A while back, someone asked me why two specific phrases tend to make most people dealing with infertility go postal.
As tough as infertility is to go through, it is also difficult to witness. When someone you care about is dealing with it, you want to do the right thing, you want to help.
But it's so easy to feel a bit tongue-tied and awkward. When we feel awkward, there is a natural bit of defensiveness, a sort of backlash against the people we feel are making us tiptoe on eggshells. Or, a backlash against them telling us we crossed the line, hurt them or were offensive. It's easy to feel even more defensive when we Just Intended to Help.
But there are two things you can advise infertile couples to do, and neither, in my experience, is ever helpful. Both are, in my personal and anecdotal experience, the antithesis of help and are near guaranteed to cause pain when you intended support, and may net you an angry friend.
What are these two phrases?
1. just live childfree
2. just adopt
In addition to not saying those, you should never, ever, ever caveat either of those ideas with, "it's God's will." Then definitely never, ever, ever tell the infertile couple to "just accept God's will."
Want to know why I think this? Read on, and I'll explain...
In the communication model, so much factors in to what one person says and how the other person receives that.
If one person is dealing with infertility, you need to consider the communication model even more closely because infertility is so deeply painful and difficult. When emotions run as high as they do in fertility, it's easy to over-react and the targets for offense are larger and deeper.
Therefore, as with any interaction, you have to think about yourself (your frame of mind, your experiences, what you think, your desire to fix things for a hurting friend, and so forth) and consider that alongside your friend's needs. Is what you think needs to be said more important than what you know the other person needs?
(I don't mean pander and yes-man it by saying that. I'm simply saying to consider whether the moment calls for telling someone what you think they ought to do versus providing an unconditional listening ear and supportive shoulder and keeping your opinions to yourself.)
See, it's not just about me and it's not just about you. It all depends on the moment, the people involved, the circumstances, and the experience of each person.
Not to mention, everyone has their own opinion about reproduction. People make their choices about reproducing, or deal with the lot they were dealt, and then have strong opinions about how others choose or deal.
I had to get really good at figuring out whether in that moment I needed to address a situation or just let it slide off my back.
The difference was intent.
For example, when one friend kept wanting to talk to me---as I underwent testing for a diagnosis of infertility after having tried to conceive for over a year, unsuccessfully---about how unhappy she was with her surprise pregnancy, initially I tried to be a Good Friend, but it ripped me up inside and I cried after every conversation. Eventually, I told her I wasn't the right friend for this. I said I understood it was hard for her and I'd be a supportive friend, but I couldn't be her confessor about her deep and complicated unhappiness about the surprise pregnancy.
She called me selfish.
In another example, plenty of people weighed in with the, "Oh just relax, you'll get pregnant," and other anecdotes about their husband's cousin's sister's best friend who took a trip to Jamaica and got pregnant "without even trying." (Really? Someone call the Pope! ;) ) Although these stories were likely true, they trivialized my experience and ignored the difficult journey I was on. The comments were thoughtless and hurtful, even though the speakers weren't intending to be cruel. But, I didn't dwell on them, and got fairly good at preventing them from hurting by letting them slide off my back.
I did address it once, formally, in writing, after a verbal conversation netted no good results. I chose to address it this time because the comment was made by my doctor's nurse (general practitioner, not reproductive endocrinologist), and it stung. She told me I was "too young" to be worrying about all this "infertility business" already and if I just learned how to relax and "quit trying so hard" it would probably happen for me quickly. When I told her that comment was hurtful, and misplaced, she didn't feel the need to apologize. She simply heaped on additional judgment. I never went back to that doctor, and wrote a letter explaining why.
Now, with children, the comments fly faster and more furious than they did when I was childless. I look like One of Us, the Fertile, on the exterior and everyone assumes I am either fertile like them, or All Over It.
I was infertile, I am infertile, I always will be infertile. I'm never going to "get over it" in the sense that it's just some distant memory of this thing I went through but I got my beautiful daughters and all is well now and I'm just Normal.
First, I continue to deal with the health conditions that caused my infertility. Second, when you walk through fire, a bit of you melts. If you're lucky---and I count myself lucky on several planes---you come out re-forged, stronger, but changed.
I have a different mindset about reproduction. I always will. I think of it differently than most people do, most of the time. I don't make the same assumptions, or carry the same level of trust that of outcome that fertile people do. I also changed my mind about reproductive choices. I think differently about that, too.
I am different as a person, and a mother, as a result of my experience. I am different from someone who didn't deal with this.
This is typical, and not exclusive to infertility.
But that's what we're talking about.
Speaking of talking...
So what about these things you can and can't, or rather should and shouldn't say to people experiencing infertility?
Why shouldn't you tell them to adopt or live childfree, why is it cruel to tell them that maybe this is God's plan and they need to simply accept it?
Because it's not your problem, and you can't fix it.
Infertility is a journey and a process. People process through it at different paces.
"Why don't you just adopt?" oversimplifies the issue. Infertility is a very gradual process. So is adoption. Both are emotional, difficult, challenging journeys that require a great deal of time and investment...and money.
"Why don't you just adopt one of those poor 'less than perfect' children waiting for homes?" also oversimplifies the issue, and reminds us of being broken...makes us feel a bit leper-ish, in need of a colony with other broken people.
Sure, you never know with biological children...they might have special needs. True. But red herring irrelevant. Deciding to adopt a special needs child is fantastic, but takes a special person. Having infertility doesn't make you that special person. It's a big choice, big decision, big responsibility. Yes, I want every one of those children to have a loving home and the best chance. However, I doubt even eHarmony would decide that "infertile" and "special needs" is an automatic match up.
Remember, we all start out each new situation with the hope of good things. When you try to conceive and fail...it's tougher than you can imagine. Having a baby is such a fundamental thing, it's almost a promise, a right by the way our culture views it. Reaching for it and failing feels like the wrath of God.
And that's why you never tell someone it is the wrath of God.
You don't know God's will. He doesn't litter life with roadsigns. You can't divine his will by looking at tea leaves in the bottom of a cup...in the same way, you can't look at someone's infertility and decide this means God has a specific plan, such as living childfree, adopting, or adopting special needs. If you do believe, you can believe God has a plan, but all you can know is that you need faith.
We decided to have a baby. Like everyone else, our minds wandered through the possibilities: boy? girl? husband's eyelashes? fair like me or dark like him?
It's an amazing thought, combining bits of ourselves, and from that, a new person, who we were trusted to raise and love. It's awesome, truly.
When each of us decides to try, this dream is in our hearts.
When some of us meet challenges and obstacles in achieving this dream, there is no obvious simple solution. We don't fail to see the choices: pursue IF treatment, live childfree, adopt. We know these choices.
But as I said, it's our own journey that we need to walk. It's a process to step towards understanding it's not just biological but also a desire to love and parent.
I don't for one minute forget the fortune visited upon me in the form of my daughters. Sometimes it is a pressure that crushes my chest, this need to be worthy of the luck, which manifests as a desire to be perfect.
But mostly, I try to focus on the benefits that we came out of this with: our beautiful girls, our new role as parents and a new depth to us.
HUMP DAY tomorrow! Here's two topics, one for tomorrow and one for next week:
Hump Day Hmm for 9-26-07 (suggested by Emily of Wheels on the Bus): A Good Thing Going
Hump Day Hmm for 10-3-07: A challenge in my life and how it affected and affects me
Just write your post, link back to my blog, send the link to me at j pippert at g mail dot com and I'll link list you!
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