A few weeks back I referred to a post at So Close that Tertia wrote about her sister, Mel. The two sisters are very close, though the experience of infertility took a heavy toll on their relationship. While Tertia was going through numerous rounds of IVF and multiple pregnancy losses, her sister breezed through (okay, no one really breezes through pregnancy, but there is a huge emotional difference between a post-IF and a non-post-IF pregnancy) three pregnancies and gave birth to three healthy children. Tertia would never begrudge her sister that happiness nor would she ever want her to experience a moment of infertility. The point of her post was how infertility affects others, both parallel to your own pain and also uniquely its own brand of poison.
And it's something that I've thought about from time to time--how you can get wrapped up in your own intense pain and forget that others are affected by (1) the same event and (2) your actions or withdrawl. And that is the point that Mel makes in a letter she writes to her sister. She asks Tertia to imagine the tables turned. If Mel had suffered the stillbirth, wouldn't Tertia be mourning as well? If Mel had been angry and lashed out at her sister during infertility, wouldn't Tertia still feel stung?
While I do feel sadness when I consider my siblings' personal pain over troubles in their own life, it is a pain that is certainly dulled in comparison to the intensity of what they are feeling. Mostly because I can cry about their loss and have it affect me for the evening, but then I have long moments of my day when I am not thinking about it. Where it slips my mind. And I'm sure their own pain never slips their mind just as the pain I felt over infertility never slipped my mind. I never got to take a break from infertility. There was always some reminder--whether it was my period or taking my temperature in the morning or an injection or a happy pregnant woman who crossed my path.
And I'm sure my siblings thought about my infertility from time to time. And I'm sure that they felt sad when they heard things were not going well. And they have sat with me many times when I've cried. But the pain is both parallel (imagine it parallel roads where one is heavily congested with traffic and the other one has a few cars dotting the pavement--you can't say the pain of traveling those two roads are equal or similar though both have traffic that slow you down and affect your journey) and unique. Other people heard about my journey second-hand and I'm sure there were times when they felt left-out and brokenhearted too. I'm sure it was hard for the grandparents wondering when they would get to take on that role. Or aunts or uncles who wanted a niece or nephew. I'm sure they were hurt to discover that we didn't share all of the pregnancy losses with them. There were not-yet babies that they never knew existed and found out about long after the fact. Or not at all. And that's the unique pain--the one I didn't get to experience at all because I'm not them.
The two sisters are both fantastic, thoughtful and caring. And unlike many people out there, they're on the same playing field. There are so many tattered relationships filled with so much bile and hurt that are left behind due to infertility. And they were lucky to discover each other in the same camp after the war of Infertility came to an end (I'm hearing music welling up in the background as they run across the room towards each other with their arms outstretched). Where they are now is fragile ground, where they admit how much they love each other and need each other and want to be close. But they're hugging each other gingerly. Both bodies are still too bruised by the experience to hug with abandon. Give them a bit of time.
I had been speaking with both sisters via email and suggested that they both do an exercise that I created as a jumping board to communication. I envisioned it for two people who were trying to start a conversation about infertility--two people who were bumping heads or not getting the support they needed or feeling fed up over comments--rather than people like Tertia and Mel who were already on the same page. But it was still interesting nontheless.
In the exercise, both people received the same ten questions/comments. They needed to consider each statement on three levels: what was probably meant by the words, whether someone infertile might find it offensive, and how the person going through infertility heard the words. If you are infertile, the hardest part would be envisioning the first part: what was truly meant by the words and understanding that sometimes people say things without understanding how their words are affecting you. If you are a non-infertile, the hardest categories were the other two. Knowing if something was offensive and knowing how someone infertile hears the words.
Mel and Tertia's answers were pretty much the same with the biggest difference being that Tertia answered everything confidently. If she liked the wording of something she said, "this would be great to say." Whereas Mel read the same words and answered tentatively: "I think it may be a good thing to say but I don't know." I think that knowing the other person is going to read your answers makes you anxious to answer them all "correctly." But the point is that there are no correct answers. Everyone will come to their decisions differently. And the point is to use the differing answers or your own word choice as a jumping board into a conversation about infertility. You can explain how something that was said innocently hurt you deeper than words that were intentionally cruel. And you can hear how someone else intended their words to be taken and the impetus that brought them to say those words to you. It may turn out that the other person hasn't said any of the things on the list, but you can still use the exercise to speak about what you're going through and how you feel on a day-to-day basis. Unless you've been through infertility, it's difficult to imagine what the person is experiencing.
So...any other takers? Have someone that you want to talk about infertility with but have no idea how to broach the topic? Fighting currently with a family member or friend who just doesn't get it? Ask them if they'd be your partner for this experiment. Email me directly if you want to try it out (firstname.lastname@example.org) and have questions. If you're certain that you and a family member both want to do this, send one email with all three of our addresses in the address line so that all members get all the future emails. But make sure they know that you've included them in the exercise. And if you can't even figure out a way to broach the subject with them, write me as well and I'll help you figure out how to start this conversation.