pregnant, last month it was four, oh, but one couple chose to adopt, and another decided not to have children at all, and wait, there was the couple last year who split up instead. Weren’t they all in their own way, successful? It got me to thinking, how do we define success?

In life, we are taught to have goals and develop a game plan to meet them. Study hard, pass the test, become a professional, be successful, make money and get on top. On top of what exactly? As women we’re not only encouraged to do all that, but are biologically programmed and culturally encouraged to get married and to make babies. What happens when things don’t go as planned?

Growing up, I thought when I got married and had children, then I’d be successful. I pictured the whole Cinderella and Snow White happily-ever-after scenario. Of course, as I discovered, that was the stuff of fairy tales, not real life.

As it happened, I did fall in love and I did get pregnant, but not exactly the way I had envisioned it—we hadn’t discussed marriage or even a long-term commitment. I could handle that, but what really threw me was the news we received during the first trimester. We found out that both my partner and I were carriers of Tay-Sachs, a genetic disorder in which the baby is missing a chromosome for development and will die, and that there was a 25% chance we would have a Tay-Sachs child. How could that have happened to me? I was very healthy, ate good food, exercised every day. Unfortunately, genetic disorders don’t care about those facts. Turned out, luckily, our first baby was fine. Our second and third attempts? Not so much. I had a miscarriage with the second pregnancy and then a few months later I had to terminate a Tay-Sachs pregnancy at 11 weeks. It took two more years and much struggle before I finally gave birth to my second son.

Was I successful because I birthed two beautiful, healthy children? Absolutely, but the road to my fertility was not a well-paved one—marred by twists and turns, potholes and roadblocks. But then, what life journey ever is smooth and predictable? We start out with a goal but then life takes surprising twists and turns. All we can try to do is not hold on so tightly to how we think our goals should play out, try to stay in the present, while continuing to honor our vision.

Here is a great example of success woven into the fabric of the unexpected. On the surface, it looks like a beautiful happily-ever-after, but the actual events show us the importance of broadening our definition of what success truly means.

My 42-year-old patient was a successful lawyer who was determined to have a baby. The problem was, her stress levels were extremely high, she had endometriosis, bladder issues, and allergies. Her hormones were out of whack and she had had several surgeries to remove fibroids and polyps in her uterus. She felt her life would not be complete without bearing a child. Even though she knew the odds were stacked against her, she wanted to give birth. Adoption and donor egg—out of the question. It was to be her own biological child or nothing.

She went through IVF and did three transfers with no luck. She had non-genetically tested embryos frozen, but then decided she should go to another clinic in another state and try IVF again, this time with expensive genetic testing. The results: no genetically normal embryos. She came home defeated, exhausted, and broke. Adoption, which had not been an option before, suddenly became her and her husband’s focus.

As luck would have it, they were able to adopt rather quickly and they were both over the moon. Because of her endometriosis, my patient knew that the embryos she had frozen would need to be put back into her uterus sooner rather than later. Convinced the embryos were genetically bad, they decided to put two non-genetically embryos back in. Soon after, she received some shocking news—she was pregnant with twins!

We hear stories like these a lot. Women who decrease stress, let go, and then get pregnant. What is this about? First, my patient had to redefine what a successful outcome would be and, on a deeper level, what being a mother meant to her. Second, even though mothering a newborn was stressful, that stress wasn’t about getting pregnant. I have to hand it to her, she was willing to broaden her vision of bringing a child into their lives and then letting it all unfold. Life’s surprises often help us grow spiritually, emotionally and physically.

I tell my patients “be open to possibility.” No one knows how life will turn out. What seems like failure in one area of our life can open the door to success in another area. We live moment by moment trusting in our journeys. A journalist, writing an article for Vanity Fair magazine, asked rock musician John Mellencamp the question What do you consider your greatest achievement? He responded, “Life should never be viewed from the vantage point of achievements. It is total folly.” I couldn’t agree more.