While my husband and I were in the throes of our infertility treatment, my world grew very small…
I didn’t mention our struggles to many friends, unable to even begin to explain the complicated world of in-vitro fertilization, why it was our only hope for having a baby, and all that it actually entails: the endless shots, early morning doctor appointments, and all the ways in which it could or couldn’t work. I learned to shut down casual, “When are you going to have a baby?” inquiries with a simple: “We’re hopeful but it’s proving hard for us.”
The truth is, I did not want to talk about it with the majority of people in my life. The uncertainty was overwhelming, the toll (physical, emotional, financial) too great. But the five rounds of IVF we did over the course of three years made infertility the dominant, all-consuming force in my life. I felt like I was living in a parallel universe, where my outward daily routine remained unchanged — I rode the subway, sat at my desk, went grocery shopping — while on the inside I secretly obsessed over egg counts and embryo quality.
Because talking about it casually was so difficult, I treasured the handful of confidantes who were willing to really go there with me. They were there to console me through my tears and absorb my rage-filled rants. One friend in particular, who had conceived naturally with no problems, was particularly receptive, and I am forever grateful.
Around 10% of women in the U.S. between the ages of 15 to 44 have difficulty getting or staying pregnant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Maybe you are one of these six million women (raises hand!) — and maybe one of these women is your friend.
As I have opened up more, talking about our journey publicly both in my writing and through my Instagram account, I have heard from so many women who want to be a good friend to someone coping with infertility. This warms my heart, that someone is tuned in enough to the sensitivities here to look for better ways to be supportive.
I put the question to my smart, strong Instagram family: What do people dealing with infertility want from their friends, and what do they want to avoid? Here is a compilation of the tips these women shared:
Things to try:
— Let your friend know you are there, and open the door for discussion without pressure or pity. It’s as easy as saying (or, better yet, texting, which doesn’t require a response): “I’m here if you want to talk.”
— Check in on a semi-regular basis and re-up that offer. A simple: “How are you? I’m thinking of you” could open the door again and gently remind her that you are there to listen, about infertility or anything else.
— If she chooses to talk to you about it, the best thing you can do is LISTEN! Most women just want to be heard, to vent about the unfairness or pain of it all. Many women appreciate commiseration, such as “I’m so sorry” or “This totally sucks.” A few words go a long way.
— Ask questions that are open-ended and general: “How are you feeling today?” or “How can I help?” Those allow her to answer however she feels like it.
— Mirror the tone of the discussion, following her lead. If she’s angry, or sad, or hurting, let her be any of those things. If she gets super technical, ask her to explain; if she just wants to cry, let her cry. And try not to be turned off by the intensity of her response. Infertility is wildly rage-inducing for many, and the hormone shots certainly don’t help. Let her vent in a judgment-free zone.
— Remember any dates she shares with you. If she tells you her egg retrieval is on Tuesday, text her on Tuesday! Avoid asking directly how it went — let her decide to share any results — rather, it’s best to just let her know you are thinking of her.
— Understand that all of this can change. She may be willing to talk one week and not the next. Be patient and know that it’s not personal. Let her set the pace.
— Offer up some fun distractions to take her mind off it. See a movie or go out to dinner or get a manicure. Talk about work drama. Watch the Bachelor! Anything to change the subject for a hot second.
— Think of little ways to treat her. Don’t ask, just do it! A funny or thoughtful card. Flowers. Cookies. A Starbucks gift card. (The one exception to the asking bit: Alcohol and exercise are often no-no’s during fertility treatment, so check with her before offering up those.)
Things to avoid:
— Giving advice, medically or otherwise, especially if she doesn’t ask you for it; what she needs from you most is emotional support.
— Sharing stories of other women you have known who have had success with IVF or another fertility treatment. Every person/couple is highly individual; one’s success or failure does not predict another’s.
— Saying that you understand. While very well intended, it is impossible to understand what someone else is going through, even if you’ve been through infertility yourself.
— Telling someone to “Just relax!” Saying things like “It’ll happen when you least expect it!” or “Just take a vacation!” can be unintentionally very hurtful. Being something of a type-A person myself, hearing that cut to my core. It makes infertility a personal failing or something controllable, when it’s actually a medical condition. As one person told me, “Infertility causes stress; stress doesn’t cause infertility.” (The same goes for saying, “What’s meant to be will be” — that’s a very hard one to hear.)
— Asking if she is considering adoption. Adoption is a wonderful thing! Maybe she is considering it, maybe not. But offering it up as a solution to a problem is not necessarily what most women want to hear. It’s not a seed you need to plant; chances are it is something she has considered or is considering.
— Encouraging her to be hopeful or say, “I know this will happen for you!” It’s meant so well, I know, but nobody knows what will happen. Best to let her tell you what she is feeling, which is often the opposite, in the form of anger, despair, and frustration. For those same reasons, avoid saying anything that begins with “At least.” (i.e. You’re doing IVF? “At least your health insurance plan covers it.”)
— Bringing infertility up in a public setting or during a group outing. It puts her on the spot, likely when she least wants to talk about it or is trying to escape for a bit. It’s better to find a moment in private.
— Avoiding the topic altogether. It can be uncomfortable to ask about it, but it’s better to let her know you are thinking of her than ignore it entirely. Trust me, I would bet it is on her mind constantly!
— This is a hard one, but don’t get offended if you are not the person she turns to. Retreating can be a form of self preservation. “It can be so difficult to open up to someone who hasn’t gone through it,” one woman told me. Respect her and give her space, with no hard feelings whenever she next re-emerges.
Tips for women who are pregnant or already parents:
— Share pregnancy news via text or email, not in person or over the phone. This gives your friend a chance to process it in private first, collect herself and respond as she would want to in the best of circumstances. This kind of news can be very hard to process, and a little space and time always helps. I never wanted to be the wet blanket on my friends’ good news, but it was impossible for me to hide my personal anguish when face-to-face or even on a call. The benefit of a text let me get it together enough to add a few emojis and an exclamation point. (If possible, give a head’s up before posting on social media; finding out publicly is the worst.)
— Try not to talk too much about how you conceived (or gave birth), unless your friend asks you. It doesn’t matter if it was naturally or with help, a pregnancy of any kind can be difficult to hear about for someone dealing with infertility.
— Don’t hide your pregnancy or family, but don’t make her your go-to person to vent about your nausea or complain about your kids’ sleeping schedules. Find another friend for those worries!
— Understand that your friend might not want to come to your baby shower or your kid’s birthday party. Invite her, but make it clear that there are no hard feelings whatsoever if she doesn’t want to come. Her decision is nothing personal. It’s about self preservation!
If you are struggling with infertility, my advice is to let yourself feel it. There is no way around the complicated, intense feelings. In my experience, fighting it only made it worse. Acknowledge it, and be gentle on yourself. Do whatever you need to do to make it through this time, even if that means shutting out the rest of the world. Know that your friends will be waiting for you on the other side.
Are you struggling with infertility? What tips do you have for how to be a good friend to someone dealing with infertility? Sending everyone lots of love. As always, we would love your input.
If you’re in NYC, Elizabeth and Joanna will be in conversation tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Made by We space, at 902 Broadway. Tickets sold out in 20 minutes (!) but, if you’re attending, we’re very excited to see you there, and we’re going to try to tape it.
(Photo by Jacqui Miller.)