"Don't worry, you can always adopt"
I don't know if I ever had a conversation with anyone struggling with infertility (about the topic) before a few years ago. If I had, I probably would have said something silly like the above. I would have said it with the best of intentions, and hopefully, I would have kept an open mind. I knew nothing about infertility. I had barely heard of IVF. I had no idea what a reproductive endocrinologist (RE) was. I am a young male with zero medical background and no personal connection to infertility. On paper, I was the least likely person to become an ally of the infertility community. And that's the very reason it seemed so important to become one.
expanding the community
Whatever the issue at hand, progress will be limited if the consequences only apply to the people directly affected. This is true if we're talking about small issues at the local school board or large ones like repealing laws that ban same-sex marriage. Every community needs allies who are not "native" to their background for credibility and traction. I found infertility awareness to be an important concern that needed attention from more people than only couples struggling to conceive. It looked like they needed reinforcements, might be one way to put it. Still, there are infinite communities that I don't belong to that need support from the broader public. Why this one?
acknowledging the right to feel
There is a particular nuance in the way the infertility community is treated that piqued my curiosity. I still can't totally articulate it, but it has to do with we, as a society, not letting people feel what they need to feel. Responses like "at least you have one child already", or "stop worrying about it and it will happen" are pretty consistent with how we react to a lot of feelings that we don't totally understand. We jump to the "solution" because we want the feelings of hurt to end immediately. Sometimes out of compassion, sometimes out of laziness, and probably anywhere in between.
"You'll find someone else."
"You'll land a new job."
"It's not so bad."
I wanted to shut up for a minute and allow people their right to feel.
ThAT blurry area between Sympathy and Empathy
Judging how other people should feel seems to stem from trying to equate someone's reality to our own. We often compare experiences as though they could possibly be the same, instead of drawing from them to imagine how someone feels. Dictionary.com describes sympathy as "feeling compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person encounters, while empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another". The only way to know the pain of infertility (or cancer, or the loss of a spouse, or absolutely anything you could imagine) is to experience it personally.
We might not be able to fully understand someone's experience that we don't share, but we can usually empathize when we try. I've never had to go through the "two week wait", but I know how anxious and frustrated I become when someone tells me to "just relax". People might not pester you about when you're going to have kids when that's what you want more than anything in the world. You may, however, know the soul-wrenching feeling you get when people ask you about a life goal that you're trying your best to achieve, and you have no idea when it will happen. Interacting with people with infertility has made me more aware of imagining what people might feel, in all kinds of scenarios, instead of judging what they should feel.
Playing for the team that drafted me
I noticed the community that emerges from this longing to be understood when I first started doing social media for fertility centers in 2014. Some people who had children because of assisted reproductive technology (ART) were so overjoyed that they wanted to tell the world about it. The emotional attachments they had to their doctors and care team was palpable. They exuded a sense of triumph that comes only from a prolonged period of hard times. I had worked with several other business categories in the past and never seen anything like it. Then I wondered about the people that haven't had success or are still on their journey. What do they need help with? So I took it upon myself to e-mail the group leader of every RESOLVE support group in America. You'll be able to read more about that in my memoir, The Unlikely Tale of How I Became Besties with the National Infertility Association. Turns out, you're not supposed to do that. Before the nice people at RESOLVE could contact me to say "hey knock that off, guy", I had already talked with dozens of people dealing with infertility over the phone and via e-mail conversations. Their reception of me sealed the deal that these were people I could get behind.
I was completely upfront about who I was. "Hi, I'm a marketer and I'm thinking about starting a business for fertility practices. I would love to know what information you really wanted from your clinic(s) that you just couldn't get". I'll translate this for you:
"Hey, I'm some dude that knows nothing about you, nothing about your problem, nothing about medicine, and I would maybe like to possibly make some money some day".
"Go f yourself" would have been a perfectly reasonable response. But I didn't get that at all (maybe once). Instead, people were generally very eager to talk to me. They told me a lot. They told me about a whole bunch of stuff I had never heard of before...stuff that most people would consider very private that I didn't even ask about. They even thanked me for doing my research. Thank me? A marketer? Didn't they know that marketer is just one or two rungs better on the scum ladder than investment banker? I had never been acknowledged like this before--why them? I realized right away it was because they were yearning to be listened to. I learned first hand how little they felt understood, even by their clinics. I felt armed.
I jumped on Instagram to engage with the #ttc (trying to conceive) community there. Same thing. "Hey everyone. I'm a marketer. I don't know your journey, but I promise I will out-listen anyone who tries to compete with me in the business I'm building". Once again, I've been totally humbled by the welcome I've received, both online and in person. I get occasional shout-outs, words of encouragement, and people keeping tabs on me. I've been a marketer for ten years now and I've never received that from any other segment I've worked with. That is a very rewarding thing about working with a population with whom the stakes are so high. Shit matters. People don't feel that way when they buy a Hyundai Sonata. Even though I work with clinics, and not directly with patients, it's the patients that get me excited about what I do.
Stay classy, #infertilitycommunity
My guardedly optimistic prediction for the future is that public awareness around infertility will grow significantly. When it does, I hope the discipline of listening to and trying to imagine the feelings of others wins over the comparison of struggles. Affording people their right to feel and the humility of using experiences to empathize instead of drawing contrast are amazing lessons in humanity. I realize that I am totally idealizing the values of a very diverse and massive population of people. But that's what they are--ideals. And those are what made me want to be an ally to a community I originally had nothing to do with.