Friendships start developing way before our minds and bodies, and it can be easy to forget that while we are all on the same page as young people, these changes will affect our friendships as time goes on. Nobody knows that like the woman who discovers she has fertility issues. While it was once a good thing to be the winner of "not getting pregnant," the glory of the title fades pretty quickly when the time does come. As all your friends start settling down, moving in together, getting married and getting pregnant, it is easy to fall victim to the expectation that you will be moving right along with them. The sense of loss and grief that can be experienced as the one who is left behind can be enough to tear long standing friendships apart if the friendships themselves are not fertile.
Speaking to a few women who have sadly experienced this for themselves, a few things stand out. When the "fertility challenged" woman hears about her friend’s pregnancy she is torn. It is normal and acceptable for her to feel happy for her friend while at the same time feel a contradictory sense of longing, grief and unfairness for herself. As a result of this, the woman in question may be over involved as she over compensates for all the love and excitement she has for a baby with no other outlet, or alternatively, she may be withdrawn and show little interest as the reminder is too painful for her to cope with. She may alternate between the 2 extremes. As her friend it is your responsibility to keep being there for her, asking her about her own life, and sharing your news (Pregnancy news is best delivered by email so she can conceal her private immediate reaction for herself.) You do not need to feel guilty. She doesn’t want you to be unhappy or sorry for her. She knows it isn’t your fault and you can’t fix it for her. She wants you to understand, be patient and not make this whole friendship about you and your pregnancy. You may talk about your struggles and triumphs at motherhood and you must also listen to her heartaches and her triumphs in this and other areas. Your friendship with her needs to be fertile enough to nurture and understand her sadness, while also not excluding her from your life and your celebrations. There is room for both.
The next thing that stands out is to keep making time for your childless friend. You can let her dictate how much that will include the new addition to your life. If she wants to help and be involved, allow her. If she prefers to have minimal involvement respect that. I know your free time without the baby will be limited, but it can be done even if she visits you for coffee while the baby naps. Remember you are still a person with hobbies and interests outside of the baby and so is your friend. Don’t allow your friendship to be defined by your differences in this. Do not let your fertility, or lack thereof, define either of you. Your friendship needs to be fertile enough to allow both people to grow in their own directions and not take away from each other as people.
One woman in particular said she felt a drift in her friendship when the fertile friend miscarried. The friend who miscarried assumed that the infertile person took some sort of satisfaction from her misfortune which jeopardised their friendship considerably. They had stopped trusting the positive intentions of each other and suddenly found themselves at odds over an imagined grievance which could have brought them closer. Your friendship needs to be fertile enough to grow and nurture trust and positivity.
The “fertility challenged” women spoke of feeling left out of group activities. Their “breeder” friends excluded them from baby showers and christenings, birthday parties and casual morning teas with other mothers. From the perspective of the woman struggling to conceive, this only pointed out her perceived failing and added salt to the wound - making her feel even more isolated at a time she was craving extra support. In instances where they actually were invited, people either expected them to watch the babies the whole time or, alternatively, nobody at all even mentioned babies as though it was the pink elephant in the room. These women who struggle don’t want to be taken advantage of babysitting wise, or tiptoed around. They may want to discuss their struggle, you wont know if you don’t ask. Be unassuming, and avoid statements that indicate blame or a perceived desired outcome. You need to respect that this is a big and important issue in your friend’s life and she may be considering other options that you never had to. She probably wants people to talk to about this and support her. Your friendship needs to be strong enough to nurture differences in outcomes and strategies, and embrace and support them.
The women struggling with fertility (their own or that of their partner) said some of their friends felt they couldn’t discuss parenting with them. If the fertile woman admitted she struggled with motherhood she worried she would be perceived as ungrateful and if she discussed how amazing motherhood was, she felt it may be perceived to be rubbing salt in the proverbial wound. Your friendship needs to be fertile enough to nurture strength and balance and know the difference between the 2 extremes, and trust that your friend will express herself if she feels hurt or angry by what you have said. If she does express hurt or anger your friendship needs to be fertile enough to foster the understanding and empathy your friend needs.
There are the women I spoke to whom, for whatever reason, were longing for a child but who had not had one - primarily due to a lack of paternal options. This may be, for example, because she spent years climbing the corporate ladder, has high religious beliefs and values, is homosexual, due to illness, or because she simply had not met the man with whom she felt procreation would be a suitable outcome. (Or a host of other valid reasons and contributing factors!) These childless women felt they faced judgement for their choices, values and morals and as though this was in some way their own fault and people did not feel for them or care about their struggle. Rather they felt minimised and criticised for their “choices” and unsupported and misunderstood. Your friendships need to be fertile enough to nurture acceptance, not judgement, at the choices your friends make even if they are different to your own.
The most overlooked women are those with secondary infertility, meaning they have one child or more already and are struggling with having another. These women suffer insensitivity from friends, mostly hearing that they should be grateful for the child or children they already have and are basically told their dream of more is irrelevant and not to be grieved. Your friendship needs to be fertile enough to nurture sensitivity and support.
The last group of women I spoke to are the ones who are actively choosing not to have children. These women are made to feel guilty, both by the breeders and those who are struggling to conceive. They are made to feel as though not procreating is an invalid and selfish choice and as though they are making some grave mistake they will regret later. (Don’t we all suffer small regrets whatever path we travel?) They are often ostracised for still wanting child free events and not wanting to spend every spare moment babysitting the offspring of their friends. They made a valid choice not to have children for a reason ladies, they don’t want to spend their time taking care of kids, not their own and least of all yours! Your friendship needs to be fertile enough to nurture positive empowerment of choices, and not invalidate any of them!
This is a sensitive issue and I do not pretend to be an expert or know the exact way to be the best friend you can be, to a woman who is struggling with her fertility. The best way to know what she needs from you is to directly ask her yourself and hear, trust and action what she tells you. If you want a fairly comprehensive and amusing list of things NOT to say to a woman struggling with her fertility (however well meaning) check out this article on the Perth IVF website entitled: Top Ten Things NOT To Say To An Infertile Woman/Man. Of course as useful advice this is; it still begs the better question – What should you actually say instead then? Well, really, what can you say? Your best bet is to do more listening than speaking and a splash of empathy and a hug go a long way.
Your Best Friend ForNever