Sensitivity Matters

Even when you know it’s coming, it can still be hard to process.

You put your game face on, avoid things like Facebook as much as humanly possible, and prepare yourself for the comments and jokes intended to amuse but that might actually hurt.

You tell yourself that if you can just laugh along with the rest of them, it won’t sting quite as much.

But it’s hard, make that nearly impossible, to take the sting out of infertility.  Primary, secondary…it makes no difference.  When insensitive comments are made, no matter how innocent the intentions, it just stings.

I opened my Facebook App early in the morning on April 1st to find quite a few pregnancy announcements.  Some were clearly a joke, the punch line offered in parentheses at the end of the post.  Others were detailed and seemed to go on all day.

While it didn’t affect me as much this time around, I cringed on behalf of the many people who touch base with me each month to share their stories.  I cringed on behalf of a couple of old friends who have been struggling with infertility for years.  I just cringed.

Infertility rates continue to rise both in this country and abroad.  Couples everywhere are coping with miscarriage, self-administering hormones each day, and enduring round after round of IVF.  They are dealing with stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness.  They are attempting to remain calm and positive in the face of repeated disappointments.

And then they have to deal with a fair amount of insensitivity surrounding the issue.

While I understand the intention behind the Facebook fake pregnancy, constant complaints about unruly children in the form of status updates, and jokes about giving them away, I think it’s time to take a new approach.

While I don’t want to make unequal comparisons, there are some things in life that you just don’t joke about.  There are some topics that can only be taken seriously.  We all know what those are.

I think that it’s time to increase our collective awareness about infertility, and take note of the fact that people around us are struggling.

While some of you will argue that those struggling with infertility should simply avoid things like Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, I believe that that mentality leaves these infertility warriors feeling even more isolated than they already are.  In a very tech savvy world.

There must be other jokes we can tell…

Sensitivity matters.

It’s time think before we speak and apologize when we’ve gone too far.  Feelings are everywhere and easily hurt.

Below are a few statements/questions to avoid in this time of high infertility rates:

1.    Aren’t you about due for another?  While some couples are perfectly happy with one, many couples experience secondary infertility after a perfectly “normal” first pregnancy.  Either way, it’s best not to ask.

2.    I get pregnant every time my husband looks at me.  This one has been around forever.  I get it; some people are super fertile.  But some aren’t.  So maybe think twice before blurting this out to your one childless friend.

3.    Have fun trying!  There’s no way to sugarcoat this one.  When sex is timed down to the very minute and possibly involves hanging upside down afterward (whether or not that actually works), it’s not very fun.  It’s a full time job.

4.    Some people just shouldn’t have kids.  While this is usually said in reference to a specific situation (and still not ok no matter the specifics), it can really affect a person struggling to get pregnant.  When infertility starts to drag on, you start to internalize these negative statements and feel like they might apply to you.

5.    She’s too selfish; she can’t handle kids.  While some people do not want to have kids, others are enduring a silent struggle.  Avoid assumptions.

6.    It always works out in the end.  Sadly, sometimes it doesn’t.

 

I can hear the criticism already…now we have to tiptoe around every woman who isn’t yet a mother?

The fact is that infertility is a growing problem and it’s a very lonely battle.  It’s not that all pregnancy and child rearing jokes should be stifled for eternity, but we do need to be careful about when and where we make those jokes.  And we need to really, really think before we speak.

Because you just never know…

Infertility & Friends: What Not to Say

In general, and as they should be, the holidays are about families.  The gifts, cookies, and treats are nice, but it’s spending time as a family that counts.  In other words, babies and kids are everywhere.

While couples struggling with infertility often enjoy spending time with extended family, including holding the new babies and playing with kids, it can be a big reminder that they are still waiting for their turn.

It’s hard on everyone, to some degree.  Friends and loved ones often don’t know what to say in the face of infertility.  They tend to rely on clichés or attempts at humor that fall flat or, worse, result in hurt feelings.  Believe me, I’ve heard it all.

That said, below are ten things that you should NEVER say to your friend or loved one who is struggling with infertility:

1.    “Maybe it’s not the right time”:  If it’s the right time for millions of other people, why shouldn’t it be the right time for your friend?  First rule of pregnancy:  There is no “right” time.

2.    “It’s God’s will”:  Does anyone really believe in a God who grants some people children in an instant but makes others struggle for years and endure horrible medical treatments?  I certainly hope not.

3.    “It’s not in God’s plan for you”:  See #2.  Also, you never really know what another person believes.  In general, it’s best to leave religion out of it.

4.    “It will happen when you least expect it”:  When you’re expecting it to happen every single month, this just doesn’t apply.  Also, it kind of puts blame on the couple.  As if willing it to happen is actually having the opposite effect.

5.    “You need to relax”:  I find that, in general, people who say this popped out a few babies quickly.  They know little about Clomid, hormones, miscarriage, and messed up cycles.  Relaxing and infertility treatments do not go hand in hand (even if they should).

6.    “At least you can drink”:  Most (probably all) women dealing with infertility would gladly give up the glass of wine to have the baby.  Since they don’t have the baby, they need the wine to get through the family dinner.

7.    “One day you will have a house full of kids”:  Are you willing to bet your mortgage on that?  Of course that’s what they’re hoping for, but clichés and grand statements get old quickly.

8.    “You can have mine!  Believe me, you’re the lucky one right now”:  The jokes about giving away your kids are among the most hurtful.  Try to remember that this person is probably feeling desperate at times.  All she wants is one little tiny baby.  She doesn’t feel lucky at all.

9.    “I have the best doctor.  You should definitely see him right away”:  Assume that your friend has either consulted another doctor or is working with an infertility specialist.  Honestly, when you see your doctor constantly, you tend to love him.  I did.  And if I didn’t, I would have switched doctors early on.

10.                “Enjoy the quiet house”:  Your friend is hoping against hope to end up with a loud house full of small voices.  Assume that your friend has made the most of the quiet moments and is ready for something different.  Trying to point out that you wish you had what she has is hurtful; you both know it’s not true.

Let’s end on a few things that you can say to help your friend.  It’s always best to end on a positive.

1.    “I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but I would love to be there for you”: Lack of experience in infertility doesn’t mean that you can’t be a good listener.

2.    “This must be a really hard time for you.  I’m here when you need me”:  Sometimes we really just need an escape hatch.  Provide that for your friend.

3.    “I can’t stop thinking about you.  What can I do to help?”:  It’s really hard to ask for help when your friends are busy with kids and work.  It feels like an imposition.  Give your friend the green light to lean on you and she just might do it.

And for the 7.3 million Americans out there struggling with infertility this holiday season…I’m here for you.  I know how hard it is to try to balance all of your emotions this time of year.  I think the best advice I can give you is to be a little selfish and focus on your needs, and to be honest with those around you.  Take a little advice from John Mayer and “say what you need to say”.  Your friends can only help you if they know what you need.

What things have been said to you that only made you feel worse?  What would you want your friends to say instead?

Note: This post was originally published on my other site, Practical Parenting, on November 27, 2011.

A Friend is a Friend

A couple of weeks ago, I shared my journey through infertility.   The response was incredible.

Here I am, nearly 8 weeks after the loss of my baby boy, still trying to find my way back to “normal”.  I’m not sure that I know what that means anymore.

While my days are spent savoring every moment (almost) with my kids, the nights are long and often filled with anxiety.  The tears seem to creep up on me without any notice as I struggle to recall what exactly it was that I did every night before I lost him.

Meanwhile, the emails keep pouring in.  People want to know how to help a friend, a sister, a niece, or a daughter who is fighting infertility.  They want to know what to say and when to say it.

Infertility can be very isolating.

Many couples keep their journey private.  It can be difficult to open up about something so personal, particularly when it feels like you’re the only one.  Some couples fear the response they might get.  Others fear a constant barrage of unwanted input.  And many just feel that they need to get through it together.

People going through infertility are bombarded with shifting emotions on a daily, and sometimes hourly, basis.  Common feelings include:  anxiety, depression, loss of control,guilt, social isolation, low self-esteem, feeling misunderstood by more fertile friends, and increased stress across the board.

My husband and I chose to go through it alone for many years before we really started talking.  Only a few select friends knew what was happening.  Even during this most recent pregnancy we hesitated to tell anyone until it was truly over.

There’s no one “right” way to help a friend or loved one who is on this journey.  Everyone handles it in his or her own way.  I hesitated to share with friends because I feared that the response I would get would not be the response I wanted.  Sometimes I was wrong, but often I was right.

The truth is that infertility, in all of its forms, remains such a secret society that people just don’t know how to help.  People don’t know what to say, what to do, or how to proceed.  So they back away.  And wait.

The problem is that when you’re overwhelmed by infertility, the last thing you want to do is coach your friends and family members.  You just want them to know how to be there for you.  So resentment starts to build.  Often on both ends.  And the struggling friend or loved one becomes a little more isolated, a little more anxious, and a lot more depressed.  It’s as if the “normal” world leaves you behind.

Some people will argue that you should “follow her cues”.  To some degree, this might be right.  It’s probably not something she wants to talk about every single day.  The problem is that women experiencing infertility are prone to isolation.  Sometimes they need a friend to check in and keep the relationship going.

I don’t have all of the answers, because everyone has a different experience.  But I do have a few suggestions that might help along the way:

1. Listen:  It sounds so basic, yet it can be so hard to do.  If your friend confides in you, the single best thing that you can do for her is to listen.  Don’t ask 100 technical questions, don’t tell stories of everyone you’ve ever known who has gone through something “similar”, and don’t try to change the subject every chance you get.  Just listen.  Really listen.

2.  Avoid advice:  You might think you have all of the answers, and maybe you really do, but your friend isn’t looking to you for answers.  We have doctors, nurses, specialists, and sometimes even surgeons giving us medical advice.  We are being poked, prodded, and repeatedly tested, often with inconclusive results.  We don’t need referrals for “better” doctors, we like the ones we have.  We don’t need statistics or the latest “natural” treatment.  We’ve heard all of that before.  We just need support.  We need empathy.  We need someone to get angry when we’re angry and to cry along with us after yet another disappointing appointment.  We need our friends.

3.  Check in:  I am the queen of social isolation when the going gets tough.  It’s how I cope.  I read a lot.  I watch TV.  I clean and organize almost obsessively.  I dream of beach houses, vacations, and publishing my book.  But I always appreciate the friends who come looking for me.  There a few people who won’t let me slip away, and to them I am eternally grateful.

4.  Be a good friend:  One of the more difficult aspects of keeping up friendships during infertility is that often those friends have one or more kids already.  It’s as if the world moves forward while the infertile friend is stuck in a vortex of appointments, shots, medications, and procedures.  Get a babysitter.  Bring dinner.  Bring wine.  Go to a movie.  Grab a coffee.  Find a way to have 1:1 time that isn’t focused on your kids.  She loves your kids, I promise.  She just doesn’t know how to exist in a world where the one thing that she wants more than anything is the very thing that you can’t stop talking about.

5.  Learn the basics:  If your friend or loved one confides in you about her journey, get online and find some information.  There are few things more exhausting than repeatedly defining infertility terminology or explaining procedures over and over again.  It’s enough to make a girl hide in her house and isolate.  Learn the basics so that you can be the great listener that she knows you to be (she’s confiding in you, after all).

6.  Offer errands:  Sometimes just an offer is enough to make you feel heard and loved.  If you have a friend who just suffered a miscarriage, is in the middle of a long series of hormone injections, or is really struggling with depression during this journey, call her on your way to the grocery store.  It doesn’t have to be a big offer of support.  Just a simple, “Hey, I’m headed to Target, can I get you anything?” shows your friend that you care.  She might always say no, but the offer will truly be appreciated.

7.  Share in moderation:  As I said earlier, everybody experiences infertility in his or her own way.  Many people think it’s helpful to share the intimate details of their own journeys and how they got to the other side.  Sometimes it is.  But sometimes it’s just more overwhelming information to process.  Saying something a little more general such as, “I’ve been through something similar so I can understand how overwhelming this must be for you” opens the door without making it about you.  Your friend is choosing to talk because she needs to release her feelings and is hoping for a little support along the way.  Resist the urge to rehash your experience with the goal of instilling “hope”.  The truth is, she probably feels hopeless right now, and your story might not be as inspiring as you intend it to be.

8.  Watch your words:  I could write an entire post about this (in fact, my book contains an entire chapter).  Choose your words carefully.  Statements like, “it’s part of God’s plan”, “it’s God’s will”, or “maybe it’s just not your time” are rarely helpful.  The truth is that you don’t really know about another person’s belief system, and infertility can cause you to question your faith in a heartbeat.  Similarly, “you need a new doctor” or “does this guy even know what he’s doing” are generally met with resentment or frustration.  If we wanted new doctors, we would ask for referrals.  Refer back to #1 and please just listen.

9.  Support her decisions:  You might think that your friend is giving up and moving on to adoption too quickly or is holding out hope on IVF a little too long.  It’s not your decision to make.  Maybe she’s had all she can possibly take or maybe she truly feels that this round of IVF will be the one that takes.  Either way, support her.  Be there for her.  Refer back to #4 and be a good friend.

10.  Be thoughtful:  With email, Facebook, and all other avenues of instant gratification, people seem to have forgotten the power of a greeting card.  Send a card.  Show your friend that you’re thinking of her.  Send flowers for no reason.  Have dinner delivered just because.  Drop cookies, muffins, or something else yummy at her doorstep.  Simple gestures mean a lot to someone who feels alone.

Infertility is often a very lonely road.  But it doesn’t have to be.  Be there for your friend.  Don’t let her slip away.

How have you helped a friend going through infertility?  How have you been helped?

Note:  This post originally appeared in my weekly column at Mommy Moment on August 3, 2011.