He that is thy friend indeed,
He will help thee in thy need:
If thou sorrow, he will weep;
If thou wake, he cannot sleep:
Thus of every grief in heart
He with thee doth bear a part.
These are certain signs to know
Faithful friend from flattering foe.
William Shakespeare – The Passionate Pilgrim
One of the focuses of this year’s National Fertility Awareness Week UK is fairness. Now, this is honed in on the access to fertility treatment through the NHS which is increasingly unfair. The sad thing about the reductions in NHS funded fertility treatment is that it is another kick in the teeth to people who are already well-attuned to life’s roll of the dice. They know about things being unfair.
For a large proportion of people experiencing infertility it is ‘unexplained’. All the tests, probes, scans, treatments have not yielded up an answer. There is no reason. It is nothing they have done. It is nothing that was done to them. It is seemingly random and definitely unfair.
But for anyone who experiences infertility there is another gauntlet of unfairness to run through. The gauntlet of friendship.
For myself, friendship is the most precious gift I have received or given. I am one of those people who make her friends her family. They are my rocks and my joy. My parents split up when I was 17 and I think my friends became the solid ground I needed. They gave me the security to be me when I wasn’t really sure who that person was. Friends hold our hands when we need steadying. They wipe our tears and tell us it is ok to not be ok. They give us the reassurance that we are not alone when our hearts are heavy and loneliness is descending.
That’s what friendship does. Or at least, that is what friendship should do.
That sad truth is that not every friendship will survive infertility. It takes a friendship of grit, empathy and layers of love. And a large pinch of kindness.
So, how can your friendships survive infertility?
Remember that friendship is a two way street. If your friendship feels quite one-sided then (SPOILER ALERT) it’s going to be a struggle for it to survive. When someone is experiencing infertility, their resources are depleted. Some days it will take every ounce of their strength to get up and get dressed. They will need you to be there for them and they may not be able to reciprocate that straight away. That’s ok. This can be especially hard for your friends who are used to being leaned on. I fall into the category of being a coper. A strong one. I enjoy people needing my help and I want to be there for my friends. I am not good at asking for help. I withdraw and retreat into myself which only serves to add to the loneliness of infertility. Keep an eye out for changes in your friends behaviours. Are they unresponsive to texts? Are they absent from social media? Hang in there and stick with them. Friendships with grit are not easily disposed of. Be kind and think the best of them. If they know you are sticking around then they are more likely to open up and bring you into their story.
Practice empathy whilst avoiding sympathy. Empathy can transform a friendship. It is the ability to try and understand someone else’s feeling and share in that with them. To be alongside them. It is also a skill that needs practising. There will always be some people who are naturally empathetic. They just get it. There will also be a large number of people who don’t. But the vital part of empathy is practising it. Lizzie often shares a story of a friend asking what her miscarriage felt like because she hadn’t experienced it herself. When I first heard her tell this story, all my in-built sense of decorum recoiled at this. You can’t ask someone such a personal question?! But the truth is, you can. If you want to know how your friend is feeling then ask. If you want to understand what they are going through then ask. And when they tell you. Listen.
Listen and resist the overwhelming urge to give any unsolicited advice. A sure fire way to quell the flames of intimacy in a friendship is to be the Unwanted Advice Giver. It is not a good role. I am a recovering Unwanted Advice Giver and I still fall into this trap. The opportunity to FINALLY give my golden nugget of wisdom and help my poor, poor friend can be hard to resist. But resist it, you must! The crucial part to remember is that it is unsolicited. So when your brain pops a piece of sage advice in your head and it is making its way down to your mouth, stop. Ask yourself: Have they asked me to share my thoughts? Is this the right time to tell them about the latest fertility treatment in the USA which only costs several thousands of dollars and could provide them their longed for baby? Why do I feel the need to ‘fix’ this problem? Will this advice show how much I care about my friend and that I have been listening to her?
The danger with dishing out unwanted advice is that you make the person receiving it feel like they are a problem that needs fixing. It is very different from them asking you for advice. I find a good way to know if they want your advice is to ask first or listen out for clues like if they say, ‘What advice would you give me?’ These are always helpful. Most of all though, save your advice. Or even better, file away in the Do Not Open Unless Explicitly Asked drawer and go back to listening and asking questions to know how they feel.
My final piece of advice (Oh, the irony!) is to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. And by this, I mean buckle up for some awkward rides. Awkward conversations will potentially have to happen. Letting your friend know that you can’t come to their baby shower because it is just too painful may seem awkward but it will breed honesty. It can also be very difficult for those with children to know how to involve their friends experiencing infertility in their lives. Being the one person from a group not invited to a child’s birthday party can hurt (it can also be a God-send) but the way to prevent that is to ask. Send them an invitation with a note saying you understand if they would prefer not to come but you wanted them to be included. And be ok when they don’t come. It means a great deal to be thought of and included. Awkward conversations are only awkward because we avoid them. If your friendship means something to you then you’ll have to be able to be ok with the discomfort of awkwardness.
After Elis and I had fertility treatment with a donor and were pregnant, I really struggled to connect with Lizzie. We were living really far away from each other which created a distance we hadn’t had before and I was going through this longed for pregnancy without the person who had become my rock whilst at Vicar Factory. I always found it hard to be around pregnant women. They were one of the biggest triggers for me. Their outward sign of everything I was inwardly desiring made it hard for me to be around them. So, I found it hard to now be that person for someone else. I would avoid talking about the pregnancy and generally be the ‘same’ Sheila when Lizzie and I chatted. The truth is, I let Lizzie down by avoiding talking about my life. I was trying to protect our friendship but in reality I was creating a greater distance. I didn’t need to talk to her about the ins and outs of every mid-wife appointment but I owed her an honest friendship. One of the most wonderful awkward conversations we had was in our kitchen when Lizzie was visiting. She explained that she might not be able to come see us straight away after the baby was born because it might be too hard. We hugged and shed tears and I told her that was absolutely ok. I valued that honesty more than I could articulate. She needed to look after her heart and I completely understood.
The reality of friendship is that good quality ones take effort. Not in the sense that they are draining but rather they deserve being given due care. They involve time, honesty and empathy. Being present in someone’s life doesn’t mean living around the corner from them and having a daily cup of tea. It might look like regular WhatsApp chats to check in with each other. Setting reminders of when they have their next doctor’s appointment and dropping them a text to let them know you’re thinking of them and then following up to find out how they are. It is retaining the connection you had before life became complicated. It is genuinely being interested in the other person’s life and being willing to be there for them without expecting anything back.
So, if you have a friend experiencing infertility then ask them how it feels. Go and be awkward together and build a friendship that will survive and potentially even flourish.
I think those guidelines kind of apply to all friendships where there is a “something else” or “elephant in the room” type thing, be it infertility, depression, cancer or any other “biggie”.
Thank you for your wise words, Sheila.