There are plenty of articles on the web for people who are friends or relatives of couples coping with infertility. All of them offer useful advice for how to talk with your friend about sensitive topics, your own pregnancy, the pregnancy of others, questions about the friends’ infertility treatment and so on. All of this is useful and helpful for the person without the problem. Of course you are probably reading this because you’re in the midst of the struggle rather than on the other side! So how do you handle folks who are well meaning but sometimes insensitive to your feelings about events in their lives that are beyond your control? How do you respond to well meaning advice such as “just relax and things will work out?”
In a perfect world you could let family and friends know that you are undergoing infertility treatment, it is stressful and the best thing they can do is follow your lead. You’ll let them know when there is news you want to share. And you’ll let them know when you want their advice. But in the absence of any information from you, the best thing they can do is be a friend by not asking. Sometimes a family member’s silence is golden!
The world is not perfect and the advice offered above requires a good deal of confidence and comfortableness with your situation. Infertility is a very private matter for most people. We don’t share intimate details of our physical relationships with others. Nothing could be more intimate than trying to make a baby and there is enough invasion of your personal space by the treatment team. Why would you want the rest of the world to know what is going on in this personal arena? Often the stress of physician appointments, tests, medications and waiting erodes self confidence and comfort. And that stress can make you excruciatingly aware of comments meant to comfort or inform you about the joys of another’s life situation and how those comments hurt despite the best intentions of the speakers.
One choice is to avoid the speakers of those hurtful words. Stay away from women who are pregnant, baby showers, children’s birthday parties and family holiday gatherings. In this way you will insulate yourself from the potential to feel bad. Of course, this will remove a potential source of support unless you let people know that it is difficult to attend these events because of your own life circumstances. It would be important to tell the person who invited you that you mean them no disrespect. You are happy for the woman who is pregnant, but that right now it is difficult to be in her presence because it irritates a wound.
Another option is to tell family members, privately, that you know a sister-in-law is pregnant and expecting soon. “Please tell me about the birth away from others and give me time to absorb it. I might react impulsively and express sad feelings at a time that is happy for others. I don’t want to depress someone else, but I’m sure you could understand how her news might make me more aware of my own loss.”
You could tell close friends that while you know their advice is heartfelt, you are working with professionals and don’t want to be confused by well intentioned input that might be contrary to the plan you and your doctor have established. You could tell them that you are sure that there are many stories of couples who took a vacation, became vegetarian or went on a spiritual quest and became pregnant. But they aren’t you and you have a different strategy. Trying to compare them to you isn’t helpful right now. Maybe later you’d want to hear some of those stories and you’ll let your friend know when would be the right time.
You could tell everyone who tells you to “just relax” that you are working on a stress reduction plan. You appreciate their concern and caring. But relaxation isn’t a switch that you can throw at will. It is a process. If you want to have fun with them ask them to call as soon as they discover how you can relax at will and perhaps the two of you can market the process and get rich quick!
Finally, you could tell everyone who says something insensitive that they might not fully understand your situation and that their comment, advice or remark had an unintended result. It shined an unwanted spotlight on a dark corner of your life that you are doing your best to manage but somehow haven’t mastered yet. Perhaps they could keep that in mind next time they are in the presence of a person dealing with infertility.
Of course all of the above strategies require you to approach your situation in a forthright manner, acknowledging the challenges you’re coping with and asking others to be mindful of you and your feelings. And that might go a long way towards educating friends and family so they can be more thoughtful in the future with you and others in the same boat.
Dr. William Petok is a psychologist in private practice in Baltimore, Maryland, specializing in sexuality, infertility, and marital therapy. For further information, visit http://www.drpetok.com.