Your infertile friend doesn’t want your sympathy. She just wants your friendship.
One afternoon when my son was a colicky, refusing-to-sleep newborn and I was stuck home with him, out of my mind from sleep deprivation and round-the-clock nursing, a good friend played for me a voicemail she’d saved for a year, in which I said something like I’m staring at a positive pregnancy test. I can’t believe it worked. Call me back.
At the sound of my own voice, I started crying. My friend asked me if I was happy or sad. Yes, that’s exactly right.
It’s all too easy to come up with a list of things you shouldn’t say when you have a friend or loved one going through infertility, and chances are you know someone who is. One in eight women—or couples—is infertile.
The truth is, there isn’t much to say, beyond platitudes your friend probably doesn’t want to hear. Really, the only honest and good thing to say is “I’m sorry. It sucks. I’m here for you.” And, I have to say, even that gets tiresome after a while.
Instead, what you should do is buy her a drink, or at least sit with her while she binges on vodka in the middle of losing another child.
Or bring her an illicit pastry when her acupuncturist puts her on a near-starvation diet to eliminate inflammation.
You could pick up the credit card she’s left at the fertility clinic in an absent-minded hormonal haze, so she doesn’t have to spend another 1.5 hours in the car there and back to pick it up.
Or drive her to her embryo transfer and bring her back home, tucking her into bed with some good movies and a pan of brownies.
Don’t begrudge her for skipping out early on your baby shower or your son’s birthday, especially if it coincides with the due date of her last miscarried child.
If she’s trying to conceive a second child, volunteer to babysit her first when she goes to doctor’s appointments; it’s bad enough to have one’s ovaries examined during a transvaginal ultrasound, let alone with an inquisitive preschooler asking what’s that?
It’s been almost three years since I walked out of the fertility clinic with a gritty sonogram photo wondering if I’d have a “take-home baby” in seven months or if I’d be back in a few weeks preparing for a frozen embryo transfer. Still, there is rarely a day that I don’t stop to think about the donors who helped me, a single infertile woman, conceive my two children, the reproductive endocrinologists who made conception possible, the nurses who called me, almost daily, with updates and mostly bad news.
I have thanked them in essays, in poems, in emails, over and over again. But I don’t know if my friends—friends who accompanied me to reproductive surgeries, drove me home to and from embryo transfers, or held my son’s tiny hand in his first moments in an isolette—know how truly grateful I am to them, too.
A few weeks ago my friend said she almost called to ask if I wanted to join her family at a local nature center, the one, she said, where you got the phone call from the doctor, when it looked like there wasn’t going to be a baby. It struck me in a way that it hadn’t before that my infertility wasn’t just mine. In a way, it was hers.
Her association with an annual maple syrup festival is not getting sticky with kids but, like mine, the moment I went off alone in the woods to process bad news from the doctor. If she didn’t always know what to say, I never doubted her friendship and her desire for me to have a happy ending. If she wasn’t the one smashing glass on the porch or spending her nights crying, she was there for me, asking about every new procedure, doctor’s appointment, and diagnosis.
And now she’s part of my son’s daily world, a person willing to listen to him say “hi-yo” in toddler-speak over the phone, knowing how precious and unlikely that he not only made it through those fraught days of early pregnancy but he’s thriving. She’s the sort of friend who knew how important that phone message was, enough to save it for an entire year, to play it back when it was most needed.
It has become trite to say it takes a village to raise a child, but in the case of infertility, it truly takes a village to create a child as well. Your infertile friend doesn’t want your sympathy. She just wants your friendship.
For more information about National Infertility Awareness Week, April 20-26, 2014, contact RESOLVE.
Robin Silbergleid is the author of the chapbook Pas de Deux: Prose and Other Poems (Basilisk Press, 2006), as well as Frida Kahlo, My Sister (Finishing Line Press) and the memoir Texas Girl (Demeter Press), both forthcoming spring 2014. Her poems, essays, and scholarship can be found in a variety of venues online and in print. She lives in East Lansing, Michigan, where she directs the Creative Writing Program at Michigan State University, and raises her two children. You can find her on Twitter @RSilbergleid.