A good friend of mine got married while I was in college, and before long I was driving to Cleveland for a baby shower. Her family continued to grow; she and her husband joked that every Christmas they had a new baby. (It was almost true.)
Soon, I was engaged, then married, and while her children kept coming, mine never did. My friend asked me how to balance honesty about the difficulties of fertility—the discomforts of pregnancy, the chaos of a house full of toddlers—with sympathy for her friends who couldn’t have kids. Here are some ideas.
1. Know that Infertility Is a Real Loss
Overall, I’ve been blessed with many good things in life, but I’ve also experienced the usual bumps: elderly grandparents dying, terrible bosses, fresh-out-of-college financial worries, sickness, broken heaters, renting while watching my friends and peers buy houses.
Of these, the experience of infertility is most similar to the experience of a loved one dying—except without the happy memories, the family gathering and funeral to acknowledge the loss, or the support and prayers of friends. I would like to own a home, play cards with my late grandpa, and hold my child. I can’t do any of these right now. The first is a wish; the second and third are real losses.
As a general rule, if you wouldn’t say it to a mother whose infant died of SIDS or whose two-year-old was tragically run over by a car, don’t say it to your infertile friend. More likely salt than salve for the wound are comments like “Maybe you just weren’t meant to have children” or “Look on the bright side—no diapers!”
2. We Do Want to Hear About Your Kids
It’s annoying when moms, especially moms of really young kids, seem unable to converse about anything but the gory details of motherhood. But that’s not uniquely a mom problem. The dog “parents” who can only talk about their training programs and expensive leashes, the new homeowners who can only talk about their remodeling plans, the newlyweds constantly rehashing every detail of their wedding, even the infertile woman who only talks about what a drag the medical gauntlet is—we all need to get outside ourselves and be aware that our own daily lives aren’t everyone else’s top priority.
But if you’re my friend, I want to know how you’re doing. That means I want to hear about your kids, your dog, your house, your wedding, your medical progress, whatever’s going on in your life. Just follow your ordinary habits of courtesy.
When I ask how you’re doing, I want to hear your news. I also want you to ask me how I’m doing and listen to my news. It’s okay to share frustrating and annoying things about your kids, and it’s okay to share happy and memorable things about your kids. They’re part of your life, and that matters to me.
3. Respect Our Decisions and Privacy
“Infertility” can have a variety of causes, including things your friend (or her husband) may not want to share. If you break your arm, it’s not weird to explain what types of fractures the x-ray showed, but infertility often deals with more personal matters like hormone balances and sperm counts. Ask me how things are going, but if I don’t give you the blow-by-blow of my last doctor’s appointment, don’t push it. If I do, keep it in confidence.
Besides the draining emotional marathon and expenses, there may be moral issues a couple is considering as well. It’s normal for religions to have some type of morality surrounding sexuality, and that will probably spill over into medical treatments for infertility. Catholics and other Christians morally disagree with invitro fertilization, for instance. If you disagree with our decisions, be respectful and try to understand. Most of our doctors aren’t, and that’s why we need our friends.
4. Forge Connections Over Opposite Struggles
We all have difficulties; no one actually gets through life unscathed. I once attended a talk by a Palestinian whose brother was killed by Israelis, who is best friends with an Israeli whose daughter was killed by Palestinians. They have their pain in common, he said.
Follow that example in connecting with your infertile friends. Lay off the condescending lectures about how only people in exactly your life situation could possibly understand. Instead, cultivate a relationship around what you have in common.
That includes whatever drew you together in the first place—your love of Shakespeare or gardening or Leslie Nielson movies. It also includes that you’re both sometimes overwhelmed by your respective lots in life and trying to do the best you can given your circumstances. When you need to vent about how those without kids don’t understand what it’s like to have kids, talk to your mom friends.
5. Don’t Apologize for Having Kids
It’s normal, I think, to feel uncomfortable when we’re blessed in ways others aren’t. But that’s the way life happens sometimes, and when it’s obvious, downplaying it just makes it worse.
I know your babies poop in their diapers (and up their shirts) and that your toddlers’ observations don’t go through any kind of social filter before coming out their mouths. I know you aren’t sleeping. But I know you love your kids, and I think you should love your kids.
If you have kids, you know what you and your spouse look like mixed together in one person. You have a clear purpose in life and someone to teach about life. You have someone to give your grandmother’s diamonds to and someone to drive you to the geriatric doctor when the time comes. When a descendant four generations from now draws a family tree, you won’t be the fruitless branch that might as well have never existed. That’s a lot to be grateful for, existentially.
So be grateful. Delight in your kids being cute and saying ridiculous things. Post the quotes on Facebook! Enjoy teaching them about life. Don’t be ashamed of your love for them.
6. Remember that We’re Individuals
Not everyone is going to feel the same or respond the same. Remember that your friend is your friend before she’s an infertile person. Talk about the things you like to talk about together. Do the things you like you do together.
If your friend doesn’t respond in the way the Internet listicles said she would, trust your friend.