Infertility: How to Support a Friend

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This is post two in my Infertility Series. Read post one here.

In the first post of my Infertility Series, we established a few things: 1 –  we all say stupid things, so we’re all starting fresh together.  2 – you (right now at this exact moment) know someone going through infertility. 3 – infertility treatment is hard. Like really, truly, horribly, life-alteringly difficult. 4 – people going through infertility treatment are attacked with a bevy of bad advice and worse jokes, insults, innuendos, jukes, embarrassments and garden-variety crapola.

But what do you do now?  How do you support a friend going through infertility?

First, I want to say this. You – the one who googled this article in search of answers and advice – YOU ARE A ROCK STAR. You are an awesome friend. Thank you for your intentionality and for wanting to help your friend. You’re already way ahead of the curve.

A typical woman in the trenches of fertility treatments is isolated, physically drained, emotional as hell, and financially depleted. She’s mourning ever-growing losses – miscarriages, failed treatments, the loss of intimacy with her husband (since nothing says romantic quite like hearing a doctor say “you’ll need to have intercourse on Tuesday at 11:15 a.m. sharp”), another month with no success, and the idea that she will “just get pregnant” like all her friends. The unknowns are suffocating. Her arms are empty, her womb barren.

Her dreams of a family are slipping away with every month. Or year.

A family. Her dreams of a family. This isn’t a little thing. It’s not something to make light of, to tell someone to get over, or to use as ammunition in your next round of gossip. This is a big deal.

If your friend has confided her battle with you, strap on your armor and flank her in this fight.

I think the best way to figure out how to help her are to look at her needs. I’ve thought through the basic areas where your friend may need support. This isn’t an all-encompassing list because every person and treatment is unique.

Please don’t read this as a to-do list.

I don’t think any one person should do everything here. That would be overwhelming to you and probably embarrassing for your friend. My hope is that you can read through this list with your friend in mind, and come up with some ideas of how you can support her.

1. Emotional Support

One the first fertility medicines my doctor tried caused some really serious mental side effects. I immediately got off that medicine and thankfully I got back to my normal, mentally balanced self within a day or two. 

accidentalokie flowers

About that time, three friends stopped by with flowers, an Anthropologie mug and Bible verse-saturated note cards. On hard evenings, I would curl up on the sofa with a cup of tea in my beautiful new mug and read those verses over and over, like they were my life line.

To them it was probably a small thing. To me, it was everything.

Supporting your friend emotionally means a card in the mail, a mug on the doorstep, or a shoulder to cry on. It means remembering the due date of the baby who died in her belly (no matter how early). It means listening to her unedited fears and unrestrained yells, and not shushing her.

Like really, actually listening.

It means asking questions, googling medical procedures and joining her on this journey. If she’s told you her treatment plan and schedule, it’s a text the morning of a procedure.

It’s not hard. It’s not expensive. It just takes a little time and intentionality.

If you know someone who has already walked down the infertility road and you want to connect her with your friend in the current struggle, I think that is an excellent idea. Love and support from this sisterhood of women is invaluable. It’s best to get your friend’s permission first. Always err on the side of honoring her vulnerability and confidentiality.

2. Physical Support

Fertility treatment really wears on a person. There’s medicine, doctor’s appointments (sometimes three a week) and procedures that somehow have to be crammed into a schedule, and all the emotions in all the world swirling all at once.

And all that is exhausting.

Let me tell you how awesome our homemade dinners…weren’t. Frozen gluten-free chicken fingers for two, please.

Supporting a friend physically is as simple as dropping by a rotisserie chicken. It’s offering to come over for a Saturday of freezer meal cooking so she can get ready for another treatment cycle. It’s folding towels and vacuuming, or getting the guys to take her husband to a baseball game. Guys go through a lot during this, too.

It’s babysitting so she can go to a doctor’s appointment. (Many people have to do the same treatment for every child or didn’t have to treatment before, but have to now). It’s driving her to an appointment where she has to be sedated or take pain medicine before.

If you love through logistics, love well friends, love well.

3. Financial Support

One cycle of fertility treatment can be as little as a few hundred dollars or as much as $15,000. Gulp. They might be siphoning money from their grocery budget, or they might have taken out a second-mortgage.

If you have the ability and the desire, meeting financial needs is really cool.

Financial support can mean really big gestures. But it can also mean a needed grocery store gift card, gas money – especially if her fertility doctor is far away, or a coupon to a night at a romantic hotel. It’s a few $20’s exchanged in a cool James Bond handshake –  you know, if you’re cool enough to pull that off.

I’m not.

Dollars meet logistical, real needs, but they also say, “we haven’t forgotten you.”

4. Spiritual Support

Get on your knees for your friend.

Yes, pray that she’ll get pregnant! Pray that prayer with yearning and confidence.

But pray for other things, too. Pray that she wouldn’t believe the lies streaming into her head – the ones that say she’s worthless, that she’s been forgotten by God, that her husband won’t love a woman who can’t make a baby. Pray for physical strength, for healing from the cause of the infertility. Pray for her heart. Pray for her marriage.

Speak Truth into her life. Pray that you have the words to say. Pray that the Lord would be near and that she would feel his presence.

Your friend may be feeling deep shame. She might be trying to isolate herself because this is all, it’s just so much. She might be angry at God. She could be spiritually spent, emotionally empty and her roughest spots exposed.

At this moment, she might not be her best self. She needs you in spite of all that.

You know your gifts and you know your friend, and I bet you know a way you can come along side her to bring courage, comfort and truth.

5. Do I Ask?

In my previous post, I listed all the stupid things people say to someone going through infertility. Reading though it, just about half of the items are different forms of someone asking “what’s going on?” But without the social skills.

Don’t be that person.

You suspect a friend may be struggling with infertility. Do you outright ask her?

I don’t know your friend, but I’m going to say in most cases, no. You could tell her you’re worried about her, that it seems like she’s going through something, and is everything is okay? If she wants to tell you, you’ve opened the door for a conversation.

But please PLEASE examine your heart first.

If you think infertility is the only possible excuse for wasting her best child-bearing years, and you need to give her a talking to about having a baby before it’s too late, please keep your mouth shut. If you’re sort of wondering what’s going on so you can tell another girlfriend at your next gab session, please mind your own business.

If your heart is hurting for your friend, maybe you can bring it up. But it should be in 1 – in private. Not in a group ambush, not shouted across a crowded room of friends or family, and not on social media. 2 – you should not come armed with a list of advice, but instead with a concerned heart, ready to listen.  3 – it should only be if you are very close friends.

6. I’m Pregnant. What Do I Do?

Oh, this one is hard. I’ve been the infertility-stricken one around pregnant friends, and I’ve been the pregnant one around friends who I know are struggling. It can feel like a minefield.

Here are my suggestions.

Tell her your good news privately.
Don’t tell her in a group of friends. I remember this happened once to me. I was incredibly happy for my friend, but at the same time I was sad, too, for me. And then I felt horrible about being sad in the midst of her answered prayers. It was a lot of conflicting emotions at once.

Some of the people in the room knew our struggles. Suddenly, I was worried that people were looking at me to gauge my reaction. Were all these weird, warring emotions on my face? I was so worried that I plastered on this big, dopey grin, and probably looked a bit high.

She might be totally fine. But she might also want to give you a huge hug and celebrate this new life, and then retreat to her house and have a good cry.

Respect her journey during your happy time.

Don’t complain about your pregnancy to her.
I get it. Sometimes pregnancy sucks. You projectile vomit Chipotle across the living room. Your hips stop working. And having a few girlfriends to complain at is a good thing. But your friend going through infertility treatment should not be your sounding board.

7. The Long Road

The Professor and I were really fortunate. They figured out our problems, and I responded well to treatment. Our fertility journey was nothing compared to what it is for some people.

As you encourage your friend, please know, this might be a short journey or it might be a very long one.

Fertility treatment ends in one of three ways: 1 – They become pregnant. 2 – They have a child through adoption or fostering. 3 – They decide they’re done trying.

Those are a lot of different things, each with very different needs.

Be there – be there for the long haul. That means listening to her fears, even if she’s two years into this. It means staying engaged. It means keeping your eyes and ears open for needs.

Here’s the most important thing I want you to know – I believe in you.

You, who are seeking. You, who are trying. You, who are making a difference, showing up, and flanking your friend.

You, yes you, are phenomenal.

Experts Series: Infertility

TeressaThank you for tuning in to the next installment of the Accidental Okie Expert Series

Teressa’s expertise is in something not wished for by anyone: infertility.  

I asked Teressa to write a post on how to talk to someone going through infertility – what to say, what to not say. What she sent me was infinitely better. Because she sent me her heart. Her emotions. Her experiences.

I hope reading it will help you, should you be on a similar journey, or help you gain insights into the great trials Teressa and Ryan and others like them are muddling through. Stepping into her shoes for a minute, maybe you can be better equipped on what to say to a friend in this same situation.

Teressa and Ryan live in Seattle. Ryan is a teacher and Teressa is the owner of Cashmere Floral Designs.

– – – – –

They said it would be easy. 

We made a plan.  Slated five days to fly to Seattle from our home in Sitka, Alaska.  Checked into a really fancy hotel.  Told our family and friends that we were trying, that we had finally accepted the fact that we were using a sperm donor and that we finally chose one.  We had a bastion of prayer warriors.  Ryan bought me a pedicure at a spa. 

The doctors were going to inject sperm, and this would be the beginning to our lives as parents.  So long married life of two… hello parenthood. Statistics show that it takes usually three tries to achieve one pregnancy.  We wanted three kids.  At $500 each vial, we purchased nine.

We thought it would be easy.

Two exciting and forever-lasting weeks pass, and it’s time to pee on the stick that is supposed to herald the news:  Congrats!  Your life is about the change.  Your someday has arrived! 

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3:30 a.m. – I couldn’t take the suspense.  I pee on the stick, planning to surprise Ryan. 

Pee.  Wait. Wait. Wait. 

As the one bar darkens and there’s no sign of a second, I let out a low moan in denial.  Then wake Ryan and tell him that this test must be defective.  The dear man rises from a dead sleep, dons his shoes, and heads out the door to the grocery store to buy another test.

It wasn’t broken.  I wasn’t pregnant.  This was August of 2010, and that was vial one.

Since we were committed to work in Sitka until October, and since my work as a florist allowed only a small window of due dates that avoided wedding season, we held off trying until we moved back to Seattle. 

Dec. 24th.  My ovulation predictor kit shows it’s time again.  Two more exciting and hopeful weeks pass.  Pee again.  Another silent piece of plastic tells us the news.  Happy 29th birthday to me.  Vial two is gone.

Family and friends are constantly asking for updates.  We’re happy to share because we cannot wait to be celebrating good news together.  Early February, try again.  Another miss. 

The first three vial, all portioned for baby number one, are gone.

At this point, we become a little more private.  The doctor is suggesting an HSG test to determine if I have a blockage of my tubes, or cysts or fibroids that could be causing a problem.  That sounded great, until we learned what it meant:  $800 out of pocket and one of the most painful diagnostic tests available.  The second opinion of another doctor is against the test. We decline. 

We’ll try for one more time.  It’s bound to happen.  God is the author of life right?  And God can do anything.  Plus, there’s nothing wrong with me.  And this next try is sure to take.

Another two weeks.  We’re house-sitting and dog-sitting because we can’t afford a place to live because God still hasn’t provided a living for Ryan.  I’ve felt all the things one’s supposed to feel in pregnancy.  I’ve obsessed online over all the symptoms.  This is definitely the time.  The stick comes out of its sacred foil package.  One line. 

Neither of us had ever felt that hopelessness.  No job.  No baby.  No silver lining. 

The dogs I hate come over to lick my tears off the floor as I sit in the middle of a stranger’s kitchen, sobbing.  We didn’t turn any lights on that night.  Ryan lay on the peach sofa and stared in the sunset sky.  I spoke no works and lay on top of him.  Staring.  Crying. 

He takes a deep breath and hollowly, despairingly mutters, “The only difference between the days for us is that the sun comes up and goes back down.” 

I have never seen him that hopeless or distraught.  The man who battled cancer, with its consequences and recurrences, who looked forward to each day as progress and hope, had just committed to the dark side.  Normally one of us is up when the other is down.  But this day, we were both defeated.  

That was vial four.  Only five chances left.

Fast forward one year.

A blessing of a doctor came into our lives. He learned that my hormones were out of whack.  I guess moving from Alaska, having no job or no home, starting a new business, recovering strained relationships after living in Alaska two years, living with in-laws, moving nine times, and having nothing to show for all of the hard work, can place certain stress on a person.  Compounded was a five-year-old nephew with a brain tumor, a dad struggling with dementia, and both parents in an airplane crash.  As it turns out, this all can upset the reproductive system.

So, we do natural hormone treatment and weekly b-shots.  A year goes by, and Dr. Matt says with a smile, “I think you’re ready to try again!  Everything looks great!”  The hope swelling inside of me couldn’t be contained.  I burst into happy tears and he prayed over me.  I go home and tell Ryan.  This was a good couple of weeks. 

In the meantime, my nephew Jack spends his fifth birthday in the hospital for brain surgery.  My prayer is for God to save my sister’s baby and knit together a baby for us.

Jack got his miracle.  I got my period.

Vial number five. Gone.

With each try and fail, the devastation only deepens.  Our eyes and hearts are bloodshot.  Our bank accounts and arms are empty.  Our home is still quiet, and we’re still hovering over our two-year-old “kitten” because she’s all we have to nurture with our own last name.  Our hearts are sick. Our hope, continually deferred.  And as we struggle, we are surrounded by 31 pregnant or nursing mothers.

We are in such need of discernment, and feel very alone and very much too tired to know where science and God’s hand meet.

While I detest this period of meaningless infertility, I do pray for and treasure the gifts that are sure to rise up from it. 

I will be able to tell a better story. 

Whatever the outcome of all of this, I will be able to tell a story about God.  He is giving me what I need.  Lies of hopelessness are lodged in my direction and God, with his truth and with the strength that comes from his goodness, gives me what I need to dispel them. 

Alas, I’m tired.

Three viles left.

That was about a year ago when Teressa penned those words onto a tear-stained journal. During the interim, a doctor discovered one last problem, which was resolved. Here’s an update.

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Two vials left.