Infertility can be a pretty lonely place.
Whether it’s the intimate nature of the experience, the shame of not being able to achieve something that seems so innate to the human experience, or the fact that no one seems to understand, so many infertile couples keep the pain to themselves.
After two and a half years of trying to become parents, my husband and I have started to tell more people about our struggles. It’s been amazing to turn our tough time into a learning experience that helps support others who we’ve learned are in the same boat. At the same time, there are moments when we long to be on the receiving end of that comfort, and unfortunately, it’s been hard to come by.
Despite the fact that 1 in 8 couples require support to build their families, infertility is still one of the last lingering taboo topics in our increasingly open society. To those fertile friends out there who conceive with ease, we love you. And, whether or not we say it, we need your help.
Here are some ways you can show up for us during this difficult experience:
1. Educate yourself.
There are so many resources out there—from books, to podcasts, to blogs, to websites. The infertility world is a complex one. Unless you have had a reason to learn the lingo and understand the procedures, you probably don’t know what’s involved. Imagine how much it might mean to a friend if you took a few moments to try to learn a little bit about what she or he is going through so that you can be a more supportive listener? Some favorite resources that I recommend are a fantastic podcast called Beat Infertility and RESOLVE, a national association dedicated to infertility education, support, and advocacy.
2. Stay with her.
I get that it can be uncomfortable when you know someone is going through something hard, especially if you don’t know what to say. Infertility is an isolating enough experience. The worst thing you can do when a friend opens up to you is stop calling, texting, or making plans. Instead, get them out of the house or surprise them with a note in the mail, a text, or a symbol of strength. A friend gave me a journal with hopeful, positive quotes scattered through the pages and a bracelet that I wear to all of my appointments. It made me feel so much less alone.
3. Don't make her your "infertile friend."
While infertility is a big deal in your friend’s life right now, it is not his or her entire identity. Not every conversation has to be about the latest treatment. On that note, check in to let them know that you are thinking of them, but don’t always expect a detailed infertility update. It can be crazy stressful going through the process of doctor’s visits, injections, procedures, decision making, and waiting. The pressure of feeling like we owe an update on such personal matters to friends and family can feel heavy. Be there if your friend wants to share, but don’t make it an expectation that they’ll divulge every detail.
4. Don't joke.
If you knew someone had cancer, chances are you wouldn’t think it would be a good plan to make light of the situation. Yet, surprisingly often, people make jokes about infertility. Whether it’s asking if someone is "shooting blanks" (ugh) or telling them they can borrow your children anytime (ouch!), it just isn’t that funny when you want so desperately to be a mom or dad. Yes, these jokes are often a product of not knowing what to say, but honestly, they make it worse. When it happens, we feel like we have to play along and laugh or risk you avoiding us even more because we aren’t "fun enough." General rule of thumb, when someone is suffering, they can make jokes about it if they want, but you shouldn’t be the one to initiate the standup routine.
This one is perhaps the hardest to master. Listen without feeling the need to solve, judge, minimize, or compare. Just because your second cousin once-removed had IVF to have her twins doesn’t mean that we want to hear about it. We don’t want you to one-up our suffering. We want you to hear about it and understand it from our perspective. We also don’t need to hear you say "just relax" or "be patient" or "it will happen eventually." We need you to say, "I’m so sorry you are going through this. How are you feeling, and what can I do?"
6. Give space.
Realize we love you a lot but that we also hurt a lot right now. If a friend tells you that she needs a little space because being around you (and your children, or your beautiful baby bump) is difficult—respect that. Let them know that you love them anyway and that you are there when and if they need you.
7. Be sensitive.
I am so happy for all of my friends who are expecting. I also love watching their adorable kiddos grow. And, at the same time, it is devastating. It’s tough to watch everyone around you achieve the thing you have been trying so hard to do. If you know your friend is struggling to become a mom (or dad), think about how you share your pregnancy announcements. Please, don’t complain about your pregnancy symptoms or your kids to us. Invite us to your baby shower (or we’ll feel even more shut out), but let us know that if we don’t come you understand. Ask if you can bring your kids when you’re invited over instead of just assuming. Essentially, try to put yourself in our shoes.
No doubt this is tricky territory to navigate, but hopefully with these tips you will feel more prepared to be there for friends who are struggling to build their families.