"There is no more lovely, friendly and charming relationship, communion or company than a good marriage."
--Martin Luther

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Tips for Interacting With Your Friends Who Struggle With Infertility (Infertility Awareness Week)

Apparently it’s Infertility Awareness Week.  I had no idea!  I found this out from my dear friend over at Mama Cravings, whose post you should check out, even though it might make you weep. You’re probably tired of my rantings about infertility, but I couldn’t resist taking the opportunity this week of awareness affords to post something that’s been on my mind for a little while. Let me first preface this with the fact that I am by no means an expert, I don't speak for everyone on this journey, and as I see how long some people have been on the infertility road, I know that I can't even imagine how much harder some people's situations have been, so please don't take my word as final. 

The more I talk about infertility with people online and off-line, the more I realize how hard it is.  It’s hard for me, because I want them to understand my struggle and come alongside me, and sometimes I’m disappointed.  It’s also hard for them, because I know many people really want to support their friends through infertility, but they don’t know how, or they feel like they aren’t able to because they have children.  I get it.  I’ve realized recently that after being married 2.5 years (as of last Tuesday – wheee!), I’m no longer able to fully relate to my single friends (the ones who want to be married) they way I used to be.  I am always looking at my single years from the standpoint of having met “that special someone”.  I remember what it’s like to be single and 28, but I don’t know what it’s like to be single in the mid-thirties, and I’d imagine that’s a big difference.  I feel like anything I say could come across as trite, and that might hold me back from saying anything at all.  But following that logic, we can’t comfort or support anyone unless we’ve had that exact experience, and I don’t think that’s the case.

There are lots of posts out there of advice on what to NOT say to someone who’s fill-in-the-blank (adopting a child, has a multi-racial family, going through infertility, experienced a miscarriage, etc.)  Sometimes those are helpful, but sometimes they leave people walking on eggshells.  So what are some basic tips for relating to your friend who is going through infertility? 

Listen:  Remember Job’s friends that came to comfort him?  At first, “when they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads.  Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was. (Job 2:12-13) It was when they opened their mouths that they got into trouble.  A listening ear can convey so much more support than your words can:  “We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.” (Zeno of Citium).  Because I love quotations, here's another:  Stephen R. Covey said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”  Don't do that.  Just listen and be there.

Ask:  Every person on this journey has different needs.  What I like might not be helpful with someone else.  Personally, I hate being told, “I know you’ll have a child one day”, because really, you don’t know that, but maybe some people find this comforting.   One person might like being asked how treatment is going, while another might want you not to bring it up.  It sounds confusing, but don’t we all have our own unique ways to respond to trials?  Instead of trying to be a mind-reader and pouring over Google, why not just ask, “Hey friend, how can I support you in this journey?” 

Don’t give advice:  While everyone is different, I have yet to meet anyone who enjoys unsolicited advice, let alone about their most private matters.  It’s especially hard when advice comes from someone who has never actually experienced infertility first hand, notwithstanding the fact that said advice usually comes from Dr. Google. 

Be sensitive:  Remember that you don’t know who is going through this, so assume that if you know someone who is in a stable relationship and of child-bearing age, there’s a chance they may be going through infertility, and be appropriately sensitive in your interactions.  Some estimates say that one in five couples deal with infertility, so that means it is affecting a lot more people than you’re aware of.  Not only that, but there may be other very personal reasons why people aren't having children.  This means that the most well-meaning question of “When will you have a baby?” might be really really hard for someone, and you won’t know it until you ask.  (Here’s a great post by Jayme about why you might not want to ask when someone is having kids.)  I’m not saying you should recoil in terror from ever asking about family plans, but it does mean you should use common sense and consider the context: 
      Consider the context of your relationship.  Are you actually friends with this person?  I personally would welcome the opportunity to discuss this journey with people who are close to me, but I don’t want to talk about it with the FedEx delivery guy, or every staff member at my work, or my Chinese teacher (already happened).  If you would never dream of telling me your own personal struggles, perhaps you shouldn’t ask a question that could delve into mine. 
     Consider the geographical context of your conversation.  Again, it’s a sensitive subject.  How would you feel if I approached you at work in the middle of your busy work day, and said, “Oh hey Bill, here are those photocopies you asked me to grab, and by the way please tell me about your deepest unfulfilled personal longing.”  Awkward much?  If you’re going to ask me a personal question (about children certainly, but also about career satisfaction, my marriage, etc.), do it someplace where we can sit down with mugs of coffee and I can open my heart if I want to.  This place should never, ever, ever be the church lobby on a Sunday.  When I attend church, I sit around other peoples’ adorable babies for over an hour, and watch their sweet little ones running around in their best clothes.  Asking how I feel about my baby plans after church is like asking how I feel about my abs after I just watched the Miss America pageant.  I feel lacking.  Thanks for rubbing that salt in my wounds.

Be the friends that have each other's back. Literally.

I don’t think we need a special vocabulary to talk to friends dealing with infertility, any more than we need to know exactly the right words to use with someone who has lost a parent or who is going through unemployment.   These statements convey more than you can ever know:  “I care about you.  I want the best for you.  I will be there for you, no matter what.”
A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.
Proverbs 17:17

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