7 Ways You Can Be There For a Friend Who is Having Fertility Troubles
1 in 8 couples experience infertility. Here's how to support someone struggling on their path to parenthood.
If you’re in your late 20s or early 30s, it may seem like everyone you know is having babies. But the reality is, an astounding one in eight American couples have trouble getting or staying pregnant — which means even with all those baby photos flooding your Instagram feed, you almost certainly have a friend (sister, cousin, or colleague) who is dealing with infertility challenges, even if she is suffering in silence.
Though infertility has become increasingly common, it’s a unique struggle for women, who often carry more of the “burden” of trying to conceive. There’s the emotional rollercoaster of hope and disappointment every menstrual cycle when you’re “trying;” taking meds that wreak havoc on your mood, weight, and energy levels; and putting your body through diagnostic, IUI, and/or IVF procedures. This journey can last months (for some, years) and take a huge toll physically, emotionally, and financially.
Plus, “unlike many other medical issues, infertility often comes with an invisible blanket of shame and fear,” explains Deborah Anderson, PhD, Health & Neuropsychologist/Trauma-Informed Yoga Teacher, and co-founder of Soulful Conceptions™. “Friends and family may have no idea what a person or couple is going through in their process of trying to conceive, so it may feel very lonely.”
Infertility is not an easy topic to talk about and everyone processes difficult situations in their own ways. Navigating how to best support a friend who is struggling comes with its own set of challenges — but what it really comes down to is finding ways to show up, listening more than you talk, and always coming from a place of love.
1. Be empathetic and a good listener
Empathy is the art of trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand their feelings.
“Even if you have never experienced infertility yourself, you, as another human, have had experiences in which you have felt fear, worry, sadness, anger, guilt, and shame,” explains Anderson. “Tap into those feelings and remember how hard it is to sit in them sometimes.”
Start by checking in with your friend, being a good listener, and giving her the space to be heard at her own pace. Everyone is different about how much they are willing to share about their struggles, so be careful not to push for details or ask leading questions.
If your friend is in the throes of IUI, try checking in with an open-ended “I’m thinking of you — how are you?” and letting her guide the conversation. She may open the flood gates and tell you the last round didn’t take, or she may tell you about a funny movie she saw because she wants to talk, but doesn’t want to talk about it. Either way, she knows you’re listening and you’re there for her.
2. Don’t minimize how she feels
Statements like, “at least you can still get a good night’s sleep” or “now you can drink at your sister’s wedding” may seem encouraging, but they are inadvertently minimizing your friend’s struggle — she would likely happily take sleepless and wine-less nights if that meant she was also having the baby she wants.
“Instead of trying to smooth things over or flip the script, mirror what she is feeling and validate her feelings,” suggests Dr. Shara Brofman, a Licensed Psychologist in the Greater New York area. “Try a supportive statement like, ‘It makes sense you are feeling frustrated and anxious. I am with you in this and here to listen.’’’
3. Hold space for discomfort
When you care about someone and see them struggling, it’s often our first instinct to jump into fix-it mode to make their problems go away. But when it comes to “solving” the multifaceted and uncomfortable nature of fertility issues, it’s almost never that simple — and this can make a supportive friend feel helpless, too.
“Navigating uncertainty is uncomfortable and challenging for both the person suffering and the people in their support network who are bearing witness,” says Dr. Brofman. “With good intentions, family and friends often try to problem solve when in fact they can’t — because even the doctor can’t guarantee anything — which can actually be unhelpful.”
Remember: solution-oriented support likely isn’t what she’s seeking from you, her friend. If your BFF is gearing up for an IVF cycle and expresses concern over it not working, don’t take away her emotional discomfort with words of well-intentioned yet toxic positivity (e.g., “Of course it will, don’t think negatively!”).
Instead of trying to resolve things or overemphasize the positive in the interest of being reassuring, sit with her in her uncertainty, listen to her thoughts, and just be there.
4. Check in before you share stories
Before regaling your friend with unprompted tales of your co-worker’s infertility journey (or even your own) as a way to relate, Dr. Brofman suggests checking in with her. “Ask her if it would be helpful to hear a story, and give her the space to say no,” she advises.
Again, everyone is different. While one woman might feel isolated and would find comfort in hearing about a similar fertility struggle, another may have been on Reddit all day and can’t bear another traumatizing tale on the subject.
5. Offer support rather than advice
If your friend is going through infertility treatments, chances are, she’s done ample research on the topic and gets her medical intel from her doctor. Instead of doling out advice, offer her your support — and give her options of what that can look like since people’s needs and feelings change daily.
You can offer to drop off groceries, ask her to go for a walk, watch her child for the day so she can get a manicure, or pick up her fertility drugs from the pharmacy. However, Dr. Brofman warns that a blanket offer of “let me know what you need” puts too much on the person suffering, especially since some people struggle to ask for help.
Additionally, “don’t take it personally if your friend does not get back to you right away, doesn’t want to talk at length about it, or needs space,” says Wendy Obstler, Certified Yoga Therapist and co-founder of Soulful Conceptions™. “The infertility journey is often disheartening and wears you down, so there may be little energy left for other things at times.”
6. Be sensitive when announcing your pregnancy
If you’re newly pregnant and sitting on the announcement, there’s no way around it: it’s uncomfortable to share this milestone with a friend who is struggling with infertility. You may be tempted to hide the news from her to preserve her feelings, but that could harm your relationship in the long run if she finds out through someone else.
Approach the conversation with honesty and sensitivity. If you share the news in person or over the phone, Dr. Brofman suggests assuring her she can reply whenever she’s ready. Try following up with: “I realize you might need some time to respond and that’s ok.”
You may also consider texting her with the news. “Written communication comes with less emotional intensity and gives your friend the advantage to wait and respond if she needs time to process,” says Dr. Brofman.
Also, always choose your audience. Even if your friend loves to see you happy, be sensitive and text your latest bump pics and list of strange pregnancy cravings to a different gal pal.
7. Don’t exclude her
If you’re sending out invites to your baby shower or kid’s birthday party, don’t just exclude her and assume that’s what she’d want— a party may be just the distraction she’s looking for (though a brunch full of baby-related games could also be too painful, which is equally valid).
Consider extending an invitation to show you value your friendship, but then following up personally to assure her you know she’s going through a lot and are a-OK with whatever RSVP she gives. “Trust that if you’re good friends, your friend is happy for you deep down, but your news, baby shower, or kid’s birthday party may be too much to bear at the moment,” says Obstler.