When your friend can't get pregnant (and you can)

How to be supportive if a friend is struggling to conceive—and you’re not.
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Photo: Roberto Caruso

Three years ago, when my husband and I decided we wanted to start a family, I turned to a close friend for advice. I was aware that the window for conception in any given month was quite small and didn’t want to waste time leaving things up to chance. I considered my friend an expert. I knew that she got pregnant on her first try with her first child and that her second came equally as easy. She happily gave me her tips on getting the timing right in exchange for the promise that she would be among the first to know if we were successful.

But we weren’t successful. Not the first month. Not the first year. And not the first time we tried a fertility treatment—the day after which, that same friend confided in me that she was pregnant with her third, and this time it was an accident (albeit a welcome one).

Infertility is an isolating experience that can be difficult to understand if you haven’t been through it. While most women under age 35 are able to get pregnant without medical assistance within the first year, one in six couples will experience infertility.

If you are among the fertile majority and ankle-deep in the chaos of parenting a young family, maintaining connections with friends who are struggling to conceive—let alone figuring out how to be supportive—can be challenging. From wanting to share your excitement about your baby to needing someone to commiserate with about 3 a.m. feedings, you are understandably becoming more and more immersed in the joys and trials of parenthood. Meanwhile, your friend is likely feeling left behind or even resentful. Here are a few tips to help bridge the divide and stay close.

Listen
The best thing you can do to provide support is to listen without judging or offering advice. “There’s an element of shame to infertility,” explains Amira Posner, a fertility counsellor at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. Posner experienced infertility when trying for a second child. “Many women don’t want people to know because it’s private, and they worry others will judge them. They might think, There are bigger world problems—this is minor.

Judgment and unwelcome advice was what Anna Meta* got when she turned to her mother for support after her second failed IVF treatment. “She said, ‘I don’t know why you keep telling me it’s so hard—it’s not like you have cancer. What’s the big deal? All you have to do is get some medication, and then you will have a baby.’”

Thankfully, Meta had friends who were able to offer more support. “The friends who were most helpful just listened even when I was super irrational. They would just let me vent about whatever I needed, like the fact that the clinic didn’t call me back with my test results when they said they would.”

Skip the platitudes
When your friend tells you she’s having difficulty getting pregnant, you may be tempted to reach for some go-to platitudes, like, “Don’t worry, it will all work out in the end,” or, “Just relax and it will happen when you least expect it.” Though you mean well, these kinds of responses are rarely comforting and tend to minimize the very real fears and challenges she is trying to share with you. You might feel compelled to share your own struggle with fertility or a personal hardship. If you had a miscarriage or it also took you a really long time—more than a year—and medical intervention to conceive, your friend might want to hear how you dealt with it. But it’s less helpful to tell her that you totally get what she’s going through when it only took you six months to conceive. Remember that offering empathy, or simply listening, is better than making comparisons or trying to offer solutions. (It’s not about you—it’s about her.)

Don’t ignore the issue
Lauren Kahn*, a 38-year-old woman who lives in Toronto, was open with friends about her two-and-a-half-year struggle to get pregnant. While many were supportive, she was surprised and hurt by those close to her who, in spite of knowing what she was going through, avoided the topic. Kahn doesn’t think her friends meant to be hurtful. “I think people do want to help, but they don’t know what to say and they feel awkward. Just telling me they didn’t know how to console me but that they were thinking about me would have been better than nothing at all.”

Don’t ramble about your kids
Meta was similarly disappointed by the lack of empathy from some friends. The day she found out her first pregnancy wasn’t viable, a friend dropped by, ostensibly to provide emotional support. Instead, the friend spent the entire visit talking about her kids, and in the months that followed, never asked Meta how she was doing or mentioned the miscarriage. They soon drifted apart.

Ask her what she needs from you
Everyone copes with infertility differently. And if you haven’t been through it (or even if you have), it’s not fair to assume you know what your friend needs. While enduring the grind of cycle monitoring, the pain of hormone injections or the agonizing two-week wait between embryo transfer and pregnancy test, some people need distraction, some need to vent, some need space and some, like Isabelle Jacobs* of Toronto, need to submerge themselves in the topic and to study their chances of success.

“I probably did enough research to earn a minor in reproductive endocrinology,” jokes Jacobs. “I feel much more stressed when I’m in the dark.” But when she tried to share her new-found knowledge, she noticed it seemed to make at least one friend uncomfortable. Worried she was boring those around her, Jacobs eventually stopped talking to friends about the latest medical studies she had read, even though her quest to get pregnant constantly occupied her thoughts. “It was a relief to find an infertility mindfulness and meditation group, because most of the members were as intensely focused on the topic of infertility as I was.”

Coping with infertility is exhausting. Ask your friend what she needs from you, then help lighten her load in the way that works best for her. Doing so will also guard against uncomfortable situations that could arise if you make an assumption about what your friend needs but get it wrong—like thinking she probably doesn’t want to hear anything about other peoples’ pregnancies or attend any baby showers.

“I went to eight baby showers while I was trying to get pregnant, including two in one day,” recalls Kahn. “It was hard, but I would have felt worse not going.”

Personally, I found it painful to be around so many people who were having kids when we couldn’t. At one point, my husband and I counted 22 babies conceived or born to friends and family while we were dealing with infertility. My instincts were to pull away socially, with the exception of a few close friends. The experience was all-consuming, and I found it hard to talk about other stuff with those who weren’t up to speed on what was happening. Most of the time I wanted to focus instead on activities I thought would help me conceive, like yoga, diet changes, acupuncture or meditation. Socializing can also be tricky because fertility doctors generally recommend you stop drinking entirely, and gatherings that don’t revolve around kids often revolve around alcohol. I felt like I was on the sidelines of both.

Take cues from your friend
Over time, if you know your friend is going through the monthly cycle of hope and disappointment that accompanies each attempt to get pregnant, you may be inclined to ask where she is at in the process or if a specific fertility treatment worked. But this creates a lot of pressure, says Posner.

Instead, she recommends trying to keep the focus on the friend’s well-being, not which specific stage she’s at in treatment. Asking more open-ended questions, like a sincere, “How are you doing?” is a good way to show you care without prying. It also opens the door for your friend to share more if she feels comfortable doing so.

Let her know you’re there for her, no matter how long it takes
Even with medical intervention, it can take some women years to conceive or to carry a child to term. As the process drags on, your friend’s need for a strong support network will likely only increase. By continuing to listen and offer help in whatever way you can, you can provide a much-needed lifeline.

After a year of trying unsuccessfully, Meta felt like she was on a never-ending treadmill. She started to feel self-conscious talking about what she was going through. “I felt like it got really boring for people because it didn’t resolve quickly. It had been a year, and who wants to talk about something for a year?”

She stopped bringing it up, but a few close friends surprised her by continuing to reach out and offer support. “My good friends would still ask, ‘How are you? I know it’s been a long time,’ and, ‘You can talk to me about this.’”

There’s no better way to strengthen a bond than to demonstrate to your friend that you’ll be there for her over the long haul.

Offer to connect her with people you know who have been through it
While they were trying to get pregnant, Kahn, Jacobs and Meta all valued the support they received from sensitive, caring friends who themselves had no personal experience with infertility. But all three believe the relationships they built with women going through the same challenges were instrumental in helping them cope. “Sometimes you just need people who are in your boat,” says Meta. “My friends who had not gone through it, some of them tried so hard, and I really appreciated that, but there were still limits.”

If you have no idea what it’s like to have a hysterosalpingogram, or how it feels to stare down at your 21st negative pregnancy test or to learn at your 12-week ultrasound that there’s no heartbeat, you can listen, send flowers, bring over a meal, suggest an outing that doesn’t revolve around kids and try your best to relate. But you can also provide support by connecting your friend with others you may know who can more readily identify with what she is going through.

Be as honest as you can about your plans to grow your own family
Learning that my friend was once again pregnant—and with minimal effort—was devastating at the time. I was putting all my energy into the task: waking up early for morning cycle monitoring; enduring painful tests and procedures; adjusting to new routines; accepting that strangers were going to be a part of our efforts to conceive; coping with the lack of answers, the uncertainty, the disappointment and the sense of loss at the end of each month. Even though I was happy for my friend, it seemed cosmically unfair that becoming a mother was so easy for her and so difficult for me.

Under the circumstances, it would have been easy to drift apart, but we stayed close. My friend’s honesty was a big part of what made that possible. Because I was so open with her about the challenges I was having, I was grateful that she didn’t try to hide her pregnancy from me or wait for it to become obvious. If she had kept it a secret and I sensed she was walking on eggshells around me, I would have felt hurt and kept my distance. Thankfully, she told me in person soon after she found out. She was choking back tears and could barely get the words out, because she wanted me to have a baby almost as much as I did.

When I finally got pregnant, many months later, she was one of the first people I told.

* names have been changed

A version of this article appeared in our April 2016 issue, titled “When your friend can’t get pregnant”, pg. 38-40.

Read more:
Erin’s story: Infertility and IVF
Tara’s story: I always wanted a big family
Advice for people struggling with infertility 

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