Alice and Jenny have been best friends since second grade. They graduated high school together, roomed together in college, and even got married in the same year. Alice loves having Jenny and her husband over for dinner and Jenny always calls Alice for advice. When two pink lines appeared on her home pregnancy test, Jenny immediately invited Alice over to surprise her with the good news.
Alice’s reaction surprised Jenny-instead of sharing in her excitement, she looked like someone had punched her in the stomach, then burst into tears. Alice revealed that she was struggling with infertility and said she needed some time alone. Both were left feeling upset and confused, wondering what the future holds for their relationship.
Does this story sound familiar? With 1 in 8 couples struggling with infertility, chances are someone you care about is having trouble getting (or staying) pregnant. Maybe it’s your brother or sister, your son or daughter, your best friend, your neighbor, or your coworker. No matter the connection, infertility can put a strain on any relationship.
Infertility is often the most difficult experience couples face, especially in a family-focused culture. The negative aspects of infertility can impact every part of someone’s life. Unfortunately, the general consensus is that unless you’ve been through it, you really can’t understand what it’s like.
So how can you be a friend to someone who is struggling with something you don’t understand?
What not to do A quick google search of “Infertility Etiquette” will reveal list after list of “what not to do.” While those lists are important, constantly being told what not to do can make you feel hesitant to reach out. Many actually avoid their friend in fear of doing the wrong thing, which can make things worse.
What you can do While not every relationship will survive the strain, it is possible for you to be supportive and loving to someone you care about with infertility. Your friend cares about you and appreciates your love and support.
It’s important to remember that every person has individual circumstances and needs. What will work for one may not work for another. A great place to start is by asking them how you can support them.
Additionally, many people who have personally walked the path of infertility suggested the following things “to do.”
Mourn with Them The losses experienced with infertility have been compared to a death. Just as you would mourn with someone after the death of their loved one, those struggling with infertility want you to mourn with them. One woman said:
"I would say what someone experiencing infertility needs the most is someone to mourn with them. Don't worry too much about having the perfect thing to say because that doesn't exist. Just let them know you are sorry they are hurting."
Other ways that you can show you care include crying together, going on walks together, making treats for them, or anything that lets them know you’re thinking about them. Many people who experience infertility suffer miscarriages or the loss of an infant. It is important to acknowledge the loss.
"If a miscarriage occurs, even if it might be uncomfortable, please be there for them. Don't act like it didn't happen”
“If they have suffered a miscarriage, it's nice to remember dates (due date, date of miscarriage) so you can reach out and let them know you're thinking of them. I had a friend do that for me and it meant so much to me that someone cared.”
Listen. Just listen Often times, when someone shares their struggles with us, our natural response is to try to “fix” their problem. While it can be appropriate to share tips and advice, it is best to wait until it is asked for. Many people with infertility agree, the most supportive people just listened.
“My Mom never told me what to do, she just listened. Everyone else tries to fix it even when they don't know how.”
“The most supportive thing my best friend does is just to listen. She doesn't suggest things I should or shouldn't do or make me feel like it's my fault.”
Respect their Boundaries
All healthy relationships have boundaries, but your friend with infertility may seem to have a lot of new boundaries. Respecting their boundaries keeps them feeling safe and is vital to maintaining a relationship with them. Common things those struggling with infertility may need to avoid are talking about babies and pregnancy, public pregnancy announcements, attending child-centric events such as baby showers or birthday parties, babysitting, and sharing details about their infertility.
“My best friends only bring up their babies if I bring them up first, and they are supportive when it comes to the next steps in my infertility journey.”
“My friend called to tell me she was pregnant and said that while she was so excited she knew I must be hurting and understood why.”
“Pregnancy and Parenting can be challenging and feelings of frustration are valid. However, you wouldn’t complain about your mother to someone who’s mother has just passed away, give your infertile friend the same consideration.”
Reach Out to Them Infertility can make you feel isolated from the rest of the world. It seems like everyone else is progressing in their lives, having families, and leaving you behind. Making the effort to reach out to your friend will show them you that care and support them, and that they aren’t forgotten.
“My oldest friend calls me once a week to see how I am doing, how I am feeling, or if I need anything such as projects or even to pick up a coffee when I'm too sick or supposed to be on bed rest.”
“My friend went out of her way to ask how I was doing on mother's day.”
“Sometimes, it's nice if someone just asks if you are holding up okay.”
Infertility involves a lot of waiting and sometimes distractions are key to survival. Invite your friend to do fun things with you.
“My mom spent time with me doing activities, decorating my house, going to plays, playing games with me, inviting us over for dinner.”
“Please don't be offended if I decline to do something with little kids, and please keep inviting me. I need to know that you care.”
Be Honest and Realistic We all have been told the story of someone who was told they would never get pregnant and then had eight babies. While everyone hopes for a miracle, what your friend really needs is for you to acknowledge that things may not work out for them in the way they hoped and everything might not “be okay.”
Many people said they appreciated when their friends and family told them they did not understand what they were going through, but that they loved them and wanted to support them.
Have Empathy and Validate their feelings
If you want to better understand what it means to have empathy, this video will do just that. In the video, Dr Brené Brown states that an emphatic response rarely starts with the words, "At least..." and that oftentimes, the best response is, "I don't know what to say, but I am really glad you told me.” When asked about people who were supportive, people with infertility said the following:
“My friend listened and let me know it was ok to feel the way I feel.”
“Don't try to fix what’s broken, just validate our feelings. Let us know it is okay to cry.”
“My mom just let me feel how I do without judging me or trying to fix it."
“Don't try to find a reason for the infertility or fix it. Just be kind.”
Be Patient and Open Minded Infertile couples can find themselves facing difficult decisions and in situations they never imagined, often while taking medications that cause drastic changes in hormone levels-resulting in heightened emotional states. Additionally, coping with infertility can mean eliminating things that trigger you with overwhelming grief. While it may be hard to understand why they do the things they do, your friend needs you to be patient and withhold judgement.
“She didn't judge me when I decided it was best to take a break from church.”
"When we decided not to do fertility treatments and to adopt instead, my sister gave us her full support."
Conclusion While this is not a comprehensive list of ways to support a loved one with infertility, it’s a good place to start. The most important thing is to let them know you are trying your best and that you care about them. If you are able to be a friend to someone with infertility, chances are your friendship will endure.
M'Recia Seegmiller, SSW, is UIRC's Director of Awareness