I was just talking to someone the other day about how support groups can quickly become a weird competition of who has suffered more. There are a zillion posts on the Pain Olympics, a nonofficial sport where people feel the need to show that they have suffered more, they have endured more, and so their struggle is infinitely harder than anyone else's. It's not productive, and can be outright hurtful. It is the opposite of empathetic.
I hate one-upping. I hate when someone listens to you only to say something like, "Oh you think YOU have it bad? I...." There is always someone who you eventually figure out that your best response is just to smile and nod and say "Oh, yes, how awful" even though you started out with how crappy your weekend was, or a diagnosis of a family member, or something like that. You can't have a real conversation with someone who does this. They listen only to reply and then hijack the conversation.
I feel like in infertility and adoption, this capacity to make it clear that you have it the worst is part of human nature -- it's acting on it, or apologizing when you do, that can make a difference. I have decided to leave support groups because I felt so much like my story wasn't so hopeful anymore, and I started to feel resentful of people sad about failing their first cycle when I knew damn well they'd get pregnant (they almost always did). I wasn't in a position to support people anymore if I was sitting there thinking about all the myriad ways things went wrong for me. But, I didn't say that. I just stayed quiet, or said "that must be hard" and then I left, cried frustrated tears, and decided not to come back.
I saw some seriously empathy-deprived moments in both online and in-person support groups. I saw people start sentences with "at least" -- like, "At least you had 22 eggs retrieved! I had only 4!" Um, what difference does it make how many eggs are retrieved if none of them do anything? I have seen people with one egg fertilized go home with a baby, and someone who had over 20 eggs have cycle after frozen cycle fail and go home with nothing (not just me). Is it so hard to be empathetic? To realize that your diagnosis and someone else's might make cycles look more advantageous, but the end result is the same? It shouldn't be. Everyone in those groups, regardless of whether they're back for a second or third child, are lesbians and so can't physically conceive without medical help, have premature ovarian failure, never found their person until their 40s, never found their person and want a baby to raise on their own, have uterine abnormalities but eggs are fine, have unexplained infertility, or suffer recurrent pregnancy loss -- everyone's there for the same reason. They want a baby and it just won't come easily.
The worst was one time when a member of a support network I was a part of suggested that another member "wasn't infertile enough" because she always got pregnant. Nevermind she ALWAYS MISCARRIED, but this person was sick of hearing someone complaining about how easy it was to get to the pregnancy part, and didn't really listen to the second half which was HOW DEVASTATING IT WAS TO LOSE OVER AND OVER AGAIN. Question: Is it harder to have poor ovarian response or to be a recurrent miscarrier? Answer: BOTH ARE AWFUL. It really bothered me. I did say something because I was so appalled, and then was told that I didn't respect the angry person's right to vent as part of HER support needs. To which I said then maybe send your venting to a very small group and not the whole group minus the person she felt didn't belong, and I was still met with anger. Fastforward to now -- both those women now have at least one baby, and in a twist of irony, I don't have any. Am I mad at them for their success? Nope. Does it hurt that there was this weird competitiveness that I got put in the middle of and tried to smooth over, about who was more infertile than the other, and it turns out I WIN that battle? Sort of, but who really wants to win that kind of contest?
Is telling people how long you've been at it or how many cycles you've completed a form of competitiveness? Is it a way to share your experience, or a badge of honor, something you want everyone to be sure to know? I am guilty of that one. In some ways, now, I want people to know how hard I fought for pregnancy before I realized how bashed in my head was from hitting the wall. I want people to see the scope of our quest, so that if we do call uncle and decide enough is enough and its time to live childfree, people will know that we gave it all we could. I may have good intentions, but I found more than once that people would preface their own experiences with, "Well, I didn't do it for as long as you..." or "We didn't do as many cycles as you..." like somehow their experience was lesser because mine is so extensive (something I don't actually think of as a good thing). Did I make them feel less-than by highlighting how awful our journey has been, how arduous, how lengthy? Or is it my right to present my story as the marathon it is? Is this my own competitiveness, peeking through?
I am finding that infertility isn't the only place where people compare battle scars, and tell you what's "worse." It's not just about how many weeks in you lost, heartbeat or not, pregnancy at all or cycles with no success, how many experimental treatments you tried.
I have had people say that while it's hard to not get picked for a profile opportunity, at least I haven't had a failed match, because that's harder (either from their experience or that ambiguous "someone I know"). Well, I don't doubt that it's terrible to think that you are matched and then go back to square one, of course that would be very, very difficult. But, it seems to diminish the feelings I have about not getting the chance to be picked yet. You can go through adoption and never have a failed match, or you can have one after the other before you are chosen for real. You can go for years without a call and then get The Call, or you can have call after call after call and always be told no. THEY ARE ALL HARD. And, in the end, sometimes the people who well-intentionedly suggest that I could have it harder, or I'm not somehow trying enough through private adoption...they all have babies. They are telling me from the other side how I need to hang in there. Honestly, I have never had someone who is still trying desperately to adopt that one child, maybe the first of several, maybe the only one because of how long they've been at this, tell me I'm not doing enough or things could be harder.
I can learn from those who have gone before me as to the complexities of the hours around birth, the taking placement, the finalization issues, navigating birthparent visits -- so that is incredibly valuable (and I do recognize the well-meaningness of comments). I just sometimes wish people could remember what is was like to be in this limbo, or respect that maybe for us, we have two options -- continue down the adoption path or choose to live childfree after a predetermined period of time, and one is not necessarily worse than the other. I find that being told "Don't give up on your dream!" from someone who achieved theirs already and is looking at it from the perspective of having "made it" bothers me, even though it's meant to offer hope and encouragement. It bothered me when pregnant people would tell me their "secret" to getting pregnant, as though what worked for them would work for me. That's not necessarily competitive, it's more "I made it to the finish line and so can you if you just..." -- a winner's mentality to help make the person still struggling in mile 20 of the marathon feel like there's hope, is sort of how I think they see it. For me it sort of feels like rubbing salt in the wounds, but that all depends on timing. If I've had a recent disappointment, it feels more salty. Other times it can bring hope of a kind, as long as it's not heavy-handed.
I guess it comes down to empathy, and fighting that human nature of competition. It's odd to me that there's this drive to have it the worst, that somehow that makes you better. I see it not just with infertility and adoption but with who works the most hours, whose job sucks the most, who gets the least amount of sleep, whose kids drive them the craziest, whose husbands are the most annoying, etc. Regardless, I wish that instead of offering up an "at least" or a "you think YOU have it bad?" people could stop, and think, and just say, "That really sucks," no matter the subject at hand. Or share in that moment but qualify it with "I don't know exactly how you're feeling but I know how situations like this hurt because..." Because it sucks to feel like you aren't truly being listened to, that you are just being compared with someone else's experience that may or may not actually apply to yours. It doesn't offer true support.
The other day I was talking with my therapist and complaining about some things people say, and she asked, "What could someone say to you that WOULDN'T rub you the wrong way?" A fair question, as it is admittedly a bit of a minefield. However, I immediately said, "I'm sorry you're going through this. I love you, let me give you a hug. This really sucks. Tell me how you feel about this. What can I do to support you right now?" I had a litany, immediately, because I have thought about this a lot. She was a little surprised, but honestly, those responses are much more helpful than the competitiveness or one-upping or at-leasting.
Maybe I should make cards and hand them out, "what to say when shitty things happen." Maybe one could just be one that says "STOP, please. I sense competitiveness. Just listen." Maybe those would cause more problems than they'd solve. If only there was an empathy charm you could cast when things start going south. It would solve a lot of problems.