Infertility Part 2: How to Support Your Friend

Infertility is a whole thing. It’s also way more common than people think. You likely know someone who’s dealing with it at this very moment. If you’re a good friend (which I’m sure you are, you sweetheart) you probably want to lend support. The problem is that even the most well intentioned friends often inadvertently hurt their loved ones when they try to help. Hopefully this post puts things into perspective and offers some insight into the kind of support your friend might want/need.*

FYI: Read Part 1 of my infertility post here. Like that one, this post is long and may not be your cup ‘o tea so feel free to skip and we’ll be back with recipes, restaurants, and reviews in no time.

The biggest takeaway is that infertility feels huge and all-consuming when you’re going through it so the triggers can be all over the place and different for each person. Infertility may be a medical issue, but its impact is felt all the time, not just when you’re planning a doctor visit. For example, whether or not you’re a parent may dictate how you engage with your friends as you all move to different stages in life. Having to go through treatment might determine if you accept a job offer. Filling your body with hormones will affect how you interact with other people — whether you’re snippy, tearful, or simply too tired to go out. You may not be able to vacation because you’re now saving for adoption. You choose your city, neighborhood, and home layout all based on how many children you have or plan to have. When someone is dealing with this, they’re likely thinking about way more than just how their body is behaving (or misbehaving). 

*I must preface this whole post by saying that EVERYONE IS DIFFERENT. What triggers one woman may be totally fine for another. I also need to recognize that when people say the “wrong” thing, I know it’s almost always coming from a good place. I’m not trying to shame anyone here. These are just some thoughts and tips from my personal experience.

Questions You May Have About My Experience:
  • Why did you keep this quiet? In addition to not wanting to deal with the assumption that my infertility was age related (it’s not), I didn’t want people to know I was doing fertility treatments because this is a highly emotional process. I was working out my feelings in real time and opinions from friends would only confuse and stress me out more. I realized very quickly that everyone seemed to have opinions and none of those people were doctors, much less fertility specialists. Also, I generally don’t like sharing personal stuff (at least not until after the fact…like I’m doing now). Some people work through things by talking it out – my sister in law, Allison, is this way and BLESS. That works for her but does not work for me. It takes all kinds, ya know?!
  • So did you confide in anyone? I told a few people only very broad strokes. One of my friends had just gone through IVF so I reached out with some specific medical questions from a patient’s POV. Also, she offered me some of her leftover meds, which is huge since they’re expensive AF. I was willing to give up a bit of privacy to save thousands (yes, thousands) of dollars. Beyond her, there were about four friends who knew I was going through treatments. Most of that was very topical and they knew only that I was doing something but not specifics. Once I knew I was approaching the IVF stage I told those people that I no longer wanted to discuss it at all. I didn’t even say why – I just said basically that I was exhausted of baby talk. At that point it felt like too much was at stake and everything was very real. There’s something sacred about that part of the process (the potentially getting pregnant part) and I wanted to share it just with my husband, like I would if I didn’t go through IVF. My parents also knew because I’m extraordinarily close with my Mom. Once they were invested I didn’t feel like I could cut them out, but it did create an odd emotional push-and-pull at the transfer stage for me. Under normal circumstances you wouldn’t text your parents the day you have sex while ovulating or the moment you find out you’re pregnant. (At least I wouldn’t.) You might wait weeks to share that news, but my parents knew when I was going in for a transfer and know how to count so….
  • Where did you find support? I actually found a haven through the computer screen. I am a member of a community for women (After Party, formerly The Lounge by Girls Night In) and we’ve got a super active Slack. I felt I could confide in some of these women who have gone through similar things because they don’t actually know me. (Same principle behind why trolls feel safe posting nasty comments on social media.) People I meet online can’t blab to my other friends. It was compartmentalized and I could disengage if I needed to. The stakes are different. Make no mistake - these women offered wonderful support, but the pressure was significantly lower than if I shared things with one of my best friends. I also found some groups/influencers on Instagram and Clubhouse that really helped me navigate the system (see my Infertility Part 1 for those resources). If you’re upset your bestie didn’t share this monumental IVF journey with you because you wanted to be there for her.…don’t be. Don’t make this about you.
When so much was uncertain for so long, I cautiously celebrated every moment. I even celebrated the disappointments (failed transfers meant omakase, lots of wine, and a rom-com)
Some Best (Or At Least Better) Practices:
  • Don’t take it personally. You might intuit that your friend is dealing with infertility. Perhaps they’ve always talked about wanting kids/when they plan to start trying but you haven’t seen a baby yet. If they don’t say anything to you, don’t ask and don’t feel bad if they don’t come to you. I didn’t really want to talk to anyone about it and even a simple “hey you don’t have to say anything but if you are struggling getting pregnant I’m here if you want to talk” felt like pressure to confide. If you’ve set the tone in your friendship all along, your friend will know she can come to you if she needs an ear. But PLEASE don’t feel burned if she doesn’t say anything. IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU.
  • Expand the infertility chat (in your own mind). There is a lot of information out there about “typical” causes of infertility. There could be a blocked fallopian tube, PCOS, endometriosis, or slow swimmers. Plus, people don’t realize this, but it’s actually not all that easy for anyone to get pregnant. It’s a very small window each month in ideal circumstances. Because people know about those things, they also know about the common solutions: IUI and IVF. Everyone is quick to tell you a success story about a friend who’s had those procedures. Everyone knows someone. While a lot of people frown on this because it detracts from the struggling woman’s very realtime situation, I never minded hearing these stories. They gave me hope. But people need to understand those solutions might not work for everyone. My biggest problem, for instance, is cervical stenosis (aka ultra tight cervix) combined with an abnormally long cervix and a tilted and bent uterus. I can’t get pregnant because nothing can get up there…certainly not a dude’s junk and not easily with the tools needed to perform IUI or IVF. Don’t assume insemination is an easy solution for someone struggling. Perhaps ask them what they’re working with (if they don’t mind telling you) before doctoring up and suggesting one of the most common reproductive practices. Trust me, they know all about IUI and IVF already. If they share their diagnosis, ask them what they’re feeling or thinking about, it may surprise you. Which brings me to…
  • If (that’s a big if) a friend or family member confides in you that they’re struggling with infertility, let them share all the other worries that have now entered their worldframe as a result. I had plenty of IVF sounding boards but felt like people would think it was unimportant for me to complain about how it would impact vacation plans. It sounds so silly, but that’s the type of thing that would keep me up at night. Should we plan a vacation if we could maybe be pregnant? What if we’re adopting and can’t leave the country because of social worker visits? Should we put home-buying on hold if we’re about to have a mountain of new expenses? I’m not saying you should broach these topics, but leave it open for them to talk about what’s truly concerning them. If they say they’re freaking out about not being able to go to Mexico, don’t tell them they’re being silly and have bigger fish to fry. If I ever wanted to vent, those were the things I was worried about, not whether or not I’d have to stick myself with a needle every day. Some things have a clear path. If you decide to do IVF, you know what the steps are. It’s those other things that feel extra scary because there’s not a correct or standard approach.
  • Don’t say “I figured” if someone does eventually confide they’ve been having trouble. Sure, you probably know. Which means they probably know you know. But if they haven’t said anything it means they wanted to keep something private and you responding with “I figured” just makes you sound like a know-it-all. I got this response when I eventually told people I was pregnant and felt more comfortable sharing that it was a journey to get there. Hearing “I figured” just felt…unnecessary. And just a tinge belittling. Not only was I bad at getting pregnant, I was bad at keeping it a secret? Cool. It doesn’t usually take a detective to figure out when someone is struggling with infertility – no need to brag about your sleuthing abilities. Just let this one lie.
  • I beg of you, don’t tell someone that a child should have a sibling. That is the thing that hurt me the most. Especially when they don’t know someone in the room is struggling with infertility, people went so far as to say “it’s wrong and selfish to not give a child a sibling.” I heard this all the time. I heard it before, during, and after I was trying to start a family. I think it boils down to the fact that people assume anybody can have kids once they want to; and then once they have a child, they can easily have a second. In my case, even if I am lucky enough to have a child (biologically or otherwise), I may not be able to have another. There are a lot of factors at play, like my health and finances. It would be selfish, in my opinion, if I gave a child a sibling but wasn’t mentally or financially prepared to take care of them both. Don’t make me feel bad about not having a second child when it’s been so difficult to have a first. If I am eventually blessed with a child, I don’t want to be hurt by people telling me that’s not enough. Also, people need to just remember that every family is different and what works for one does not necessarily work for another, so can it with the “shoulds.”
  • Don’t tell anyone who their support system should be. Everyone works through things differently. Personally, I tend to research and internalize. I don’t love talking about feelings. Other people need to discuss things to process them. Early on, I was told I should be sharing my issues with my close family because I “needed” that support. I was deeply uncomfortable talking before I knew how *I* felt about things. At that point in this journey, letting more people in only reminded me of my pain and made it harder to bear. Eventually, I was ready to slightly expand my circle, but only after working through things myself for a few months. Let them define their support system. Furthermore, it might be easy to say someone needs support while they’re going through IVF because, well, it’s often true. It is an arduous and emotionally mercurial process and having people to help you through it can be key. However, try and play it out: if I keep friends abreast of the status of my IVF treatments, they’ll know the minute it works or doesn’t work…meaning they might know I’m pregnant at 2 weeks. We all know the first trimester can be touch-and-go and most people wait until they’ve hit 13 weeks to announce a pregnancy. As someone who is cautious about pregnancy, that’s the avenue I would prefer to take…telling you about my IVF status doesn’t allow me to cautiously keep that information private.
  • Enjoy your pregnancy and share your excitement with your friends. Will this news sting to someone who’s having trouble? Sometimes. But my struggles didn’t diminish my happiness for those close to me. I understand the desire to protect my feelings - that’s very thoughtful - but holding back is like not celebrating your birthday because your friend’s bday is 5 months away. I remember seeing a tweet after Chadwick Boseman’s death that suggested nobody knew about his cancer diagnosis because he didn’t want all his acting success to be seen through the lens of his battle: “Oh wow he was so great in that film for someone who was so sick.” or “He was so committed to the role despite frequent hospital visits.” All that is true, but I understand the desire for your work to stand alone. He wasn’t an incredible actor despite his sickness; he was an incredible actor, period. I don’t want anyone to say or think “Tess asked me how my third trimester was going even though she can’t experience pregnancy herself.” My issues aside, I ask about it because I genuinely care and am excited. Don’t try and shield your friends from your happiness. That will only make them feel more alone during an already isolating process. [Note: I recognize many may feel differently and are triggered by such news, but I suggest trusting that those women will be taking steps to protect themselves by muting people on social media or declining events like baby showers.]
  • Be real about your own pregnancy. While I was overjoyed when friends announced their pregnancy, I was annoyed and frustrated when some would insist the bun in their oven was an accident. If you are in your 30s, have had a child, have the vaguest idea about how babies are made, and are having sex without protection (especially if it’s 2 weeks after your period), that pregnancy isn’t an accident. Perhaps this is an overcompensation – you feel self-conscious when you know others are struggling so you downplay how easy it was for you. But don’t. Maybe you were surprised how quickly it happened, but that’s not the same as not trying. You must have thought there was a possibility a baby would result from that. You were [lightly] trying (at least not actively trying not to) and that’s ok! But it feels like a slap in the face when I’m trying everything to get pregnant and you insist you got pregnant by accident. And when I know there wasn’t a broken condom involved, that insistence is patronizing. Just say it like it is (“wanted baby; got one”) and we can all be happy for each other.
  • Don’t tell someone to stay positive. I had multiple people tell me how negativity and stress can impact your ability to conceive. One friend attributed her infertility to the stress of the pandemic. I’m not saying frame of mind is inconsequential, but if it were so simple, I would have popped out triplets by now. I generally maintained a great attitude, but at some point I could have been Mary Effing Sunshine and it wouldn’t have mattered. Say it with me: IT’S NOT A MINDSET; IT’S A MEDICAL CONDITION. I’m dealing with an actual medical situation here and to insist it’s all about “vibes” and is solvable with positivity is extremely condescending.
  • Be a walking buddy. One of the toughest parts of the process for me was the weight gain. Between all the hormones, some emotional eating, and not being allowed to workout, I packed on the pounds. I know it’s all for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and there are more important things…but not being able to button my jeans (especially if there wasn’t actually a baby in there) was really upsetting. Just one more thing that felt out of my control. The one exercise I was cleared to do was walk and it was really nice to have a friend accompany me. And you don’t even have to be there in person! Due to COVID and cold weather, I did most of my walks on a treadmill and had a few friends who would join a Peloton walk where we’d start at the same time. That weekly time, even when we didn’t chat but I knew my friend was there walking, was major for my sanity.
  • Talk about anything BUT IVF. The process is a lonely so your friend may want to talk but won’t want to talk about that. I often didn’t want to talk about what I was going through, but I desperately needed social interaction and a mental escape from IVF. It might seem silly to talk ad nauseam about mindless things like the latest Real Housewives drama, but that’s exactly what I needed.
  • Most importantly - I can not stress this enough - empower women to better understand their bodies. I don’t love to live in a world of woulda coulda shoulda, but the fact is I started the process of family planning late. I wrongly assumed I would be a Fertile Myrtle like my Mom and waited until the moment I was ready to have a child before I started trying. Knowing these things take time, I waited a bit before exploring the issue. When I did finally decide to get things checked out, I received a diagnosis that would have presented itself years ago. Everyone assumes “oh she was 33 when she started trying - that’s the problem; however, my infertility is largely due to an issue that has nothing to do with age. Whether I was 23 or 33, I would have run into these problems. Had I known, maybe I would have started seeing specialists proactively or looking into adoption 2 years prior, knowing it’s a lengthy process. There is power in knowing and understanding your body. I urge all women to get things checked out early, long before you’re ready to have kids. That’s not really a tip for supporting your friend…that’s just a life tip for you.
Perching ice cream on my belly like a real pregnant cliché. Felt like I made it.