Comparative Pain?

Boy, I seemed to have raised a lot of sand with my last post. I touched a lot of germophobes’ nerves. Yet I am glad to see that my assessment that playing in the trash was not a great exploration of her world for a toddler. Thanks for all the comments.

I want to shift gears a bit here. I’ve been marinating on this topic for a while now, but have needed time to figure out how to best frame the issue for discussion. I think I have finally managed to do so.

This goes back to a dialogue that I had with another infertility blogger. This blogger, who I respect tremendously, wrote about how much it hurts being infertile in a fertile or parenting world. She wondered if people knew how much the pregnancy and birth announcements and talk of children wounded her regularly. In my reply, I wrote about how people are not aware of our sensitive areas and don’t generally have a clue how much their words wound. I gave the example of how I felt during all my unhappily two decades of singledom (I didn’t marry until I was 39). Whenever people mentioned their husbands and families, I felt like a dagger went through my chest, though they were never aware of my pain. It was excruciatingly painful being single and lonely, wanting so much to partner with another when it seemed like just about everyone else in my world had managed to successfully partner. I thought the parallels (pain unacknowledged and not understood by others) were apt.

Yet she disagreed about the parallel. Here’s what she wrote:

If I hear one more person tell me, “My single friends get upset when their married friends talk about their husbands…” I’ll f@#$ing scream.

I was single once. I wanted to be married. Yes, it was hard to go to weddings at time. I envied my married friends. It was NOTHING like infertility. You know why? Love does not require complex biological systems to operate properly. Love doesn’t time out. I know people in the 50s and 60s who’ve fallen in love with the infatuation of teenagers. Love can be waiting around the corner on any given day. People seeking a mate have hope for the future. The hope gets them through the tough days.

I was stunned and hurt. All the loneliness and longing I felt during my 2 decades of being single and looking, all those Saturday nights spent looking longingly at my Henckels knives, thinking, one cut can at least give you a physical pain to relieve the emotional one, all that anguish was dismissed out of hand. And I can tell you that with singledom well into my 30s, I didn’t have any hope to get me through tough days. I was lost and bereft, feeling like I would be alone with only my cats for company (and they would no doubt eat me after I died and no one around missed me or came to check on me). Loneliness is a bitch.

And I wasn’t alone in my feelings. My friends, other black, overeducated professional women, were in the same boat. It was commonplace and almost normative to find unmarried professional sistas who would never ever get married. The majority of my black female friends are still unmarried and I feel for them because I know how difficult it is to be black, overeducated and single.

Did you know that 42% of black women have never been married, compared with 16-21% (depending on the study) of white woman? That is a staggering difference. The rate of unmarried black women in this country is higher than the rate of infertility. So I don’t really agree that lonely singledom and infertility are that disparate in concept. At the age I married, I had better odds of being hit by a bus than getting hitched.

Now of course there are many sociological reasons for the marriage gap for black women. Here are some further readings if you are interested. Marriage and African Americans And last year, the Washington Post had an interesting article on how black children now perceive marriage as being for white people: Marriage is for White People. But where does this leave a lonely, single black woman who wants to be married (and not have a baby daddy) before becoming a parent? Well, in my case, she ended up staring at Henckel knives every Saturday night.

I ended up lucky. Luckier than many of my sista-gurl friends. I met and married my husband (after dating the largest series of broken men on the planet) and at 40 we tried to get pregnant. And we tried. And tried. And we got pregnant. Then we lost the baby. Finally we adopted the most perfect baby on the planet. Our family has been enriched.

Unlike the blogger I was referring to earlier, we chose adoption to build our family. This is something that not everyone is comfortable with. But it allowed us to move past the hell that is infertility (not that I’m truly over my infertility). I thank God every day for blessing us with Zara.

Yet going back to the original theme of this post, I have lived both lonely singledom and infertility. I’ve been to hell in both arenas and I wouldn’t wish either of these states on my worst enemy. However, from where I sit, I completely disagree with the blogger I quoted. For me, infertility was not worse that 2 decades of being single and lonely. Why? Because I had my love, my partner, my husband to travel the infertility road with me. His presence soothed my heart in ways that I cannot begin to explain.

So what is the point of all this writing? Well, while we are still caught up in the pain, frustration and loss of infertility, and want others to be sensitive to our feelings and needs, we must remember that others can be living their own personal versions of hell that are equally important to them. We cannot decide that our pain is greater than another’s pain. Pain is pain. The distress it causes must be respected and not judged.

That’s all I got.

Published by: teendoc on November 30th, 2007 | Filed under baby, infertility, marriage, on race

35 Responses to “Comparative Pain?”

  1. Jenn Says:

    Pain is completely subjective yet we always try to rank it or figure out whose is worse. I found being single much easier than infertility, but I also got married at 24. I believed it would eventually happen and it did. With infertility I didn’t have such hope.

    Also, sort of topic, but what defines being “overeducated”? I’m not sure I understand what you mean.

  2. teendoc Says:

    I think that had I gotten married at 24 instead of 39, almost 40, I probably would have found infertility to be the greater pain as well. Yet for me spending two decades wanting to partner but eventually coming to believe that it would never happen was a greater torture than infertility was for me.

    As for overeducated, I hope you know that I use the term in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. But since only 25% of Americans have Bachelor’s Degrees, I was referring to my graduate (or multigraduate) degreed friends.

    This overeducation, as it were, creates a greater barrier to partnering since there are 4 college educated black women for every one college educated black man. But that is really taking us out on a tangent.

    Thanks for your comment.

  3. Jagirl Says:

    It really makes no sense to compare pain. Each person handles, experiences differently. What may not get to me, may get to another person. I am getting wiser in my old age, lol and am learning to be more sensitive to the other person’s experience.. especially another woman.

    As for the getting married, I tell you, I was surprised to find the person I did, when I did. He is such a great friend, and is still my heartthrob after 14 years, and a pain at times but it adds to the fun. lol
    Would not want to be on the single beaten path again.

    I need to tell my sil to stop attaining degrees. lol

  4. thalia Says:

    I think it’s very important to be conscious that we just never know how someone else is really feeling, what’s really hard for them. Otherwise we get into the “my pain is greater than yours because my baby died when she was 23 weeks and yours died at 16 weeks…” it’s clearly nonsense. We hurt, and we need others to understand that we hurt.

  5. Kellie Says:

    It is impossible to compare pain. Even physical pain is different amongst different people.

    It is hard, however, to emotionally deal with it. I know that through many years of infertility that I could not imagine how secondary infertility could be “as” painful as what I was going through.

    And Liana, I know several very well educated single black women. I am glad you were able to beat the odds, so to speak.

  6. Jagirl Says:

    Yes it can be hard at times.. since I had secondary infertility, and looked at my fully fertile gfriends askew at times. Secondary infertility has its own baggage. I learned to not even start the comparisons…

  7. sherri Says:

    We all have our own issues. Your friend might understand more if you were to say that infertility shouldn’t be so painful because you always have the hope of an adoption to come. I know… that sounds absolutely off the wall. But that’s how I see the comparison of single vs marriage.

    At the end of the day, I have to assume that people do not and really can not know what our buttons are. Sometime’s it is really us and we are too senstive. ;] (at least I am).

  8. teendoc Says:


    I thought of the exact same comparison but didn’t want to go there because I knew that would escalate things. From where I sit, she could in fact choose to deal with her desire to be a parent by adoption. It seems simple to me, but clearly not to her. For her, biology is what she is looking for. I don’t understand the reasoning, but then again, I don’t have to.

    Yet I was sorely tempted to toss out the “just adopt” comment in light of how she tossed off my parallels about being single. I just decided that if she couldn’t see how hurtful she was being, then there was no explaining it to her.

  9. marie Says:

    Thank you for this post. I remember reading that comment originally (can’t remember what site it was on, but it sounds very familiar) and also being hurt by it. I have no idea how I started reading infertility blogs and I have no idea whether I will have trouble conceiving someday. But when I read those words originally, I thought, “At least you get to TRY to have a baby! I don’t even have someone with whom I want to have a baby or to parent a baby.” And as for “complex biological systems” and “love still possible in your fifties” – the pain of that really does depend on the person. For some people, being let down by your body *might* (again, I haven’t experienced this particular pain) be less painful that feeling intrinsically unlovable because no one worthwhile has loved you in a romantic way. I think, with all aforementioned caveats, that I would rather feel that my biological systems weren’t good enough than that I wasn’t good enough.

    And I know what you mean about having no hope. I feel like I have no hope much of the time, as well. Your story does give me hope, though.

    Again, thank you for this post. I found it very validating of everything I thought when I first read those words.

  10. teendoc Says:


    I think, with all aforementioned caveats, that I would rather feel that my biological systems weren’t good enough than that I wasn’t good enough.

    Thank you for your words. They really resonate with me when I think of my life experience. During all those lonely years, I grew to think that I was in some way unlovable to a partner. I couldn’t understand what was my defect. I thought I would make a great partner. My friends and family all said as much, but the men I dated. Oh my lord! I don’t even want to get started.

    Even when I met my husband and things with him were completely different, I still couldn’t believe that he was real and his love for me was real. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. Even the night before our wedding, I kept thinking that he would wake up from whatever spell he had been under and say, “why the hell am I marrying this woman?” Luckily, that never happened.

    I think many people have been lucky in love and take partnering for granted. They don’t know the pain of longing for the romantic love of another and never getting it.

    I wish you every success in finding the partner who loves you so much he will drink your dirty bathwater! 🙂 Maybe one day I will post about my patented system I used for online dating that led me to my dear husband.

  11. Liz Says:

    Please do! I’d love to read it.

  12. marie Says:

    I’d love to hear your patented system as well!

    Someone mentioned in the comments something about “working hard and getting it all” (I’m paraphrasing), and I think that’s something the core of the similarity between the pain of infertility and the pain of singleness – no matter what you do, you cannot FORCE your body to carry a pregnancy or FORCE someone to fall in love with who you are. There is a helplessness that is just incredibly hard to live with, even if you are doing everything you can to make one or the other happen. i think, at some point, our society needs to acknowledge that the fairy tale is not always that easy – neither marriage nor babies just “happen” for everyone. We can work hard to make a career happen, but we can’t force a family – and then we get accused of putting career before family, when the simple fact is that there was no family to be had.

    Also, as someone who grew up in a family in which marriage was expected right after college (and I’m now years beyond that), I am now facing a holiday season in which my (younger) brother is married and his wife is pregnant. So… yeah. I get to face my singleness and childlessness at once (albeit I have no idea if I will face infertility, but right now I am childless and I would love not to be). Again, I don’t want to compare pain, but it does suck to drive away from those parties alone, as I’m sure you know! It’s easy to think that at least if I had a husband, I wouldn’t get the same pity.

    Again, thanks for writing about this. It’s been cathartic to read your and others’ thoughts on it.

  13. Liz Says:

    I would rant on and on, but I could not possibly say it better than Marie. Harumph to that commenter though.

  14. teendoc Says:


  15. Danielle Says:

    Thank you for writing this. While I did experience the pain of infertility, I have been with my husband since I was 22 years old (a long time ago!). I do have many single friends and now have a greater understanding about what they may be going through. I would have never thought about the subject this way until you wrote it.

  16. teendoc Says:

    I’m so glad that I helped make the single and longing situation resonate a bit more. Just as fertiles don’t get infertility, those who’ve been well-partnered for years, don’t often get how painful it can to be single and looking, especially into your 30s and 40s.

  17. Louise Says:

    Very insightful post. I am one of those people who married to my high school sweetheart, three weeks after we graduated from college.

    So, I can hardly remember a time without him. Thus, the infertility completely gutted me. I probably kinda took my husband for granted a little bit as well, since I had never been without him as an adult.

    It was easy for me to forget about what some of my single friends may be thinking/feeling. I guess that shows that I am not as sensitive as I originally thought! I am sure we have hurt them unknowingly, and to be honest, I hadn’t given it much thought before reading this post. 🙁

    Thanks for this post! Take care! I also need to email you an invite to my blog, had to go pwd protect due to some crazy stuff 🙂

  18. suzie Says:

    Thanks for un-blacklisting me!

    The thing is, nice people (and I think people willing to even consider this subject fall into this group) try NOT to hurt people’s feelings, but buttons are so easy to trigger sometimes you are just going to step on someone’s toes. For instance as a member of the overeducated female group I have always been luckier than many, many of my fellow female physicians and found a partner and a had a child without much difficulty. My daughter, however has a (mild) congenital myopathy- at 27 months she can’t run or jump. I know it makes me a bad person, but for a long time I couldn’t go to the zoo or play groups because I was so hurt by watching the “normal” kids and their mothers who took them for granted. One of my nurses made me cry for an hour by saying something to the effect of “you’ll understand when your daughter is a cheerleader”, because of course- I likely won’t. Likely, she won’t be strong enough to do that, but did this nice person mean to hurt my feelings or make me cry? Nope.

    Wow, sorry rambling. My point is, I agree with everyone, you can’t compare pain and the nice people try the best they can- to be aware of other’s soft spots, to not blindly assume that everyone has had the same experience and to try to not make the same mistake twice if we put our collective feet in our mouths. It’s tough out there- and hopefully most of us are doing the best we can to struggle through and maybe hold out our hand to the others bumping down our path with us.

  19. Mel Says:

    It’s a fantastic post. My best friend is single right now and it is so easy to talk IF with her because the emotions are so similar–in both cases, regardless of the work you put in, it’s out of your hands. My mother’s generation told us if we worked hard and put out the effort, we’d see the reward. And that is the case professionally, but not in the things that I really really wanted–a husband, a child. Regardless, events inandof themselves are poor indicators of the output of pain–so much of how we process things comes from many factors coming together. What may seem like nothing to me could be the world to you, and vice versa.

  20. Deathstar Says:

    Everybody wants to be heard. Everybody wants their pain to be acknowledged and validated. And unfortunately, as humans are wont to do – we compare. And when you still feel pain, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. I’ve had my heart broken a couple of times, but I still don’t get why a broken love affair would drive one to thoughts of suicide. But I know the feeling of wanting your breath to just stop so the pain would go away. Compassion goes a long way.

  21. lorrie Says:

    FINALLY!! Someone talks about the elephant in the room. Yes, I was single and miserable until I was 33. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve hardly dared to even think this after reading a steady diet of IF blogs for three years now.

  22. teendoc Says:

    I feel you, Lorrie! 🙂

  23. Star Says:

    Amen, sister — thanks so much for this post. Infertility may be one of the most painful experiences in life, but being single not by choice in a world of partnered folks is right up there with it, and there are many similarities as other posters noted, i.e. not being in control of the outcome. My best friend is single, and she said to me once or twice during my initial IF struggles that at least I was at the point of knowing that I had IF — she is 34 with no partner and desperately wants children. I would think of that from time to time when I was feeling sorry for myself and realize that I am very lucky to have DH. Not everyone in the IF blog world is partnered, but most are … I have often wondered if anyone else sees the similarities there, good to know that this is on others’ minds.

  24. teendoc Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Star!

  25. sarah23 Says:

    Hi, I came across your post via the Creme de la Creme site.
    I think you said it well: I just met my husband at age 30, with only 1 semi-significant (and long-distance) relationship beforehand, and married at 31-almost-32. Before that, I felt pretty alone in the world being single, and I wouldn’t want to go back to that. I couldn’t understand how people of every size, shape, appearance, and personality (whether shy, outspoken, quirky, bitchy, rude, or needy) somehow managed to pair up, but I would rarely get asked out, if at all. [I’m an overeducated (physician) white female.] My eventual conclusion was that my previous weight (65″, 155 lbs) had a lot to do with it, so I lost 30 lbs and pretty much immediately met my now-husband. I don’t like to think that he wouldn’t love me at the higher weight, but I don’t know if he ever would have noticed me, ya know? I do sometimes wonder if I had lost the extra weight earlier, would I have met someone earlier and ended up in a totally different life?

    However, IF is a different pain. There are way more ups and especially downs every month with my negative HPTs, but there is intermittant hope and a supportive and loving husband to weather the storm with me. I just *know* in my heart that I’ll be a mother someday. Even when I was single, I had a definite plan to use a sperm bank if necessary (after about age 35). I truly BELIEVE that I will be a mother someday..the question is merely how long will it take, and what will that journey be? On the other hand, I never was really certain that I would get married until it happened to me. (And I’m so glad that it did!)

  26. teendoc Says:

    The funny thing is that when I was in my 20s, I had plans to have a baby by some means if I wasn’t married by 30. Then when 30 came and went, somehow the idea of being a single parent wasn’t as appealing. (And by that time I was working with an adolescent population where single parenthood was the norm and I didn’t want to model that for them) By the time I was 37, I had decided not to be a parent at all. But then when I met my husband, that idea changed as well.

    I know that my lack of partnering didn’t have something I could hang my hat on like weight, height or other modifiable feature. That’s what made it maddening! What I tell myself now is that I went through all that dating hell in order to eventually meet and marry my dear loony husband! 🙂

  27. Ellen K. Says:

    Thanks for the insights. I know that my single (mid-late 30s) friends and I often have some awkward moments about my infertility.

    I’ll look through the rest of your blog. I’ve been interested in learning more about black women’s experiences of infertility and will check out your resources.

  28. teendoc Says:

    I’m not sure whether my experiences as a black infertile are generalizable, but I hope they are helpful.

  29. Bea Says:

    I think the main problem is that both states are dismissed. When people say, “Oh, yeah, well, my single friends get upset when people mention their husbands, too…” I kind of want to scream. Actually, I want to smack them. Because they’re really saying, “Stop complaining – it’s not that bad! After all, some people don’t even have husbands and you don’t expect them to go around complaining all the time! At least you have a husband!” etc etc etc. And people do make the single/infertile comparison in this dismissive “shut up and be satisfied with what you have” way quite commonly.

    So yes, it does trigger a smacking response, but perhaps the blogger in question got it wrong as to *why*. It’s very easy when you hear people say that sort of thing (well at least you don’t have cancer!) to turn around and try to play tit-for-tat (well at least that person with cancer you’re talking about got to experience a life which includes parenthood and can go to her grave fulfilled!).

    So yeah. I see your point and agree, but I can also see why that comparison might make someone lash out.


  30. teendoc Says:

    I guess the problem I have is that at least when I mentioned the parallel to the blogger, I was not trying to tell her to shut up and stop complaining. I was attempting to make the point that there are some very sensitive areas that each of us may have, but that others are not aware of. Sometimes we each have to understand that we cannot just expect others to get and know what we are feeling when we are sensitive in a certain area. And her response was to blow off my experience and say that being single was not nearly as bad as being infertile.

    I have a major problem with that type of comparison of pain.

  31. nishkanu Says:

    Thank you for this post, I have thought about it a lot in the weeks since reading it. You are absolutely right and explain it so clearly.

  32. teendoc Says:

    Thanks so much!

  33. Kathy V Says:

    I came via the creme. I think this was an excellent post. I think that you are right, people struggle with pain all the time. My pain isn’t greater or worse or more severe than somebody else’s, just different. We all have different experiences that shape our lives and we all have different reactions to the same experiences. That is what makes us unique people. Even if you and I both suffered miscarriages or singlehood, our experiences during those times is different, therefore we are different, not more pained or less pained. Just different. There are people that got married young and after 30 some years get divorced. that person has pain. There are people that lose parents at a young age. Those people have pain. There are people that lose a spouse and live for another 20 years. THose people hurt too. Is any of their pain less or worse than my pain of being an infertile? Not to that person! In that case pain and suffering are pain and suffering. It is just a matter of being pain for each person and knowing that the same pain could be different for everybody. Also pain is subjective so how do can anybody say that one kind of pain hurts so much more than another person’s pain. Your pain is very valid just as much as any other person’s pain is valid. Thanks so much for posting this comment. It reminds me that while I struggle, other people sturggle too even if it is a different kind of pain.

  34. teendoc Says:

    Kathy: thank you for your visit and for your thoughts on my post. It helps to know that it resonates for people.

  35. Jen Says:

    I never understand why people think they can tell other people how pain should feel. Pain is subjective and never the same for anyone. Thank you for writing this.

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