We all want to be a good support to our friends. In general, most people find it fairly easy to support someone when they've gone through what their friend is experiencing. It makes you feel useful when you can say: "yeah, I went through a similar situation with my supervisor and here's what worked for me." But what do you do when your friend is going through something that you have no experience with? What if your friend is undergoing IVF or an infertility journey that you didn't experience? How can you support them?
Infertility is common; One in eight people will be affected by infertility, defined as the inability to conceive after six to 12 months of actively trying. Many understand infertility to have a broader definition, since some people know that when they are ready to start a family, they'll need to work with a fertility specialist. Same-sex couples, single parents by choice, and those with known medical issues that cause infertility will all likely undergo some fertility treatments if their family plans include biological children. Common treatments to overcome infertility are intrauterine insemination (IUI) or in vitro fertilization (IVF). The treatments are expensive, invasive and usually involve giving yourself at least one shot in the behind. It doesn't always work, and it can be bewildering, disappointing and very stressful on the patient and their loved ones. Because infertility is so common, it's very likely that you or someone you love has experienced it or will experience it. So, how do you support someone going through infertility?
I'm in a unique situation in terms of the support I can offer. I've worked in the field of fertility for almost nine years. Currently, I'm the VP of Member and Provider Services at Progyny, a fertility benefits company. Before I joined Progyny, I worked at a fertility clinic. I worked closely with patients and their partners, ran support groups and was part of a team working with doctors, nurses, and support staff providing care to a diverse group of patients. You might say I'm an expert. So, my friends and family (and their friends and family) inevitably find their way to me to discuss their own journeys with fertility. It's often that I'll meet a friend of a friend for drinks and to talk about egg freezing. What I'm trying to say is that I talk about sperm and eggs over meals more than your average person.
However, you don't have to be an expert to offer support to your loved ones. Allow me to offer you some things I've learned along the way about what to say and do to support your friends in their fertility journey:
1. Don't tell your friend to relax.
No one in the history of the world has ever gotten pregnant because they finally relaxed. Conception is a complex process that involves ovaries, eggs, sperm, fallopian tubes, a uterus, hormones, and the anterior pituitary. Humans are fairly inefficient at reproducing. So many things need to be perfect that it's amazing it happens at all. My patients tell me when someone tells them to relax, what they really hear is that they’re doing something wrong to cause their infertility. Self-blame causes stress and frustration, neither of which are conducive to baby-making.
2. Check in regularly.
You don't have to say: "Hey friend, I hear IVF is rough, how was your shot last night?" But you can say: "Hey friend, I'm thinking of you." Offer random check-ins that give your friend the space to vent if they need it. You don’t need to offer any advice; Don’t worry about not knowing the right thing to say. Letting your friend know that you’re there for them and thinking about them is enough.
3. Allow all the feelings.
At times, your friend is going to be optimistic and pessimistic. They will feel angry and elated. And they will feel totally in control of their emotions, then completely at the mercy of their body. Allow all of it. Acknowledge that what they’re feeling is normal, and that nothing about being angry or frustrated is wrong. Just be there with them and let them know you hear them. Don't try to fix it. Don't tell them what they are feeling is wrong. Do offer your support and listen. I remember a patient sharing in a support group that her mom was trying to help but kept saying, “don’t worry, one way or another you’ll become a parent.” She kept hearing over and over again that the worrying was bad and that made her more stressed out. She needed to be heard and validated; She didn’t need to be told how to think.
4. Don't take their need for self-care personally.
I have heard from so many people undergoing treatment that while they are on their journey, sometimes what they need is to remove themselves from some social events. Baby showers for others and kid birthday parties become especially difficult. Maybe the household full of family and nieces and nephews at Easter or Passover is going to be a little too much this year. That's ok. Let them know that you understand and that you respect their need to care for themselves. Remind them that you care for them, and that you are not going to have your feelings hurt if they need to sit the next event out.
5. Do something special for them.
Maybe the scheduled appointments make it difficult for your friend to go to the grocery store. Offer to go for them. Maybe the expense means your loved one must budget. Bring her a sweet treat to cheer her up. For some, it’s hard to turn off the constant loop of fear and stress. Help your friend by offering a distraction; perhaps offer to go on a walk and talk about anything else. We have a wonderful tradition of bringing food and sending flowers when our loved ones are grieving. Infertility is so much grief. And because it’s often hidden, many people don’t get the kind of support they would for other types of grieving, such as the death of a family member. I promise you that to some, infertility is like the death of a family member. So, the process of grief is the same as is the need for support. When in doubt, bring over a casserole. Your friend will be grateful.
You can’t know what someone is going through unless you’ve lived it yourself. Even when you have, your own resilience, coping mechanisms and support network mean you deal with stress and disappointment differently than those you love. But grief is a human emotion; Understanding that your friend may be grieving and having a few pointers to help means that you can be a support to someone who really needs it. A uniquely difficult aspect of infertility is the silence and isolation that often surround it. People are afraid to talk about it and that perpetuates the isolation that comes with going through a private struggle. Allowing your loved ones a safe space — free of judgment and unsolicited advice — is often the best support you can provide.
Lissa Kline, LCSW is currently the VP of Member and Provider Services at Progyny, overseeing the Patient Care Advocates and Provider Relations Team. She worked at Columbia University Medical Center for several years in the division of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility. Involved in Patient Services and the Donor Egg Program she loved working with patients while they underwent fertility treatment. Lissa graduated with a Master of Science in Social Work from Columbia University.