Most of us recognize our tendencies to compare and compete– like keeping up with the neighbors or the many Facebook friends we haven’t seen in ten years. Even though we KNOW it’s fruitless and even damaging to judge ourselves against others, we usually slip in and out of the comparison game, measuring everything from wardrobes or waistlines, to parenting styles or personality types. We do this, while yearning to have more and be more than we currently have and are.
One of my favorite stand-up comedians, Brian Regan, does this funny sketch that is actually a perfect depiction of this phenomena. He says, “I made the mistake of trying to tell a story about having only 2 wisdom teeth pulled and I learned a lesson, don’t ever try to tell a 2 wisdom tooth story, because you ain’t going nowhere. The 4 wisdom teeth people are gonna parachute in and cut you off at the pass. ‘Halt, halt with your 2 wisdom tooth tale!’ You will never complete one, trust me. I’m trying to tell my story, ‘You know I had some wisdom teeth pulled, I had -um-, I had 2–
‘I had 4 pulled!’
‘No 9!’ I had 9 wisdom teeth pulled, all of mine were impacted, they were all coming in upside down! The roots were wrapped around my tongue, coming out my nose! They were tusks! I was a warthog! No anesthesia – they pulled them out with pliers. I was eating corn on the cob that afternoon!'”
It’s a humorous anecdote, but also an illuminating one. The tendency for people to assume that their experience is/was the worst, is common. It even has a nickname– I’ve heard it described as the “Grief Olympics.” I’ve seen this take place in many times and situations, but have noticed it particularly surrounding infertility and child loss.
I’ve seen people dismiss miscarriages that happened at 14 weeks because, “Well,” they think,” at least they didn’t suffer a loss at 20, or 32 weeks along like I did.”
I’ve seen aggression towards someone struggling with secondary infertility because the sorrow of losing the family you hoped for couldn’t possibly compare to the sorrow of not being able to become parents in the first place.
I’ve seen couples who have been trying for a baby for ten years downplay the sadness of couples who have only been trying for two or three years.
I’m not saying all pain is created equal. But life is hard. For everyone. No one has the corner market on sorrow. And even though some losses are truly greater than others, does that mean that someone should have to forfeit their right to mourn? Just because there’s someone out there who has had it even worse?
Another person’s sadness does not invalidate the depth of your own, and comparisons over who has suffered the most, leaves everybody feeling isolated and misunderstood. Empathetic understanding, even though our experiences are different, is what builds individuals and relationships. Quite honestly, connecting with others who understood the sorrow of infertility is one of the things that carried me through the darkest years of my battle. I do not know how I would have made it through without the encouragement of friends who had been where I was. They could have easily dismissed my pain because it was newer than theirs, but they didn’t. Instead they held me close and whispered, “I’ve been there. It’s so hard, and I’m so sorry.” Just the acknowledgement that my pain was real and mattered meant everything to me.
I do think it’s worth bearing in mind your audience when reaching for support. For example, a friend who just suffered a failed round of IVF might not be able to offer the consolation someone going through morning sickness is looking for. Just like a person exhausted by long hours of overtime at work might not want to vent those frustrations to their friend who recently lost their job. You can own and express your experience while still being sensitive to others.
So this week, I’m resolving to be even kinder, and more inclusive, especially towards those who have stories that look different from my own. We can ALL use greater kindness, extra sensitivity and more support.