A good friend of mine, Karen*, rung me in tears last week. Stuck at a hen party she had been looking forward to, she was reeling from the presence of a six month old baby and two pregnancy announcements. It's not the presence of the baby or the wish that her friends were not pregnant (for nobody would wish their experience on another), but the surprise can take events out of our control as involuntary childless men and women, I think. Being prepared helps us to take control (see the article on handling baby showers published yesterday).
Karen’s predicament was made worse because her friends were aware of her infertility and early miscarriages. She made the brave decision to go to this event, feeling safe that her friends would be empathetic and brushed aside any worries about being the only involuntary childless person there. Meanwhile on text, her husband, Martin* was asking myself and my husband what to do. He asked, ‘Why doesn’t she just say it’s upsetting her? They probably don’t realise that it is.’
He makes a good point. But it takes courage to turn to friends and say ‘ouch’. It reveals a perceived weakness and points to a sorrow that is always carried. A confession that places trust in people who might let us down.
Last month my local paper published an article about my infertility. It was the first time I had been so open on my own doorstep. My parents read it and were supportive as always. My friends certainly did and I don’t know about my wider family, they haven’t said. The result was that colleagues came up to me, neighbours and new friends. In many cases, they stumbled over what to say.
I absolutely know, that until I went on this journey and experienced miscarriages and failed IVF, that I too would have stumbled.
It’s a reaction that I experience a lot. In my research and continued work with Walk In Our Shoes, Childless Hour and Walking Forwards Inspiration Group I hear of many irritations with people who try to fix by making suggestions. I’ve been told to adopt, try surrogacy, offered eggs and relax to help me find peace. Silence is, for me, probably the worst response because it feels like a shared discomfort that can make me question the validity of my feelings.
Do comments that hurt come a from lack of understanding because infertility, miscarriage and all the ways that we are involuntary childlessness, are not spoken about enough?
Through the newspaper article and their Facebook page, I replied to those who thought that the alternative routes to being a parent were easy options and we had positive conversations which dispelled a few myths. On a smaller scale, as Karen did, we can say to our friends that some conversations are difficult and that we may have to remove ourselves from them. Having a confidant or partner with you, who can steer conversations helps. I have a couple of friends who team up in their workplace to go for a coffee when there is a baby shower for example. They have permission from their bosses to go off site during these times or work at home. Some might say it’s avoiding the issue but I firmly believe it’s handling it on their own terms and taking back control over a situation that could slip away from them and damage mental health.
So what to say? If you are one of the Walk In Our Shoes supporters who is a parent (thank you for being here), then I empathise with knowing what to say. It’s a minefield and I’d struggle too. It’s a question we spoke about on @Childlesshour Twitter chat last week. You can search on Twitter for the chat by using the hashtag #childlesshour.
Ways that you can help if you haven't experienced involuntary childlessness
Acknowledge the loss by saying you are sorry to hear about it.
Understand that child-free and involuntary childlessness are different.
Be aware that adoption is a completely different choice to IVF or ICSI.
Never offer to loan or sell your child, it's not funny.
It's never God's plan.
Ask if you can do anything.
Don’t forget their journey.
Respect their feelings by being mindful of your social media (you can set up feeds on Facebook for specific friend groups so if you do have baby news, you don’t have to share this online with friends who are struggling with infertility).
Don’t hide from them though. Social media can be really hopeless when it comes to expressed emotions despite the endless emoji range but a simple ‘like’ when a friend talks online about their journey and taking the time to read their words, goes a long way to validating their feelings.
Be a friend at parties and look out for triggers. One of the worst work meals I sat at was an organised Christmas party on a table with a pregnant colleague and several mums. I wish I had said something when I saw the table plan, as the strain of not listening to my colleague talking about her imminent birth was very difficult. It’s not her fault, I didn't know her well enough to say but I could have mentioned it to the party planner. These are times when a friend can help.
Remember that their grief does not end.
Ways that we who are involuntary childlessness can help each other
Talk about our experiences.
Pick battles wisely, not all will listen.
Find a friend who can support you and don’t dismiss parents as your allies.
Protect yourself and know when you’re feeling stronger. I can easily place myself into a place of vulnerability by not recognising that I still have low points.
Join Twitter chat @Childlesshour. A little self promotion, but you can log on under any Twitter account to take part and we’ve lots of experienced bloggers and support groups taking part to share their wisdom, it’s growing into a great support network.
Be a community by supporting each other in our efforts. Nobody owns involuntary childlessness but the power of groups coming together makes a stronger message.
Share your #worldchildlessweek content and make the most of this week, we are stronger together.
*names changed for privacy.