Sunday, August 06, 2006

Empathy and Infertility

Today's post over at Stirrup Queens and Sperm Palace Jesters got me thinking, and rather than write a novel in the comments section, I decided to write a spin-off post here. To wit, what obligation does an infertile woman have to be (or at least act) happy when a friend or family member announces their pregnancy?

To be honest, I struggle a lot with this issue. In the 16 months since J and I started trying to become parents, more friends than I can count have had babies or gotten pregnant. Some went through infertility, and I wept tears of joy when I heard those announcements. Most of the others, however, had little to no trouble conceiving, and I didn't take their pregnancy news very well. Eventually I do put on a happy face in front of all of my pregnant friends, but I also start avoiding many of them. It's not the best thing for our friendship, but it's a necessary act of self-preservation when I'm just so sad about my own infertility that I can't stand to see them with their cute bellies and stories about bizarre food cravings. Who has the greater burden in this situation to be empathetic to the other person's needs, though? Is it me, the infertile, or my friend, the happily pregnant woman?

In my opinion, there are two answers to this question. If the friend doesn't know about my infertility, the burden would fall squarely on my shoulders to either explain the situation (that I was happy for her, but going through my own fertility struggles, so I might not be able to participate in all the baby-related conversations and events) or to just "suck it up and deal." In this situation, I don't think it would be fair for me, or any infertile woman, to break off the friendship without any explanation. A real friend doesn't do something like that.

In my case, however, almost all of my friends know that we're having trouble conceiving. So who does the burden fall on under these circumstances? I think it's on both of us. I have the burden to offer a newly pregnant friend my congratulations, but as my friend, she has the obligation to tell me her news in a way that is sensitive to my situation. This is where I think a lot of fertile/infertile communication breaks down because it's assumed that good news automatically trumps bad news or a bad situation. No matter how down in the dumps you are, you're expected to smile and be happy when something good happens to someone else. Any other reaction gets you a "bitch" or "bad friend" label. Friendship is about empathy and support, though, and if your friends can't be supportive when you're going through a major life crisis (like infertility) why should you have to be supportive when they're going through an equally major positive life change (like pregnancy)?

It seems so obvious, and yet it's something that so few people truly seem to understand. As I've mentioned before I frequent a number of pregnancy and fertility-related message boards. At this point I actually have a canned reply to anyone who dares to complain about how their infertile friend doesn't want to hang out with them since their pregnancy announcement. It shocks me that these "friends" can't see past their own noses for two seconds to consider that the person they're currently whining about is going through one of the biggest crises of her life. A crisis that calls into question very basic assumptions we all make about what it means to be a woman, what our goals for our future are, and to what lengths we're willing to go just to become mothers. What kind of a friend doesn't have empathy for that kind of pain? To use an analogy I recently heard, it would be like flaunting your engagement in front of a woman who's recently been widowed. No friend would do that, and no friend should flaunt her fertility or pregnancy in front of an infertile friend, or blame that friend for not being able to be overjoyed at the pregnancy news.

Most of the time, however, this isn't what pregnant "friends" of infertiles want to hear. They want to hear that they're right, that their friend is being selfish, and that even infertility shouldn't stand in the way of planning a BFF's baby shower complete with diaper cake. Some do listen, though, and those are the friends all infertile women wish we had. Those women want to be good friends, even if it means not being able to share the daily joys and sorrows of pregnancy with someone close to them. I'm fortunate to have a number of fertile friends who "get it", and I hope that when they read this they understand why. Friendship has to go both ways, or it was never a real friendship to begin with.

The sad thing is, this isn't the kind of issue that will ever really be resolved. There will always be "friends" who are just too clueless to realize how badly you're hurting, and ones whose knee jerk reaction when you don't jump for joy that they're having a baby after just one month of trying is to call you selfish and mean. All any of us can do is to try to talk about why that's really not the case, and to surround ourselves with only the people we trust to understand our pain and mixed emotions as well as possible. In the end, those are only friendships that are worth having anyway.


The Town Criers said...

So I wrote this great comment and then lost it...and I don't think I could reconstruct it but it was about loss and how people view infertility from the inside and outside... damn that Blogger!

But I will say that you do a great job discussing the mutual responsibility. And I think the best friendships that stand the best chance of making it over the chasm are the ones that discuss this openly rather than tiptoeing around it.

The Town Criers said...'s one last thought. Go back to what you knew about IF BEFORE to tried having a baby. I think it's difficult for people on the outside to wrap their mind around the loss, the deepness of the loss and how much you're affected. I think people can understand widowhood better which is why I used that as the analogy with how I like to be told about a pregnancy. No one would dream of waving that ring. But widowhood includes a person they saw at one point and is no longer, so they have a concept of the grief. If you haven't lost a child and known the sickening, depression-inducing sadness, I think it's difficult to wrap your mind around. And I think men process even that aspect (miscarriage) differently than women. I love that baby from the moment I know of its existance, but I think a lot of people don't love it until they hold it, feel it, see it. And that's perhaps the difference of a mother's love. was I heading with this? Back to understanding why they can't get your grief. Because until you explain that to them, they don't understand. Some still won't understand even after you speak, but most will. And then your good friends are the ones who use that information wisely. And part of your responsibility is telling them what you need. Does that make sense?

C said...

TC, I agree that this is something friends need to discuss. It's uncomfortable, but so are most of the conversations that are really important.