Several of you have asked me before about how to be a good friend to an infertile person. Other of the infertility bloggers, most notably Tertia, have written about this much more eloquently than I ever could. But if you’re not infertile, you may not have found those sorts of blogs yet. So I will give it a shot. Let me start by saying that, as difficult as it sometimes is for me to believe, not everyone is like me. So your significant infertile person may be different about the particulars and you might have to ask for their opinions about some of these issues. But here are what I regard to be some basic things to keep in mind:
1.) Think about who you want to comfort, you or the other person. This is, in my opinion, the most important thing. It’s probably actually an important life lesson in general, because I find myself saying it a lot to clients who say things like “I just don’t know what to say to her,” regarding a friend who has lost a loved one, suffered a miscarriage, etc. In general, we’re all a little uncomfortable when we see someone in crippling pain, be it emotional or physical and we just want to reach out and make it better. And a lot of that is just to make ourselves more comfortable more than it is to comfort the hurting person. I’ve found that the thing Christians say to the suffering a lot is “well, it’s God’s will” or “God’s timing is best” or some other version of “Well, if it’s not happened, it’s because God doesn’t want it to.” And, hey, I have high view of God’s sovereignty and all of that, but there are times when you need to correct someone’s faulty theology and there are times when an excellent theological truth is not what is called for. It may make me, the speaker, more comfortable, and make me feel like I’ve imparted a great gem of spirituality or am very wise, but may actually reflect you’re no really listening to your friend as well as you think. As I walked through the darkest season of our primary infertility, I did not find that sort of statement to be particularly helpful. It wasn’t that God gets to make the plan that I was angry about. It was just the one He seemed to had made for me that was horking me off. I’ll bet you $20 that you can’t offer a compelling reason why Kevin Federline has four children and your infertile friend has none. (Call me if you can and I’ll send you your money). Giving a pat answer that strongly suggests to your infertile friend that God must not think they’d be a good parent, but He thinks Michael Jackson is might be more hurtful than helpful. Remember Job’s friends- sometimes being silent with your friend is much more comforting to her than all the good theology you know.
2.) Open up the discussion. During those days, the friends who were most helpful acknowledged what I was going through and asked me how I wanted them to approach it. Did I want them to ask how things were going? Did I want to bring it up? Did I want them to pretend that nothing was going on? Infertility really showed me a lot about the nature of my friendships. I was surprised at the some of the people who stepped up and met me where I was and some of the people I thought would be supportive just never, ever brought the topic up. Some of those friendships are still recovering. The friends I appreciated most allowed me to talk about my grief and sadness and didn’t try and talk me out of it because it made them uncomfortable (see #1). .
3.) Be sensitive. I so appreciated the women in my life who let me know they would be starting to try to conceive themselves and were thoughtful enough to ask how I wanted them to handle announcing their pregnancies if God blessed them with one. With close friends, I wanted to know before “word hit the street” and not in a big group setting if they were planning on making a group announcement. With medium friends, I appreciated a heads up the day before they stood up in Sunday School. I needed time so that when I was called upon to publicly shriek with joy, I could do so without betraying my own sadness for me. The one friend who had an unplanned pregnancy during this time handled it perfectly. She called and told me “We’re so excited, but wish more than anything that you were calling me to tell me the same thing first. It’s fine if you can’t talk to me until the pregnancy is over.” Because she was so sensitive, it was easier not to “forget to call” her a lot during her pregnancy and allow that to cause a rift between us. Those were my preferences. Announcements of pregnancy, though, are one of the things that infertile women feel violently different about- find out what your friend needs; often, people prefer an e-mail or voice mail message so they can process it alone, others don’t want to be treated any differently than they would if they weren’t struggling with infertility and want you to tell them like you ordinarily would have. When I know there is going to be an pregnant person at an event that I know an infertile person might not know about, I try to let them know beforehand so they aren’t blind sided at the annual Canadian Independence Day party or whatever.
4.) Don’t Complain. Not that you literally can’t complain- just choose your audience wisely. If your pregnancy is unplanned, I know it can be startling and can feel like bad news at first. But complaining to an infertile person about it is a little like saying, “We’re just so wealthy. It is such a challenge to decide what to do with this two billion dollars we just inherited from Great Uncle Larry” to your friend whose husband has just lost his job and who is afraid they are going to loose their house. It’s hard for them to work up a lot of compassion for you and it’s a lot more likely to make them bitter, because they think you don’t see it as the blessing it is. And it’s fine if you don’t just yet, but your infertile best friend, no matter how much she loves you, probably can’t hear it just then. Likewise, your swollen ankles and nausea, spontaneous nosebleeds at horrible, inopportune times and inexplicable knee pain are unfortunate side effects of pregnancy. However, your blog readers or your other pregnant friends might be better listeners than your co-worker who desperately wants to be pregnant. It’s strange that this is the thing that many of my close friends totally didn’t get. And that’s unfortunate because this can be one of the things that damages friendships the most. While your friend does, in theory, have an obligation to be there for you, to be a good friend to her during her season of infertility, you might need to let her off the hook about holding your hair back while you have violent morning sickness. Likewise, when you’re the sleep-deprived parent of a newborn or going crazy because your toddler’s favorite new word is “NO,” another parent friend might be the most appropriate choice for the empathy you need. Because your infertile friend may just hear, “It’s just so HARD, keeping track of all of our investments and figuring out whether to buy a house in the Hamptons to summer in or not,” and it might add to her pain, instead of making her feel like you’re including her in your life.
5.) Keep Helpful Suggestions to a Minimum. Sometimes, I really wanted my friends’ advice. Usually, when this was the case, I asked. In one instance that almost made my head explode a friend asked, in all seriousness, about a m onth after my second laparoscopy whether or not we had tried having sex around the time I ovulated. If your friend is telling you she is having fertility issues, odds are good that she’s been charting her cycles, talking to her doctors and wants support, not to hear what she might be doing wrong. Another big one that everyone I have ever known who has dealt with this issue has gotten is the classic “why don’t you guys just adopt?” or the more judgmental version “Well, Joe Bob and I decided that if we ever had any trouble getting pregnant we would just adopt. We’ve always had a heart for kids who need a family.” Now please keep in mind, I felt the need to spend the first six months after we discovered that my endometriosis was causing a problem in the getting pregnant department writing letters to people I’d said some insensitive things to related to fertility in the past. In fact, I still have one left to write. One note in particular I wrote to someone begging forgiveness for having asked that very question. So I’m not writing this from a position of moral superiority. I genuinely believe that the bulk of the time, people say insensitive things out of ignorance, not seething malice- but I was ignorant and if I can save even one infertile person one comment that makes them go home and cry, well, I consider that well worth it. Anyway, the primary problem with that statement is the assumptions that underlie it. There is no “just” adopting. Of the three major types of adoption currently practiced in the
6.) A Few More Things about “Just” Adopting. The correct response when someone tells you they’re adopting is exactly what it would be if someone tells you they are pregnant. This is a big one to the women in my church’s infertility group. If you normally solemnly shake hands and say congratulations, do that. If you normally, as in my case, shriek or do the happy dance, do that. If you normally say something encouraging like “Ha! Get your sleep now, because you’ll need it,” don’t let the fact that someone is adopting stop you from being your discouraging, negative self! Since “When are you due?” doesn’t apply as well, “Where are you in the process?” is usually considered by my adopting friends to be a nice follow-up. Then the usual questions about gender, nursery décor, and cloth versus disposable diapers follow naturally from there. Even if you know it’s been a fertility struggle that has led a couple to adopt, it’s news to celebrate without asking uncomfortable questions about fertility unless the information is volunteered. (Erin and Rachel, is there anything else I need to add? You guys can probably address this much better than I).
7.) A Few More Things Not to Say. It’s in poor taste to offer to let your infertile friend “take mine” in reference to your children. While it’s usually meant in a joking way, it communicates to your infertile friend that you are ungrateful for the blessing of your children and, if they’ve been discussing their infertility with you, it can feel like you are making light of something deep and heartfelt that’s just been shared. Again, see #1-it might be an attempt to make you feel more comfortable with your friend’s pain, but it’s not sensitive to her. The same is true for warning your infertile friend that motherhood is not all that great and she doesn’t know what she’s getting into. No one having their first child knows what they’re getting into, but almost universally, people want to have children. Back to the example of the inheritance, telling someone they have no idea about how burdensome being ludicrously wealthy is-well, maybe it’s true- but most people I know would be willing to give it a try.
Obviously, this is not a comprehensive list. It’s mostly things I and my closer infertile friends have experienced or things that I have said or done terribly wrong, both to the infertile and to those dealing with other kinds of pain that make me want to stab my own eyes whenever I think about them,. I’d love the input of others who have been down this road, too. What did I miss? What else can people do to show compassion and thoughtfulness in dealing with people who are hurting in this way? What else should people never, ever say or do? Any experiences to share?(Leanne? Lesli? Christy?