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Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Silence Can be Deafening

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.

20 comments:

Rachael Lynn said...

I appreciate this blog so much. Thank you for helping me, and others, to navigate, cope, explain this infertile life. <3

Alex said...

What a great post! I should send this to all my friends... In fact, I might just do this...

I have a friend at work who just had a baby (talk about oops - she had her tubes tied a couple years ago, and just got pregnant - how fertile can you be?). She just stopped by work with her new baby, and in front of everyone, most of whom don't even know we're trying, she said, "Alex, I have a whole bag of maternity clothes ready for you!" I wanted to run away...

heartincharge said...

Oh i am surrounded by amateur detectives. Some people are so curious about our reproductive plans that I feel almost as sorry for them as I do for myself for all the huntin and wonderin their brains have to do.

katherine.greve said...

I love that last paragraph with the roller-coaster analogy. I often find myself feeling bad about wanting to avoid certain events and occasions, but I think its important to recognize and accept that I know myself well enough to know how I will react to certain things. And I NEED to brace myself for those ups and downs. I really like the way you put that!

Nico said...

I think for me the thing I find hardest/saddest is when people don't ask. People I'm close to who know about our m/c or that we're trying... I wish they would. I personally would rather talk about it than bear it all alone, but I find it hard to bring up. I understand that it's really hard to be on the other side and not know what to do. But *I* want my friends who I've let know what's going on to check in every once in a while on how I'm doing and feeling.

Sushigirl said...

A thought provoking post. Although, once in particular I pointed out when someone had been unintentionally unkind to me and DH and she just got really angry... Most people will take on board your feelings and change, but you just can't win with others!

MPF said...

This is a great piece. It is such a complex issue. I found that I felt really frustrated and angry when family gave me the silent treatment. All I wanted was that they acknowledge. I think there is a happy medium that can be achieved - a friend of mine did: he told me he was expecting baby # 3 at lunch and in truth I really appreciated the honesty rather than finding out second hand. But then he always made sure he asked me how I was etc and continued to show support. I think this was the right approach - we cant hide, life goes on, but the person does need to be sensitive to the challenges that the subfertile person is experiencing.

In our family we have had 2 cases of pregnancies to a SIL and step-SIL recently. In the case of the first, we were told openly about the pregnancy but just told we had to pretty much deal with it because it is what it is, and rarely get asked how we are doing, what they can do to help etc (and this is meant to be one of the referees if we went down the adoption route). I find the lack of expressed compassion shocking - I'm not saying they dont feel it, but they dont show it and it is so hard to know what they are feeling if they dont say.... you read the silence as rejection. The other case of pregnancy, there has been radio silence about it and this is equally silly. What are they going to do - only tell us about the child when it is 18 years old?? Some things you just cant hide.

Anyway, all a very long winded way to say how awful it all is, and even if you tell people how you want them to be (and I have told family) they still wont necessarily do it. In fact worse, they get offended because you point out how their actions make you feel!

A City Girl in the Burbs said...

Thank you for writing about this issue- it's such a sticky one. You're doomed asking, doomed if not.

In all honesty, I found that my response/ reaction depended on the person who asked me about our "fertility life." While I appreciated some people's genuine approach and eagerness to listen, I resented others' "nosiness" and "curiosity."

Randi said...

Here from ICLW :) Great post. I always try to remember that no one is responsible for my feelings. People may say or do things that are difficult for me, but its not really about them, its about me. I have the right to tell or not tell anything I want, including telling people to ask or to mind their own business. I stay focused on what I can do for me, and let other people worry about themselves. Thanks for posting this. Sending you best wishes.

Autism Mom Rising said...

This is a wonderful, informative post. During ICWL I'm always concerned I might say unwittingly say something insensitive. I know parents of regular kids worry about the same thing about me, as the mother of a special needs child. You are right, we don't truly understand anyone's situation unless we've shared it.

Happy Thanksgiving!

ICWL.

MoonNStarMommy said...

Great blog post.....I have been on both ends... happy ICLW and have a blessed Thanksgiving

Lisa Rouff, Ph.D. said...

This is a really interesting post, I think you made a lot of really wonderful points! Happy ICLW.

AP said...

This is great. My husband just told his family what is going on with us and they were so thankful to know, but I think they are unsure on how to tread from here on out. I may direct them here! Happy ICLW and thank you.

Princess Jo said...

Love this! thankyou so much - will share it on!

katherine.greve said...

I nominated you for a blog award. You have a great way of putting such difficult subject matter into words. Check out my last post on my blog for the details ;) .

marilyn said...

this is perfectly stated. I started a blog and would love to have you as part of my support. I have been trying for a year and now next month- IVF is what is on the list! This list is perfect. I have been put through a few of these uncomfortable situations. My family just looks at me like a hurt puppy. It is so uncomfortable because my brother just had a baby. it is so uncomfortable at times.

marilyn said...

thank you on your post re: my mini breakdown before my Niece's birthday. I made it through..and yes- your post really clearly outlines everything I am going through! My mom asked how I was doing..and well- I told her. She just says to meditate. That really irritates! me! yeah..it was very awkward at times..there was a big pink elephant in the room. People trying to ignore the fact that we were the only couple without kids there! ahhgg! I appreciate your blog- I almost want to email this blog to all my family members! :)

The Infertility Doula said...

Marilyn, so sorry that your mother isn't being more sensitive to your pain. I want to believe she means well, but doesn't know how to handle your situation. Have you tried telling her how you want to be handled? Not just telling her what you're going through...

And please, do feel free to share my blog if it in anyway helps you better communicate with your loved ones.

One Cycle at a Time said...

Here from ICLW. Great post! You perfectly described the difficulty in maintaining close relationships once IF rears its ugly head.

Lisa said...

You do a great job of looking at the situations around infertility from all sides, ensuring that everyone who reads your blog will find something with which they can identify. It would be even better if some of the pregnant friends and mothers out there who are tip-toeing around IF friends could read your posts too. Your blog is a welcome addition to the support community.

Lisa (ICLW 74 - Your Great Life)

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