I recently enjoyed a lunch with a childhood friend of mine. She and her husband have been trying on and off for a year. Like 99% of us, when they first began to TTC they had no problems disclosing this information to close friends. We've all been there; you talk about how great it would be to be pregnant at the same time, how your kids will grow up together... But when months turned into a year (or more) and that "close friend" is now 3 months pregnant and you're clearly not, everyone involved finds themselves walking on eggshells.
There seems to be three basic paths that people choose to take when dealing with their infertile friends/relatives: One is to morph into detectives, picking up on every little clue possible, but never openly addressing the issue. Another is to completely ignore that the infertility even exists and just further drive the "you must get pregnant soon" message. And lastly, the "I know you can't handle this, so I'll spare you" approach, making decisions on behalf of the infertiles. All of these, in their own way, are robbing the person/couple dealing with the infertility from finding their voice and their place as they steadfastly continue to hope that they will be parents someday.
Beyond the heartache, living with infertility means living with contradictory emotions. One part of us wants to keep all of this pain private while the other part just wants to let it all out. We remain silent through the most inane comments -- "Just relax!" "Go on vacation!" -- when all we want to do is snap back to tell those people that it's rather impossible to "relax" when countless strangers whose names you don't even know have seen the inside of your uterus. But no, we bear down and weather the insolence.
When we choose to remain silent, we find ourselves subjected to conspicuous analysis of our every move, looking for the tell-tale signs of pregnancy or lack-thereof. Those looks are not the most subtle (Hmmm, I wonder if she's going to order the sushi), or is it perhaps that we're also hyper-sensitive to the meaning behind our most mundane decisions -- to order a glass of wine or not. All a reminder that yes, indeed, you are still barren.
My friend was telling me that she wishes her pregnant friend would just check in with her and ask what's happening rather than trying to pick up on meaningless signs. That rather than assuming one thing or another about their pregnancy status, that she would just get the facts and let her be.
Putting myself in pregnant-friend's shoes, I can see how awkward this situation might be for her as well. If she asks about what the hold-up has been, then it might be an invasion of privacy. But not asking, as it turns out, can be even more disconcerting.
Then there are those who pretend like the infertility issue doesn't even exist and proceed to talk at length about so-and-so's pregnancy with their third child (for some strange reason, mothers tend to champion that approach). The assumption that of course you will also get pregnant in no time, so why beat around the bush. I remember while we had been trying for a year, someone decided to gift me hand-me-down baby stuff (crib, clothes, etc.), because after all, I will get pregnant tomorrow (or once I relax!). I felt like this move was a rude reminder of my infertility and not a generous donation to my future life with baby -- both parties, completely unable to relate to each other's messages. (I eventually donated all the stuff to goodwill. Couldn't stand having it in my house.)
On the other end of the spectrum, a fellow blogger recently tweeted about how upset she is over not being told about her SIL's upcoming baby shower. In this situation, the family clearly knows that this couple is dealing with infertility (openly discussed or not) and their solution to "deal with it" is to spare the infertile couple the agony of sitting through a baby shower.
I was viscerally brought back to how I felt during my years of infertility. While I had pulled away from life, friends and family, I also couldn't accept that I was viewed as weak and fragile. Other people's deafening silence and/or avoidance of our infertility made me feel even more pathetic. What?! They don't think I can handle a baby shower?! Oh, they have NO idea how tough I am! In truth, of course I couldn't. But when your life has spun out of control, you want to know that you are still capable of making your own decisions. That to go or not to go to a baby shower should be a decision you make for yourself and not one that's thrusted on you as though you're some kind of incompetent child.
To those friends and family who are unsure how to handle other's infertility, I would give the following advice: If you are close to the person, then when appropriate, sensitively broach the subject. If the infertile person wishes to talk about it, your role is to simply listen. Don't pretend to understand or say "I know how you feel" (unless you've been there). Simply offer your presence if and when needed. Sometimes, all we need is to have a shoulder to cry on. However, if you're not that close or should the infertile person choose not to discuss things, then don't try to read into their future actions. Let them live and cope the best way they know how.
Most importantly, don't make decisions on behalf of the infertile individual/couple. Deep down, you probably think that you're doing the most thoughtful thing possible, but it's only exacerbating the utter loneliness and chaos of the journey.
Infertility is a personal roller-coaster that one must feel allowed to ride. You don't know when the ups and downs are coming, but you anticipate. You didn't choose to get on that ride, but you need to be able to brace for impact and raise your arms in the air when you feel full of hope again. For those people in your lives who remain as spectators, watching you from the sidelines, it is your responsibility to give them a role or at the very least delineate the boundaries. The pendulum swings both ways. You bear a responsibility for how you wish to be treated. Speak up.
Jan 7, 2011 -- ETA: I came upon this wonderful entry by Jess over at "A little blog about the big infertility." She wrote an eloquent letter to her friends and family about the new path of embryo adoption she and her husband will be pursuing in 2011. She beautifully describes their wishes that they not tip-toe around them and let them make their own decisions about what they can or cannot handle. Her letter is a prime example of speaking out. I sincerely hope that her/their wishes will be answered in every way.