How To Support A Friend Through Infertility
Written by Katie Hintz-Zambrano
Photography by Photographed by Maria Del Rio
This week marks Infertility Awareness Week (April 18-24). This article was originally published on July 13, 2016.
Perhaps one of the trickiest relationships for a mother in the throes of mommyhood bliss (and, of course, its loads of challenges) is supporting a friend who is struggling to have a child of her own. “There really is this dividing wall between the haves and the have-nots and it’s a very awkward situation,” says Janet Jaffe, Ph.D., a co-founder and co-director of the Center for Reproductive Psychology in San Diego, which provides a wide range of psychological counseling and supportive services for women and families dealing with infertility. “Even if people have been through the experience of infertility themselves and are then successful, it feels like they have crossed this chasm to the other side.”
Jaffe, who has personally suffered from infertility and now counsels countless families on the complex issue, knows how anguishing being in “limbo land” can be. “People become psychological parents before they are physical parents,” she says. “Once somebody says, ‘I would like to have a baby,’ they are no longer in this singles- or married-couple-who-doesn’t-want-to-have-kids place. They are in another area, but they haven’t crossed that barrier into ‘I have kids and I can join the club.’ This limbo land can last for a long time.”
So, how can you best support a friend trying (but not yet succeeding) in having a child? First off, the canned responses have got to stop, even if they’re meant to make your friend feel better or see the positive. Some of these include the following: “Everything happens for a reason.” “At least you can get pregnant” or “This is for the best” (after a miscarriage). “Have you thought about adoption?” “It’ll happen when it’s meant to happen.” “Just relax and it’ll happen.” And the list goes on…
“In my estimation, these are well-intentioned, they’re not mean-spirited at all,” says Jaffe, “but these responses fall far from the mark of making someone feel better.” She also adds that recounting another friend’s pregnancy success story (“I knew someone who went on vacation and then they got pregnant…My friend got acupuncture and she got pregnant!”) doesn’t help, either. “It feels as if everyone around you is successful, and you’re isolated and alone.”
The better way to respond, she says, is to let your friend do the talking. “Ask ‘How are you doing?’ ‘If you want to talk, I’m here.’ That kind of thing,” says Jaffe. “It opens the door. And it shouldn’t be at a party, these are private conversations.”
Nicole*, a woman who struggled with infertility for four years before having her baby girl, advises that when your friend does open up to you, saying something along the lines of “This really sucks and I’m sorry that you’re going through this. Let me know if I can help in any way” or “I’ve been thinking about you and am always hear for you if you want to talk.” She also suggests checking in on friends often. “I remember wishing that my friends would ask me where I was in my cycle or if we were trying that month or had taken a break,” she remembers. “Even though it takes two people to make a baby, it’s a very lonely time for the woman trying. You can even ask directly ‘How can I support you?’ and hopefully your struggling friend can tell you what she needs.”
Another commonality of many women suffering from infertility is the tendency to isolate. Socializing in general can be hard, especially if she’s spiraling into depression or just doesn’t necessarily want to talk about her issue. Add kid-friendly or motherhood-centric events, and the triggering elements can be all too much. But that doesn’t mean one should add to the isolation by avoiding their struggling friend.
“People going through infertility want to be included. If someone doesn’t want to go to a party, just say, ‘I know you don’t want to come, I’m inviting you anyways. We’re here for you,’” advises Jaffe. If you feel like having your own child around your friend is difficult for her and adding to the distance, put it out there. “It’s very common for women to not want to be around children,” says Jaffe. “A way someone can handle that is to say, ‘I know this must be hard for you, and if it is, let’s try to get together when I don’t have my child with me.’ That’s a really good friend.”
“Things like baby showers are very, very hard,” adds Nicole. “Even if it’s a very close friend and sometimes especially if it’s a very close friend. I left a baby shower of a dear friend of mine once and burst into tears. It’s not only hard that you’re struggling through infertility, but then you have to deal with those uncomfortable feelings of trying to feel happy for friends and family when they are celebrating good news. It makes you feel terrible to be feeling sorry for yourself, but it’s inevitable.”
As for what to talk about once you are socializing with your friend, being sensitive but honest is key. “It’s like an elephant in the room,” explains Jaffe. “It’s there, but everyone is trying to tip-toe around it, which makes it really, really awkward.” If you have a pregnancy of your own to announce, do so respectfully, and don’t hide the fact from your friend. Nicole suggests “cushioning the blow” by making the announcement privately before doing so on social media.
“One of my friends did this and I was so thankful she did,” she says. “I could have my moment of feeling sorry for myself so that when she announced it publicly I could be happily chiming in and offering congratulations with everyone else. It also showed me that she really cared about me and understood how much pain I was in.”
If you are pregnant, Nicole advises curbing your complaints about pregnancy via social media or directly to your friend to showcase some sensitivity. The same goes for constant baby life updates. The fact is, more of your friends might be dealing with infertility than you know. “Approximately 8-15% of couples struggle with infertility,” says Jaffe, “and there has been an upward trend in age-related fertility issues. For women, egg quality begins to decline at around 32-years-old, and then there is a rapid decline after 37. The rate of miscarriage also increases with age. So, asking somebody in a cute-sy way, ‘When are you going to have kids?’ is probably one of the worst things somebody can say. It’s just horrible. It’s so personal and so insensitive.”
If your friend is struggling with conceiving and hasn’t seen a doctor yet, Nicole says that’s one piece of advice she wishes folks would pass along. “I’m surprised by how many women—and especially the male partner—whom I know that go through the struggle a long time before they seek help. If your friend is over 30 and trying for more than a year or over 35 and trying for more than six months, suggest they get help sooner rather than later. Infertility isn’t magically solved when you finally call the fertility clinic. Sometimes that journey is long in and of itself. But the sooner they can get help to figure out the problem the better.” Other on-limits suggestions to offer to a friend include joining a support group and seeing a therapist.
Nicole also says inviting a friend along while you volunteer can be a game-changer. “The best thing that helped me while I was struggling with infertility, other than having my mom and sister to talk to, was volunteering,” she says. “I was able to help someone who needed my help, but in return I got all of the warm fuzzies that you naturally get by helping and I also got a dose of perspective by hearing about someone else’s struggle. I volunteered with old folks and sick kids in the hospital. It’s the best thing I did in my life in the last five years, and now I do it with my daughter.”
“At the end of the day, whether you are able to have the family you desire or not you will be made a better person by the experience,” she says. “While that’s not an easy thing to tell a friend, it’s a reality of the experience. You will be a better parent, friend, sister, wife, person in general. I’m thankful every day that I had that long struggle because I ended up with my daughter and I’m a better mom to her because of this journey.”
*This name has been changed due to privacy concerns.
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