Talking About Infertility: A Friend’s Guide

It’s getting easier to interact with my friends with kids, and with their kids. I spent the weekend visiting with a friend i’ve known since high school, her husband, and their two adorable daughters (2.5 years and 10 weeks). It was an awesome weekend, we went hiking, caught up, hung out with the kids, and gave her some much needed adult time while her husband looked after the kids.

Something that has come up a couple of times with my family/friends who have children is their uncertainty as to how uncomfortable it is going to make me if they talk about/interact with/gush over their children. And I do understand that. I get that there is a distinct level of awkwardness surrounding the conversation of infertility. Since it remains such a taboo subject of discussion, people have their own ideas and expectations for how they expect the infertile individual to feel and what their comfort level would be if they were in that situation.

I can’t speak to anyone else’s feelings on the subject, but here are mine: I like to hear about how happy people are to have their children. I think the fact that they enjoy their progeny, that they are excited to be parents, and that they love the experience is a good thing. Yes, of course it makes me think about what i’m missing. Of course there is a part of me that is sad.

What is exponentially worse is the people who have children and apparently hate or resent the whole experience. It is one thing when someone has the thing I want most in the world and treasures it… It is a whole other thing when they have it and they treat it like an inconvenience.

I know that having children is stressful, and draining, and a huge sacrifice. I know that it is hard, and that there are moments where any parent is likely to regret how much of themselves they’ve had to give up in order to support their progeny. I don’t think there is any such thing as a perfect parent, and perish any thought that I consider that I would be anything close to that if given the opportunity. But at least here in Canada, we have access to birth control, family planning options, and worst case scenario, abortion, all subsidized by our health care system. There is no excuse to bring an unwanted child into this part of the world. I don’t expect anyone to take the concept of terminating an unwanted pregnancy lightly. Unfortunately, I do think too many people take the concept of parenting lightly, which seems to have a whole other set of consequences.

As someone who has given parenting, childbearing, child rearing, and the sacrifices and work involved a lot of thought, not just in the last four+ years, but for the better part of a decade before that while my Husband and I were planning a life that centred around having a family… I honestly find it difficult to imagine how anyone can go into it without a basic grasp of what they will be giving up in order to support the little life they create. However, I am often confronted with evidence that exactly that happens all the time, and it drives me a little crazy.

So, talking to a friend who is dealing with infertility. Things to consider:

If you are curious about someone’s interest in having children, should you ask? The blanket answer to me is no. It’s none of your business what they want, and chances are if they want you to know they will choose to tell you. However, I think it can come up organically in conversations, and depending on how open they are about their fertility status, and how close the two of you are, they may choose to bring it up. If you are not comfortable having that conversation (and maybe hearing about some of the baggage behind it) don’t ask. My closest friends all know the basics, and varying levels of details about what my Husband and I have been going through. I personally chose to brush off the question or ignore pointed comments that can hang on the air if I don’t feel like talking about it. I will either full on lie, make a joke, or just say that we are not having kids without qualifying information. The basic point is: It’s none of your business, I don’t care who you are, my fertility is mine, and I will choose when and with whom I discuss the details.

You are aware that someone cannot have children. Should you invite them to child-centred events (baby showers, children’s birthdays, etc.). Yes. But don’t be offended if they chose not to attend. Really, I think that should be true of all events – an invitation is not a directive, it’s presenting the option. I think it’s weird when people nag you to show up to something once you’ve told them you won’t, regardless of the event details – weddings, parties, trips… an invitation shouldn’t be considered an order. But I digress…

Should you discuss your children/child details with/around your infertile friend? Yes. If they are not comfortable, they can choose to remove themselves from the conversation. As I said, I love to hear about my friends children, and my nieces and nephews. The little munchkins’ existence has no bearing on my own lack of children, and knowing that there are kids around who I can lavash with whatever maternal urges/attention/care I have (Plus getting to hand them back at the end of the day) is a good thing. I personally also have no issues with my friends discussing the more challenging realities of their child rearing experiences. As I said above, I know that is a part of it, and constant sunshine sugar and roses just makes my teeth hurt. I’m cool hearing all of it, and if I were not, I would say something or absent myself.

Asking questions about their situation, should you? Sure. Again, I think it’s up to each individual to determine their boundaries and what they wish to disclose. As with invitations, questions don’t automatically deserve a response. With those friends who I have chosen to disclose my experience, I have no problem discussing it in more depth, as long as the circumstances are appropriate. I am not going to have a heart to heart in the middle of a party with a bunch of other people listening in. But if I have already determined that I trust someone enough to have told them what is going on in my life on that level, I have no problem going into more detail. In fact, for me, I frequently have trouble talking about it unless someone chooses to ask. I tend to feel like I am over burdening my friends with my issues, so I generally avoid bringing it up. Sometimes someone choosing to ask about it is a welcome opportunity to vent/discuss/elaborate/communicate on an issue that I find intensely difficult to address. There is an aspect of buyer beware in this: If you ask, you may get far more of an answer than you expected and possibly more than you wanted. This is an emotionally charged issue, and it can come out in a whole huge ball of everything that can be overwhelming. Or maybe it just feels massively overwhelming to me. Whatever. Let that be on the asker, if you’re willing to ask an incredibly personal question, you should probably be prepared for the answer.

Random other things:

I don’t care that you don’t feel like you can understand what it feels like. I don’t want you to, I wouldn’t wish this on anyone I care about.

I don’t need your suggestions for other options for potentially getting pregnant – thank you, I know you’re trying to help, but I am a pretty phenomenal researcher in my own right – you are not going to suggest something that I have not already considered.

I don’t want to be told about the friend/acquaintance/your dog’s uncles owner who got pregnant after years of trying just when they had given up all hope. We all know that person (or at least know of them), and they are the exception, not the rule. People talk about that type of event, they talk a whole lot less about the absence of it.

Don’t bitch to me about the person in your life who got knocked up by accident, chose to have the baby, and is being a totally irresponsible parent. I know they exist, I work with the progeny of some of them, I am aware it’s a thing… but if you want to trigger a meltdown in me, that is your fastest route. Don’t do it, if you do, and you know you’re doing it, you’re just being an ass hole. If you are the irresponsible parent, chances are we are not friends, because I saw you coming from a mile away and removed myself from the situation. You didn’t have to feel my wrath, you’re welcome.

I have other things in my life that fulfil me, I am not broken. Yes, I think about my lack of ability to have children constantly. Yes it feels like a giant gaping hole in my life. However keenly I feel that loss, it does not mean that anything else I chose to do with my life is somehow done to compensate. It’s not. I’ve had a few people talk as if my masters degree, career, sport, etc. are all just ways to fill the void… they are not. I do these things because I think they have value. Yes, they are also valuable in terms of their ability to distract me and as coping mechanisms, but they would be equally valuable if I were able to have children – just ask all the fertile people who have also chosen to participate in those things!

I don’t expect to “get over it”. I choose to avoid talking about my infertility in part because I don’t feel like dealing with any backlash from people who, as with the loss of a loved one, think that grief has an expiration date. It does not. Time helps. It makes things less raw, less immediate, and improves coping skills, as well as offering perspective. But nothing stops this from being present, and I won’t simply wake up one morning and not care. So if, when i’m in my 60’s and long past child bearing potential, I mention the sense of loss… It’s still present, it’s still real, and if you can’t understand that… Either you are lucky and have never lost something you truly loved, or you’re a sociopath and you don’t actually feel that deeply about anything. Either way, I don’t really want to hear about it in that moment.

These are my honest, if cheeky, thoughts. They are likely only relevant to me and my situation. However, if you are reading this and wondering what to do in terms of your friend, the best thing you can do is just ask them what they need. Gently, calmly, and respectfully… and then respect their answer.

Cheers,

-Me

 

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