Infertility is an isolating experience. One of the hardest parts is seeing friends or loved ones conceive, while wondering if your own hopes for an unrealized family will come to fruition. Overwhelming emotions like shame and self-doubt are standard for a woman or couple experiencing fertility challenges.
One in every four couples--and one in every seven women--deal with infertility. If someone close to you is experiencing infertility (and with these numbers, there’s a good chance someone is), she will need guidance to help her through the distressing journey ahead. She will need the acceptance and support of her community, the compassion of her friends and the understanding of her family. Unfortunately, what I've seen in my 15 years of guiding women through the infertility process is that support is often missing.
Recently I was with a patient who told me that she only has her husband to talk to--and after several years of fertility treatments, he now seems ‘checked out’ when the subject comes up. She understands that he is dealing with their infertility in his own way, but she also feels like he is the only person she can confide in.
Many patients tell me that they only have a small handful of confidantes--oftentimes their partner, a therapist or perhaps a few close friends or family members. They feel isolated and like they are going to burden their few ‘fertility friends’--essentially, overwhelming some and hiding the truth from all others.
These women often feel alone during this stressful journey, yet have trouble connecting with others the way they did before. It’s an emotionally fragile time and they don’t want to be pitied. They don’t reach out to friends or family because they feel vulnerable. They are apprehensive of receiving unsolicited, and sometimes hurtful, advice.
Here are some things to keep in mind when trying to support a friend experiencing infertility.
Be careful with your advice. Advice usually comes from someone being uncomfortable, or wanting to help ‘fix’ the situation. “Just relax. I know it’ll happen for you. It’s just not the right time. You’re so young and you can always adopt. God only gives us what we can handle,” they say. While not meant to be unkind, a woman in the heartbreaking cycle of infertility might perceive these as insensitive, or even judgmental, observations. She is raw and fragile, and unless you have experienced infertility yourself, it is hard to explain just how deep those casual comments can cut.
Be a safe confidant. Women going through infertility will often negotiate or feel out who is safe to open up to...and who isn't. If, after sharing her most sincere and vulnerable truth about her infertility with someone close to her, she gets a “Just take a vacation and it’ll work” response, that person has likely been crossed off the Who-Will-Support-Me list in permanent marker. If a loved one opens up to you, take a step back before giving any opinions or advice. Remember that their infertility isn't something you personally can fix. Just be there for them, unobtrusively and authentically.
Listen. Compassionate listening is the first step towards supporting your loved ones facing infertility. Research has shown that going through fertility challenges and/or treatments is as psychologically (and sometimes, physically) stressful as getting a diagnosis of cancer, heart disease or HIV. It’s vital to have support during this time, and loving communication is key. Be sensitive and hold the space for your loved one to talk as much or as little as they want. If you aren't sure what their needs are, check in and simply ask them. Then, listen and really acknowledge their response. Praise them for their bravery and hold their hearts gently.
If you are pregnant, be sensitive to those around you. It might be too painful for a loved one to see your growing belly right now--honor that boundary (and trust that it is temporary). Let her know you are here for her, and you love her, but that you respect her needs. Or, if she has just had a pregnancy loss and doesn't want to come to your baby shower, accept that is okay to feel excited for yourself while feeling sad for someone close to you. Oftentimes, my patients tell me they aren't upset others are pregnant, they’re upset because they feel like they might never be, which can be difficult to communicate without feeling safe and supported.
If you find yourself holding your loved one’s hand as she experiences the ups and downs of fertility treatments, I invite you to simply listen to her while remaining compassionate and open. We can be a part of the change and use infertility as way to connect and experience greater intimacy with our loved ones.
Let’s take an isolating experience and use it as a catalyst for building stronger communities and healthier relationships--one woman and/or couple at a time.