Chantelle K. Dockter, MA LPC
Associate of CCCOW.org.
Question: My best friend and her husband have been trying for a few years now to get pregnant, to no avail. I am aware that this is a huge struggle for her, and I am wondering how I can best be there for her during this difficult time?
Answer: Infertility is a very private and intense pain. There are two types of infertility. The first is referred to as primary infertility, and is the initial inability to conceive and bear a child. Medically, one is identified as dealing with infertility issues after a year of trying to get pregnant without success. Secondary infertility is the inability to conceive or bear children after successfully having had a child. Some women experience secondary infertility due to various medical conditions, a history of miscarriages, or having had a hysterectomy. Both types of infertility are very difficult on those experiencing them.
Because infertility issues are so intensely private in nature, women often feel very isolated and alone while in the midst of this struggle. Many women speak to no one about their struggle and put on the “mask” to get through each day, saving their tears and expression of pain for when they are alone in the privacy of their own home.
The problem with this is the feelings of isolation that result and carrying such a huge burden alone. Even in a close, supportive marriage a woman can still feel alone in her pain and grieving due to how differently men and women deal with and express their emotions. It is important to recognize that although men may pour themselves into work or their favorite hobby instead of crying or talking about their feelings, it does not mean that they themselves don’t hurt as well. They just show it differently.
For many women, being able to bear a child is closely linked to her very identity as a woman. Therefore, there is a huge, emotional impact on a woman who finds her body not cooperating with her heart’s deep desire to become pregnant. I currently have several female clients who are facing infertility struggles. These are all strong, highly functioning women who have found success in their careers, marriages, and activities. Someone looking at them would never guess their private pain. But in the safety of my office, they let themselves take down the walls and shed the tears that so badly need to come. Common statements I hear include: “What is wrong with me”, “I don’t feel like a woman”, “This is supposed to be easy and natural”, “I feel worthless, broken”, and “My husband must regret having married me”, just to name a few. Many women have admitted that they hate hearing about others having a baby, and then feel tremendous guilt for feeling that way. Another struggle is seeing people so easily get pregnant that don’t want kids or shouldn’t have kids.
So how do we help? It is just as important to look at what not to do in these cases, as it is looking at what is helpful to do. Here are some “don’ts”:
1. Don’t make thoughtless comments, such as “Why don’t you have kids yet? You have been married so long” or “You would understand if you had kids”. We never know why a couple doesn’t have kids, whether it is by choice or not, and frankly it is no one’s business, unless the couple decides to share on their own accord.
2. Don’t compare their struggle with other “worse” pains, such as having cancer or losing someone to death. Comparing pain is never helpful; all it does is serve to invalidate the feelings of that individual.
3. Don’t expect the individual to show to every baby shower, first birthday, or Mother’s Day festivities that centers around children. These are very hard to sit through when the pain is so fresh and real inside.
Here are some “Do’s”:
1. Listen! Offer to be a listening ear if the woman chooses to talk. Hear what she really is saying; attempt to empathize with her pain. Let her know you hear her and that you care.
2. Validate her pain by acknowledging her feelings of loss and sorrow, not by offering pat, trite answers. Sometimes no advice is the best advice.
3. Keep what she shares with you to yourself. Do not share (let’s call it like it is…gossip) about this personal information with others. It takes a lot for a woman to share this private pain, and we need to foster the emotional safety and trust that is needed for sharing.
4. Sometimes it is helpful to offer your presence at any doctor appointments that may be intimidating or daunting to the woman, or to be willing to do research with her on fertility options, since these can be overwhelming.
5. Physical touch can be very comforting and even healing. Reach out and hug this woman who feels emotionally exposed and raw. I had one woman share with me very much from her head only, rather than her heart, showing no expressions of emotion. One day I felt that nudge inside to give her a hug, and that was the first time she let the emotions come. She clung to me and sobbed. The hug allowed her to know she could safely take the armor down and actually let herself feel.
6. Pray for or with her. Many women struggle with God and understanding His will or plan during infertility struggles. This of course should be respected. For others, they crave that comfort that God brings during times of trouble.