It’s a sensitive subject, but there are ways to support your friend in a way that’s empathetic instead of nosy.
Q: What do I say to a friend going through infertility struggles? A friend of mine is having trouble getting pregnant, and it’s a difficult time for both her and her husband. She’s alluded to it here and there, but has never directly opened up to me about it. As a friend, I want to be there for her, but I don’t want to overstep. How can I offer to help without meddling in her business? And what can I actually offer to do for her during this time?
A: You’re in a tough situation. The last thing you want to do is make matters worse by being nosy and bringing up uncomfortable feelings, or asking your friend to give you details that are painful for her to discuss.
While you may not be able to do much (or anything) to fix the problem, there are a number of things that you can do to support your friend and her partner. The fact that your friend told you about this in the first place means that there is a doorway for you to show support on this issue. We live in a culture that often avoids or minimizes emotional pain, and in turn eliminates the validation that is so useful for growth and healing.
There are a few things that I recommend being aware of before you reach out.
Infertility is powerful
The truth about infertility is that it has the power to impact every single area of a person’s life. Infertility bumps up against emotional subjects such as sexuality, aging, finances, family pressure, relationship with a partner, body image, privilege, nutrition, and employment in a way that can cause someone to deeply question their self-worth.
To add insult to injury, dealing with infertility is not a one-time thing. Every month that passes is a missed opportunity. Every month that passes without pregnancy, there is grief, and there are decisions to make about what to try or not try next. It can be all-consuming. Your first step in being a supportive friend is to gain an understanding of how infertility might play out in their life.
Babies are everywhere
One thing that happens when a person decides to become pregnant is that all of a sudden, they notice pregnant people and babies more than ever. At first this is cute, but it can get old really fast, and the joy of noticing so many little children can nearly disappear for someone struggling with infertility.
At every turn, there is someone who is living their dream right in front of them. The joy they may feel for someone else is also combined with their own feelings of struggle and loss. Some people will go to great lengths to avoid being around anything that reminds them of not being a parent. If you are pregnant, or a parent to young kids, your friend might be distancing herself from you as a way to protect herself. Take this into consideration as you reach out to her. It may not be the time to insist she join you at a kid-friendly playground, or talk endlessly about your own experience as a parent. Save that for a friend who is not going through infertility.
The act of intentional conception is brave
Every family facing infertility is faced with making very brave decisions, month after month. It is brave to stop trying. It is brave to keep trying. No matter what, until they become parents, there is perpetual grieving. The decision to move forward with more treatment options, or to move forward with not trying comes with big feelings, some risks, and a lot of unknowns. To move through the process takes commitment and bravery and a whole lot of self-reflection.
Now that those three topics are in your awareness, it’s time to reach out. I recommend starting with an outreach effort that is soft, direct, and private. This is not a conversation to start on a tight timeline, or in public. An email, a phone call, a face-to-face conversation that takes place in a relatively private location, or even a text message can all be appropriate ways to reach out.
Craft a message that is direct. Let your friend know that you are willing to be supportive. Also, be soft with your approach and leave space for her to take you up on the offer now or anytime in the future if the need arises.
If your friend wants to talk about her infertility struggles, stay open-minded and follow her emotions. What can seem like a simple procedure to someone on the outside is a major life decision for the person going through it. To someone who has not been down the road of infertility, some of the choices people make can sound very extreme.
Your friend is not responsible for helping process your feelings around her choices. Only offer support if you are able to do so without judgment. It is her family, and her body. Remember that your job is to listen without asking her to educate you. Try not to ask too many questions based on your own curiosity. Your role is to listen with an open heart, and to empathize.
A quick note about empathy. I often hear people attempt to empathize by saying, “I hear you saying that it’s hard for you.” That is nice, but I believe taking it to the next level is important. Try short meaningful sentences like: “That is so hard,” or, “You are doing so much,” or, “You are so dedicated.” Sometimes people get so stuck in the hardship that they forget to look at the things that they are doing well during the journey. You can listen for those strengths and reflect those back.
Uphold your friend’s privacy if you have mutual friends. Make sure you know what her expectations are around privacy. The last thing you want is for your friend to feel let down if you let her personal details slip to someone who doesn’t know.
Ask her how she wants to be supported. Maybe she wants support from conversation, or cards or notes that are uplifting and funny, or maybe she wants to spend time with you that has nothing to do with thinking about getting pregnant.
Once you offer support, be sure to follow through. It’s hard to be vulnerable enough to ask for help. It can be crushing for your friend if she feels let down after that. She may not even know what she needs. In that case, you can express that you are open and willing to support her in any way she needs. Ask specifically if she wants you to check in, or if she would rather be the one to bring up the topic.
Every single person and every single family is different. There is no one-size-fits-all way to provide care for a friend in this situation. It’s a gift to just know that there is someone willing to listen. Follow your intuition and show up when you can.