Who The Folk?! Elyse Ash

The internet can get you a lot of information, but Elyse Ash wasn’t getting the help and support she needed as she struggled to get pregnant. Ash and her husband then went on to create Fruitful, a fertility mentorship program that helps pair people who have been through infertility issues with those who are going through it. Ash talks about why she started Fruitful and more in this week’s Who The Folk?!

How did you decide to start something like this?

My husband and I started trying to conceive in 2014. After about a year and a half, we started going in for medical tests. We had a feeling that something wasn’t really right and our instincts were correct; I was diagnosed with endometriosis. So the good news we knew why I wasn’t getting pregnant. The bad news is there’s a medical condition that can affect fertility long term. It was both reassuring to know why It wasn’t happening, but also it was something we had to deal with. The problem was real and we couldn’t un-know it. We started IVF and some treatments, but along the way, I was surprised at how hard it was for people. I had friends who had been there for me, who had been at my wedding, and through job changes. We moved from Washington, D.C. to Minnesota, and our friends who had been supportive in a lot of different ways were really struggling to be there for us in a meaningful way as we experienced this infertility issue. It caused a rift in a couple friendships because they didn’t know how to support us or what we needed or what to say or how to announce their pregnancies to us. It created this emotional barrier that was really crappy and frustrating. Infertility is really stressful for a couple different reasons. A lot is medical; a lot is financial. You’re going through a lot of different things. They try to help and want to be there for you, they just don’t necessarily know how to be there for you, or the right questions to ask or things to say. It can really drive a wedge between people, and the things I realized was the people that could be there for me in the best possible way had gone through infertility. They were on the other side of this journey and had a little more perspective on processing what happened.

I talk about Fruitful like AA in that you don’t pair two people who are trying to get sober at the same time. There’s a lot of feelings and people are trying to navigate on their own. Support groups were helpful in some ways and it was helpful to talk to people who were actively going through what we were going to, but there was always a weirdly competitive element to it. The problem with a lot of people trying to get pregnant is eventually some people do get pregnant, then you end up feeling like more of a failure. To me, the safest people had been through it but were no longer actively trying, had children, or decided to live childfree. That was when I had the idea that it would be great if you could talk to someone who had been through it before, had the level of empathy and insight, and knew enough about some of the medical procedures to be able to help guide you. You didn’t have to teach them about biology, but who also wasn’t a direct threat or would surprise announce a pregnancy to you. That was kind of the original concept.

It seems odd that you have the Internet, but this feels like an area that is still a little taboo where you don’t have the depth of information or ease of connecting.

Because it’s such a private matter, people are reluctant to join Facebook groups. The internet is a great resource: there’s a ton of private Facebook groups, there’s a very active Instagram community if you use #TTC, which stands for Trying To Conceive, you’ll find a million accounts. People make private accounts where they talking about their fertility journey and they share everything. It’s a whole underworld to Instagram. You’ll find way TMI information about everyone, but what’s lacking is that because everyone has an opinion it can be more triggering because you hear from people who don’t necessarily have the same background as you or medical issue as you giving advice. That’s where the internet can be harmful in that people have different stories, ages, medical background, and you have random people giving advice. What Fruitful is about is empathy and support. But I pair everyone individually. I read every application that comes in, and I do my best to pair people based on diagnosis. It’s good to have the ear of somebody who’s had a similar experience. You have people who are very religious and can’t pursue IVF for religious reasons or can’t do IVF for economic reasons. We’re about similar values, interest and stories who can really help with one another.

Have you noticed people are willing right away to share stories as you match them up or does it take time to build a bond?

We’re finding it’s a mix of both. Sometimes people connect right away and it can be super easy, but also when you’re talking about something so intimate, it’s hard to be vulnerable. We found it both ways. We’ve got great stories of people meeting in real life and becoming friends. Because we don’t share the full application between the mentor and mentee, they don’t know why they’ve been matched. We encourage to share at their own pace. Sometimes it’s not 100 percent obvious why they were connected.

It sets up for a slower release of information.

Exactly. Obviously, it’s everyone’s own responsibility to share whatever they want at a time they want. It’s more about we think you two have a lot in common. Here are ages and ZIP Code and how you want to connect – via e-mail, text, phone, or real life. We share that a one-sentence that the mentee wants their mentor to know.

This is a passion project, but are you still working in advertising?

I still work full-time at GoKart Labs, a digital marketing company. Fruitful I do with my husband at night and weekends. It’s been a really fun, cathartic part of this process too, because we can turn something really painful and hard for us into something beautiful and helpful for other people. Honestly, that’s one of the best parts besides helping people, that it’s brought us closer together and gives us a common goal. It’s been creatively fulfilling.

Both men and women can apply?

Totally. We certainly have more women than men, but both are more than willing to sign up and receive support. We have a lot more male mentors than mentees, which I think speaks to men being willing to talk once get to the end of their journey.

Are people finding you from all over the country?

From all over the world. We’re now available in 12 countries. We just opened availability in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, a lot Western Europe, Canada, Mexico. It’s hard because it’s a huge problem. The U.S. is definitely our main base. We have a big Twin Cities representation but we have big communities in New York, the D.C. area, Los Angeles, San Francisco. I’ve been surprised by the number of members who are from rural communities who don’t have resources or clinics that others have. It’s been interesting to try and help people who feel isolated. It’s harder for them. There are so many different stories. It’s been humbling reading them.

It has to be hard reading all of them, right?

It’s intense. But it’s also so humbling that our members are trusting us with their stories. It can be a lot. I try to limit the number I match per week just so I can stay balanced as a human, and not be a robot with an algorithm. I’m due in 5 weeks now. The hardest is trying to balance the organization and still giving back and having my heart in it 100 percent, but also protecting myself selfishly as well. It’s been kind of a challenge.

There’s a lot of emotions just wrapped in being pregnant.

Especially when I’m a naturally anxious Jewish person and you’re already worst case scenario-ing everything, and already neurotic and nervous and superstitious. On top of it have PTSD from three years of nothing going right and my body failing me. My sample set of stories is incredibly skewed. Only 1 percent of pregnancies once getting to week 12 have issues, and we’ve heard so many other stories, so I try to anchor myself in positivity.

Are you finding out the gender?

No. We decided we had a medically driven, scientific process. This is our second round of IVF, so we were thinking ‘let’s leave one thing up to the magic of nature.’

How has reading other people’s stories changed your perspective now that you’ve been able to get pregnant and to this point in your own personal story?

I think it makes me more motivated to help people who are struggling. I feel even more inspired to try to give back and help connect people. There’s always someone who has it worse than you. There’s always some who it was harder for, or took them longer or more money. We struggled for three years and had two rounds of IVF, it’s not that bad compared to a lot of stories, and grief, and loss, and debt. Being able to be honest with your struggle and say this is really, really hard, but also being aware that there’s always someone out there who could use a friend and use support. They look like they may have their stuff together, but they may not be doing so great.

Favorite Jewish holiday?

Passover. I love the tradition of it. It always feels special, and just the right amount of formal. We’ve started doing a friend seder with non-Jewish friends as a way to spark dialogue around social justice, and bring up a lot of questions, and drink a lot of wine.

Favorite Jewish food?

New York bagels and lox. Not Minneapolis ones. New York everything bagel, cream cheese and lox.

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