My husband and I tried for two years without success to get pregnant.
After almost a year of testing and depleting much of our bank account to determine the cause of our difficulty—insurance usually doesn't cover expenses related to infertility testing—we finally got a medical diagnosis: infertility.
The entire three year process spent discovering we were infertile was a crushing blow to endure. We didn't know what to do or how to proceed. At the time, we didn't know anybody who had experienced a similar situation and, to top it off, many of our friends were popping out babies like pros. It seemed like every day we were bombarded with pregnancy announcements, ultrasound pictures, pregnant bellies and tiny babies.
The experience left us feeling isolated. We withdrew to process our own grief. Even birthday parties and baptisms for our family members became painful. My husband and I are godparents to our sweet nephew, and thirty minutes before his baptism, I found myself sobbing and puking into a toilet in the church's bathroom. I was so gripped by grief that I'd never have my own baby to baptize.
Baby showers became simply off limits. I took a year-long social media hiatus to distance myself from the reminders that I'd never get to experience the excitement of the first ultrasound and make a clever announcement of our expectant bundle of joy. Some would call my behavior selfish. I was coping, and these were my survival skills. It's silly to think that a person would not be impacted in some way by the news of infertility, of never being able to conceive.
Chances are, someone in your social circle is struggling with this. Studies show that, “Close to one in six U.S. couples don't get pregnant despite a year of trying—after which doctors typically recommend evaluation for infertility."
My husband and I struggled quietly and carried the load by ourselves for nearly two years. We endured negative pregnancy tests each month and a barrage of medical testing on our own as we struggled to accept our assumed infertility. You may not know for certain if one of your friends or family members is struggling with infertility, but you probably have a hunch. Once we mustered up the courage to share the news about our infertility with those close to us, many commented they suspected we'd been struggling with this.
Whether you know for a fact, or you simply believe that someone close to you may be struggling with infertility, there are things you can do to help folks walking this precarious road:
1. If you have kids, or are expecting, try to curb the kid and pregnancy talk around your infertile friend or family member.
I once sat at a table with a few female friends who swapped breastfeeding stories for an hour. I literally had nothing to contribute to the conversation. I quietly picked at my muffin and tried to think of funny things to say while they yammered about latching and lactation. I didn't want to be a drain on the conversation, so I just withdrew in order to avoid making the awkward announcement that my boobs weren't made for pumping.
The process of accepting infertility is similar to processing the loss of a loved one. In the book On Death and Dying, psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross breaks down the grief process into stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. If you can, try and stick to conversation topics to which everyone can contribute.
2. Give permission to skip gender reveals, baby showers, birthday parties, etc.
While we were still processing our infertility, and before we went public with the news, I skipped almost all baby-centered events. I missed baby showers for two of my long-time best friends. There were a few family get-togethers with a strong presence of children that I just couldn't avoid, so I popped in, got a little tipsy, or binged on cake to help numb the pain, and then headed to my car to ugly-cry before driving away. Dragging out the whole ordeal for no more than an hour.
I didn't have the courage to tell my friends and family why I didn't attend their baby shower, or stay long at their kid's birthday party. I was still in the early stages of processing my grief. As a result, many of my relationships with expectant and new mothers were strained.
You can certainly extend an invitation to help this friend or family member to feel included. But understand that absence from these events may be a way your friend or family member guards a vulnerable heart. While these events are joyful, they're also a reminder of milestones that will never be. Your friend or family member will eventually be able to attend these events, but it'll likely always be difficult. Their attendance may be sporadic and brief. Try to be understanding of this.
3. Allow them to talk about infertility in his or her own time, and then just listen.
Withhold advice, especially if you've never experienced infertility yourself. Advice that comes from a place of inexperience can be conveyed as insensitivity. During a meeting with our life insurance agent at the early stages of our infertility, he asked if we were ever planning on having kids. We said we hoped to and were trying. He responded casually with, “It's not that hard!" I wanted to ask him to give me a picture tutorial of how to conceive, but I refrained.
After learning that we were struggling to get pregnant, a colleague once said, “You're trying too hard. Just relax, and it'll happen!" Again, I thought of replying with snark—by inviting that person over to help me relax before sex, maybe give me a pre-sex massage or something, but I didn't because while these comments angered me, they mostly made me feel ashamed. I was ashamed that my husband and I couldn't do what our bodies were basically designed to do. Because these people never experienced infertility on a personal level, the comments came off as insensitive.
If you know someone who is struggling to conceive, consider how you could walk alongside this person. What would this friend or member need? Maybe it's time and space to process, maybe it's a listening ear, or maybe it's a funny cat video on a depressing day.
Reaching out to someone who is walking the lonely road of infertility might take some effort and education on your part, but I'm learning that the most meaningful relationships are the ones that require us to work hard.