Empathy and the Power of One Question
Cheers, dear readers,
Recently I’ve been writing about a concept known as Emotional Labor. And now that the concept is at the forefront of my mind, I see it everywhere. It’s like when you buy a purple car, and then you start seeing them everywhere on the road. Where did they all come from? I thought purple cars were unique? Well now I see emotional labor everywhere, especially in terms of living life with an infertility diagnosis, and an infertile woman at that. Woman apparently bear the brunt of the emotional labor toil.
Last week, Eric wrote a wonderful blog post that really got me in the gut I admit. He mentioned how completely wonderful it is to watch our goddaughter grow up and “use her words”, take responsibility for herself and expand her little mind. It was beautiful and well-written. It did make me a little sad though I have to say. Though I have come such a long way with my personal infertility journey, I still find it difficult to get emotionally close to children. It pains my heart just a little bit (ok maybe a lot some days). So I in some ways keep my distance. It’s fascinating to me how few adults can understand that it may be challenging for an infertile person to show up to a child’s birthday party, or gleefully go on vacation with adults and all of their offspring. To me it seems so elementary, so natural to understand – but I – like many reading this article – am living it where many others are not. I do know first-hand that it truly is hard for others to grasp – I can see it in the faces of the people I talk to. I believe part of the reason is that we infertiles are the minority and many don’t speak up or out about their experiences. So the majority of parents of naturally conceived children don’t need to spend the “emotional labor” to suss out what it might feel like if they put themselves in someone else’s shoes who did not. Why make oneself uncomfortable after all if you don’t have to? I get it.
Yet do we want to connect with each other? Or create distance? In order to connect, it’s highly important to try to understand life from each other’s perspective, doing our best to step into the shoes of someone’s pain. We all have pain – your pain might be different than mine. And it serves absolutely no one to compare pain, such as mine is more profound or hurtful than yours. That creates more distance, not connection. It helps to look for the similarities, not the separateness.
Connection is also fostered by helping those around us have their feelings acknowledged. Why can something that sounds so easy be so hard? Is it because watching someone else’s pain is uncomfortable so we don’t want to go there? Better to look away, walk away, speak to someone else. Yet that only fosters more feelings of isolation.
I recently saw a graphic series that highlighted phrases from people who have endured infertility. Here is one quote that really struck me:
“Why do people say these things? Just let me talk about my pain. Just hug me and say you’re sorry or don’t say anything at all. Let me hold your baby, let me cry. Let me binge watch “What To Expect When You’re Expecting”. I know I’ll be ok. I know all of the things that you are saying. I KNOW I KNOW I KNOW. I just want to be allowed to FEEL. Am I not allowed to feel this pain? This heartbreak? This disappointment? My body doesn’t work how it is undeniably designed to. That’s a real disappointment and it hurts. Maybe I will get pregnant, maybe soon. But right now, I’m not. And that makes me sad. It hurts my heart, and makes me worry for the future, because I don’t have any guarantees. It’s a hard and painful thing. Why can’t people understand that? — Carin
Our first instinct when we see someone’s pain is to try to say or do something to “fix it” (that’s when the “just adopt” comments start pouring in), or to change the conversation to something more pleasant. Can we not see how these tactics – as well as not simply acknowledging someone’s pain – actually push other people away and help them feel even more isolated than they already do, especially if they are a minority already?
It can be a challenging road to walk to know how much to disclose or share, and what not to. Others in the infertility community have also expressed they feel others want them to get over it, move on, stop talking about infertility – whether speaking through a blog – or even just acknowledging that children’s birthday parties and/or mother’s/father’s days might be difficult for those who struggle with infertility. It’s like we’re invisible. The experiences of those who endure being diagnosed as infertile is not actually recognized as anything traumatic. For example, the depression that I experienced is behind me so why keep talking about it? The reason to keep talking about it is the same as why others want to celebrate their children. It’s a part of the fabric of who I am. It’s part of my personal human experience. It’s part of my family (yet mine family does not look like yours). Also, I want others who struggle to know that they are not alone, to help minimize their sense of isolation. I get you – even if others in your life do not.
I recently found this article and thought this quote was profound….
It’s a tricky path to tread. Say too little and you are accused of not doing enough to become a mother (if only they knew!). Say too much and friends tiptoe around you and gracelessly leave you out of their family news. As a result, very few friends in my circle know the true extent of my anguish. Fertility envy has severed decades-old friendships. Among women of a child-bearing age, it is the biggest divide.
Ouch but I know that it is sadly true. Why the big divide? Why must the brunt of the emotional labor be on the part of the infertiles – the ones that suffered the loss of their children – and not more from those who conceive easily?
This weekend, I was pleased with myself that I took pleasure in framing some adorable photos of young children in my life. As I carefully selected the frames, gently cut the pictures to fit perfectly in the frames, I thought – there is no way I could have done this even one year ago. I know that I am feeling better every day. I see my own progress. Yet still relationships suffer at least in part because seeing things from another’s perspective is truly difficult for many. Looking at the photos is the best I can do some days. It helps to keep a compassionate heart to remember that all of us are doing the best that we can. That comforts me in times of stress.
I can give you one golden nugget if you are looking to foster connection with anyone in your life that may be going through something traumatic or difficult. It is so simple. Here it is:
Ask them: How can I support you?
And then truly and actively listen to their answer, absorb it, let them know that you heard them, acknowledge “the hard” of their situation, and see if you have it in you to give them the support that they just directly asked you for.
Please join me next week to hear more about my personal journey down the infertility path. I look forward to speaking with you. I wish you the best on your journey.