I've been thinking a lot about my infertility situation lately. Maybe it's because I'm finished school (woohoo!) and not working yet, so I have more time in which to really contemplate the past few years. At any rate, today's post is about something I wish more people could grasp, not only in the infertility world, but in any situation where someone else is having a difficult time.
Feelings. They're a big mess, honestly. Sometimes they make no sense at all. Why can't we just be like robots? Sometimes we're faced with our own emotions, and we're sitting there going, "What are you doing brain? Why am I feeling this way?" because we can't even make sense of our own emotional reaction. Other times, we're trying to help someone, but their feelings are so deep and scary and weird to us that we're tempted to jump in and say things like, "Calm down" or "You need to be hopeful" or "You should be excited about X". It might even seem like saying these things are helpful, because you're directing that person to be more positive, but you know what, it's time to check these phrases, and here's why.
1. Policing a person's feelings tells them their emotions are wrong. You may not mean it like that, but that is how it is experienced. I struggle daily with my feelings of sadness, bitterness, and anger. I hate that these emotions surface again and again with regards to my infertility. If I tell someone that my infertility is making me angry and bitter, and they tell me to be hopeful instead, I feel like that little voice in the back of my head is validated, the voice that says I'm weak and that if I were a stronger and better person, I wouldn't be so angry. And now, instead of being hopeful, I'm wallowing in shame.
2. Correcting a person's feelings does not encourage them to keep sharing. I've talked about my infertility to a lot of people. Some of them have been helpful; others have not. When I go out of my comfort zone to open up about a deeply personal subject, the reaction of the other person is pivotal. If that person listens and mourns with me, I feel like I have found a cog in my support network. If - as often happens - the person shuts the conversation down or corrects me, the message that I get is that I need to keep these emotions to myself because no one wants to hear them. Sooooo many infertile women feel like they have no outlet to share, and it's so unhealthy for us.
3. You are only seeing a slice of their grief. It may seem to YOU that this struggle is not worthy of the bitter sadness that they are experiencing, but you don't know. You haven't walked in their shoes. Often, when I share with my mom friends, I realize that they have no idea the levels of grief that I experience as an infertile person. It's not just the disappointment that comes month after month. It's not just wanting something I can't have. There are so many ways in which our society and especially our churches are structured around the assumption that women are mothers. There are so many other griefs that come with infertility: Isolation and social exclusion; marital struggles; finances; the loss of dreams; questioning the life decisions you made when you assumed you would be parents. It's hard, and you don't truly know all the reasons your friend is sad, so when you encourage her to perk up, you are invalidating things you may not understand. And on that note, please do not say, "At least you're not...." to a person struggling with infertility. Yes, it could be worse, but the pain they are in is genuine grief, and it's okay to express that.
4. You may be bringing bad theology into the mix. People love to throw lines into the conversation like, "You should be hopeful. I know God will give you a child." Do you? Really? Did you have an angelic visitation that you didn't tell me about? I've read the Bible many times, and there is no guarantee that we will get everything we want. As far as I can see, there are plenty of people in the Bible who served God and lived lives of difficulty and unmet needs. So YES we can have hope in heaven, but don't tell people to place their hope into something God has never promised us. I can say honestly that I have less of a struggle with the idea that God may never grant my desires than I do with Christians who try to encourage me with bad theology and false promises instead of coming alongside me to really go deep into the spirituality of suffering.
Soooooo, where do we go from here? What should you say if your friend is expressing feelings that are deep and heavy and you don't know how to respond. Here are a few thoughts on responding to your infertile friend, but I still think the heart of it all is just to listen and say, "I love you and I'm sorry you're going through this pain." You don't need to make her feel better (though in my experience, ice cream is never a bad idea :D ). If she's angry at God, you don't need to jump in; God can take it. You just need to be there and care.