Or, what not to say to someone who is going through IVF
By Andrea Moller Doney
‘I could never take that on, Andrea, because – you know, I have four children.’ My friend’s well meaning words were like artillery of burning bullets through my already bruised heart. After four years of trying to conceive a baby, and nine unsuccessful IVF attempts I had opened up to a girlfriend about the sense of loss I was feeling. My husband and I had reached a point where we were considering a fresh start in a new city and I had been thinking out loud, latte in hand, about the pros and cons of moving. The whimsy of a new future shared over the aroma of frothed milk and raisin toast was a salve to the incessant reminder of our infertility but my friend’s words brought me pinwheeling back to the familiar company of my grief.
She meant well, I know that. And once I was able to rearrange my scattered parts and remind myself of this then I could once again stumble onwards, but it was abundantly clear on this and many other occasions that my nearest and dearest were often a million miles away from me when it came to sharing my journey of infertility. Sometimes they wanted to talk to me, but didn’t know how. Sometimes they didn’t want to talk to me. Sometimes they simply said the most inappropriate and heart-wrenching things and were never the wiser. Sometimes they were deliberately mute.
Now I don’t claim for a moment to know how everyone copes with IVF or infertility, and my experience will not be a universal one. And mine is not the last word on grief. Lord knows I am lucky not to have experienced the tragedy of pregnancy loss or stillbirth and this is not intended to compete with, nor take away from, the experiences of those that have. My personal journey was one of secondary infertility – trying for years to conceive a second child after the safe arrival of a perfect son. From this infinitely blessed platform I still found myself desperately wanting another child and howling against the unfair process of cancer which robbed my husband and I of the means to conceive naturally after his surgery. IVF was and is our only means of conception.
Mine are not a ‘one size fits all’ set of longings but there are many things that I wished had been said to me, or not said as the case may be. When a month ends, fittingly, with the discovery of blood in the bathroom, then the emotions that welled up in me were not simply those of disappointment. They were stronger than that, and far more complicated. A bitter cocktail of bile and salt and grief and loss garnished with resentment and misery and bereavement and grief and grief and grief.
I felt, many times, that it was my sense of loss that was the most misunderstood. My words were echoed in the safe haven of an online IVF forum by Rachel* who was able to be succinct when I was still a watery mess. “It’s a loss of innocence, a loss of dignity” she crooned, “the loss of a dream and ultimately the loss of life.” This rang true for me. I felt like I had just lost my baby. That she or he had suddenly died. I knew I was pregnant. I knew I was pregnant nine times with fourteen perfect little people because on each occasion I had seen the globular cluster of bubbles that were my miraculous little embryos; I had seen them swim gracefully through their watery culture and into view under a microscope just before my obstetrician transferred them, one or two at a time, via a catheter into my uterus. So for two weeks I walked carefully in the knowledge that I was, in theory at least, pregnant. Those two blissful weeks were the tail end of months and years of careful eating, temperature charting, self injecting, prodding and poking, blushing and sweating, rushing to appointments, organising babysitters, swearing off coffee, exercising, swallowing vitamins, consulting experts, getting acupuncture, agonizing, crying, hoping, praying, meditating, reading and hoping. And hoping and hoping and hoping. And when all of this didn’t result in a pregnancy I truly felt like my baby had died and I longed for the world to recognise that. Instead there was nothing but silence. No funeral, no flowers, no cards. No ceremony. It was up to me to pick up the phone and ask for coffee dates, and face the blank and panicked expressions of my friends. “It will happen, don’t give up” they chanted. “Just be grateful for the child you have. (Gee thanks, I’d forgotten all about him!)” “You just need to relax, why don’t you take a holiday?” “Have you thought about adopting?”
But it occurs to me now, with the clarity of hindsight and the balm of time passed that they didn’t know what to say. Debrett has never, to my knowledge, published an etiquette guide for the reproductively challenged. So with this gap in the market in mind, I will note down some of the clangers that shook my world, and write the script for how I wish things had gone instead.
The Oscar for most inappropriate advice goes to a dear friend’s mother who pinned me to my chair at a barbeque one evening with a barrage of questions. An otherwise likeable lady in her 70s suddenly turns to me and instructs “Andrea, I really think you should have another child.” I looked a bit stunned, and the table conversation suddenly died a strangled and awkward death. Everyone at the table, most of whom knew my struggle, held their breath. “Well,” I said “I would love to” and tried to leave it at that.
She persisted. “Why don’t you adopt a little baby? You know, you would probably love it almost as much as if it were your own.” I couldn’t believe where this was going, or how much was wrong with what she’d just said. “We’ve talked about adoption,” I squeaked “but we haven’t reached an agreement yet. We’re still talking.”
Believe it or not, she didn’t shut up.
“Well, you know Andrea, your eldest really needs a sibling. You can look at a string of children walking down a road, and you can always, always pick out those that are only children. Because they are all so spoiled. They simply are” she says to me, her finger raised in admonishment.
By now, you could have cut the atmosphere at the table with a knife, packaged it and mailed it to Hong Kong. I was so angry I was shaking. After a long, slow breath all I could manage was “thank you. But I don’t seem to have a lot of choice in the matter.”
She looked peeved, but not remorseful. The silence just hung over the table like a cloud. Abruptly, someone offered more drinks, and frantically scurried off in pursuit of them. The conversation gradually ebbed around us once again but it was all I could do not to cry into my drink. It was yet another reminder of how all the world was an expert on the state and size of my family, except me.
As is always the case with me, I only ever think up the perfect retort about six months after it was needed. I would love to have nonchalantly told that well-meaning, blue-rinsed duck that it was none of her business, because it wasn’t. I should have told her to back off, that her words were hurtful and unnecessary, but I didn’t. I should have quizzed her intimately on some of her own most painful decisions, but I remained mute as the grave. Instead I plead with the future advice-givers out there to exercise careful thought. Families with only one child didn’t always choose that model. Mums with a large age gap between children might not always have wanted it that way. Someone who has been open enough to share that she is doing IVF almost certainly doesn’t want to hear the story about your neighbour’s sister-in-law’s friend who took a holiday, gave up hoping, just relaxed and whoomp! found herself up the duff faster than you could say jack robinson . Sometimes, it’s just nice to hear ‘I’m sorry. That must be hard for you.’ And leave it at that.
At the height of my self-injected hormonal journey I was a complete wreck, with something like a hundred times the normal levels of progesterone coursing through my pinpricked veins. So I admit I was a study in self-pity, and that can’t have made it easy for those well-meaning girlfriends who didn’t know what to say to me. But I remember vividly the silence that greeted the results of my early attempts at conception. Not knowing what to say, most didn’t say anything. In fact, one friend admitted that because I hadn’t called her, she had just assumed it hadn’t worked. She was right. But a call to ask how I was would have been nice, all the same.
It began to dawn on me, after a time, that friends were afraid to announce their own pregnancies to me. Second and even third babies arrived during the interminable wait for my own conception, and I admit the news wasn’t always easy to hear. I tried to be gracious and happy for them, but a lot of the time I just sulked. So I guess I shouldn’t blame them for not knowing how to deliver the news. So again, with both a sense of apology for my own bad behaviour and the clarity of hindsight I suggest that if your own friend is battling to conceive, tread softly. But at the same time, don’t hide it from her. Meet privately, and don’t tell her in a group setting. Then try something like this: “I know that this might not be what you want to hear right now, and I’m sorry to add to your grief. But we’ve been blessed again and are expecting a baby. We are really thrilled about it. I hope more than anything that one day you’ll be able to deliver the same news to me.” That would have been nice.
Other things I recommend never saying to an infertile woman include “you’re still young, you have time.” I’m 38 years old, I really don’t. And even if I was twenty-one, why should I have to wait so long when you didn’t? Or “here, have one of my children. They are nothing but hard work.” Thanks, I’d love to. Will you get the papers drawn up this afternoon? “It wasn’t meant to be.” Right. My atheist heart doesn’t agree with you, and even if it did, it wouldn’t make me feel better. ‘”My husband just looks at me and I get pregnant.” Lucky you. Could you send him over to my house please? Otherwise, just shut up.
I recently asked my husband if there was anything he wished hadn’t been said to him during the ordeal and retorted, with his usual slick glibness, that he wished that no one had ever said “that will be nine thousand dollars please.” I giggled, but acknowledged that where the journal was emotional for me, it was often pragmatic and financial for him. The huge upfront payments for every cycle were a massive burden at the time, and one that shouldn’t be brushed over. But more than that, even once the bills were paid and the medicare claims finally processed, we shouldn’t forget that men have a very hard time with infertility too, and are often forgotten in the dash for Kleenex and chocolate ice-cream. When you ring someone to offer support, suggest that your husband rings her husband too. The knowledge that you are not forgotten is an absolute salve to the broken and lonely hearts involved, both male and female.
One of my best days, if it can be called that, of the whole horrible experience was meeting some of the members of my beloved inner circle at the gates the pre-school that our collective older children attended. They had been waiting with me for the results of my ninth cycle, all turned to me expectantly as I arrived. I just shook my head at them, blinking tears, and fell into someone’s embrace. Nothing was more comforting than the sight of similar tears in their eyes, and I remain forever grateful. They didn’t know what to say either, but were prepared to meet me where I was at, and acknowledge their own sadness for me. And that was what made all the difference.
When all is said and done, there are few things harder than dealing with infertility. But like the proverbial elephant in any room, it is better to talk about it as sensitively as you can than to ignore it entirely. Similarly, don’t go in with a sledgehammer either. Your girlfriend, and her partner, will appreciate any sincere love and support offered. If you don’t know what to say, just admit that you don’t know what to say. My own postscript is that it took me ten assisted cycles to get pregnant with my much longed for second baby. I gave up many times along the road, and am not sure what it was that turned the tide for me eventually. Probably not the mountains of advice about acupuncture, adoption, vitamins or holidays. It was probably nothing more than luck. And if you are reading this with one hand on an empty womb, then all I can say is. I am truly sorry. I am more sorry than I have words to express. I just don’t know what to else to say.
*Names have been changed to protect the infertile.