This is a hard one, because I teeter between not wanting to have regrets and let things be what they are, and really wishing I would have said something, anything, to help the conversation be more empathetic and educational for the person who was speaking to me.
What do I mean by this? Almost my whole adult life, I have been experiencing the ups and downs of grief and loss due to infertility and pregnancy loss. I didn’t realize how much grief I have been carrying for all my hopes and dreams that have yet to come to fruition. Infertility is incredibly isolating and often ostracizing. People can say the most hurtful things, in the spirit of “meaning well”. I’m calling this out. I do believe they mean well, and I don’t believe they take the time to actually express empathy from a loving place. This is something that takes work, practice, more work, more work, and even more work. Doing inner work is not fun. It’s a pain and can take you to some places you’d rather not be in, mentally and emotionally. And yet, it is so important. If we are going to truly be able to communicate with one another in a loving and empathetic way, doing some inner work to check your own issues and what makes you uncomfortable, is necessary.
I have learned so much, and I still have so much more to learn. No one prepares you for infertility. I didn’t even think to see a counselor for a long time. And there are no crash courses in being able to cope or how to talk to people about it. There is learning, every single day. There is growth, and it’s painful. There are setbacks, and it’s painful. There is understanding and clarity along the way as well. And you are able to peer in to a side of the human condition that not many others see.
So what do I mean when I say that I wish I would have said things differently? I wish I would have had some tools, some communication skills, to be able to respond to the comments that were so NOT helpful. I wish I could go back and help people see that their meaning well needs to shift and come from a place of love, instead of wherever else it’s coming from. Blanket statements do not work. They are hollow and void of meaning. Platitudes just being thrown at someone display emotional carelessness. Intrusive comments do not help. They are jarring and disrespectful. Just because you are “curious” about something, does not give you the right to blurt it out and ask someone. How about asking their name first? Oh yeah, I have tons of experiences like that. If you are “meaning well” because you care about the person, show it! Don’t ask some off the cuff, intrusive question that just makes you sound nosy and careless. Yep, I’m calling it out, because that’s what it sounds and feels like.
I’m not sure I can remember all of them, but I will pick some of my favorite, most awful comments people have said to me, and to us as a couple, over the years as we have journeyed through the ups and downs of trying to build our family and make meaning out of these years of childlessness. And I will share what, after having had some experience, gaining emotional maturity, and years of doing inner, introspective work, I would have liked to say to them. It might be thought provoking, educational, or downright snarky and sassy ;)
Scene: We are living in Idaho, in a very small, religiously conservative community, where everyone gets married young and has tons of kids. We had been married for about 3 years.
Comment: (the neighbors are gathered outside in someone’s yard, as all the kids around running around playing, a neighbor decided to announce her pregnancy of a 2nd child to all the neighbors and everyone congratulates them with delight) The husband then turns to us and says “So, when are you two going to join the club?”
What I wish I would have said: “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize there was a club to join, I thought everyone belonged here” or, what I REALLY wish I would have said: “I’m sorry, what club are you referring to? The judgmental club you are all in, where you marginalize and shame people who aren’t over populating the planet like you are? Yeah, no thanks, I want nothing to do with it”.
Comment: “Well, you can always adopt” or, “Have you thought about adoption” or, “Maybe it’s better because you can just adopt, there are so many babies who need loving parents”.
What I wish I would have said: “Adoption is not a solution to infertility, and infertility is not a problem that needs solving. If a family chooses to bring a child in to their home through adoption, it is HOW they are building their family. It’s not because anything else “failed” them, it is how they are becoming a family. It is not a plan B for not getting pregnant. And by the way, it’s interesting that you feel so strongly that we should adopt when you have absolutely no say as to what happens within our private life or our family life. Next time you feel that you want to say this to someone, consider the fact as to whether you are actually going to assist them with the adoption. Why is it so important that you assert your opinion on to us about such a personal matter? It doesn’t send a very good message when a seemingly stranger has such a strong opinion about how a random couple should become parents.”
Comment: “Well, you’ve been such a great teacher to all of these students over the years. Surely you can see that you have been a mother to them, so in a way you have been a mother.”
What I wish I would have said: “I have been their teacher and educator, yes, and as times caretaker as well. That is how I see myself in the work I have done with these children. Why is it so important that I be identified as a mother? Is that important to you in some way? This actually feels demeaning to me. I am their teacher and it’s important to me that I be their teacher. I don’t feel the need to be their mother. And I don’t feel that you get to decide when and how I define myself as a mother. That’s very personal and it feels intrusive that you would just define this for me without any regard to how I feel about it.”
Comment: “Everything happens for a reason”
What I wish I would have said: “It sounds like this is something you believe. Is that the case? Do you truly believe this for ALL experiences in life, even the random and incomprehensible events that can potentially occur? I would appreciate it if you didn’t assume that I believe the same thing that you do. To me this statement is more of an expression of belief and it does not help me feel better about my situation.”
This one is more of a situation where I REALLY wish I would have spoken up. I think I was around 24 years old at the time and we had been trying to have a baby for about a year. What does a 24 year old know when they are surrounded by older adults who are in “authority”, and when you give them that authority, how are you supposed to speak up for yourself when things feel awkward?
Ok, here’s the scenario. Like I have mentioned before, I used to be part of a religious organization and not only that, I lived in a very small town that was dominated by the culture of this religion. We were attending college here, and lived in a home in a neighborhood that was full of young families. We went to church 2 minutes away from our house. This place was baby central. Women were pregnant, all the time. They took time to announce their pregnancies in church, during the womens’ meeting. Every week there were a handful of women announcing their pregnancies. And the women’s organization at church took to ministering to these young mothers, bringing them meals when they returned home from the hospital with the new baby. It’s a lovely aspect of the community, unless you don’t get to take part. Unless you are left out, and then it feels isolating, lonely, and downright shaming. So week after week, this kept happening. And then one week, one of the leaders in the womens’ organization decided that there were going to pass around the “Baby Binder”. I AM NOT JOKING. This binder was to go to each woman, row by row. If you were pregnant, you indicated on the spreadsheet when you were due, and if you wanted meals brought to you. If you were not pregnant, it was your job to indicate that you could bring meals to women in need, and write what meals you could bring and what day of the week worked best for you. The expectation was that everyone would have something to contribute to the binder.
Well, NOT ME! I wanted to throw that dreadful thing across the room and smack the woman in the face who had stood up and said “And now sisters, we will pass around the Baby Binder.” Are you kidding me? This is so insulting, so painful … so INTRUSIVE! Week after week I just passed that thing by, wanting to rip it apart, or use it at target practice, or throw it through the window. I hated that binder.
What I wish I would have done: After church, privately approach the leaders in the womens’ organization and explain my feelings about the binder. It is painful for me to see and hear, it is hard for me to watch, week after week, countless amounts of women write their names down that they are expecting a baby and week after week I continue to be left out. It’s isolating and I don’t feel like it builds community. It doesn’t only leave me out, what about the women who are not married, or other women who are suffering from infertility silently. This is not inclusive and not representative of what true sisterhood is. Can you please leave the binder on a table in the back of the room, so that women can fill it out before or after the womens’ meeting if they want to? And that way, no one who consents to filling it out even has to see it. Would that be a possible solution? Thank you for listening.”
We can all do better. We can all check our privilege, our judgments, and our biases at the door, and come to a conversation with empathy. All you have to do is listen, listen some more, and commit to learning. Being there for someone doesn’t mean you throw a meaningless platitude at them because you were “meaning well”. Being there for someone means you look at them and say “I don’t know what to say, and I’m here for you.” And that’s it. Truly, that’s it.