The Chapter on the Pain Olympics from the ALI Community History Book
Too Many Fish to Fry had a post about the Pain Olympics this week, asking more the why-we-do-it question. So go over there for that discussion (and don’t forget to read the comment section). What I want to talk about here is the history of the Pain Olympics and the waves the ALI community goes through. But a tangent for a moment. Does anyone remember when I coined the term ALI community? It was 2008, and it was embarrassingly with this post. Did we know that post would lead to a sticking term? I don’t know… sometimes looking at the history of things is amusing.
The first time I heard the term Pain Olympics in regards to infertility was in 2004 on Tertia’s blog. She was responding to Laughter and Forgetting’s post about Pain Points. She summed up the feeling that was fairly common in the community in that moment: “And yet. I do feel as if there should be some acknowledgement of the pain of a ‘lifer’ on Infertility Row.” I think back then, in 2004, it was more common for people to respond to this sort of post by offering comfort or verbally diminishing their own pain in the face of someone else’s, even if they also hinted that the Pain Olympics weren’t helpful.
Adding up your Pain Points (which as bloggers and commenters stated were obviously ascribed in the eyes of the beholder; not everyone would agree with the numeric value assigned to certain procedures or paths to parenthood) gave you a sense of place. It wasn’t that you weren’t accepted in the community; it really never occurred to me that it was an acceptance thing or a non-acceptance thing. It wasn’t a you-can-give-advice-or-comfort thing or not (until it came out that way later… more on that in a moment). It just… was.
But you can see from the comment section that we weren’t always anti-Pain Olympics even if there were always people who didn’t embrace the idea. When the idea was proposed in 2004, it was hailed as a great explanation by some and rejected by others. But it was more of a discussion, politely held, with support given and inclusivity kept for the most part.
In fact, Laughter and Forgetting’s original Pain Points post was about how we couldn’t quantify emotional pain. She made the Pain Points to point out how bizarre it was to think that we could really have worse and better exist in a vacuum. She pointed out this fact as did others in the comment sections of various posts that appeared around that time jumping off of L & F’s post: there were too many non-definable factors that go into how you process your IF including your emotional reserves, your support system, the state of your partnership (if you had one), your financial situation, your culture or religion… the list is endless.
The discussion about the Pain Olympics bubbled up from time to time, and then in 2007, there was the Redbook Infertility Diaries brouhaha. Readers were up in arms that the two IF bloggers were both parenting. To say that people reacted explosively is an understatement. It was a little disturbing to see the ire vented at the bloggers, and This Sorta Fairytale said it best when she wrote, “instead of directing anger at the editors who did not bother to consider the feelings of their readers or their bloggers, we have once again directed it at one of our own who is doubtless still dealing with the emotional toll infertility takes.”
On one hand, diversity is just common sense and gives a panoramic view of a situation (of course, with only two slots, it was never going to be all-encompassing). And on the other, I think it’s a branch off the Pain Olympic tree — this idea that some were worthy to discuss infertility and some were not. Julia’s history was known, her Pain Points high, her pregnancy currently happening. Lili’s history was not known, and she was pounced on. It was a really divisive and upsetting moment in the ALI blogosphere since it was directed at individuals, and the fallout went on for a while. Later on, Redbook had a string of bloggers write about their infertility, always reaching a stopping point and then starting with a new person. But that came after people had trotted out what amounted to the Pain Olympics, wondering who was worthy to talk about infertility, who was not.
One of the interesting things about blogging for so long is that you process all new posts against old posts. You see ideas go in and out of vogue. At some point, the wave turned and now those who supported the Pain Olympics were in the minority and those who were against the idea were in the majority. I don’t think you’ll find many posts outright supporting the concept of the Pain Olympics now. We are more likely to sit on one of the branches than hug the main trunk.
I’ve always been against the idea of the Pain Olympics — back in 2004 and still now — but I come at it as someone who has spent many years teaching Voltaire’s Candide, which covers this topic thoroughly. I’ve always proposed the idea of the Pain Campfire, where we all sit around it sharing our stories and listening to one another rather than racing each other as if it’s a competition. But I’m also a kumbaya-singing wimp like that.
The community changes constantly, and that is mostly due to the fact that the people in the community change over time, bringing in new ideas or renewing old ones. The culture of the community changes; at times anger is directed inward at other infertile men and women, and at other times, we bond together and fight against something outside the community. I guess I always wonder about these waves — why the community explodes from time to time, and how we bring the same ideas back (what determines the interval?).
Sometimes I think about writing up a history of the ALI community as I know it, recording all the explosions and times of peace, the blogs that were here, the writers who have morphed or disappeared entirely. Just so we have that context. Even though it’s usually fairly uncomfortable to reflect on those bad times — even the ones you just observed from the sidelines — as much as it’s sad to sometimes scroll back through a comment section and notice all the names of people you know have moved on from the blogosphere.