Painful awareness of otherness

April 19-25 is National Infertility Awareness Week #YouAreNotAlone

I teach on two college campuses, so I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about microaggressions over the last year.

Microaggressions are the tiny little pin-pricks, usually unintentional, thoughtless, or just causally mean, that over time, escalate into a painful awareness of otherness. The speaker rarely intends to be insulting, but the person on the receiving end of the comment is often left feeling inferior. It strikes me that microagression – most often felt in terms of race, gender, class, or sexual preference among college students – is a word that aptly applies to the jabs I felt when experiencing infertility.

The friendly ribbing from former roommates. The inquiring questions at family gatherings. The endless stack of baby shower invitations. The period that comes like clockwork, again and again, every month, a cruel harbinger of the fact that you, again, are not pregnant.

When you are struggling with infertility, microagressions come at you in waves, the personal, like a well-meaning friend who tells you to stop trying so hard and relax, go on vacation, because that’s all it took for her, merging with the public insults, the ones that couldn’t possibly be aimed at you but still carry their own sharp points, like the Duggar family celebrating yet another baby.

For me, the feeling of unintentional, and yes, irrational, insult can be summed up in one sharp memory. On a walk through our neighborhood, we saw a couple standing outside the recently-sold house my husband and I had toured before realizing that it was woefully beyond our price range, with one of those extra-large contraptions that are far too fancy to be called a stroller, stuffed full with three kids. Three kids! Two girls and a boy! Not only did they have our house, but they had an abundance of smiling, gorgeous, apple-cheeked small children. Three! We couldn’t even figure out how to get one. How did these people get lucky enough to have not only the house I’d once wanted, but three babies? How could I leave my world, one that was full of emptiness and frustration and a stack of used pregnancy tests that all showed the same disappointing result, and enter theirs? How could I stop being the woman who took weeks to bolster the emotional energy to call her insurance company and then always spent at least part of those marathon-length conversations in tears, and start being a woman someone would call ‘mom’?

The microagressions, tiny stabs to my heart, felt all the worse because my husband and I were, for once in our lives, intensely private about our infertility struggles. Instead of confessing what felt like failure to us, we kept our situation to ourselves, which was translated into the misconception that we were willfully unadorned by children, that we’d made a conscious and joyful decision to live child-free. This led to several uncomfortable moments of being on the receiving end of well-meaning support for our decision – a decision we respected and celebrated for other people, but were nowhere close to wanting to make for ourselves.

When we finally were open about our struggles to become pregnant – first with our friends who’d gone through infertility themselves and successfully come out the other side, then with our families, and finally with anyone who cared to listen – the microagressions felt less hurtful, less intended to harm us. I eventually began to acknowledge that the types of comments or actions I’d been taking as a personal attack were not even directed at me. I still cringed at “I got pregnant the first month I was off the pill,” or “We were using two types of birth control and we got pregnant anyway,” but I didn’t take them personally – or at least I tried not to. Everyone’s journey is unique, and everyone faces hardship at different points along the trail. The fact that we couldn’t even figure out a way onto the trail was just a hurdle that eventually we’d overcome.

I think about that one illogical microagression now – the perfect-looking family with the three children – and I am grateful for them. I’m grateful that my rage at our infertility, at my own inability to do the one thing that as a woman I should be able to do without any effort at all, was channeled at strangers whose names I never knew, whose lives were completely removed from ours. Because my frustration was directed at their abundance, I never became angry at or jealous of my friends and family members who welcomed babies by the dozens during the five years we tried and failed to do the same. Because I allowed that family to serve as a stand-in for my irrational feelings, I was eventually able to target my emotions, to redirect my energies and approach my friends who’d gone through IVF and ask for their advice.

For me, for us, that made all the difference.

Michelle Von Euw is a writer, editor and professional lecturer.

April 19-25 is National Infertility Awareness Week #YouAreNotAlone

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