Supporting a Friend Struggling with Childlessness

Why is it we feel so inadequate when someone opens up about their struggles? I’ve been there plenty of times, sat with a friend who’s pouring their heart out and you desperately want them but to feel better but to be quite honest you’re actually worrying more about how out of your depth you feel and that you’ve no idea what to say. Having been on the other end, the runny snot, smudged mascara end when life is crashing down around you, I can honestly say that in that moment, right there, sat on the sofa with a blotchy face and soaked tissues you don’t want advice. You just want someone to listen. To ask you what it feels like and to agree with you that life can be shitty and to sit with you as you cry – however long that takes.

At Saltwater and Honey, we believe this is the best way to begin supporting any friend who’s struggling – confess you don’t know what to say and that you don’t know what it feels like and ask them to tell you what’s like. You don’t need to become an expert on infertility before popping round with cake, just take the cake round and tell them you don’t know what to say, let them teach you, let them tell you what would help them the most – it’s that simple. Below we’ve listed a few more suggestions of helpful ways to relate to and support your friend struggling with childlessness, we hope you find it helpful.

Friendship (Creative Commons courtesy of Blondinrikard Fröberg, Flickr)

The Saltwater and Honey guide to supporting a friend experiencing childlessness

1. Listen

We’ve said it before and we’ll keep saying it, ask your friend what they’re feeling and what they’re going through. When you’re listening repeat back to your friend what you’re hearing to make sure you’ve understood what they’re saying. Ask open questions to get them talking, like how do you feel when you’re surrounded by friends who have kids or what does it feel like to miscarry? Make sure you listen more than you speak, this conversation isn’t about you or your opinions it’s about supporting your friend. Remember you have two ears and only one mouth, so try to listen more than you speak.

2. Know your audience

If you have kids then of course you need to talk about how amazing it is to be a dad and let off steam about how tired you are but remember who you’re talking to. We’re not saying don’t talk about your kids when you’re hanging out with someone who is struggling with childlessness, but think about who you’re talking to. If you talk about your kids all the time, you’re talking about the one thing they don’t have in common with you – also it can be a bit boring. When you’re complaining about being tired all the time we understand it’s tough, but to be honest we wish we could have a kid waking us up at 5am!! Being a parent of young kids is really tough at times and you need support, but your friend struggling with infertility is unlikely to be the best person for that job.

3. Be sensitive about telling your friend you’re pregnant

Infertility is a complex grief that never really leaves and moments like a friend’s pregnancy announcement is often a trigger for deeper grieving. Some people think this is selfish and unfair on the person wanting to celebrate, but believe me you don’t need to say anything to make your friend feel bad about how they’re reacting, they’re already beating themselves up about that as well.

Here’s some suggestions from experience:
-Tell your friend first before you announce it publicly
-Don’t tell them in person. Announcing by text, email or letter gives them time to grieve and process the news in their own time
-If they don’t get in touch after a couple of weeks, just drop them a text and see if they fancy doing something fun
-Reassure them that you still want to be their friend and continue to ask them about how they’re feeling about their infertility
-Don’t show them your scan photos, it’s like going up to a homeless person and waving your money in their face – it’s unfair and it hurts

4. Bite your tongue

When a friend is hurting you want to help – of course! For some reason we think that giving advice or trying to fix the problem for our friends is helpful, but to be honest often it isn’t. Most people have a story about someone who couldn’t have children and then did, but that doesn’t always help. There’s always some weird herb or drug people have taken, then there’s the people who just relaxed and suddenly got pregnant. Your friend is probably already a fertility guru, the chances are they’ve researched their diagnosis and have been to countless hospital appointments. Let them tell you what the doctors have said and what their options are and support them in the process.

5. Stop trying to find reasons why

We’re all trying to look for answers, and Christians are the same, they want to know that God has a reason behind everything that happens in life, but the experience of infertility doesn’t always resolve. Not everyone who prays for a child will conceive and this is not because of sin or weak faith and it’s not because God is trying to teach a lesson. The world is broken and we live in it. Responding to someone’s pain by telling them that it’s part of God’s plan can do all sorts of damage because of what it says about God’s character. Faith doesn’t always resolve, we may never have our ‘answer’ and this is the complex journey you need to walk with your friend – not neatening their pain and explaining it away but sitting with the questions. The good news is that we believe in a God of redemption. Redemption doesn’t deny pain, but it means that good can come from a hopeless and painful situation. Stop searching for reasons why this has happened, start talking about redemption.

6. Infertility doesn’t always go away

Yes, it’s true some people who miscarry or are told they’re infertile or marry later on in life do go on to have children, but this is not the case for everyone and those who remain childless continue to carry their grief with them. It may be years since a diagnosis and your friend may seem much stronger but this doesn’t mean they’re no longer experiencing loss. Childlessness is a complex grief because there’s not a moment or event that marks the loss, it’s continuous, it’s carried through life. Just because your friend hasn’t had a doctor’s appointment recently or has stopped trying shouldn’t mean you just stop asking them about how they’re feeling. People who have experienced a miscarriage carry that loss with them whether they go on to have children or not. Time on it’s own doesn’t just automatically heal a situation, people are a lot more complex than that. Unresolved childlessness will still be a big part of your friend’s life regardless of whether they talk about it much, so remember to mention it once in a while to remind them you care and want to walk this journey with them.

7. Talking helps

Yes, we’re British and I know it’s not natural to talk about awkward stuff but if you want to help your friend move forward in their grief then things are going to get awkward. There can also be a lot of shame associated with infertility and miscarriage as the inability to conceive or carry a child challenges the deepest part of your identity as a woman or a man, making it very difficult to talk about. Firstly, not crying and not telling anyone you’re struggling does not show you’re coping, grief won’t disappear if you hide it away for long enough. Expressing your emotions is biblical, look at the psalms! You need to let your friend get angry, complain, cry and say what’s on their heart, get angry with them, cry with them, tell God it’s not fair. Grief is a precondition to joy and it’s only by expressing how you’re feeling that you can move forward and find healing. So don’t encourage them to bottle up their emotions, help them let it out then give them tea and cake.

8. Have fun

At times life can feel like it’s all about waiting for hospital appointments and ovulation and not drinking wine and the rest of life is put on hold. Organise some fun activities to do with your friend, get some dates in the diary and have a laugh. It gives them a break from obsessing over baby stuff and hopefully helps them to remember that there are still some good things in life to enjoy. Help them to remember they’re a person with interests and skills and a sense of humour, celebrate the person they are, helping them to remember there’s so much more to them than just a womb or a load of sperm.

9. Be an advocate

Childlessness is an extremely isolating experience because suddenly you’re the odd one out. This isolation can become so crippling that you may see your friend start to withdraw from groups and social activities they were once part of. You can help your friend feel less like an outsider by representing that minority voice. At work, in friendship groups, church communities and family gatherings you can change the conversation when it’s been dominated by child birth stories and cracked nipples for the last half an hour. You can challenge your church to think about how to make Mother’s day more inclusive. You can challenge preachers when their sermons assume everyone knows what it’s like to be a parent. You can butt into conversations when someone’s telling your friend how lucky they are that they don’t have kids. You can be the voice to help make your community more inclusive and to encourage people to think about everyone in the room, not just the majority.

Childlessness is a very lonely journey and your friend needs you, not a fertility expert.

4 Responses

  1. Three stages you go through when a friend tells you they’re struggling with infertility. | theologybee / 11-2-2015 / ·

    […] stories about childlessness, faith and the space in-between. They have a particularly good page on how to support a friend struggling with childlessness. Do check it […]

  2. Sheridan Voysey / 4-27-2016 / ·

    This is such a helpful post I’ve summarised and linked to it in my own post on the topic: http://sheridanvoysey.com/How-to-Help-a-Friend-With-Infertility You put into words what Merryn and I needed (and in so many cases received) and have done so with grace, humour and clarity.

    Thanks for all you do.

  3. Lynn / 6-3-2016 / ·

    I don’t know if this is the right thread to leave this message, but you know what I am going to write it down before I don’t do anything. I have had 11 miscarriages that I know of. I don’t have children of my own. I gave up trying when I was 42-43 years old. I just couldn’t go through it anymore. I am okay mostly. I have tried to accept my lot in life; which apart from this is good you know. I have a loving family a good career and good friends. I even thought I was strong enough to do some research with a colleague looking at women’s experiences of a first trimester miscarriage in an EPAU. I have been mostly fine in doing this. But as I sit trying to write an academic paper on it this morning and find myself looking for additional information I suddenly feel sad. Not just for me but for all of us who experience this very distressing and traumatic experience of loss. My friend who also announced that she was pregnant earlier this week (I am truly happy for her) also shared her concerns this morning that she will have to cope with a baby and a toddler- how on earth was she going to do this? I couldn’t reply. I am not the best person to share this anxiety with because I would have just loved to experience this situation for myself. I am writing this in order to take a deep breath and move on… again. Thank you for giving me this space. Warmest wishes to you all.

    1. Lizzie Lowrie
      Lizzie Lowrie / 6-16-2016 / ·

      Hi Lyn, thanks so much for your comment and for sharing some of your story. I’m so sorry to hear about the losses you have experienced, although I know no experience of struggle is the same, so much of what you have shared resonates with me. It is amazing that you have been able to contribute to this research in the experience of first trimester miscarriage and I’m sure your experience will be of such great value to changing women’s experience in the future, which is so needed. You have described the mix of moving forward yet carrying your loss with you so well and it is an experience I can really relate to ,especially feeling unable to or struggling to support friends in their anxieties about their children. Thank you for sharing your story and for all you have given to help other women who have had similar experiences to you, do keep us posted on the outcome of this research. Sending you lots of love, please know you are not alone. xxxxx

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