How To Support A Friend Who Struggles With Infertility
I set the timer on my phone and try not to look down at the pregnancy test that's developing on my bathroom counter. I pace the bathroom floor, trying to distract myself as the seconds slowly tick away before I can reasonably expect to see an accurate result. When the timer goes off, I scrutinize the test. Is that a super faint positive line? No. It’s negative. Again. Damn.
What Is Infertility?
I'm just one of more than 6 million American women who struggle with infertility. According to the CDC, about 12% of American women between the ages of 15-44 suffer from some degree of infertility. Infertility can affect any woman, regardless of race, overall health, and family medical history.
Infertility is defined as not being able to get pregnant within 12 months of trying. It also includes when a woman can get pregnant but can’t sustain the pregnancy.
More than 6 million American women who struggle with infertility
Infertility is often incorrectly considered a separate disease, but really, infertility is a symptom or a consequence of something else. Some of the causes of infertility are diseases like hypothyroidism, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and endometriosis. Infertility causes can be biological, like uterine fibroids or poor cervical mucus production. Some reasons are hormone related, because of issues like reproductive hormone dysfunction or previous hormonal birth control use (in the worst cases, it can take up to a year for the body to reset). Malnutrition, lack of proper vitamins and minerals, anorexia, or over-exercising can all result in infertility as well. And lastly, the natural aging process also causes infertility.
What Does Infertility Feel Like?
My husband and I have been trying to get pregnant for seven years. Over the years, we have been to multiple doctors and learned different natural family planning charting methods. I have tried fertility drugs and hormone injections and extra vitamins and special diets and essential oils and even sleeping with blackout curtains. A few years ago, I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, and incredibly low progesterone production. If severe enough, any one of these four conditions is enough to cause infertility on its own. However, I had a great doctor who prescribed me supplements, as well as operated on me to remove the ovarian cysts and the endometriosis. Unfortunately, we still did not get pregnant, and it got to the point where my doctor said she didn’t know why I wasn’t able to get pregnant. Even with today’s advanced technology and wealth of information, there are still things outside human control.
Part of the burden of infertility is searching for answers, and part of it is living with the answers. The searching and striving to cope takes its toll on many areas of life:
Every cycle is an emotional roller coaster. As soon as that period starts, there is an upswing of hope and anxious excitement, thinking maybe this time it will work. During the fertile phase, there is a lot of pressure to have sex and make sure that everything goes right. After the fertile period is the infamous “two week wait,” which is a combination of hopefulness and not allowing yourself to be too hopeful, as well as a hyper-awareness of anything that could be a pregnancy symptom or a PMS symptom. When the period comes, it’s devastating. Even after years of disappointment, it’s still a time of grieving, although the pain can become more of a numbness.
Additionally, the infertile woman might feel like something is wrong with her, that she is broken, that she is unable to do something that should just come naturally to her. She might feel like she is “less than a woman,” incompetent, and to blame.
Infertility is a physical problem, which requires a physical treatment. That might include getting blood drawn or receiving injections, which for people like me who hate needles, is a big deal! Having surgery to remove ovarian cysts or endometriosis is an even bigger deal. A typical treatment is to prescribe fertility drugs like Clomid or letrozole, which can have side effects such as hot flashes, nausea, mood swings, dizziness, and fatigue.
Infertility is often incorrectly considered a separate disease, but really, infertility is a symptom or a consequence of something else.
The infertile woman who believes in a good God might especially struggle in her faith relationship. Rationally, she knows that God’s will is best, but her emotional experience might reject that belief. She might wonder why God is punishing her, or why he seems to love her less than the people who were able to have children. The experience of infertility makes it extremely difficult to trust in God and believe in His goodness and love.
An unfortunate consequence of infertility is the strain it puts on a marriage, both in bed and outside it. The husband and wife may not agree on how far they are willing to go to have a biological child or how much they are willing to spend. They might have different levels of interest in adoption if unable to conceive, which puts even more pressure on getting pregnant. Even worse, sex can become utilitarian – purely for the purpose of procreation. Either spouse might feel like they and their desires are less important than the goal of having a baby.
An unfortunate consequence of infertility is the strain it puts on a marriage, both in bed and outside it.
Friends and Family
For women who have been struggling with infertility for years, seeing their friends have multiple children while they can’t get pregnant, can make it challenging to be around their friends. It can be hard to be joyful around their friends with kids or to be excited when a friend announces that she is pregnant. And with the struggle to be happy for their friends often comes guilt - guilt for feeling jealous that they get a child or that everyone is gushing over their baby.
How You Can Support a Friend with Infertility
Pray for Her
Let your friend know that you love her and you’re sorry she's suffering this hardship. Tell her you're praying for her, and then actually do it! Keep the prayers coming, but don’t bring up your sympathy too often. Most likely, she will quickly get sick of people’s pity, which only serves as a reminder of her situation.
Avoid the Clichéd Advice and Trite Comfort Phrases
Refrain from sayings such as “Just relax, and it will happen,” or, “Adopt a kid, and then you’ll get pregnant,” or even, “God will give you a child someday.” Many aspects of fertility are outside of human control, and it's entirely possible that this woman will never have biological children. Stick to encouraging phrases like “I know this is really hard for you, but you are a strong woman who perseveres through obstacles,” or “I know that this trial is shaping you into a better woman, and I really see it in how compassionate you are with other people.”
Be Ready To Talk As Much or As Little about It
Depending on your friend’s personality, she may want to discuss everything or nothing. Or, it may just depend on the day. She may need support today, or she may not want to think about it today. Be open to talk about what she wants to talk about. If your friend is generally open about the subject, it’s okay to ask questions. However, if she is usually reticent, let her bring it up first. Once she has, you can offer support and let her know she always has a sympathetic listener in you. But always be attentive to her reaction to the topic. If she changes the topic quickly, move on. Don’t push it, and don’t be nosy.
She may need support today, or she may not want to think about it today. Be open to talk about what she wants to talk about.
Ask How She Feels about Being around Your Children
Your friend might be happy to hold your newborn and get her “baby fix,” or have fun playing with your kids in the backyard. Or, it might be painful for her to see the life she doesn’t have. If you're going to hang out, ask her if she would like to come over to your home, or if she wants to meet somewhere else for “girl time” without the kiddos.
Share Your Pregnancy News in Private
If it's possible, tell your friend your baby news one-on-one and in a place where others won’t be watching or listening. Telling her over the phone is another good option. Chances are she will be happy for you, but be aware that she may not be able to feel happy for you in that moment. If you aren’t family or close friends, it’s okay to share the news through a text or a general Facebook announcement.
Chances are she will be happy for you, but be aware that she may not be able to feel happy for you in that moment.
Be Sensitive about Mother’s Day
Every May, infertile women will have to be strong through many reminders of what they don’t have. If you want to show your friend love and support, do it several days before Mother’s Day so her emotional “love tank” will be filled for the day in question.
Being a good friend to a friend who suffers from infertility can be especially challenging. You’re not alone if you feel at a loss about how to help. If you're unsure about how comfortable your friend is about a specific topic or situation, it’s okay to ask. Your love and support will be appreciated.