When the Shoe Is on the Other Foot

Navigating racial inequities with my infertility/cnbc experiences

To say that the tragedy of racial inequality and injustice has made me stop and pause as of late would be an understatement.

Drawn in and disheartened by the killing of Eric Garner six whole years ago, there has been a gnawing bubble of disgust growing in my stomach ever since over a collective audacity that only seems to have ripened.  

Just to name a few – the unchanging racial disparities between school systems and exposure to environmental toxins, the vilification of peaceful protest, a patriotic act to which every American has the right, to the lame and achingly dismissive keep me at the center of the conversation at all costs “all lives matter” rebuttal.  

I’ve always rolled my eyes at “all lives matter”, knowing too well the mindless and harm inducing M.O. behind it: the twisting of intended meaning for the purpose of silence, dismissal and belittlement.  (Those of us who live with infertility and/or involuntary childlessness experience different versions of this on a regular basis).

Then there were the killers of Ahmaud Arbery declaring they shot him because they thought he was a burglar as if that somehow justified it, as if going around shooting people one assumes (and based on their race at that!) are up to no good is any sort of hallmark of a sane human being or of a civil society.  And the Covid – 19 disparities and many many other racially motivated shootings and mistreatments captured on video crescendoing to the murder of George Floyd.  A display of indifference and soullessness so core rattling it offset our shared biological rhythms for days if not weeks and beyond. 

The subsequent horrendous treatment of police officers, the majority of whom I believe are good, has also been agonizing.  As is the polarization that seems so rampant and expected these days.

The personal culmination?  I found myself having to take a thorough, long hard look at my place in all of this.  

The truth of the matter I’ve had to sit with is that over the years I’ve essentially done nothing to address the problem of systemic racism.  

Aside from putting a lady (and I use the term loosely) in the chiropractor’s waiting room in her place who had the gaul to question whether or not Eric Garner was actually having trouble breathing, I’ve taken no meaningful action to improve that which disgusts me.

Yes, I don’t condone racist acts, and yes I vote and call out racist comments and micro-aggressions I come across.  Being a renunciate who married outside of my own race is clearly not enough however.  Being generally on the right and fair side of things is nothing more than a pathetic vagary.  

After six plus years of unpacking and examining the privilege of parenthood, and learning how to live as part of a culturally invisible minority with the utterly misunderstood and devalued experience of involuntary non parenthood, I now have a microscope on my own white privilege.  I’m sitting with the truth that me and people like me are in some ways part of the problem.

Amid my pausing to process and to shine a light on truth the best I can, I’ve noticed some thematic overlap between my experiences with infertility, involuntary childlessness and the racial state of things.

Let me be clear – I’m not comparing the experiences of infertility and involuntary childlessness with the range of experiences being black in the United States of America might entail today.  These are two different things with potentially vastly different consequences.  

I do however, find myself drawing on my experiences with infertility and involuntary childlessness as I fumble my way forward in hopefully becoming a more informed and effective member of society. 

Do you remember those conversations where brief talk of the loss of your children – and I stress the word brief – would immediately spawn sharing of the other person’s past infertility experiences and unresolved pain?  Perhaps you’ve had one recently.  I recall some of my early sharing which served as attempts to break the silence, educate and mourn.  As a result, I would commonly find myself in conversations where people would share their or their biological children’s tragic experiences of reproductive trauma, sometimes decades old.

I was initially gratified they felt comfortable to share, get some things off their chest and seemed to be making an effort to connect.  The conversations though would all too quickly turn to gender disappointments – a huge no – no in the presence of someone such as myself who got neither – and then swerve to their living offspring.  My raw IVF losses and the notably protracted losses of parenthood and grandparenthood where swept away, having been used as a mere platform for someone to voice their own neglected backlog of emotional housekeeping.

I’ve been fielding some emotions over the past month over the racial situation in this country – outrage, disgust, sadness, disappointment with myself and the way things are and also grief.  Learning from my past experiences of others sharing with me in ways inappropriate and, quite frankly, selfish, I have been hesitating to express these emotions.  They are legitimate, sure, but are they really the point at this time?  Are they helpful?  Are they relevant?  And mostly, would they be taking up space that really needs to be occupied by what’s important right now?  I’m not saying I’ll never share them in conversation, but it feels necessary to me to be mindful of the time and situation in which I might.

General rule of thumb – Not everyone gets to fully walk away.  Nine years ago this month, my best childhood friend’s husband suddenly dropped dead of a massive heart attack.  He was forty six years old.  This was the first time someone in my circle had died at a youngish age, and needless to say those were some tough fibers to weave into my perception of reality.  But however harsh it was for me, I got to, at least as of that moment, see my husband at night.  And in the morning.  And sleep in the same bed with him.  The people in the conversations I mention above, for whatever horrors they had gone through, had children and grandchildren to go home to.  

We all have to entertain tough emotions over life’s occurrences no matter how directly or indirectly we are affected.  But infertility and involuntary childlessness have taught me this – when you’re the one who gets to walk away, try not to make yourself and your emotions the center of the conversation.

We’ve all noticed as childless people and/or as people who have dealt with infertility in one form or another what happens when we attempt to participate in the human conversation.  And I don’t mean participate in a “yes, ma’m”, “you’re so wonderful” “isn’t that cuuuute” “I know my place as a childless person” kind of way.  I mean participating with our authentic selves, experiences, world views and hard won wisdom.  You know what happens – it’s as if parented experiences are the sun and your life altering traumatic losses and all they birthed are some measly shred of space rubble, delegated to a bobbing, sidelined orbit. 

People who get to be parents, as well as others for that matter, habitually assume and assert parented experiences at the center of the human conversation, casting parents as the ones with the higher ranking emotional processes and superior knowledge.

This, I have learned, is an example of privileged majority behavior.  And I’ve noticed this with the current race issues at the forefront in the United States.  How quickly the narrative turns to outrage and indignance expressed by the white population, how the group of people greenly becoming more woke to what so many black people in this country have been potentially facing all along can so easily end up driving the narrative.

And I’ll admit, I felt quite an assumptive pull myself to put my emotions and perspectives front and center.  Having been on the other side of that and knowing how not helpful it is, I’ve tried to pull back.  I’m not saying I won’t put my voice out there, but it needs to be in a scenario where it is genuinely useful instead of just coming from a place of unearned privilege.

In one of my favorite grief books, It’s OK That You’re Not OK, Megan Devine (who said it well BEFORE it became a pandemic cliche) addresses the concept of wanting to be seen as helpful vs wanting to BE helpful.  She puts this within the context of what people can to to support people who are grieving.  I was reminded of this as the idea of taking action to actually create change for the better vs doing or saying something to fancy oneself a “good” person has come up often lately.  Mostly amid talk of what white people can do to address and shift the racial disparities in this country.

Those of us who have been in or are in deep grief are privy to the awkwardness, and more-so exhaustion of those wanting to be seen as helpful.  They might do things that are good and well meaning on the surface.  The caveat being they are expecting something in return, most likely some sort of a “fix”.  And they expect it in an unreasonably quick time frame from someone who maybe can’t give it who is in a not asked for situation that maybe can’t provide it.  Having not been validated themselves, which was really the intention behind their “well meaning” actions in the first place, they become frustrated with the griever and often end up judging them negatively.  Thus making the griever feel like even more of a failure than they probably already do.

Since reading Megan’s book I’ve regularly used the “wanting to be seen as helpful vs wanting to BE helpful” idea as a way to check myself.  And I’ll admit, I’ve noticed urges, especially within the initial reactivity of all of the racial issues coming to the forefront of this country’s consciousness, to be seen as helpful.  I’ve been observing and acknowledging these urges for what they are, processing them and hopefully moving on to something deeper and more productive.  Because at the end of the day, being seen as helpful is about you and about forcing someone into your world.  Being helpful is about getting down to business within the better folds of humanity.

“I know how you feel” – an inference that punctures like a stingray when said by the wrong person to someone in grief.  I used to recoil when people with living biological children said this to me.  They of course couldn’t possibly know how I felt, and in not acknowledging as much they practically stamped out the loss of my children, parenthood and grandparenthood in a single bound.

I have tried to avoid “me too” and “I know how you feel” type inferences in our current race conversations.  Unless it’s a situation where the person I’m communicating with is actually coming from an experience similar to mine.  While on the one hand this has held me back from participating in conversations and expressing support, on the other it breathes some space for different experiences and perspectives.  Nothing suffocates crucial differences that need to be illuminated quite like “I know how you feel” when one really in fact doesn’t.  

The main thing by which I was struck coming out of multiple failed fertility treatments was what society now expected of me and people like me: Silence.  Inauthenticity.  And Conformity.  The only thing that rang clear in those early years was that no one and nothing outside of the infertility survivor/childless not by choice demographic was expected to do a single darned thing on my behalf.  If I was going to exist at all in the world in my wounded, healing and permanently altered state, I was going to have to express myself (at the risk of retraumatization via dismissal), I was going to have to educate, I was going to have to demand appropriate treatment.  While this did end up garnering some support and understanding in my inner circles, I know it doesn’t always for other childless people.  In addition, the vortex of invisibility and demeaning infertility/childlessness myths and stereotypes in the outside world remained.  

One day during my fourth year out of treatments my husband and I were driving home from a party.  I had just fielded a two hour long onslaught of reproductive harassment resulting from being asked if I had kids (and having given the simple, yet apparently boat rocking answer of “no”) when the truth that had been dangling on my sidelines smacked me right between the eyes.  

“I’ve DONE everything I can do!” I exclaimed to my husband regarding the schism between the childless and the rest of the world.  “I DO my work.  I’ve been to counseling.  I engage in contemplative practices.  I sit in and process my towering emotions.  I express myself clearly and reasonably. I refute shame and stigma.  I’m kind and acknowledging in conversation.  I have interesting things to talk about, and I can talk to almost anyone easily.  These people who get to be parents have got to step up and do THEIR part!!”

Yes Virginia, I (and so many of you) have learned quite clearly that any form of social equity cannot be accomplished by one group alone.  It needs to be a collective effort, not as a charitable act but an act on behalf of the greater good.  And so with all the calls recently for white people to step up and do our part, well, suffice it to say I’m listening with wide open ears.  And taking it to heart.

I refer to the concept of privilege in this piece and I want to clarify.  What privilege means to me is that, in any given area of life, you’re not forced to question your health, safety, levels of contentment and fulfillment and the value you’re designated in this world in ways that those in another group or groups have to.  Privileged majorities have problems that need attention too – take the dearth of affordable, quality child care in the United States for example.  However they are typically dispensed a higher social status and are generally without concerns and deficits – for no good reason and often through no effort of their own – that plague another group or groups.     

There are many different ways to respond to our country’s and the world’s current awakening that are completely appropriate and valid.  As for me?  I’ve taken pause from posting anything (until this piece), allowing myself to process while hoping to create some virtual space, however small, for those who have lived experiences different from mine.  I’m in the process of assessing and committing to ways I can better inform myself and take more consistent and useful action against racial inequality.  

Does my experience being on the other side of things give me more sympathy for the people who fail to meet the involuntarily childless on their plight?  Not really.  I mean, I can give a bit more to those who have said nothing, as I see how not wanting to create more hurt by saying the wrong thing can sometimes lead to silence.  

Other than that though, I’m ready and willing to do things many of which I call on people who are parents and people who have never wanted for and lost their children to do: Examine any potential biases you may have.  Learn about specific biases even if you think you don’t have them.  Empathize.  If you were already empathizing, empathize more.  Always empathize more.  Know what you don’t know and be curious.  Make room for voices different from yours, and even better yet, respect them.  Take action to shift the broader societal structure of things and for goodness sake, do some reading on the subject matter. 

Most of all though, I’ve been listening.  If there’s one thing the plights of infertility and involuntary childlessness have imbued it’s this:  When people are having experiences out in the world that are different from yours, especially experiences that entail injustices and inequities, it’s one’s job to shut up and listen.

10 thoughts on “When the Shoe Is on the Other Foot

  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It helps me relate, gives me ideas on how to think about things and how to move forward. Thank you!

  • I think if there’s one thing infertility SHOULD teach us (it doesn’t always – I think we both/all know people who didn’t learn the lesson) it is how to listen, how to be emathetic. Listening is so important. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Hi Mali! I can say almost all of the people I’ve met through the IF/cnbc blogosphere are exquisite listeners. I’ve improved in that department and continue to be made better for getting to be in their presence.

  • Really enjoyed reading this, there is some thematic commonality in the way that different minorities are oppressed.

  • Great post Sarah – as always. I’m working on my listening – it seems an automatic response to fill gaps and pauses with speaking when listening and giving people time are always the best way to help. Ironically we had a news report on the TV today of the difficulties experienced communicating by video conferencing by those with a stammer. What do they need – not to be rushed, time to say what they want to say. The newsreader asked how can we help you – he replied: “listen and be patient”.

    Love your last line “it’s one’s job to shut up and listen”. Reminds me of Will Young’s great melody and lyrics to “All Time Love”.

    “Some days you’re too set in your ways
    And you forget to shut up, shut up and listen”

    Lots here to think through and process – I will be back to revisit and learn. Thank you as always for your thoughts and insights Sarah.
    Best regards
    Jane xx

    • Jane!! Sorry I didn’t repsond to this sooner – chalk it up to pandemic brain. Great point about reflexively filling in conversation gaps with speaking – that’s something I work on a lot as I have a tendency to jump in and say things when maybe it’s not necessary. Thanks for reading, as always!!

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