April 24th through April 30th 2016 is National Infertility Awareness Week. National Infertility Awareness Week® (NIAW) is promoted annually by RESOLVE, the National Infertility Association. RESOLVE was founded in in 1974 by Barbara Eck, a nurse experiencing her own infertility. In 1989, RESOLVE created NIAW to help alert the public about the medical and emotional issues faced by the millions of Americans with infertility and highlight all family building options. I am diagnosed infertile, a Director of Patient Care at Progyny, which aims to provide fertility solutions to those seeking options, and an active infertility advocate so this is something close to both my uterus and my heart.
For the last six years or so, I have tried to do my part and raise awareness during NIAW. However, I feel like it's been more about infertiles connecting with each other than it has been about truly alerting the public about the struggle so many women, men and couples deal with. I'm not sure there is anyone to blame really. If anything, I think it has to do with an extreme lack of empathy.
This year's NIAW theme ironically is "Start Asking". I say 'ironically' since one of my pieces on the Huffington Post regarding infertility was called, "The Question That Gives You a One in Eight Chance of Being an Insensitive Jerk" which encouraged people NOT to ask others when they are having kids. It also coincidentally goes against the #STOPASKING hashtag that Tyra Banks and Chrissy Teigen created through FABLife about not asking them when they are going to be mothers.
In retrospect, I probably should not have used the word 'jerk' in the title. I was trying to impress upon people how asking someone, "When are you going to have kids?" can hurt someone. You have to understand: I speak to people on a daily basis who have suffered through delivering a stillborn, multiple miscarriages, marital strife, loss of self-esteem and huge financial loss only to end up with empty arms. Imagine for a second, after years and thousands of dollars, you finally get pregnant. You tell your partner, you start picking names, you think, "Finally! I have my happy ending!" and then you start bleeding. You take a few days, cry a lot, mourn the loss, wonder how you're going to afford doing another round of IVF and, while you're at work trying to act normal, a co-worker comes up to you and says, "Hey! Did you hear so-and-so had her third baby? When are you going to have one? You know you're not getting any younger!" This is why I used the word 'jerk'. So that people would think before they would ask such a personal question.
In the comments of that piece, many said that the infertiles of the world were being too sensitive. To me, that said, "I am not going to change my behavior. You just change how you feel about my insensitivity, kay?" Empathy costs you nothing, doesn't physically pain hurt you and entails only two seconds of your time to think, "Gee, before I say something, let me ask myself if this seems hurtful?" What's so difficult about asking people to think before they speak?
Here are the facts: Infertility is a disease of the reproductive system that impairs the body's ability to perform the basic function of reproduction. Note the word: DISEASE. Despite many employers and insurances not covering it, infertility is a medical issue just like asthma or diabetes is. It's not something that can be fixed by going on vacation or relaxing. One in eight couples are unable to conceive. Trust me when I say that, given these numbers, you already know several people who have fertility issues and some sensitivity could go a long way.
The apparent 'go to' suggestion for those who hear someone is having an issue conceiving is to "just adopt". This is actually a running joke in the infertility world. People think it's as easy as snapping their fingers. I would be remiss if I didn't make clear that the just adopt argument is ignorant, plain and simple. It can take longer than going through treatment, it costs more, it has just as many hoops to jump through and, quite frankly, it makes zero sense to me that infertiles are cast as selfish for not adopting when anyone, fertile or not can. To say someone is selfish for wanting to have their own biological children (or at least try to have them first before moving to adoption) isn't any more selfish than a fertile person who has their own biological children. I'll never understand that.
So, maybe it isn't so much to stop asking or start asking; it's about changing what the question is as well as the dialogue. If we all agree to be a bit more empathetic and open to educating one another on the real, emotional, everyday struggle of trying to expand our families, we can create a true impact on each other's journey - whatever they may be.
RESOLVE has a list of questions those who are struggling to conceive should "start asking". They entail: Asking employers for insurance coverage, their lawmakers and legislators to support issues important to the infertility community and legal access to all family building options. In addition, I would add to start asking those around you what they would like to know about infertility. Until they understand your pain, they will never be able to be the support you need.
To you, the privileged who were able to conceive without having to spend a fortune, my suggestion is to start asking how you can help those who haven't had it as easy, what are the right and, perhaps, less right things you can say and again, take a few precious seconds to listen instead of suggest.
It's my hope that this year, instead of just writing a post on my own infertility blog, I can sincerely educate the public and ask if we can all compromise. If the fertile public at large could agree to be a touch more thoughtful, perhaps the infertiles of the world could pick the moments that feel right to use as an opportunity to educate others. That way, NIAW wouldn't be just one week - it would be yearlong... maybe even lifelong.