Elyse Ash can’t count how many days were ruined by a simple scroll through her Facebook or Instagram feeds.
It would start out like normal. “Cool, a dog. Cool, a story about Trump. Whatever,” Ash says. But then there’d be a grainy black-and-white image, and the floor would drop out from under her. An ultrasound photo. Another friend announcing a pregnancy.
Struggling for three years to get pregnant, the visual proof of other people’s good fortune became a “personal trigger.”
“Sonogram pictures, I don’t know what it is about them. It’s the actual baby. It’s the actual proof that this is happening. Those would change my entire mood.”
They also made her focus on fear and competition in her friendships, instead of using them as a source of support as she continued to face the monthly roller coaster of dashed dreams.
Though friends and family wanted to help, they couldn’t. They didn’t really understand what Ash was going through, and she found herself feeling more and more alone.
Statistics show, though, that she really wasn’t: One in eight couples have difficulty trying to get pregnant. And Ash realized those were the exact people who could help one another cope.
Last spring, she and her husband, Brad, launched Fruitful Fertility (fruitfulfertility.org), a site that matches “mentors” with people who are in the midst of their fertility journey.
“We joke, it’s like Tinder meets AA,” says Brad, a web developer. “It’s this dating service-type backend where we can connect people on a lot of different metrics,” such as the underlying cause, and what kinds of treatments they had.
The idea is to pair someone who is struggling with someone who knows what the other is going through, but is more distant from the experience.
“Those were the people I found to be most helpful for me, those who could guide me through questions, and help me know I wasn’t alone,” Elyse says.
Many women dealing with infertility — that is, a failure to conceive after at least a year of trying — say the barrier to finding comfort in friends and family comes down to whether or not they “get it.”
“I didn’t want to talk to my friends because they didn’t struggle,” says Liz Foltz, who went through 15 months of infertility before getting pregnant, and now mentors through Fruitful.
During Jen Nagorski’s struggle with infertility, she wanted “somebody who understood how devastating it was to get your period every month. That you would try any crazy food or diet or supplement or essential oil, go to any holistic place for whatever treatment was recommended, and they didn’t think you were crazy.”
Now that she’s a new mom, she can be that person for others. She mentors two women through Fruitful.
“I think it’s awesome to be able to use all this knowledge I gathered that I never really wanted to gather,” Nagorski says. “It was kind of a yucky experience, and I can take all that information and try to help the next person.”
Fruitful, she says “fills a need that hasn’t been met elsewhere.”
A wrench in life’s plans
Seven million women of childbearing age in the U.S. seek treatment for infertility in their lifetimes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and for almost all of them, it can be as much an emotional struggle as it is a medical one.
“Many couples today have a set life plan,” says Dr. Charles Coddington, a reproductive endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
College, graduate school, professional school, career success before finally starting a family. Infertility throws a wrench in those plans, and the feeling of loss of control can send many patients into a depression. As their doctor, Coddington often finds himself in the role of confidante.
“Just having somebody to talk to, who can listen to you and reflect some supportive emotion, is a very powerful thing,” he says.
But when the people in someone’s personal network haven’t gone through infertility themselves, many women who are struggling are looking for community in other places. From the earliest chat rooms to today’s messaging apps, the internet has long filled a void for people in search of support.
“Online support groups certainly emerged because people needed them and wanted them and explored them,” says Susanne Jones, associate professor of communication studies at the University of Minnesota.
Whether they are effective is another matter. Studies have shown that while people turn to the internet craving a virtual shoulder to cry on, they are more likely to get information and unwanted advice.
Face-to-face interactions are proven to be more beneficial, Jones says.
And that’s where Fruitful Fertility comes in. Mentees who want an anonymous interaction can talk to their mentors over e-mail or text. But those who want to meet someone locally, someone they can cry over a coffee with, can have that, too.
Tanya Adelman, who has been trying to conceive for more than a year and recently signed up for Fruitful, has chosen to keep her conversations with her mentor anonymous, for now.
“In the midst of all the emotions and vulnerability of it, it feels safer for me right now just to text,” she says.
Even that has been comforting. When Adelman found out the result of her latest pregnancy test was negative, her mentor promised her that the pain would lessen every day.
After relying on support at her fertility clinic, a therapist, and even podcasts, “now there is this person who I know gets it and can be there,” she says. “It’s an added tool in the toolbox of trying to manage this emotionally heavy journey.”
Success followed by survivor guilt
The Ashes, who both have full-time jobs, work nights and weekends on the site from their Lake of the Isles-area home, where a poster on the dining room wall reads, “Work hard and be nice to people.”
Part of their struggle with infertility has been the emotional toll it has taken on their own relationship. Brad’s approach to bad news is unflagging optimism, while Elyse tends to let anxiety wash over her. Having a project like this has put them back on the same page.
“It’s healing,” Brad says. “Working on Fruitful, not only did it allow us to talk about fertility as a whole, but just working side-by-side brought us together and gave us a better understanding of each other. “
In the first seven months after the site launched, more than 1,300 people from across the country signed up.
Only a dozen of those have been men, who largely stay away from women-centric fertility resources online. But the Ashes hope to reach more over time.
Though Brad developed an algorithm to suggest mentor matches for each new sign-up, Elyse reads through every application and hand selects who will be paired with whom.
“It’s the most emotional part,” she says. “It is really humbling, and heavy and beautiful. Every single story is different and there’s no one common thread beyond, ‘I felt really alone.’ ”
As the bearer of all those personal stories, there is a new wrinkle for Elyse. She is now six months pregnant, after her second round of in vitro fertilization.
“I feel really lucky and grateful. But there are people who have tried for six years and there are people who have tried four rounds of IVF and there are people who have had multiple miscarriages. Reading those other stories, there’s this survivor guilt.”
But her pregnancy has only made her more committed. She still can’t even look at a regular black-and-white photo without a pang of sadness.
“There are not going to be sonogram pictures,” she says of her pregnancy, hoping to spare others any pain.