“Wait, this isn’t going to be a post about mindfulness?”
No, no dear readers. Not today. Although, I could argue that a heightened sense of awareness, developed through mindfulness, will increase one’s ability to be empathetic, which for a woman dealing with infertility is a highly desired quality.
In previous ramblings, I’ve alluded to my fertility journey. I’ve tried to be as open as possible about this experience with people in my life, as I have been blessed to have received the same openness from others who have walked their own path down a similarly frustrating, heartbreaking road.
And yet, talking about infertility is not a comfortable, cozy conversation topic. It’s one spoken in whispers, as if normal volume will spread it like wildfire. Like many women in a particular age range, especially after getting married, I get asked almost daily if I have children.
“Do you have kids? Not yet? Do you want kids?”
Why are we socialized to ask this question to people, especially strangers? What does having a child, or holding the identity as “parent,” really tell us about someone? Do we perceive an individual as being a better person if they are a parent? Are they smarter? More responsible? More capable of giving love? Perhaps there’s research out there proving otherwise, but my gut is that those associations are fallacies.
In the year after my doctor dropped the “I” label on me, I answered such questions with a hopeful response of: “Yes, I want kids. We’re working on it!” I soon learned this opened the door to the laundry list of unhelpful statements people utter that are both good-intentioned and make you feel like a 21st century Hester Prynne.
I want to be upfront that I can only speak to my perspective on what is helpful and unhelpful in supporting a friend grappling with infertility and the swirl of exhaustion, guilt, blame, self-loathing, hope, outrage, confusion, and pain that infiltrates the mind, body, and spirit. So, in that vein, here are some of my suggestions on what actions to take — and which ones to avoid — when trying to be supportive:
- Do: take cues from your friend on how much they want to open up about their experience. Ask permission to ask questions. Be patient. It is their story to tell, and they deserve the chance to share it when they are ready.
- Don’t: don’t share a story about your brother’s girlfriend’s aunt who tried getting pregnant for 100 years and then — lo and behold! A baby was born. Leave all comparison stories at home. I do not care. That is their experience, and bully for them. But, those stories do not fill me with hope because our bodies are completely different vessels.
- Do: if you feel sadness as a friend, share it witnessing another friend go through this, share it. “I am sorry that you’re going through this.” I am sad too. I wish you weren’t sad, and I wish I wasn’t sad. But, I feel your compassion and care in your words.
- Don’t: don’t unload a pile of advice on my doorstep. Have I thought about working out less? Decreasing my coffee intake? Standing on my head in the middle of the street? The short answer: YES. Yes, I have cut out x,y, and z and taken this supplement and added this and — you get the picture. Yes, again, well-intentioned. Let us not forget that intention does not negate impact. I feel worse after hearing this advice because it makes me feel like I’m being perceived as not doing enough to fix this situation. I’m trying — believe me, I WANT to get pregnant! If I want advice, please allow me the chance to ask for it.
- Do: if you are willing, share your story if you have also had trouble conceiving. Even if you did eventually get pregnant and now you’re a rockstar parent, I appreciate your willingness to name the challenges you endured. Even though you achieved your desired outcome, you still experienced sorrow and loss.
- Don’t: don’t tell me to just relax and have fun. Ever. My response to this statement is not appropriate for the Internet.
- Do: be my friend. That may seem silly, but let’s continue to do things together that bring us joy! Sure, some of those could relate to women’s health (or MINDFULNESS! See, I could sneak it in there). But, it can be all of the other activities that people – fertile or not – take up: go bowling, start a book club, attend a concert, dance like no one is watching (except that one creepy person in the corner). Distractions are welcomed. Having fun and creating spaces for laughter are appreciated. Finding time to build our bonds of kinship remain a priority.
One situation, where I don’t feel like there’s a clear or justified do/don’t, is around sharing your own personal good news if you become pregnant. This happened to a friend of mine not too long after I had revealed my own struggle. Later on, she confessed that she was afraid to tell me as she was attuned to my situation and didn’t want to hurt me.
Now, this friend is by far one of the kindness, most selfless people I know. I appreciated her honesty, and I expressed that her decision to withhold her celebratory news made me feel sad. I reveled in her happiness — and now get to do that to an even greater extent by holding her beautiful child.
At the same time, there are days where I catch a friend’s social media post announcing their pregnancy and my first reaction is not one of celebration. There was a string around the holidays where it felt like everyone in my circle was holding up little baby booties and onesies and I was like:
C’MON ON NOW UNIVERSE.
A friend reflected that the infertility journey is truly a roller coaster. There are moments of such anticipation and excitement — you try to temper it as best you can — but there’s something so visceral when you allow yourself to be filled with that hope.
Then, there are times when the bottom drops out; your body sucks your breath back in by the sheer force of your current reality. You want to hold on to something — someone — and yet you are often alone. You may be on a bathroom floor. You may be laying on some awful table with your legs in stirrups. You have to find a way to pick yourself back up. Slap a smile on that face. Be ready to shake hands with someone new as they ask:
“So, do you have kids?”