I feel the need to start this post by sharing my recent learning that “jealousy” and “envy” are not actually synonyms – they mean different things – and apparently, I’ve been misusing them for years!! Envy is wanting something someone else has. It involves only two people. Jealousy is worry that someone is going to take something you have. It involves three people. This post is about envy.
Regardless of my vocabulary ignorance, I was brought up and conditioned to believe that both these emotions fell into the “bad” category. I mean, haters gonna hate, right? It was bad to feel envious – it meant you were ungrateful or unsupportive. It was bad to feel jealous. It meant you were insecure or untrusting. But it doesn’t work like that. Jealousy or envy – just like any other feelings – are neither good nor bad, they just are. What matters is how you think about the feelings and what actions you take because of those thoughts.
Women trying to conceive often lament that it feels like everyone around them is getting pregnant when they’re not. Of course, everyone around them is not actually pregnant, but when you’re hyper-focused on something you tend to pay more attention to that thing and less attention to other things. (This is actually called “attention bias.”) And, when your perception is that everyonearound you is pregnant and you’re not, it creates an overwhelming sense of missing out – envy.
I experienced frequent and often intense envy throughout my fertility journey. I tried to put boundaries in place to protect myself (and my friends) from these feelings, but it was often difficult.
Vicki Tidwell Palmer, author and host of the podcast “Beyond Bitchy: Mastering the Art of Boundaries,” describes boundaries as “the practice of creating physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual safety through protecting ourselves and others.” She explains that “at the extremes of boundaries, we are either boundary-less (too vulnerable) or walled off (invulnerable).” I admit, I oscillated a bit between these extremes based on the nature of my relationships and my personal context.
For me, pregnant women fell into three groups: strangers, acquaintances, and dear friends. Can you guess for which group it was hardest to establish self-protective boundaries? Hint: It was not strangers.
Pregnant women on the street bothered me, for sure. Every time I saw one, I experienced a pang of sadness, a wave of indignation, a slurry of unkind thoughts. But there were no meta-emotions tied to these reactions. I didn’t feel bad being envious or angry at these strangers. They annoyed me, but I’d recite an internal “eff you” and move on. No relationship boundary needed to be set because no relationship existed. I was invulnerable to them.
Acquaintances who were unaware of what I was going through (and some who knew but were a bit tone deaf) activated a slightly larger emotional response. These were friends I followed on Instagram, people on my holiday card list who I didn’t speak to regularly, work colleagues, etc. When they got pregnant or had a baby, I experienced a greater amount of envy, but it was still relatively easy to ring-fence. I’d unfollow them on social media, decline invitations, throw out birth announcements (yes, I really did this) or not return phone calls. This wasn’t always possible. I remember one time while travelling, my husband and I attended a birthday dinner for an old school friend. Before dinner I said to him “if she’s pregnant, I’m leaving.” Wouldn’t you know, she walked in at 8.5 months… and, as a birthday “gift,” her sister-in-law announced that she too was pregnant. I drank a lot of wine and didn’t say much. But aside from these occasional annoyances, overall, my relationships in this group weren’t really impacted.
Then there were my good friends. My dear friends. The friends who warm my insides like a sip of hot tea. When they got pregnant it was incredibly hard because I had to decide if – at my life’s current juncture – their friendship created more joy or more hurt. I didn’t want to feel envious of these friends. I didn’t want to begrudge their happiness. Having unkind thoughts about women I loved made me feel horrible. But these were also the women I shared my life with – the friends I wanted to understand me and likewise relate to. So, their transition to parenthood ahead of me felt like abandonment. It was another of the many faces of grief.
I wish I could say that I found simple ways to navigate the pain, but I didn’t. Sometimes, I pushed myself beyond what was comfortable with. There were a couple of baby showers I probably shouldn’t have attended (to the credit of these women, they all gave me permission to decline). But I chose to be there. I didn’t want to miss out on their lives. It would have made me feel even more left out and disconnected. Other times, I chose to let friendships slowly fade with the intention to reconnect again once my fertility journey had ended. I just didn’t anticipate that it would take this long.
But boundaries have consequences, and relationships are two-way streets. I had every right to decline baby shower invitations. But I had to accept that doing so might hurt feelings – even if it would have been understood. I could ask my friends not to talk to me about their pregnancies. But I had to accept that it meant they were shielding me from one of the most momentous events of their lives and, at least in the short term, our friendship might suffer. I could request to socialize without children. But I had to understand that it meant some of my friends would decline out of necessity or preference. I was constantly reassessing and adjusting… No, I can’t talk to her today. Yes, I’d rather see her, and her kids than not see her at all. Should I or should I not ask how her pregnancy is going? How much will it hurt if I do?
Over time, it has gotten easier. I don’t feel as vulnerable, though I can’t explain why. I think it is a combination of things. For some reason it was harder when my friends were pregnant or when their kids were babies. As their children aged, the envy faded a bit. Also, my own life circumstances changed. A global pandemic, a relocation, and situations that have happened to people close to me took some of my focus away from family building. It was all consuming for a long time, but eventually it became tiring to be constantly on guard and always thinking about motherhood.
Additionally, my own fertility challenges have made me appreciate just how difficult it is to have a successful pregnancy as we get older. As most of my friends now fall into the “advanced maternal age” group, when someone gets pregnant for the first time, my initial reaction is more “atta-girl” than “traitor.”
Finally, I’m also getting better at recognizing envy for what it is – a normal feeling rather than a personal failing. It’s ok to feel envious of your friends. It doesn’t mean you don’t support them. It’s ok if you need to put boundaries in place to manage your feelings. Relationships can adjust or be rebuilt. As my therapist constantly tells me – let go of the meta-feelings (the feelings about your feelings). They don’t serve you.