Don't tell infertile people to "just adopt"

A writer asks if we should "feel sorry" for a 42-year-old who's trying to conceive, but what's needed is compassion

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
Published August 15, 2013 7:53PM (EDT)
                (<a href=''>Jjustas</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Jjustas via Shutterstock)

Amy Klein is used to being criticized. Klein writes a Fertility Diary for the New York Times' Motherlode, sharing her journey through what a friend calls her "issues" as a woman in her 40s trying to conceive. In her most recent column, for instance, she acknowledged the commenters who call her "selfish" and "old and dried up" for postponing her attempts at motherhood. But even she probably didn't expect to find herself being grilled by a Babble writer for her life choices.

In her Motherlode column, Klein is forthright about her hopes and her odds -- she's 42 and has already experienced two pregnancy losses. But, as she explains, her life thus far has worked out in such a way that she's lived and dated and only recently married, so that now is the moment she is "ready to be a good mom." As she writes, "No woman should have to justify why she wants children later in life." And she adds, "I wish people would stop judging me." Wish not yet granted.

In a Wednesday Babble column, writer Carolyn Castiglia took a hard look at Klein's saga and asked, "How could she be so angry? Didn’t she see this coming?" Moreover, like so many people do when confronted with this sort of thing, I thought, 'Are we really supposed to feel sorry for a 42-year-old woman who is doing IVF when she could just adopt?'" I love the "just adopt" line, by the way. Because adoption is so easy! Just nip down to the baby store and they'll hand you one! My friends who waited eight years to get their daughter? What was their problem, anyway?

Castiglia, to her credit, acknowledged that her response to Klein was her "honest, gut reaction" – and declared her own quest to do more than write "something knee-jerk and inflammatory" about her. Instead, she reached out to Klein for more answers, and Klein, to her credit, agreed. Via email, she told Salon Wednesday that "I decided (stupidly?) to do the interview to meet her ignorance/aggression with kindness and love. People bring all sorts of baggage to the table, and although it's sometimes unpleasant to deal with, in the end we're just left with ourselves, no?"

The result is a clear affirmation of Klein's attempt to do just that. She told Castiglia, with great tact and warmth, "In answer to your question, 'Are you supposed to feel sorry?' I hope we all have compassion for people in difficult situations, no matter what leads to their suffering."

Castiglia, meanwhile, hit back with some peculiarly leading questions. She asked Klein if she'd been truly looking for a husband or "just enjoying the ride," inquired, "How do you reconcile waiting so long to get married with expecting to be able to have your first baby in your early forties?" and for the kicker, pondered, "I do understand the drive to biologically procreate, but I think a lot of people wonder, if you want to have a child so badly, why isn’t adoption the first alternative? Why put yourself through so much turmoil when there are needy children waiting for a home?" (Castiglia may have wanted not to sound knee-jerk and inflammatory, but Klein tells us that "It was an email interview and for the record, she changed most of the questions to sound bitchier afterwards." Castiglia says that "is patently not true.")

It was, perhaps, an honest attempt by someone who "married young because I knew I wanted to get married and I wanted to have a family" to understand another woman's path. But as writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner commented immediately, "This entire line of questioning is repugnant." And when I asked my friend Julie Robichaux, who has chronicled her "madcap misadventures in infertility, pregnancy, and parenthood" with unsurpassed eloquence for a decade now on her A Little Pregnant blog for her take, she said, "What irks me even more than the 'Why don't you just adopt?' refrain is the little grace note that so often adorns it: So! Many! Needy! Children! Waaaiting for a Hoooome! As if it were an act of altruism rather than one means of building a family -- JUST like IVF or IUI or surrogacy or any other. In fact, people who have adopted after infertility tend to state it very clearly: We did this for US." Klein's own diplomatic response to Castiglia was, "I’m sure I will have a family, and however I have to get there, I will get there."

But this isn't just a story about how a writer for Babble thought a writer for the New York Times seemed "so angry" about her fertility. This is about the big question that Castiglia poses, bigger even than, "Why don't you just adopt?" It's the "Are we supposed to feel sorry?" one. It's the question that crops up in the comments or the criticism nearly every time one person puts him or herself out there with a personal story. Are we supposed to feel sorry for you? For that? Christ, what did you expect? It reminds me of the writer who once responded to one of my pieces by saying she had "real shit to deal with in my life." Never said she didn't, and in fact, if there's ever a contest for who has the realest shit to deal with, I genuinely aspire not to win.

Not every personal disclosure is an attempt at sympathy. Sometimes it's just about sharing the story -- no sorry feelings requested in payment, and no definitive declarations that one's experience is competing for Worst Thing to Happen to Anybody, Certainly Worse Than Anything That Ever Happened to You, Reader. Klein, as far as I can tell, isn't asking for any boo-hooing about her situation. She's even upfront with her own darker, more negative feelings toward others, writing of her "visceral" "envy" of other women's pregnancies and acknowledging, "I know there are women who have it much worse."

So why should Castiglia feel sorry for Klein? The answer is easy: She shouldn't. Pity isn't a very useful emotion, and it's rarely desired. What she could instead ask is, why should she feel compassion? Why should she feel empathy? That's a different matter. Because as Julie Robichaux says, "Compassion costs us NOTHING. I mean, 'Should we be sympathetic...?' The answer is that is YES, right? Regardless of what '...' actually is. I think the predisposition to refuse to summon compassion has much more to do with the compassion-failer than the situation itself, if you see what I mean."

So the next time you read someone write about her infertility or his credit card problems or her battle with her weight, assume that the person is simply sharing a little of the human condition, not vying for Most Sorrowful Individual of the Year. You may not think his or her situation a big deal, but you can consider that it matters to this person. You can view the struggle with a measure of humanity. And you don't have to feel sorry at all.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Babble Fertility Motherhood New York Times