A few years ago, I was inspired by frustrated clients and friends to write about how we can better support each other in healthy pregnancies. An often silent group of courageous women also needs your help, the ones who are not pregnant. One in eight couples struggle with infertility. It is likely you know a friend, family member, or coworker dealing with pregnancy loss or infertility. Perhaps you have been impacted yourself. Even women with children can experience infertility, called secondary infertility, and it can be just as painful as infertility without children. Many of us feel lost when talking to our childless friends and are not sure how to help. Infertility brings about a multitude of emotional and medical dilemmas. Friends may be experiencing a range of difficulties from the well-known injections to surgical procedures, complicated medicine and supplement routines, long early morning drives to various appointments, constant ups and downs of failed or canceled treatments and countless ultrasounds and blood draws. The physical and emotional demand is hard to quantify and varies from couple to couple but there is no question, they need your support. April is national infertility awareness month, with a dedicated week from April 19-25th, and is a perfect opportunity to boost your supportive skills with these practical tips.
Ask to Ask
Have you been afraid to say the wrong thing or just not sure if your friend wants to discuss their situation at all? A good first step is simply requesting their permission to ask questions or have a conversation about it. Many women that struggle with infertility often feel isolated and alone. A person’s infertility journey takes up a huge portion of their daily life on an emotional and physical level. Imagine if no ever every asked you how work was going or how life was going with your kids. That’s a big part of your life that you probably talk about often with friends and family. It is possible that women may not want to discuss what is going on or maybe only disclose certain things. In that case, asking permission is a win, win situation. You give them the freedom to share what they feel comfortable sharing. Here are some questions to get you started.
“How can I support you?”
“I care and I’m curious about your journey. Is it okay if I ask you some questions?”
“I don’t know what you are going through, but I would like to learn more if you’d like to talk about it.”
“Is it okay if I periodically check in on you on how things are going?”
Don’t Push Solutions
A natural reflex as friends and family of hurting people is to offer solutions to problems. “Why don’t you try IVF?” “Maybe you need to relax more.” “Just wait, it will happen.” “You can have one of my kids.” “Maybe you’re ‘doing it’ wrong.” “You should adopt, there are lots of kids that need homes!” These well-intentioned attempts to solve our loved one’s pain can often diminish their current efforts and struggles. Odds are couples have already had long arduous conversations about treatment, lifestyle changes, and adoption. What they need from you is an inquisitive and supportive spirit. It might sound something like this.
“What is it like to go through what you are going through right now?”
“How will you and your partner move forward from here?”
“Tell me about what you are focusing on right now to build your family.”
“What kind of options are you and your partner considering?”
“It sounds like you have a lot of difficult decisions ahead.”
“What you are going through sounds really hard. I’m here for you.”
Be Normal but Be Sensitive
No one wants to be the elephant in the room, and no one wants to be on the outside of the room alone. Erring on the side of caution by excluding infertile friends from conversations and gatherings like baby showers and kid’s birthday parties further isolates them and can result in more painful emotions. Instead continue to invite them to all the social occasions you normally would but realize they may choose not to attend or if they come, it might be emotionally difficult for them. Never assume a childless couple only wants to be around childless people. In fact, you may consider ways to involve them even further by inviting them on play dates, asking them to babysit, or inviting a childless couple over to family game night. Are you considering how to tell someone you know is struggling that you are pregnant? Avoid saving them for last or simply not telling them. While you may be attempting to avoid hurting them, you are simply delaying and intensifying that pain. For most infertile couples, a pregnancy announcement stings a little, sometimes a lot. Finding out through the grape vine or social media and realizing you might be the last to know…well that is more than a sting, that is a punch to the gut.
What Does it Cost?
It is important to realize that infertility is a medical condition and an emotional crisis that brings with it numerous ‘costs’: financial, physical, social and marital. Many couples are forced to change or quit their jobs, take out loans, skip vacations, miss social gatherings and seek single or couple’s therapy. Couples often make voluntary or medically advised lifestyle changes such as reducing or increasing exercise, cutting back on alcohol intake, quitting smoking, seasons of abstinence, weight loss or gain, stress management techniques, and new medication and supplement regimens. For many of us one lifestyle change is hard enough! These costs are often unavoidable, but you can help your friends work through them. Be social, but understanding that people seeking fertility treatments schedules are unpredictable. Be supportive of new behaviors, maybe even join them!
One might describe the pain of infertility as similar to the grief of losing a loved one, every month. Your friends and family need you. Couples around the world need you to help break the isolating stigma of infertility. If you want to learn more about infertility awareness and more ways you can support and talk to struggling friends check out Resolve, The National Infertility Association at https://resolve.org/support/for-friends-and-family/.