Helping a Friend Who Is Dealing with Infertility

I need to be fully transparent here. My friends call me Fertile Myrtle because I have been incredibly lucky and blessed to get pregnant within a month of deciding to expand our family (much to my husband’s dismay because he was having fun “practicing”). Nevertheless, I have close girlfriends who experience infertility and it introduced a new dynamic into our friendship.

There are so many resources to learn more about infertility and numerous blogs documenting personal journeys. In contrast, this blog post is about supporting a friend dealing with infertility. Fertility problems can be alienating and friendships may alter because of this. When you experience trouble in the reproductive department, it often becomes taboo conversation or something “you just don’t talk about.” I would like to view this blog post as a safe place to discuss this subject, but you do not need to read any further if the whole baby-making thing is not your thing, or if it’s just too raw or touchy a subject to continue reading about.

I will not pretend to understand the nuances and heartache experienced by a women and her partner when all you want is a baby. It seems like you live your life month-by-month and all you want is a positive pregnancy test indicating you will have a baby. To address this subject, my girlfriends have been kind enough to share their fertility experiences with me and answer my series of questions asked from the perspective of a friend trying to support a girlfriend going through a really hard time.

Bubbles in a petri dish. One of these petri dishes is destined to develop into a baby.
Bubbles in a petri dish. One of these petri dishes is destined to develop into a baby.
IVF helped those bubbles grow into a beautiful baby girl!
IVF helped those bubbles grow into a beautiful baby girl!

Before I go on, I must give incredible thanks for the gracious and soulful responses I received while emailing with my girlfriends. It opened my mind and heart to their unique journey to conceive and I have even more love and respect for them (I didn’t know it was even possible!). I only hope I do justice to their story here and take their advice to be a good and empathetic friend when love and support is needed the most.

There are many paths one could take to get pregnant. Everyone’s journey to baby is different, but you typically do not begin by thinking, “Let’s make this a long and heart-wrenching process!”

Oddly enough, trying to conceive typically starts with “not trying” because if you don’t really think about it or say it aloud, it’ll just happen? However, you are not using any form of contraception to prevent getting pregnant either. It’s like pregnancy would be a happy accident (but really, we all know where babies come from).

Once “not trying” does not result in a positive pee stick, you move on to good ol’ fashioned trying. You want this to be fun and look at unprotected sex as the one thing you’ve never been allowed to do and now it’s a free for all! You stock up on prenatal vitamins and have fun “practicing” making a baby.

If you’ve been trying for some time, but to no avail – the question of fertility is brought up. This could happen after a few months or a few years.

Some of my close girlfriends experiencing fertility problems did not anticipate issues getting pregnant, but some knew it was the road they were on because they were diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) as a teenager, or their menstrual cycle has always been unpredictable.

Each friend tried to “be relaxed about it” but really kept track of when ovulation was taking place, tracked their cycles, temperature, and became increasingly stressed and disappointed with each passing month. After feeling incredibly disappointed and frustrated, they sought help elsewhere and thus fertility treatment entered the scene.

  1. Could you tell me a little bit about your fertility experience?

Here are some of the emotions and medical interventions my girlfriends experienced:

Getting misdiagnosed, misinformed and feeling mistreated by well-meaning clinicians who miss the mark on bedside manner

Undergoing a slew of tests which take a lot of time and a lot of blood work (fear of needles is no longer a concern)

Many internal ultrasounds with what looks like a giant dildo – and the ultrasound tech didn’t even buy you a drink first!

Wasting a lot of money buying pregnancy tests to have your heart broken, and I quote: “because [it is] what we infertiles do. WASTE MONEY ON PREGNANCY TESTS! They are definitely a love/hate relationship.”

Vaginal progesterone (suppositories)

Clomid

Ovidrel® PreFilled Syringe

Intrauterine insemination (IUI)

In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) and all the needles/shots which come with it

Feeling crazy because of the inherit nature of this crazy process, but also the hormones you must inject to make a baby make you feel crazy

Acclimate yourself to infertility vocabulary like reproductive endocrinology and “spontaneous pregnancy”

Getting a headache trying to deal with insurance and learn to advocate for yourself because you must

Getting another headache because of the bills associated with trying to make a baby

Cry a lot, a lot, a lot… and then cry some more

  1. I think it goes without saying, when someone else says, “Just relax, it’ll happen when it is supposed to happen” you probably want to punch them in the face. What are some other dumb things people have said?

(Note: each voice is defined by a different color)

People mean well, but they can be ignorant too. If something isn’t working as it should naturally, people do not acknowledge there are issues and become fixers. They want you to be pregnant in order for them to feel comfortable around you. Ignorance rears its ugly head and dumb comments include:

“Well, that’s a lucky problem to have!” (they are referring to how we don’t need to worry about using protection) 

“I just KNOW you were meant to be a mother; it will happen in time.”

“So and so tried for [X] years and they got pregnant the second they adopted! <<pause>> Are you looking into adoption?”

“You’ve got plenty of time – just keep practicing!”

“I can show you how to do it.” Really, I am supposed to have sex? Oh silly me.

“Well, whose fault is it?” How is it helpful to blame someone? Also, why does someone have to be at fault?

“Maybe you are not supposed to have a baby.”

People never know what exactly to say when they learn someone is struggling to conceive. Even if people can’t relate exactly, being able to reflect on a similar experience and show empathy for the person going through it is way more helpful than giving out sympathy. Saying, “Oh gosh I’m so sorry, I don’t even know what that’s like!” does not help. The pity thing is never any fun for someone going through fertility treatments/issues. Refrain from saying, “Don’t worry, it just wasn’t your baby this time.” Sympathy and empathy are two different things; empathy is always the clear winner.

  1. In contrast, what did you find helpful during your darker hours?

“Honestly, what helped me most was when people would just say ‘Honey I know it sucks. I’m here for you’ or if they would just listen and show sincere empathy, rather than feeling sorry me. I don’t need anyone to feel sorry for me. This is my struggle. People have many different struggles they must deal with, this just happens to be one of mine. I own the struggle.”

“This is a tough question to answer because I had many dark days. There were times when I was convinced I’d be a childless wife. My husband was incredibly loving and supportive, as were my family and friends. Sometimes I needed to be able to talk about it. Then sometimes I wanted to laugh about how ridiculous it all was, and other days I just wanted to cry. Oh, and then there were the days where retail therapy and ice cream were helpful.”

“To be perfectly honest – when I felt the darkest I just wanted to put an ‘invisibility cloak’ over the whole infertility issue. I am a pretty open person and tend to need to vocalize what’s going on in my life in order to cope. Yet, when I felt the most hopeless I just didn’t want people to ask or know about it. So treating me like my life was totally normal and infertility was not an issue was my best coping mechanism.”

I also had a close friend dealing with infertility at the same time as me. It felt good to be flat out honest about our feelings with each other. I absolutely dreaded hearing about anyone who was pregnant or having to think about going to baby showers. Saying stuff out loud to anyone other than someone going through the same trials makes you feel like a horrible person so having a confidante was important for me. I also need to mention when your husband has fertility issues too, the situation becomes much more sensitive. I felt like I needed to protect him in the whole process as well. For some reason there is a stigma attached to you as a man if you don’t have the “troops” in order. It’s just frustrating in general because as soon as people know you are dealing with infertility, the next question is ‘Well, what’s wrong?’ It is not their business.”

  1. When you desperately want to get pregnant and your girlfriend gets pregnant after trying only for a few months, what’s the best way to break the news to you? Is there a good way?

“This is a tricky question. As a person who was trying for a little over a year to get pregnant, you better believe many people in my life got pregnant during this time. It’s so difficult, because a huge part of me was always so happy for everyone who was getting pregnant because it is wonderful news and super exciting for them. But I would be lying if I said a small part of me did not feel frustrated wondering why can’t it happen for me too? Then I felt shame for feeling this way. It really is the “shame web,” as shame researcher Brené Brown says. I found the best way for my friends to tell me was to just tell me. Tell me like I am anyone else. When people would walk on eggshells around me, afraid to tell me they were pregnant, it made me feel even worse, like I’m diseased because of my struggle. The happiness I would have for them and their success and joy of being pregnant is totally separate from my own frustrations and struggles in getting pregnant.”

“Let’s be honest. There is no good way. But there are a LOT of bad ways. Facebook or any other form of social media is not ok. Having a sibling run up with “big bro/big sis” is not good either. For me, I needed time to digest the news in private first so I can have my ugly reaction out of my system. Otherwise it felt like a huge punch in the gut in front of others that I really rather not have to try and cover up. It’s not healthy to stuff it and it was already painful enough to hear the news. It has nothing to do with the other person. It just brings our closest struggles back to the forefront of our minds. And I don’t know about anyone else, but I absolutely could not stand that side effect from going through infertility. I WANTED to be happy and joyful for people. That was my nature pre-infertility. I wanted nothing more than to be joyful for them – I just needed a courtesy announcement by phone or text to me directly so I could deal with my reaction first.”

“I think the news should be shared very sensitively, but with joy and the expectation of participation in the journey of welcoming a new baby. By being free and open and even acknowledging I am having difficulty allows me the ability to mourn and grieve my own loss and know you and your new baby will still be there when I am ready. It never becomes the pink elephant in the room. This would only cause more distance. I was glad to know good people were still having happy healthy babies with seamless pregnancies and deliveries. It helped me tremendously to be able to live vicariously through them and share in loving their new baby. With this said, I know this is not the “right medicine” for everyone. And timing is key.”

  1. As someone who did not have trouble getting pregnant, I had to fight the urge to hide and become distant with my friends experiencing infertility because I thought it would just be too painful for me to be around them with my growing baby bump. Is this true, or just in my head?

“I think this depends on the people who are having the fertility issues and their level of sensitivity to it. While I was trying, I was around several people who were pregnant, I went to many baby showers, and of course I remained friends with all of my friends who were pregnant. It doesn’t mean there were not difficult moments for me, however, knowing my friends were treating me like they always did was a huge help. There were many times where it was difficult for me, but it was a personal thing. It was never about them and their pregnancy. It was about me and my struggle in pregnancy.”

“I did not find it painful to be around pregnant women as I was going through it. I found it hard to be at the baby shower or to hear daily complaints of pregnancy because I so desperately wanted to feel those even if they were bad! Later when I was pregnant I dealt with a lot of guilt because I had a pretty rough pregnancy but I never wanted to complain because of how I had felt.”

“I think it depends on the person and where they are in their journey. I had a lot of pain and very powerful grief initially. In my professional career, I saw families who had no trouble conceiving, were unprepared, and/or didn’t even want the child. That was incredibly difficult and led me to feel such profound emptiness and loss. If someone I loved had become pregnant then, I may have retreated from the friendship temporarily, but I would also have expected my friend to keep reaching out to me with love and support for me. When I realized I could love and support a baby beyond motherhood and I was EXPECTED to be a close auntie- I was freed and refocused my energy.”

“I felt both happy for my friends and excited about their growing babies, and also sad because I wasn’t certain it was an experience I would have. I remember vividly a dark period where I was just miserable and commiserating over my disappointing uterus. I was in the car driving to work, listening to Florence + The Machine’s “Shake It Off”.   For the first time, after listening to the song many times before, the following lyrics jumped out at me:

I am done with my graceless heart

So tonight I’m gonna cut it out and then restart

It all clicked in that moment. Just an ordinary day, listening to the same music, and all of a sudden I was thinking about how I had no grace, moping in my misery instead of being happy for the people I loved. So I just decided I was done. It was time to hit reset and go with happy.”

  1. How should a (pregnant or not) friend maintain their friendship and support a friend struggling to get pregnant?

“Just listen and be there for them. Try not to show sympathy and show as much empathy as you can tap into. Something I love about my close friends, my husband, and my mom, is how they all asked me what I need and how I want to deal with this. For example, they asked, ‘What do you need from me? How can I help you while you are going through this?’ That was extremely helpful to me because it allowed me to think about what I truly needed and wanted from each of those people in my life.”

“Just be you. Be what the relationship was and be up front. The person dealing with the infertility doesn’t want the relationship to change, but it will. If they can’t be up front with their needs, just ask them. Do you want updates as often as I get them in regards to my pregnancy? Do you care if I talk about my issues? Tell them you want to know if something you are doing is bothering them because you don’t want to be part of more hurt in their journey. The thing is – it’s different for everyone. I found honesty was the best policy for me and my friends. I had been trying for two years to get pregnant with my second when my best friend got pregnant with her second right away. She called me and told me right away and it was the best thing for me. I told her thank you for telling me and I said I would need a day before I could call back and be the friend I wanted to be. She respected and understood this request. Good friendships work this way.”

“Ask questions. What is the process, and where is she in the process? Simply ask how a pregnant friend can help. What does she need? Maybe the friend struggling to get pregnant just needs a day where you are the designated driver and she is allowed to vent and drink a lot of wine over a delicious meal, but maybe she needs to accompany you to register or decorate your nursery. Just ask and be open.”

“Perhaps the best thing would be to have an open conversation and ask the friend how much they’d like to know about the happy pregnancy. I always wanted to know what was going on. Even though it wasn’t my baby, I was happy for my friends and wanted to share their experience, but this might be different for others dealing with infertility.”

  1. What do you wish you could have told yourself at the start of your fertility journey?

“I wish I could have just had more fun with the process. Sex is wonderful and fun and exciting. During the process of trying to conceive the first time, the fun was stripped away. It became scheduled and frustrating and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone…If I could go back to several years ago, I would tell myself to believe, to stay open minded, and to live in the moment. I spent so much time worrying about the future and worrying about if and when I was going to get pregnant. It makes me think of the countless women who go through years of this struggle and may or may not end up with a baby. The truth is, no one can ever understand your exact situation. Ever. They are not you. Just tapping into your own empathy is critical and such a help for anyone having struggles with fertility.”

“Give yourself grace. This is going to be hard, but it will be worth it. Seek help and support groups. Don’t go it alone and include your spouse. They are feeling it differently than you, but they are still feeling it.”

“You are not alone. Infertility is such an ugly word and it brings to mind stories of barren women whose husbands leave them for younger more fertile partners, etc. It becomes an ugly word filled with failed expectations moving beyond the woman, the marriage, and even the immediate family. But, [through talking about it] I have come to learn a large majority of my friends and colleagues have struggled in one way or another.”

“If I could go back in time, I would tell myself it takes time. It sucks. Oddly, though, there are happy moments too. When going through IVF it was kind of like “trying” all over again – there was excitement and anticipation just as if we were going about things the “normal” way. Learn to find the humor in things, like how the pharmacy sent me Hershey’s Kisses with my infertility injectable medications.”

  1. What kind of support do you think someone experiencing fertility issues could really use?

“The biggest support for me was taking ownership of my struggle and instead of feeling shame for what I was going through, owning it AS my struggle. It helps to talk about it, and share my story. Once I started sharing, I couldn’t believe the hundreds of women who came out of the woodwork to share similar stories. To know I am not alone is extremely powerful; to know there are many other women out there who don’t get pregnant just by sharing a fork with their partner, is comforting. I am not alone. It’s not just me. Being able to be honest and reflect on my struggle with others who have been through the struggle, or people who have not and are willing to listen and show empathy, is life-changing.”

“I felt WAY better after I was under the care of a great reproductive fertility clinic. It wasn’t just my problem for me and my husband to face anymore. I wasn’t alone in worrying about it, and my unknown fears were being taken care of by professionals. They took some of the burden from me.”

“Education and support from individuals who have experienced the struggle. But, I think a supportive friend who has successful pregnancies is just as invaluable. It means hope and life and love.”

“It helps to have someone to talk to who has been through it. For some reason people with serious infertility issues keep it very private. It becomes taboo. I don’t know why this is the case though. Perhaps it’s taboo because it has to do with sex, penises, vaginas, eggs, and sperm? I needed to talk to people who could tell me what to expect. I was lucky to have found support. It was all very hush hush though…don’t tell so-and-so about how so-and-so had trouble.”

  1. What else would you like to share?

“I want to add this is only my struggle. My story started with a yearlong struggle to get pregnant but ended with a beautiful baby girl. It’s important to recognize some people struggle (for much longer) and never end up with a baby. Since there are so many different stories it’s important to be sensitive to everyone’s personal journey.”

“Something I struggled with greatly after being able to get pregnant “spontaneously”(now 4 times) was the guilt I felt for my friends still struggling with infertility. I knew I was on the other side now and would be that pregnant lady. I didn’t feel it with my first or even as much with my second. But when I got pregnant with my 3rd, it felt like people no longer understood me because it appeared like I was having babies with ease. This is frustrating because I still had, and have, very real feelings about infertility. I just had to keep from letting my joy be stolen and remember my pregnancy wasn’t about them. This is about me and my journey. The reasons they were struggling were about them and they’re journey. Everyone grieves differently. Everyone needs grace.”

“My son will never wonder how much he was loved and wanted in this world. We recognize it every single day. It wasn’t an easy pregnancy. I was sick for 6 months, I put on about 50lbs, I left a career I loved for some time, he was a sick infant, breastfeeding had its struggles, too, but… I LOVED it all. The journey made me appreciate the end result and we have an exceptional bond. I am grateful for it. I am also grateful I was NOT the first of my girlfriends to have a baby. I have GREATLY benefited from expertise, experiences, and hand-me-downs!

At the end of the day your joy, your sorrow, your pain, your anger, your hatred and even your ability to love others and yourself affect YOU like no other. Be kind to yourself and to others. And when you can no longer do be kind, find someone who can teach you how to be kind once again.”

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