Julia Fichtner Krahm, M.S.
Each of us can recall with clarity a person who was with us when we were in great pain or need. Those moments in life stand out like few others. You, who love an infertile woman, have the opportunity to support her in one of the most difficult experiences of her life. You cannot change or fix the grief of her infertility, but you can alleviate some of the unnecessary pain that comes inadvertently from those around her.
Men also experience grief and pain during this time, but they have likely not dreamed of being a parent since young childhood. A woman has been reminded of reproduction every month since puberty, and her life is more affected by other mothers and the talk and experience of children. Husbands and partners, you will at times share her loss and pain, and other times your experience will be more like that of family and friends—uncertain how to care for and reach out to the woman you love.
One of the most painful experiences of her life
Infertility is consistently described as the most, or one of the most, painful experiences of a woman’s life. The distress she feels has been shown to be at the same level as those who have cancer or AIDS, and when money is not a factor, it is the most-common reason infertility treatment is discontinued. What some may mislabel “obsession” on her part, is single-mindedness necessary for her to endure the emotional, physical, and (often) financial toll of infertility. Hers is the love of a mother and she is fighting for her child.
Children break all the rules, or “The Fertile Myrtle” response
Because children are so wonderful, we sometimes unintentionally cause her pain by doing or saying things we would know to be hurtful in any other crisis. Could you imagine if I disclosed to you I had breast cancer, and your response was, “Boy, not me, I’m the healthiest person in the world.” While you may cringe that anyone would be so insensitive, you would be saddened to know many infertile women have confided their difficulty conceiving, only to be met with a “Not me, I’m Fertile Myrtle. I get pregnant just thinking about it!” Likewise we would not boast about a job promotion to someone desperately seeking work, but fail to see that reveling in the delights of our children and grandchildren is equally painful for an infertile woman.
So how do you reach out to and support an infertile woman or couple?
When you realize that infertility is as devastating as any other major life crisis, you will do all of the simple and profound things you would do for anyone who is facing a frightening diagnosis or painful loss. First, there are just a few “don’ts.”
· Don’t offer advice, especially simplistic statements to “fix” her problem or her emotional distress such as just relax, maybe this was meant to be, or you can always adopt.
· Don’t pressure her to attend or participate in events involving children, especially baby showers or gift-exchanges.
Reach out to her often, with cards, words, questions, or invitations to balance the isolation and pain she is experiencing. Don’t worry that you are going to remind her of her infertility; she hasn’t forgotten it.
· Acknowledge her feelings of grief, loss, anger, or hope: I am sorry for all you are going through. This must be so hard for you. I’d be angry too! You would be such a wonderful mother.
· If you’re not sure what she is feeling, ask her: How are you? Should you go to this event? What do you need? Is there anything I can do? Can I call you after your appointment? Can I stop by and see you or just sit with you?
· If you feel uncertain, you can always preface your questions with your desire not to pry: I don’t know if you want to talk about this, but I’m here if you need someone to listen. Is this a good time? Be sensitive to her response: if she seems to close down the conversation, then ease back, but gently reach out again later.
· You can rarely go wrong with cards or messages that say, “I’m thinking about you.”
· Be careful about including children in a visit or conversation.
· Invite her toward activities she finds life giving. Often the best things are those that offer relationship with you or others and/or movement. Don’t pressure her or scold her into behavior you think would be helpful.
· Encourage her to consider her emotional and physical health when she is deciding whether to participate in a social gathering, and protect her by helping her leave if the situation is painful: You just say the word and I’ll make an excuse for us to leave.
· Husbands/partners: spoon with her when she’s grieving and don’t try to “fix it.” Let her know, “We are in this together,” and demonstrate that commitment by doing your own research and participating in medical appointments and procedures. Double your daily soothing touches, from a simple caress to a massage. Don’t evade your and her pain by getting lost in work, sports, or the Internet.
· Everyone, remember the logistical difficulties of months or years of treatment: perform simple errands or chores to allow her to reserve energy for what many women describe as the fight of their life.
For many infertile women, the most-common response from friends and family is... n o t h i n g. While not your intention, doing nothing can feel like abandonment at a time when she most needs you. If you can reach out to her in gentle and persistent ways, you can alleviate some of her pain that feels even greater when she is alone. What you do today, can change your relationship with her forever.
This material is
adapted from the book, Do you Love someone who is Infertile? By Shari
DeGraff Stewart and Julia Fichtner Krahm, published by The Stewart Institute
for Infertility and available at www.StewartInstitute.com