While driving the other day, the bumper sticker on the car ahead of me sucked the wind right out of my lungs. I could hardly breathe. It was all I could do to hold it together until I got home.
It said: “I can lactate, what can you do?”
Of course that person was celebrating motherhood and the incredible miracle of a woman’s body being able to create, grow, and sustain life. Of course those are beautiful things, and of course she would have no intention of hurting anyone with those words.
How could she know the struggle of the woman in the car behind her?
Over the course of my life, I have been astounded by the number of incredible women who have loved, befriended, mentored, and cherished me.
I was blessed to grow up in a safe little town where I could babysit and house clean for neighbors, where I could listen to the stories and wisdom of so many incredible women. I had remarkable friends who played volleyball with me, baked cookies, watched Jane Austen movies, and taught me how to be a friend. My mom and sisters cultivated so many good things in me, including a totally bizarre sense of humor.
When I went off to college, I made the absolute best friends of my life. I had no idea at the time how these girls would stick to my heart like glue. We’ve known each other for nearly half our lives, and we’ve shared so many memories, laughs and tears together.
Then there were all the great women I’ve learned from professionally. Women with hearts of gold and incredible work ethics. Mentors and mentees, all such great friends.
And where do I begin with the women I’ve met abroad? Crazy-smart women with such bravery and such a passion for helping the world’s most vulnerable. Friends in China, Kenya, and Malaysia. Women who loved me like crazy, even if we only lived side by side for a short time.
All these women.
And then I came to San Francisco. I have experienced such beautiful diversity, in every way you can imagine. I’ve become friends with such a tribe of smart, beautiful, courageous women. Women who have suffered through divorce, the death of a best friend, the illness of a child. Single women. Married women. Women with kids, women with no kids. Women with amazing careers, women with dreams on hold. Women who run marathons, swim in the Arctic, do fire dancing, run their own businesses. Each woman with her own story – her own triumphs and her own heartbreaks.
In a lot of ways, I am so amazed by all the incredibly diverse ways women here in America can live their lives. We have so many more options than the generations of women before us. Our opportunities here in America at times seem endless. In many ways, I feel so grateful to be on the planet at this particular span of time.
But here’s where I struggle, and this is partly why that bumper sticker hurt so much:
As women, we have such capacity to be there for each other. So many times we win, but perhaps just as many times we fail.
I find myself asking this question again and again: How can we as women in 2016 love and support each other, no matter what choices or circumstances we are in? Without judgment, without unsolicited advice, without gossip. How do we sit with each other, knowing that we each carry a life’s journey that is unlike anyone else’s? How do we hold each other’s dreams tenderly, knowing that not one of us has control over the fulfillment of our heart’s desires?
How have other women come through for you? How have they failed you?
I remember being in my 20’s – growing in my career, unmarried, trying to navigate through adult life. I was told by so many well-meaning friends that I “shouldn’t wait so long” to get married. I was being too picky, they said. I wasn’t putting myself out there enough. Did I even want to be married, they asked? These comments hurt more than I’d like to admit. These women spoke as if I could just grab a spouse off a supermarket shelf, easy as that.
I spent so much of my 20’s just trying to pay attention to the doors opening and closing around me – trying to be brave and make the right choices. I was lonely a lot of that time and sincerely wanted to meet the right person. It was hard seeing so many friends – many quite a bit younger than me – getting married and starting families. I spent thousands of dollars on bridesmaid dresses, wedding gifts and bachelorette parties while my own home was outfitted with hand-me-downs and thrift store finds. I am glad I spent that money and love those friends so dearly. I’m so glad I could celebrate with them. But at that time in my life, I was caught between simultaneously feeling like I was following the right path and also feeling like a complete failure. It was an awful way to feel, and I had very few voices affirming me.
As hard as that time was, this particular stage in my life has felt even more difficult. This is a tough thing for me to be vulnerable about, but Dave and I have not yet been able to start a family. Statistically, about 1 in 8 couples struggle with fertility issues. Of those couples, about 25% of them experience what is called, “unexplained infertility.” That means no medical reason why a couple can’t conceive. We are part of that very small, unfortunate number.
On an emotional level, this has been really tough. We very much want to be parents. It has also been difficult taking a very private experience and sharing it with countless strangers – doctors, nurses, lab technicians, pharmacists, acupuncturists, you name it. Most of the world’s couples get to start their families in complete privacy. This has not been our story. Taking something so intimate and watching it become clinical has not been easy. It’s also not easy feeling like you’re failing at being a woman on a monthly basis. There are days when it is difficult to be sincerely happy for all the friends and family who are having babies all around us, seemingly easy as pie.
But even harder than all that has been navigating the questions and advice. Being told by friends that we waited too long try and start a family. Being asked if we event want to have children. Being reminded of my age. Being told I focused too much on my education and career, that maybe I shouldn’t have lived abroad or taken a job when we came back to America. Hearing so many random recommendations for particular doctors, sex positions, herbal teas. Suddenly my uterus is everyone’s business – all my life choices are on trial, ready for speculation and judgment. Just like my marital status ten years ago, everyone has advice and opinions on something that is quite private.
I understand that much of this is given with the best of intentions, coming from people who love us dearly. But it’s not helpful, it’s actually quite painful.
What has meant the most?
Women who have walked a mile in my shoes coming alongside me with an encouraging email, text message, or hug. Women who know exactly what this particular kind of pain feels like. Women who remind me of all that is good and worthy and beautiful about this particular path I’m on. Women who are not quick to judge, offer advice, or tell me how I should be living differently. Women who don’t take it personally if I don’t want to talk. Women who celebrate and affirm the amazing opportunities that I have been given. Women who just plain love me.
That’s what I need for myself, and that’s what I want to give to the other women in my life. I want to hear more stories and offer more empathy. I want to take more girl friends out for a drink when they land their dream job. I want to babysit more often so the tired moms I know can have a night off. I want to keep going to those baby showers and bachelorette parties. I want to cheer for those women who are heading back to school, chasing that new dream, living that new adventure. I want to affirm, affirm, affirm all those brave choices that my friends are making every day.
As women, we have incredible capacity to nurture and inspire each other.
Let’s take our stories and use them to love one another better. And please, let’s be gentle with each other. Before we speak or speculate, let’s think about the countless other beautiful souls around us who are all just doing their best.