I am an open book.
Someone: How are you?
Me: Ohmygod, Arden woke up four times in the middle of the night last night, Elle threw up in her car seat on the way to school, when I got to work, my heel got stuck between the elevator and the ground floor, causing my foot to fly out of my shoe in front of a bunch of people, I had a strawberry seed stuck between two teeth all day and I couldn’t find any floss, some lady in a white Volkswagen Jetta cussed me out at the gas station because she thought I stole her pump, and so I got stressed and binge ate a Baby Ruth. How’ve you been?
Someone is sorry they asked.
While the dialogue above is generally light hearted, I’m equally revealing about life’s catastrophes. Little is left to the imagination.
It took me 30 years to realize that not everybody thinks, acts, or processes life the same way I do. Some people don’t want to talk about obstacles.
As my friends and colleagues have started settling down, getting married, and thinking about starting a family- or about extending an existing family- something I’ve struggled with is whether to inquire about their efforts to have a baby.
I know an unsettling number of women who have dealt with infertility. Some of these women have had miscarriages, from very early in their pregnancies before the child had a heartbeat, to very late in their pregnancies when the baby had a name, a nursery, and the parents anticipated a future that would never happen.
From a social [and perhaps moral] standpoint, it’s necessary to be interested in- and show an interest about- important things that are happening in other peoples’ lives.
Mama always said that it’s better to be interested than it is to be interesting.
Notwithstanding, if I suspect, or specifically know, that someone is trying to have a baby, I’m often at a crossroads about whether to ask how it’s going. On one hand, I don’t want to not ask and seem like I’m uninterested in something huge that’s happening [or not happening] in that person’s life. On the other hand, I don’t want to ask and pour salt in the proverbial wound if the person’s childbearing efforts aren’t progressing the way they hoped. Overall, I don’t want to project an inaccurate feeling that I don’t care.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, infertility is common and defined as unsuccessfully trying to get pregnant for 12 months or longer. Approximately 10% of women between the ages of 14 and 44 have difficulty getting pregnant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Before writing this post, I undertook a completely non-scientific survey of a bunch of girlfriends, all of whom come from different geographic, age, and educational ranges, to get their views on whether they want their friends to inquire about their attempts to have a baby. Here’s what I learned:
Don’t assume that a woman who already has children is immune from infertility. Anna* [not her real name] has two children with her husband, and has been trying for a third for a year and a half. “What I hate is when acquaintances nonchalantly ask if we are having more children or make comments like ‘so and so has three kids… she must be CRAZY!'” Anna believes people assume she’s finished having children because she already has two, or that if she wanted to have more, getting pregnant wouldn’t be an issue.
Most people aren’t eager to talk about their pregnancy efforts. After suffering a miscarriage, followed by months of not being able to conceive, Casey finally had her first child a year ago. “We got pregnant so easily the first time that ‘struggling to get pregnant,’ wasn’t a consideration. After I had the miscarriage, I thought I would get pregnant quickly like I did the first time. When it didn’t happen, it was stressful and disappointing. I’ve always been a perfectionist and a workaholic, and discovered quickly that this wasn’t a ‘problem’ I could control or micromanage. That was the hardest pill to swallow. Given how much pressure I was putting on myself and on my marriage, it wasn’t something I was readily willing to talk about with other people. However, when a close friend did ask about it, I did see those chats as more of an escape than dwelling on something I couldn’t fix.”
Know your audience. Elizabeth is currently pregnant with her first child, who was conceived with fertility treatment. She has many friends and colleagues who also experienced infertility and underwent treatment, some unsuccessfully. “Just like our chronically single friends don’t always want to hear about how in love we are, or all the details of the amazing wedding we are planning, our friends who are experiencing infertility may not want to hear about our pregnancy or baby all the time. Hearing about a friend’s baby can be a painful reminder of a life they want but can’t achieve. Now that I’m finally pregnant, I let my friends who are experiencing infertility bring up my pregnancy to me, but I don’t bring it up to them.”
If you’re close friends, then it’s always ok to ask. With regard to specifically asking about childbearing efforts, 100% of the women I spoke with agreed: if you are close enough to the person to know they are trying to have a baby, then you are also close enough to either ask them how they are doing or let them know you are thinking about them. On the same token, all of these women agreed they wouldn’t be offended if a close friend didn’t ask. “I know it’s an awkward subject that most people don’t want to broach, mainly out of fear of a potentially bad reaction from the person they’re asking,” said Amanda, who has been trying to get pregnant for two years.
They also provided valuable information on things people should definitely not say to a person going through infertility:
Be patient and it will happen. “I knew I would eventually get pregnant, but living in the moment, you feel like it won’t,” said Kate (who now has a two year old daughter). “I hated when people told me to be patient.”
Just have a lot of sex. “This is probably the most infuriating thing to hear,” said Lauren, who has been trying to get pregnant for almost a year, who added, “it’s not that easy.”
You’re probably not getting pregnant because you took birth control for so long. “Well thank you for that outstanding observation… please let me jump in my time machine and rewind the clock,” added Lauren.
How old are you? Oh yeah, you’re getting up there! “Thank you Captain Obvious,” said Lauren.
I had such an easy time getting pregnant, I didn’t even have to try. “People who make comments like these look like socially inept jerks,” said Ashley, who has been trying to get pregnant for four years and three failed attempts at IVF.
I wish I could experience “trying” to get pregnant. See the comment to the statement above.
Would you consider adopting? “People who are trying to get pregnant want to have a biological child. If and when adoption becomes their path, they will let you know,” said Elizabeth.
If you’re at a loss for the right approach, sometimes the easiest way to show someone you care is by sending a text or an email that says, “Just wanted to let you know I’m thinking about you and am here if you want to talk or need anything.” This lets the person know you care without the potential difficulty of a face to face reaction.
Special thanks to all the women who candidly shared their stories with me.