On fertile ground? Not so much.

“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.

Hester Prynne

Enduring heroine or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s views on women’s sexual freedom? You decide!

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.giphy
  • 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?”

8 Comments

  1. The unsolicited advice was not at all helpful. I have lost 2 babies and struggled with this topic for years. I am a wide open book if you ever want to talk, vent, scream, cuss, cry or whatever.

    Reply

  2. My journey has been different, but there are similarities. We were unable to consummate our marriage for the first 5 years. After we fixed that problem the kid discussion had changed from us both assuming we’d want them some day to one of us wanting them and one of us not. Oh, soooo many tears, painful conversations, deep introspection, etc.

    Through all of those years I was often asked about kids. Mostly by strangers who meant well or were just being conversational. It’s such a huge question, though. And it didn’t feel like my place to explain my husband’s feelings on the topic.

    After about 15 years of marriage (a.k.a. entering my late 30s) people stopped asking me. I’m grateful. I chose to stay with my husband and not try to find someone to (hopefully) have children with. So now I own this childless/childfree decision, too.

    But there are times when it still hurts. Learning that my sisters-in-law were pregnant, for one. I had brief pity parties for one. When mothers in a crowd are asked to stand and be recognized (there were some years I’d skip church for Mother’s Day). When the young mothers around me compare notes on parenting. When I see a male friend who absolutely loves being a dad. When there’s a group gift initiative for my in-laws based on the grandchildren (birthstones or something) and it feels like I count less because I/we didn’t provide any grandkids.

    But I have found ways to put my maternal instincts to good purpose: being an awesome aunt, fostering cats and kittens, etc. Some day I’d like to mentor a young boy or girl. In some ways I already am, as an aunt.

    And sometimes I appreciate the benefits of not having kids. Like everything in life, there are pros and cons.

    Being sensitive to others’ situations is key.

    Reply

    1. Jen,

      Thank you for opening up your heart and pouring out your story. What an emotional ride. I’m glad to hear that you are content with your decisions, even though during those times they must have been unbelievably hard.

      Pity parties are real. And I feel totally appropriate. If we don’t allow ourselves space to grieve, no matter when and how, then that resentment builds within us and we know happens when we poison our own wells.

      Being sensitive is key absolutely. No make judgments or assumptions. No trying to fit people in boxes for our own comfort. It’s not my role to decide how a person’s life should unfold.

      Reply

  3. I was comfortable being open with friends about my fertility journey at first, I guess because I really didn’t expect it to take this long. 18 months, a miscarriage, and a few uncomfortable and inappropriate conversations with family members later… I don’t talk about it at all, if I can avoid it. How can such a common experience feel so lonely and shitty? When other women talk about their experiences with infertility, it makes me feel like a little weight has been taken off. I remember that I’m not alone! Thanks for writing this. 🙂 🙂 🙂

    Reply

  4. Thank you for being so open. I’m sorry that you and your husband have to go through this. Whatever the reason for this period of your life always remember it’s not your fault.

    Reply

    1. Thank you, Grace, for your support and kindness. I appreciate the reminder of not holding myself at fault. That is hard. We are often our worst critics. Seems like we need to do something about that. 🙂

      Reply

  5. Having experienced infertility firsthand, I completely understand everything you’ve shared here. The baby showers, family holiday cards and Mother’s Days were some of the hardest things to face. I made a choice to live childfree (childless has negative connotations for me) for so many reasons. And even though it was an extremely difficult decision to make, I am at peace with it now. There are times when emotions still bubble up like when I spent time with my friends two children who were the ages my “children” would have been had I been able to conceive, and yet with time and lots of self study I’ve accepted the decision.

    I’m grateful we have each other to confide in on such personal topics. The more we share our infertility journey, the more we feel connected to one another, the more we realize we’re not alone. And I think more importantly, when we share we create opportunities for other women to feel empowered, informed, heard, and seen if/when they experience the same challenging path as we have.

    I’m here for you anytime you need a distraction or want to be heard. I will always hold space for you and anyone else who needs support during these difficult times or any other challenging life events we might face. Send big love and an even bigger bear hug!

    Reply

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