Several weeks ago I had an exchange with someone who told me they understood my IVF/infertility experience. They had no personal experience of infertility. I'm being as vague as possible here, since it was a personal conversation and I don't want to be an identifying jerk. This person's experience in no way connected with mine. They were worried about the possibility of experiencing infertility, but without any experience to really back that up. It was a fear. A worry. A hypothetical shadow. But in their eyes, we were similar. Our experiences were somehow equatable.
This is not the first time I've experienced that kind of interaction -- the idea that thinking about what you might do if you found out you and your partner were infertile = the same as my thinking about what I and my partner were going to do when we found out were were dealing with infertility.
I'm not against talking about these things, especially prior to marriage or prior to trying to conceive. Talking about what you're open to for hypothetical situations down the road is really, really smart. But unless you know something's up, statistically, you're probably fine and those decisions will forever sit on the Shelf Of Things We Didn't Have To Worry About After All. Whether you know it or not, you have the privilege of making those decisions in a more sterile room of the mind. The problem comes in when people equate these hypothetical situations with the real-life-decisions made by those in the trenches, the ones making these decisions when they have much, much more finality, the ones for whom the room in which that decision was made was anything but sterile -- it is fraught when saying "I wouldn't do IVF" really means, for real, no joke, you will not have a child.
The World Health Organization categorizes infertility as a disease. Treating it like it's a disease is normal for many people. Many people also choose not to treat it. This, too, is their choice. But like any disease, saying categorically *to someone who has the disease you are only worried about hypothetically* that you wouldn't do x or y to treat it...that's hurtful and makes people feel feelings. The hypothetical decision is not the same type of decision. It has no outcome. It has no impact. It is blissfully free of consequences. To say Person A understands Person B simply because they're talking about the same subject is misguided. I mean...would you tell someone choosing whether or not to give their child a cochlear implant that oh, you would never do that or you would totally do that -- when you will never have to face that choice?
You can think about hypotheticals until the cows come home, but at the end of the day, one decision is just an abstract decision, and one decision changes a life. You can mean it. You can know thyself and know beyond a shadow of a doubt what you think you'd do. You can research and come by those decisions with all the logic and thought in the world. I'll accept that. But for the love of god, don't tell that to people who aren't living in hypothetical-land. Because my decision came with thought and logic, too -- but also a lot of cold, hard pain. And to equate the two is to diminish my pain. While you might think you're connecting with others, you're really pushing them away, because they know things you don't, even when you think you might.
Simply put, someone will never understand my experience unless they've been through it, or something a little more equatable. I will likewise never "understand" the experience of people I know who've experienced tremendously more loss and more years of trying and failure. I will never understand the experience of someone who's had a failed IVF attempt. Or several. Our experiences cannot be equated, although we might share some of the same features here and there. I've applied to adopt (and been rejected) but that doesn't mean that I am qualified to say I understand what it's like adopting (even if I've read books, and I have read plenty). I will never understand those experiences, and I will never understand the experiences of those who got a baby the first attempt and were jarred by that, or surprised by parenthood entirely.
And here's the important thing about all that: It's okay.
I'm a firm believer that we can be good friends to each other not by "understanding" everything the other person is going through -- because that's just impossible -- but by attempting to be good listeners and good supporters. People cannot expect authentic empathy from everyone -- at some level, sometimes you just have to acknowledge that you're never going to be on the same plane in terms of actual lived experiential understanding. We can try to bridge the gaps in understanding, and we can try to learn. But I don't expect people who haven't been down my particular road to understand the way it felt to turn this way or that on that road. I think to expect that is expecting more than is reasonable out of a human being. It's unfair of me to expect that.
So much of this boils down to the way in which we seem to form friendships via mirroring. We mirror each other and while this often helps break the ice and forms tentative bonds through shared connections, it can go very wrong when the mirroring ends up involving something one person decidedly doesn't think the other person actually shares in common with them.
I think it's more beneficial to ask questions like "How are you feeling?" and saying things like "I don't know how you're feeling, but I'm here for you for whatever you need" than trying to create a shared experience out of something that is not shared. I'm no saint, I've been the jerk who said she "got it" before, too. I'm trying to change that because I've been on the shitty butt end of this a lot since going through infertility. I don't expect my friends to understand on the it-felt-exactly-this way sort of way what my husband and I have been through, and I think it's okay that we don't share the experiences our friends are having right now, too. We may not understand at an experiential level, but we can be there anyway as supportive friends and human beings cheering them on and holding out a hand and offering to bring over some egg rolls or something. That's part of being human -- acknowledging that you don't know everything, can't always know what another person is feeling, can't always "experience" their experience on their level. You can't always walk in someone else's shoes, and just thinking about it simply doesn't bridge the gap in a lot of cases. Even if you research the crap out of those shoes.
Expecting people to be mind-readers and experience-twins in order to maintain or form connections is just a recipe for short-lived friendships. Everyone's life is going to involve stuff that other people don't "get" and experience, and I think it's far more important to be there on the road saying "Hey, that looks really hard, can I help you carry that load somehow?" than to say "Oh man, I've totally been on that path myself, it was really hard" if I haven't technically been on that path.
This week is National Infertility Awareness Week. I'm writing this because I don't think you should have to "get it" when it comes to the experience of infertility.
You don't have to "get" it. You just have to show up. And maybe bring a 6-pack. And some egg rolls. I will if you will.