New parents (at least those who were trying to become parents and are happy to be in this role) are understandably smitten with their offspring while simultaneously overwhelmed by the responsibilities of caring for a dependent, helpless, miraculous being. Life has been changed forever, and generally in a wonderful way.
A baby fills a parent’s time and thoughts so completely, there is little else to talk about, and adds, as one of my friends put it after the birth of her first baby, a whole new dimension of love to one’s life. You want to share the experience with your friends. Most of these friends can relate because they are themselves parents.
But what happens when a close friend struggles with infertility? How do you share your life, consumed by a baby, without causing pain or even jealousy? The unfortunate answer is that you can’t. Not freely. Not without keeping your friend’s loss and pain in the front of your mind and heart.
Imagine yourself in this situation: You are training for your next ironman triathalon. Your world revolves around carbs and proteins, weights and shoes, swim lanes and stopwatches. But one of your best friends has been paralyzed in a car accident. She (or he) faces years of rehabilitation, of learning to live a different life—a life she did not anticipate, a life that seems bleak and too challenging in the wrong ways. Do you call this friend and say, “Wow, I had my best training day ever! I finally broke the five-minute mile. I’m so excited to be making progress!”
Let’s hope you would call your friend and say simply, “How are things going for you today? Tell me about it.”
Then you would listen and not mention running, or swimming or biking, even to complain about an injury or report a win. You would continue this sensitive communication for as long as your friend needed support from you. You wouldn’t drop the friendship, hopefully, but would view it as an opportunity to show compassion—the same kind of compassion you’d want if the situation were reversed.
A friend suffering from infertility needs similar sensitivity. Here are five ways to show it:
1. Let your friend control how much you talk about your infant or young child: “Mary, I can’t imagine your disappointment and pain. You don’t have to dread conversations with me. We can focus on what you’re going through, or we can talk about other things, not the baby.”
There are many people with whom you can share parenting questions and stories. Let your circumstance of mother- or fatherhood make you acutely aware of the loss in not having and desperately wanting. If baby talk isn't painful to your friend, she can tell you, and then you can share more freely. My suspicion, though, is that it will be, whether she admits it to you or not, so don't open the floodgates, even with permission: Talk about your baby with restraint.
2. Don’t make assumptions (good or bad): “No need to worry. You’ll get pregnant. I refuse to believe you won't, and we can have playgroups and go on vacations together. We'll have fun!” It’s easy to be cheerful when life is good. Refrain from imposing breezy predictions on a distressed friend who finds it difficult to share your hope. She’ll feel like she’s alone in a cold ocean, drifting away on a wedge of dislodged ice, and that you cannot possibly understand the realities of her situation: She may never become pregnant or give birth. She may not be able or willing to adopt.
3. Don’t try to dictate your friend’s feelings: “Can’t you be happy for me? If the situation were reversed, I’d be happy for you. I want you to be part of my baby’s life, and how can you, when you can’t talk about him?”
Try this instead: “You are my friend. I love you, and I want you to be part of my baby’s life. If you can’t be involved for a while (for a long while, maybe) I understand. But I want you to know how much you mean to me. We’ll get through this together.”
4. Listen without making depressing comments and comparisons: “Oh no, another setback? Do you want to talk about what happened?”
Not: “Oh no, another setback? I don’t know how you stand it. The baby gives me such a sense of meaning and joy. I don’t know how I’d live now without him. You’d make a great parent. I don’t see why it’s not happening for you.” You can think these thoughts, but don’t say them. It would be like saying to that paralyzed friend, “I don’t know how you stand being in a chair all the time. I enjoy walking and running so much. I’d go crazy if I couldn’t even stand up.”
Not: “Oh no, another setback? I want you to tell me about it, but right now I have to take care of something that will be difficult for you to hear. I need to change the baby.” C’mon, really? Would you say to the paralyzed friend, “I do want to hear how your electrically stimulated exercise is going, but (I realize this is difficult for you to hear) I need to meet someone to go running now”?
5. Give your friend permission to hurt: During my years of infertility, every glance at a pregnant woman, or a baby or a toddler made my heart ache. When friends had babies, I pulled away because I had to: The world became jarringly painful, and I was trying to control that pain. Friends who chatted even briefly about their babies made me feel pummeled. Talking about my experience from one month to the next was an imposition, I thought, like bringing my own private rainstorm to a beach party. I couldn’t imagine that they wanted to hear about it, and I couldn’t listen to baby talk, so I became isolated. It would have helped a great deal if a friend had said, “You can talk about it. I want to listen and understand. Even if our circumstances are different now, it doesn’t change how I feel about you.”