Trying for a baby is supposed to be a wonderful and exciting time, but for those struggling with infertility it is a rollercoaster of emotions, where it is difficult to deal with even the simplest daily tasks without it reminding them of wanting a baby. It can be an exhausting, heartbreaking and stressful time, full of ups and downs and feelings of hopelessness, failure and grief.
Mother’s day (along with every other special date) is a heartbreaking reminder to those struggling to conceive that they still don’t have the family that they would give anything to have.
It is devastating seeing everyone’s happy Mother’s day pictures and messages on social media, never knowing if you will ever have that. It is a reminder of everything you feel is missing in your life – having someone calling you ‘mummy’ and looking at you with adoring eyes, cuddles with your little one, feeling part of the club.
Longing for a child when you are struggling to conceive feels like something is missing in your life, it is all you think about and it consumes your every waking hour. Even the smallest thing can set off a spiral of upsetting thoughts, so it is so important to make sure that anyone going through this has the emotional support they need.
How you can support someone you love
If a friend/family member confides in you that she is struggling to conceive and undergoing fertility treatment, it may have been a difficult thing for her to tell you, and you may feel unsure about what to say to make sure you don’t upset her.
The most important thing you can do for her is to be there for her, allow her to talk when she wants to and be sensitive to how she is feeling. If you haven’t been through it yourself it is difficult to understand the depth of the feelings it can create, so here are some tips to help you support your friend or family member through this extremely difficult time.
Don't ignore the issue
Your friend may not want to talk about what she’s going through or where she is up to with her treatment, but at least ask her how she is and see if she wants to talk.
If she says she doesn't want to talk about it, then don’t push the subject, it's just important for her to know that you care enough to ask. It is better to ask than to say nothing because you are afraid of upsetting her, as this can give the impression that you don’t care.
Do your research
Fertility treatment is an intensive and emotional process, your friend will appreciate you understanding what is involved and you will be able to support her better if you know what she is going through.
Each IVF experience will be different, but there is a lot of information on the Internet that will explain the process and also the emotional rollercoaster that those going through it experience. By understanding this you can ask sensitive questions and be there for her and her partner at the most emotional points of the treatment.
The psychological stress experienced by women with infertility is similar to that of women coping with other illnesses like cancer and chronic pain. Infertility is similar to a bereavement, a grief for a life you want that includes a family.
Trying to cheer people up by saying things like ‘at least you have freedom to do what you like’ or ‘at least you get to lie in’ is trivialising the issue and is likely to offend and upset them, as they would like nothing more than to be up all night with a baby.
Be sensitive to their emotions, offer a sympathetic ear and read up on infertility and IVF so you can be understanding and show you care about what they are going through.
A common observation of people struggling to conceive is people trying to reassure them that it is only a matter of time and that they just need to stop thinking about it.
This isn’t helpful to those struggling with infertility as they may have been trying for a baby for years, and it is also dismissing a problem that is a recognised medical condition. It is better to ask how they are doing and if they would like to talk about it.
Offering advice on not worrying about it or how their lifestyle may be causing the problem (stress, smoking, weight etc) will only make them feel worse and that their struggle to have a baby is their fault. Leave the advice to the specialists.
Also, don’t tell them about a friend that suddenly got pregnant as they were about to go for IVF etc. You may think it will give them hope, but it is hard to hear as it is not necessarily what will happen to them.
Although fertility treatment offers hope for many people, success rates are only 1 in 3, and it may take a few cycles of IVF to get a successful result, and sadly, for some people they will not get a successful outcome. It is great to try to keep positive to encourage a better emotional state, but that doesn’t improve the chances of IVF working and some people may prefer to remain realistic of their chances to prepare them for a negative result.
Ask her if there is anything you can do to help.
She may be feeling the emotional and physical affects of fertility treatment and just need a bit of help and support.
This could be taking round some tea for her on the day of egg collection when she is feeling sore and lethargic after the sedation, or a trip to the cinema when she is feeling nervous about the results or a bit down about the process. It may be that she would like you to attend a doctors appointment with her if her partner isn’t able to make it.
Be specific in what you ask her (rather than ‘Can I help in anyway?’), she is more likely to answer honestly rather than just saying ‘no’. However, accept her answer, she may want privacy or some time to herself, and don’t be offended, it’s a very emotionally draining process.
Don't ask if she’s pregnant
She will tell you when she has news to share, asking if she is pregnant is just a painful reminder and puts her on the spot. Instead ask her how she is getting on with the process and if she is feeling alright, she can then talk to you about it if she wants to.
Limit the baby/pregnancy talk
It is impossible to protect her from other people’s pregnancies, as chances are she knows at least one person that is pregnant. She may prefer to find out about a pregnancy announcement in a more private setting so she can deal with it in her own way, rather than a big public announcement where she may feel upset. It's not that she is not happy about the news, she will just need to get used to it. If she wants to talk about friend’s pregnancies and babies she will ask.
Be sensitive of talking about babies and pregnancies, she may find it difficult to listen to. She will struggle to listen to talk about sleepless nights, stretchmarks and baby names, when that is the one thing she is desperate for.
If you are pregnant yourself be sensitive about what you say to her. You may feel your morning sickness and tiredness are awful, but for someone doing a round of IVF, those are things to celebrate. Be mindful of her feelings, it's not that she’s not happy for you or doesn’t want to support you, but it is difficult for her to hear.
Other people’s babies and children
Some people may enjoy spending time with other people’s babies and children. It may give them comfort and hope. Others will find being around babies and pregnant women a painful reminder of their own inability to have a baby.
Don’t assume that they will not want to be involved (they may feel excluded if they are not invited to group events just because they don’t have children) but also, be understanding and don’t get offended if they avoid certain group events because it is difficult for them.
Also don’t put pressure on them to hold a family member or friends new baby. This could be extremely difficult for them. If they want to have a cuddle they will ask.
Despite one in six couples experiencing Infertility, it is still a subject that is not talked about much, often leaving couples embarrassed to admit they are struggling to conceive, that it is some sort of failure on their part.
It is a very personal thing to go through and a couple will only confide in people that they want to know. Please be respectful of their privacy and don’t discuss it with other people that they haven’t told. Equally, don’t be offended if a friend hasn’t told you, it is a difficult thing to talk about and she may want to keep it private.
Your friend is going through an extremely difficult time, and it can be difficult to know what to say or do. Just let her know that you are there for her whatever she needs. She will love you for it and it will make a huge difference to how she is feeling.
Please be sensitive this Mothers day (and always), it isn’t a happy day for everyone. Be kind and be there for those that are struggling. If they need more support there are lots of online support groups and fertility support professionals, they are not alone.
If they are struggling and would like to have some peer support they can join my free Facebook community 'Surviving Infertility', a safe and private space to share stories and support.