Be honest. You've played this game, haven't you? Someone tells you something awful, and you immediately weigh it against your own experience of loss (even if you do have the good grace to not openly play your tragedy trump card). I've done it, even though I consider myself to be a sensitive person and someone who respects the way others deal with adversity. I try not to judge people's emotional responses, so I was shocked when I found myself competing for a gold medal in what a friend once called "The Pain Olympics."
After suffering a series of miscarriages and being unable to conceive again, my friend Cassie recently decided it was time to stop trying. I understood her decision; I'd made the same decision a few years earlier, and Cassie had been a good friend to me during that time. She had offered her support as I was navigating my way through fertility doctors and adoption agencies, trying to find someone who could offer a viable path to the family I so desired. When my plans didn't work out, Cassie lent a sympathetic ear and respected my decision to get off the infertility crazy train and start trying to come to terms with the prospect of a life without children. So, when Cassie began blogging openly about her own infertility, I applauded her courage to speak out. After all, she and I were kindred spirits, sisters in infertility ... except that Cassie already has a daughter.
Outwardly, I supported Cassie as she tried to come to terms with secondary infertility. I understood what she was going through. I understood the frustration of being unable to conceive, the pain of miscarriage, and the isolation of grieving something intangible. I understood how hurt she was when well-meaning people told her she could "always try again," as if losing a pregnancy was no more traumatic than picking the wrong numbers on the lottery. But in the back of my head a petulant little voice kept saying things like, "Well, at least she got to have one baby! At least she got to experience pregnancy! I didn't get any of that!" Even in my supposedly enlightened state, even though I'd walk several miles in Cassie's shoes, I still caught myself ranking our losses and docking points from hers because she already had a child and I did not.
In the infertility community, we're usually so good at pulling together. In my own experience, infertility was very isolating, and I didn't realize how much I needed a community of like-minded women until I found one. It helped my own healing process tremendously to know that there were other women like me out there -- all over the world -- who had a shared experience. Our journeys had all been different, and yet we had a kinship based on what we'd lost, in this case the chance for motherhood. So I was horrified at the feelings of indignation that welled up inside me when Cassie "dared" to put her own loss on the same level as mine.
When someone loses a parent, do we dismiss that loss when they still have a surviving parent? If we lose a good friend, do we mourn less because we have other friends? No, we do not. And if we do, shame on us. Loss is such a personal experience, weighed only by how important the lost thing, person, or experience is to us. How can you put a value on someone else's grief? And yet we do it all the time.
Everyone in the infertility community has dealt with loss. Some of us have experienced childbirth, some of us pregnancy, and some of us have never experienced either. Some of us have found a way to reconcile that loss and find a new path through life, and others are still trying to come to terms with the idea that life isn't going to turn out as planned. We can't weigh one person's journey against another and say that one is worse or another is easier, because "at least she got to experience [fill in the blank]."
Infertility has taught me compassion for others and their situations, even if I sometimes have to take a step away from my inner petulant child to remember that. Loss is loss, and it's always painful. When it comes to the experience of infertility, we're all in this together, whatever our circumstances and whatever the ultimate outcome.
Lisa Manterfield is the author of "I'm Taking My Eggs and Going Home: How One Woman Dared to Say No to Motherhood." She writes about living childfree after infertility at lifewithoutbaby.wordpress.com.
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