Recently, one of my dearest friends told me she’s been having fertility problems for about a year, suffered one miscarriage a few months ago and another this week. I feel really helpless and unsure of the best way to support her.
Should I ask about it, or not mention the subject unless she does? Should I offer to be there for whatever she needs, or just act normal and not draw extra focus to it? My partner and I haven’t started to try for a family yet, and I can’t begin to know how she is feeling. How can you be a good offbeat pre-auntie or uncle when things aren’t going so smoothly?
As someone who struggled with infertility for five years, I can attest to the fact that fertility discussions are an emotional minefield. First, know that it probably took a huge amount of bravery on your friend’s behalf to even be able to TALK to you about her fertility issues. There’s so much secrecy and shame that comes up when it comes to problems with conceiving … and so many folks suffer in silence.
Fertility issues are challenging for anyone, but progressive, offbeat mamas often deal with the additional weight of feeling conflicted about their own emotions — and things get even more emotionally complex for lesbian mamas. When I was dealing with infertility, I was tremendously conflicted about medical fertility treatments, feeling like they were a biologically-selfish luxury of the affluent. IVF was something for rich, desperate women who should know better! And yet, there I was … doing it. What did that say about who I thought I was? If I felt offbeat at my wedding or job, I felt like a fucking UBERFREAK sitting in the waiting room of a fertility clinic. I felt ostracized from my family/community who kept telling me to pursue acupuncture, massage, herbs, and prayer … but also very separate from many of the people around me at the clinic. Infertility is very, very lonely.
Based on these personal experiences, here’s my advice on how to talk to and support your offbeat subfertile friends:
Things to say
- I know you’ve been struggling with fertility stuff. How are you feeling about it all? (This is the biggest. Let your friends know you’re ready to listen to their fertility fears and heartbreaks. I know for me, I felt like I didn’t want to bore my friends with my first-world fertility problems, and it was always such a relief when friends made it clear they wanted to listen and support me. You also give them an easy out to say, “Meh, it’s fine. Let’s talk about something else.”)
- Have you found any resources that have been helpful? (This is a great way to open discussions about books or websites or research they might be doing. Don’t presume to know what they should be reading or doing. If you’ve heard of a resource that might be helpful, ask first if they want a recommendation.)
- Are you thinking about pursuing any treatments? (The decisions around whether or how to pursue treatments are a crazy balancing act of emotions, values, philosophy, and finances. Don’t suggest treatment in general or specific treatments. Just ask.)
- Is there anything I can do?
Things NOT to say
- You just need to relax! (The most common and also most unhelpful comment. When people said this to me, it made me feel like my infertility was somehow my fault — if I could just “relax,” I would get pregnant! While stress and anxiety can certainly affect fertility, in my case the issue is very much physical, and no amount of chilling out was going to help.)
- Everything happens for a reason/It’ll happen when it’s meant to. (This seems to imply that God or fate doesn’t want you to have a baby. It’s also sanctimonious and irritating.)
- You should try _____! (Fill in the blank with any number of holistic OR medical treatments. For me personally, in many cases I had already tried _____, or had my reasons not to want to try _____ and the constant unsolicited suggestions felt exhausting and like people thought I hadn’t done my research. It also created a dynamic of always rushing to the next treatment. Sometimes you just need a shoulder to cry on, not yet another possible solution shoved down your infertile throat.)
- Why don’t you just adopt? (Why is it always “JUST adopting”? This is grossly dismissive of the process of adoption, which is expensive and complex, both logistically and emotionally. It implies adoption is somehow the easy alternative, and even worse, that adopted children are somehow a band-aid or a second choice.)
Again, my advice is based on my own infertility experiences — I haven’t experienced a miscarriage, so I don’t feel qualified to offer advice on that. I’d love to hear from readers who might have advice for how to support friends through miscarriages.