Maintaining Friendships during Infertility Treatments
Posted on October 8, 2010
Have you ever found yourself repulsed by a comment that someone may have made to you as you were going through a difficult time that just seemed inappropriate? It could be someone very near and dear to your heart…someone you thought you could rely on to provide you support or know the right thing to say when you are going through tough times, but this is not the case. In fact, in times of illness or crisis it can be complete strangers or our best friends or closest family members that, unbeknownst to them, are just adding insult to injury. When a couple or individual is going through infertility and they share this news with other people it is hard.
People who have not been through infertility cannot begin to understand what their friends may be going through. They can be empathetic towards them and want to help, but they can't appreciate it. And this is part and parcel of the disconnect between patients of infertility and what they thought would be their biggest support system making them even more alone in an already isolating experience. I know when I went through it I can remember times when I would call my husband flabbergasted by someone asking me questions about why we didn't have children yet and commenting that we needed to hurry up before we had spread the "wonderful news" that we were not able to conceive. When they did find out they would try so hard to be helpful by recommending things like taking a cruise, trying to relax or even adopting as tools to help us get pregnant.
You know the story; you may have heard this all before but didn't quite know how to deal with it. "Bless their hearts" was a mantra I came up with when talking to clients about how to deal with these hurtful responses. Many of my clients get to a place where they can even laugh at people's naiveté in trying to come up with the right thing to do. I'm from the South and there "bless their hearts"…is a way of saying..they mean well…they just don't get it in (in a sarcastic tone one might vision in a scene of Steel Magnolias!) . And while ignorance does not always give license to say hurtful things, most of the time we can appreciate that this isn't an attempt to be hurtful. They really are at a loss for words and they want to be positive and be able to contribute something that makes us feel better. But if taking a cruise or "relaxing" was the end all cure all…..could you imagine the cruise industry today! Carnival could have its own ships designated to couples and individuals for fertility cruises. Not that that is a bad idea…I would have taken one or two of them in my day but I digress! That is another article in and of itself.
The point is staying connected while going through what can be a truly lonesome experience. Have you ever had a time when you were amongst so many people and felt so alone? It is so important to stay connected through difficult times. Studies show that staying connected not only can boost our positive attitude it can actually impact our immune system making us less susceptible to illness and keeping our hormones at more balanced levels. It really does pay to be positive. But being positive is difficult in the face of such a challenge.
Infertility takes from people the ability to connect on levels that for most people are assumed. What I mean to say by this is that most human beings want to be and assume they will be parents at some point in their lives. We may not all want to do it at the same times but we are open to it and do desire it at some point. So for example, women may at a gut level know that they will have their chance one day to go on and on about their baby and or their children and the woes and joys of motherhood. It is just assumed that this will happen and even if we wait until we are done traveling, reaching a level in our career that we hope to achieve and even spending the right amount of alone time with our partners before we decide to move forward with procreation. So what happens when we finally take that step and it doesn't happen? For many people, this is a rude slap in the face. Especially when a patient is told by their doctor that there doesn't seem to be any medical reason that they can diagnose them with in order to fix it. Or for a patient who can get pregnant but suffers multiple miscarriages.
A myriad of emotions take over and people begin questioning their life decisions, their spirituality, and their faith. Couples going through infertility have to face decisions that can stir up emotions having to do with anything from their religion to their political beliefs not to mention any cultural values or mores that may be challenged in order to receive treatments. Infertility is systemic and it transcends across culture, race, religion, political party, and even gender. Suffice it to say these are already touchy conversations to have; attach the stigma that some women and men feel they have to deal with because of an infertile diagnosis, and "Houston..we have a problem". It is because of these reasons that people do not want to talk about this with their friends and family. Aside from the mother who wants to know too much about what's going on and the in-laws who are putting pressure on you to bring them a grandchild, there are other things to think about. Having conversations around the decisions that couples may have to make around discarding unused embryo's or agreeing to selective reduction, even the idea of In Vitro Fertilization challenges peoples views. So it makes a lot of sense for those people who choose not to include their family and friends in their diagnosis and or treatment choices around infertility.
When making the choice about telling or not telling here is the thing to consider. What are your family and friends views on keeping secrets? What are yours? What are your partners? Do you agree on telling or not telling? If you do tell, are you willing to do some educating to your family members about what is going on? Can you delegate that job to someone else so you don't have to be responsible for repeating the same painful information time and time again? Are you willing to miss out on the love and support of your family and friends if you receive bad news? These are difficult questions but if patients take the time to think about some of these they might find themselves making different decisions. The bottom line is the decision is a very personal one and at the end of the day it is yours to make. And the next time someone tells you to go on a cruise, gladly accept their invitation to pay for your vacation and pack your bags!!
So how do we stay positive? How do we stay connected? We make it a choice and we choose the one that works for us. Yes it is hard to be cheerful when faced with one of life's most difficult challenges. What people need to remember is as trite as this might sound, the truth is that this too shall pass. You can be a mother or a father some day even if it's not the way you thought it would look. You will get through this and you will either have a child, adopt or decide to move on with other things in your life without children. And this journey that you go through will be paved with many highs and lows and it may take a long time to get where you need to go. So decide to live in the here and now, be mindful of everything you have that has brought you joy in the past. Think about your friendships, your familial relationships, and even your colleagues in the work place and take pleasure in what they can offer you while you try to filter out the rest. It may not be the same things that brought you joy before, in fact it may be different but that doesn't have to mean that it's bad. Can you take a both/and perspective? Can you be both angry because your little sister had a baby before you and joyful for her at the same time? The answer is yes you can. Can you be both horrified by the thought of attending a best friends baby shower and give her the support she needs during this transition in her life too? Is it possible for you to imagine that there may be something about you that others may envy and you don't even know it? Navigating connections like this might not always be easy but they are doable.
If you are willing to educate those closest to you on what you are going through and what you need you just might find that they can offer you more than you thought. And if they still don't get it, try to remember the things that brought you happiness around this relationship in the past and hold on to that. Put on your investigative journalist hat and interview your friends about what is going on in their life that you may be able to help them with. You may find that helping others may in return help you to take your mind off of your stressors for the moment. Remember to always consider others personal context in their life before cutting them out of yours. That being said, you may need to take some time off from the relationship but chances are the relationship will be able to handle it. And try to balance your relationships by doing things for yourself that make you happy. Volunteer for a charity that you love, make new friends with women or other couples who are going through what you are or similar so that you can talk with them when you are having a particularly bad day. Try and savor the simple things in life like chocolate or a beautiful day.
While you are trying so hard to follow the rules provided to you by medical protocol, put yourself and your relationships first. The truth is we don't have any control of infertility but we can choose to not let infertility have control over us. This is a life lesson that you carry with you that you may not have otherwise learned if you had not had to travel this road. So the next time someone says something…well stupid….then laugh, say to yourself, "bless their hearts", take a deep breath, have a chocolate and if that doesn't work….suggest that THEY go on a cruise!