03 March 2015

When a friend goes through infertility

First of all...

If you realize you've said/done any of these things to me as you're reading, please don't worry that I'm writing this about you.  I'm not.  This is not chastisement to anyone specific.  It's actually inspired by watching friends want to help me and not knowing how, while finding other "What Not To Do" websites either incomplete or way too cynical.  I also realize this is my opinion; other people who've gone through infertility might have a totally different take.  But hopefully, learning about IF from someone in the middle of IF will help you understand it a little better.  Let's get to the most important point first:

You are not expected to say “The Right Thing”

Here’s the deal: we actually know how much it sucks to watch us go through this irrational, unfair crap and have absolutely no idea how to help.  We totally get how awkward and uncomfortable this is, because we don’t know what to do or say either.  Infertility is completely random, illogical, and unfair.  But here’s the thing: we don’t expect you to fix it. We don’t even expect you to know what to say.  In fact, sometimes the ones who admit they don’t know are the most supportive.  Two of the most powerful recent moments I can recall were great examples of this:

  • A friend with six kids, whose wife had zero complications and easy labors: “I don’t know what to say. Sorry seems empty and cruel. But if we had gone through that even once, I don’t know if I would’ve had the courage to try again.”
  • A friend who has a lot of trouble expressing her feelings left us a card.  All it said was, “This card is filled with words I don’t know how to say.”

Take the time to educate yourself

Educating yourself on your friends' specific situation is probably the most helpful thing you can do.  Not only does this show much appreciated validation and support, but it will help you understand what not to say and why.  The most common hurtful, flippant comments are simply based in ignorance of what infertility actually is.  Here are a few of the biggies, and why they’re not correct:

  • “Just relax; it’ll happen.”  Yes, we all know quite a few couples that got pregnant after their trip to Hawaii or as soon as they stopped trying.  We’re entirely aware that it happens; in fact, we’ve already tried it.  Several times.  But there are also very real medical reasons for infertility: heart-shaped uteruses, tilted pelvises, blocked tubes, low hormones, Rh blood types, polycystic ovarian syndrome, endometriosis, low sperm count, low sperm motility, low sperm mobility, problems with blood clotting properly, the list goes on and on.  These are legitimate medical issues; we’re not just stressing out.  Telling us to relax is invalidating.  It feels like a veiled insult, and only serves to fuel our anxiety.
  • “Maybe parenthood just isn’t in God’s plan for your life.”  First of all, this is the singular crisis-of-self we haven’t just considered, but scares us to death every minute of every day.  Infertility makes you reassess plans you’ve had for your life for decades, ever since you were six years old, carrying your doll around everywhere you went.  The idea that we have to find another life path doesn't just inspire insecurity, it absolutely terrifies us.  We realize you mean this statement in an easy-going “You’ll be okay anyway” sort of way, but after you’ve said it, you get to just walk away.  We, on the other hand, have to figure out who we are without this theoretical family we've planned on for as long as we can remember.  All you’re doing is justifying our fears.  Secondly, watching yourself not get what you’re asking so desperately for is a big enough challenge to faith on its own.  The last thing we need you to do is mentally pit God against us.  This is a lesson of trusting God despite the circumstances while grieving the loss of something we can’t achieve.  This statement isn’t a Band-Aid to put on a bleeding wound; it makes the wound bigger.  Please understand how our infertility relates to our faith isn’t any of your business.
  • “Maybe God knows you just wouldn’t be a good parent.”  Yes, this has been said to me, but I don't think this one needs an explanation.  If you’ve said this to someone, apologize.  Right now.  We’re insecure enough about this being true as it is; it’s one of the biggest irrational fears we carry.  You should be ashamed for your short-sighted words.  And can we please be frank about Psalms 127:3? "Children are a gift from God, a reward from Him. How joyful is the man whose quiver is full of them..."  I know you're fulfilled by being a parent, and I know you're proud of your kids, and I believe you have every right to be.  But please realize that scripture feels like a knife in our backs every time we read it.  All the sudden, my husband and I become the slow kids who didn't finish the race and don't get a ribbon because we're not good enough. I realize it's likely not what you intended at all, but you have to know that is how it comes across.  Please be sensitive to that.

Understand adoption

One of the most common responses to fertility problems is "Why don't you just adopt?"  It's one thing to support the idea of adoption; it's a whole different ballgame to consider actually doing it. Adoption is a very real and major decision to make.  We personally are very pro-adoption; it is still on the table for us.  However, we're still considering if it is the right choice for us.  Please know that there is nothing “just” about adoption.
  • I personally am not one who is simply trying to become a mom, to get my hands on any baby.  Instead, I’m aching to meet the little person that is an extension of my relationship with my husband, the baby I saw in my mind when I realized I was looking at the father of my children. Getting to the point of adoption means grieving the loss of that biological child we’ll never get to meet, and that takes time to process.
  • Adoption comes with its own tumultuous emotional toll.  It takes a very special kind of person to deal with the unique emotional needs and struggles of an adopted child. I am in awe of adoptive parents; they're incredible people. Are we right for this?  Can we be that selfless?
  • It can - and likely will - take years. Your life is invasively dissected to determine if you, your spouse, your home, your job, your finances, your life plans, and your mental state are “worthy” of a child.  And then you wait for someone to choose you.  It is psychologically exhausting in a situation that has already depleted you of resources.
  • The cost; oh, the cost. Even considering tax breaks and comparisons to fertility treatments, adoption requires a lot of money up front. Having to empty your savings and go into debt simply to bring a child home means you no longer have the resources you originally saved to provide that child with the life you wanted for it. Thinking about money seems cold and callous when it comes to human life, but these are details must be considered responsibly.
  • If you're fortunate enough to be chosen for a child after jumping through all the hoops, you could still lose that child, as well as all the money you've spent to get to that point. It's actually common for biological parents to change their mind at the last second, and every time that happens, you return to the drawing board. Some adoptive parents have found themselves in unexpected lawsuits and still lost their adopted children years after signing the papers. I can't even fathom that kind of heartbreak.

Realize you don’t get it

If you’ve never experienced infertility, please realize that you don’t totally get it, and if you’re lucky, you never will.  Studies have proven going through infertility is as physically stressful and psychologically depressing as those facing cancer, hypertension, or a heart attack.  Infertility - especially multiple miscarriages - changes your entire perspective on life.  Those of us in this fight will forever be affected by different things in different ways for different reasons than those who can't relate.  Insisting that you understand when you've never faced it is astoundingly belittling.  Have respect for the enormity of what we're going through.


Don't expect us to relate

It’s okay if you can’t relate to us, but don’t expect us to relate to you, either. Are you an exhausted parent who would love the “freedom” of being childfree?  Are you someone who has never understood wanting biological children?  Are you someone who had absolutely zero problems getting pregnant?  Are you in the middle of an unwanted pregnancy?  Are you someone who struggled until one day, it “just happened”? Are you absolutely terrified at the prospect of becoming a parent someday? Okay. That’s you; that’s where you are in life.  And all of that is valid...for you. Telling us, even jokingly, that you'd love to trade places with us is incredibly insensitive.  Imposing your experiences and your viewpoints on us as if you know better than we do doesn't help anyone.  We don't need you to relate, but we do need you to validate.

Validate our childfree life

One of the hardest things to deal with is parents who treat us as if our childless status makes us less valuable contributors to the world at large. It's a very "You don't have kids?! What even are you???" mindset. We realize we're not currently sculpting young lives, but that doesn't make us inferior to you. Remember, we already feel we've lost all our friends to the chasm of diapers, bottles, and nap time that now separates us. It is important for us to find healthy ways to continue to grow in the midst of this journey. We can either sit around and feel sorry for ourselves, or we can celebrate ourselves, pursuing personal interests such as travel or continued education, and relishing our freedom to do things like last minute date nights or sleeping in. We are not better than you, and you are not better than us. Our personal journey is as real to us as yours is to you, and we can both leave an impacting legacy in one way or another.

Don't compare us to others

If there is one thing we’ve learned, it’s that there is absolutely no rhyme or reason to infertility.  It's very important not to play the “Why them and not us?” game.  We’ve mucked through a lot of emotional garbage to get to a place where we finally realize this isn’t personal, so please don’t make it personal by saying things like, “So-and-so is a horrible mom. Why can’t you have her kids?” We realize you’re likely joking and trying to be supportive.  But not only does it open us up to the philosophical Why? questions that no one has answers to, it establishes a judgemental comparison between us and others, and that only feeds the feelings of failure.

Tread lightly when recommending your experience

This one is tougher to explain, because personal recommendations from friends and family can (and have been) priceless in this journey.  The doctors I’ve chosen have solely been recommendations from others.  However, please understand that when you’re going through infertility, everyone and their mother is recommending their doctor, their experience, their choices.  If you feel moved to do this, do so in a way that you’re passing along the information, and then LEAVE IT ALONE.  Some people insist we go to their doctor only, they don’t drop it, become pushy, and it becomes awkward.  It’d be a full-time job if we had to follow up with every tip/trick we’ve been offered.  But know we’re grateful for your suggestions and support, even if we don’t use your recommendation.

Ditch the Pity Look

We know this one is hard for the feelers, those who wear their emotions on their sleeves.  We know you want to fix it.  We know you’re indignant that we have to face this.  We know it comes from a good place inside of you.  But when everyone approaches you with a look of absolute pity - including the doctors at the hospital - it feeds the self-pity we’re trying so hard not to allow, because if we do, it’ll destroy us.  Concern, yes.  Indignation, sure.  Support, absolutely.  Pity, please no.

Sometimes hope hurts more

I realize this one sounds really cynical, but hear me out.  The fact is no one can guarantee this is gonna result in us having a family.  We might need to learn to be That Cool Childless Couple.  And if that’s God’s plan, then okay; I trust God.  But to get there in a healthy way, we’re going to have to go through a very real grieving process.  People who insist we should never give up hope can actually be blocking us from moving forward, doing more harm than good.  It makes your acceptance of us conditional. I’ve had experiences when I was finally in a strong, positive mental place of acceptance and understanding, only to have someone who had a dream about me with a baby or a comment about “never giving up” just suck me back into a dark place of depression.  It is more supportive to know you’ll be there for us no matter what.

Separate us from our infertility

I can't say this loud enough: infertility doesn’t define us.  Think of it as you would cancer.  That cancer patient doesn't want to be thought of as The Person with Cancer, nor do we want to be The Infertile Couple ((insert Pity Look here)).  Making this struggle the focus of the way you view us only makes us feel more like freaks and failures.  We are a lot more than our infertility; we are just facing this challenge.

Let us come to you

Yes, we’ve distanced ourselves from you, and I can't apologize for that. Thanks to social media, unrealized dreams like infertility have become a daily torment to those of us facing them. You have a beautiful family that you deserve to celebrate, but I can’t take that from everyone all the time.  Truth is, most of my closest friends are blocked from my Facebook feed.  I adore their kids and would do anything for them, but I just can't take the photos and updates day in and day out.  Furthermore, I hope knowing I'm not watching gives them the freedom to live without worrying if they're hurting me.  There are days this forced separation breaks my heart and makes me angry, but taking in their healthy, happy babies is just easier when I’m mentally prepared.  Let us come to you about that stuff. (This extends to many more personal situations than infertility; by the way.)

Celebrate your post IF successes

If you have experienced infertility and you have a child now, by God, celebrate it.  Cross that line; join that club.  You’ve earned every single milestone.  I've only briefly considered how hard it is to announce a pregnancy to someone still struggling with IF, to intimately know the pain your joy brings.  But remember we understand you’re not the cause of the pain.  We know you deserve the joy.  And if we ever find ourselves in your shoes, we also deserve to relish every single moment. Besides, somehow it’s easier to be happier for the success of a fellow IF fighter. We might not be loud and we might be coping, but we’re cheering you on.

Remember, we're learning to navigate this, too

There will be days when we need support, and then there will be days when we don't even want to be reminded of it.  There will be days when we get snarky, when we just shut down, when we snap at you, when we push you away.  There will be days you're doing everything you know to do, and it still feels like you're not doing anything right.  There are going be days when, without warning, we're just done.  Days when we’re not just sick of talking about it, we’re sick of thinking about it. Days when it seems everyone is pregnant or parents except us.  Days we feel exceptionally alone; days we feel completely smothered. This mess is just going to happen.  This issue is contradictory and emotional, dealing primarily in hormones and failure.  Don’t take any of it personally, and please don't be scared of us. We already feel like freaks.  Being friends with someone going through infertility requires balls, and it's gonna get messy.  But we're incredibly grateful to you for standing beside us in our mess, and we need you more than we know how to say.  We still love you very much and we know you're trying. And remember: you're not expected to fix it.

If you can relate...

If you have been there, if you're in the middle of a fight with IF and you do get it, if you can relate to these points in an incredibly personal way, by all means, stand and be heard.  Men and women.  Do not feel you have to hide.  People can't understand this topic unless we educate them.  It might make some uncomfortable, but the loneliness will eat you alive. There is nothing wrong with you. If nothing else, I am here and willing to listen.  You do not have to go through this alone.