Finding Fertility Friends
At a wedding reception, Katie and her husband were seated with several friends and family of the newlywed couple. Making small talk, the woman next her says “So, do you all have kids?” Katie’s face darkens, she takes a deep breath and starts to explain that she and Mike have been trying for about a year and a half, with timed intercourse at first, then with medicated cycles and later a few rounds of IUI. She tells the woman at the table that she’d had a chemical pregnancy once before the IUIs and now they’ve found a cyst that they’ve recently scheduled to remove. Katie says they really don’t want to do IVF, but they’re willing to if they have to. The woman stares blankly at her and says, “Oh. So how do you know the bride and groom?”
Has this ever been you? Have you found yourself oversharing or not sharing at all? Both can be painful. Either you bottle it up and never tell anyone, or you find yourself telling strangers all about your abnormal ovulation and endometriosis. I want to help you weigh the pros and cons of sharing and how to judge the right person to share with.
Firstly, you do not have to tell anyone. Secondly, you will feel better if you tell someone. Probably the most nosy people are your families. If you’re married and have been together more than a year or are over 35 your parents are likely anxious for grandchildren. Hopefully they try to maintain their distance, but they will still give unhelpful advice. I work with some women and couples who do not tell their families. Of course this all depends on your relationship with your parents, or your spouse’s relationship with their parents. The choice to let your parents in on your infertility can be difficult. Know that if you choose to give them a little information, they will probably want more. They also will want to support you and say the right thing, but they won’t know how to do that. They might be wondering and worrying about you, waiting for any tidbit of information. That can get really annoying and feel like a lot of work.
Parents can be great allies during this struggle (especially if they’re willing to invest in your IVF cycle), but they may not be the allies you need. If it feels stressful to tell your parents, consider telling a good friend. If this friend already has 3 kids and has never struggled to conceive, you may expect to do the same kind of directing for her that you would do for your parents: tell her how you’ll update her, google stuff she doesn’t know, and how she can best support you.
Maybe your good friend with 3 kids is not the one to confide in. I’ve had clients get curious about the other women in their lives who are in their late thirties/early forties and also don’t have children. With a little willingness to be vulnerable, you might ask a childfree friend of a friend in your circle about their intentions for children. I know, this is the exact question I advise people not to ask others, but since you’re the one asking, you’ll be ready to respond. There's a chance she's also quietly struggling and if so, invite her for a walk or a coffee sometime to discuss where you both are in the journey.
A fourth wonderful and frequently underused resource is a local infertility support group. Check Resolve.org for a group in your town, or since 2020 many local groups are also meeting online. They are either peer-lead or professionally-lead and are made up of wonderful women (and sometimes partners) ready to connect with others who’ve found themselves in this unfortunate situation. About the only thing infertility patients might have in common is their age. Otherwise it strikes as randomly as cancer. The women I work with that attend these groups frequently end up making good friends in the process. As women we need people in our lives that can support us in the phase that we are in right now. You need different support than your friend with 3 kids can give you (and frankly, so does she). Finding someone who gets it will give you a great lift along this slog of a journey.
Another mode of support is a therapist who specializes in infertility and loss. Check the American Society for Reproductive Medicine for a list of well-trained fertility professionals. When you connect to a professional who gets it, you will have a container for your infertility stress, and a way to make sense of this struggle and make a plan for what happens next. She’ll give you many skills to be used not only with the infertility part of your life, but for whatever comes after it too.
Going through infertility presents a new struggle in life that requires new support. No one should go through it alone, but it is complicated to find the right people who get it. Here are some guidelines that will help you get the support you need:
You Do Not Have to be the Fertility Professor
You had to learn all of these terms yourself, encourage your friend or family to learn them they way you did. You do not have to go into detail explaining what IUI or CF is.
Let Them Know How You Will Update Them and How Often
Many women I’ve worked with have sent mass emails to their friends and family updating them after procedures. Some have even started blogs or Instagram accounts were they can process the experience, and possibly help others going through it too. People in your life that want to be supportive learn to check the blog for updates before asking you all the same questions you just answered for another friend the day before. Tell them when you have news you will share it, otherwise try to talk about something else!
Tell Them How To Support You
This is uniquely up to you, and probably uniquely dependent on where you are in your cycle. Mostly they should know not to desert you. Sometimes it’s nice to be asked about how things are going. Otherwise it feels like an incredible burden to explain the last procedure that didn’t work. “Well, I’m not pregnant now, am I?” Is not usually a helpful response.
Infertility is an unbearable source of psychological and physical stress. We are social animals. Research shows that finding support can help to reduce stress and increase the chances of fertility success.
Now put this coping strategy into action by making a list of the people in your life that love you, or have been supportive in the past, or who might also be struggling with TTC. Hopefully you’ll have at least 4 people on the list (maybe more). Scan the list and see which name stands out the most as “of course she would be supportive.” Send her a message and make a plan to connect. If no one stands out to you and you feel even more alone, please get in touch with a fertility therapist or an infertility support group. It’s time to be lifted up by the net of people who want you to thrive.
Allison Ramsey is a licensed clinical mental health counselor and fertility counseling specialist in the Asheville area. She’s a member of Resolve, The Infertility Association and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. Contact her to start feeling better.