How to support a friend dealing with involuntary childlessness

Happy Mother’s Day!

To all my incredible mother-friends, mother-in-law, to my grandmothers through the ages in heaven and to my own beautiful mother who is there too: I love you.

Dear Mamas,

you are doing such an incredible job of raising the next generation in a time of great uncertainty, climate change and upheaval.

I salute you.

I salute you for your immense courage.

For all your sacrifices.

For the sleepless nights, endless tantrums, the hundreds of hours of hard negotiations before bed time/ school/ at meal times. I salute you for your unconditional love, your seemingly other-worldly patience, your ability to manage life and keep everyone alive on a cocktail of sleep deprivation, lack of coherent adult conversation lasting longer than 3 min, and the constant question of “am I doing a good enough job here?”. Sometimes you manage all of this also on a shoestring budget of money, and/or little loving support from a partner.

You are simply amazing.

And each and every one of you deserves a medal.

This is the truth.

For most of my life I hoped and thought I would be one of you.

And having met my (slightly younger) husband at 33, I thought I still had a chance.

But it turns out, it wasn’t to be this way.

So today, this Mother’s Day, I’m also giving a shout-out to all the sisters out there dealing with the crisis of infertility and involuntary childlessness and saying “me too, sister”.

Let’s not hide anymore. Especially today. Even though hiding is our default on a day like today.

Instead, let’s be visible and own our stories.

Today can be so hard. And there is no escape. Mother’s Day is literally everywhere you go.

I know.

I know.

As a society, we don’t often speak openly of the emotional, mental and physical impacts on infertility on individuals, couples and families.

This is what I have come to learn:

Involuntary childlessness very often includes one, many or all of the following symptoms :

Grief, depression, existential crisis, anger, intergenerational sadness in the extended family, a sense of failure at life, social isolation, shame of not being “woman enough” to produce a child, shame every time someone new says “Isn’t it about time you had a baby”/ “Not drinking? Ohhh.. are you pregnant?”, loneliness, feeling like the outsider, breakdown of friendships, loss of intimacy in romantic relationships, breakdown of relationship/marriage, loathing of one’s own imperfect body, controlling of one’s body, increased risks of female cancers as a result of heavy-duty hormone treatment, increased fear of old age and dying alone.

The list is incomplete.

On the 7th of July 2016, I was standing in my aunt’s spare room when the phone rang. 

Outside was a beautiful, sunny Scandinavian summer’s day. Nature was in full, abundant bloom.

I felt the stillness of my fate closing in.

It was my doctor on the line:

“I’m afraid the news isn’t good Emily, she said. Are you sitting down?”.

This was not the first time I had had a serious, life-changing conversation with a doctor. I took a deep breath.

As she spoke and the information was transmitted through my ears, every cell of my body became heavy. The news I was receiving was apparently that all the results – gathered over several years – from the myriads of tests and treatments, pointed to the very high improbability of my husband and I birthing our own baby.

I remember distinctly feeling in that moment as though my life had ended.

Of course, I now know that in many ways quite the opposite was about to unfold, but that’s not how I felt in that moment.

I was actually experiencing a pain I could never have imagined in a million years: my body – my biological self – was screaming.

I remember feeling as though I was falling through the sky with no Earth beneath me. Ungrounded by the notion of travelling through life without either parents or children. Hanging loose in the great tapestry of life.

It was as though my ancestors were looking on, with great sadness: without any nieces or nephews either, our lineage would be ending with me. And my husband’s lineage with him.

What struck me at the time was how very few people were prepared to acknowledge our loss.

It meant we hid away.

Up until now I haven’t been ready to share this.

The gift of the darkness of acute loneliness in times of crisis has today made me a passionate advocate for grief support of all kinds.

So today I am offering this list of how to support a friend dealing with infertility/ involuntary childlessness. Chances are you will know at least one person in your network even if they never speak about it. They may be single or in a couple.

Know that most people suffer in silence.

1. Your friend does not need rescuing.

Just like when your friend loses a close relative to death, there will be nothing that can “fix” the loss.

(No! Not EVEN an alternative route to parenting. Before your friend can even begin to consider this, they need space and time to grieve. Every good adoption social worker or donor conception councillor would suggest the same)

2. Allow them to be sad.

It’s not up to you to find a solution to their “problem”.  ALL they need is your Love. No advice. No suggestions. JUST love.

3. Fully acknowledge your friend’s grief…

…by saying you are sorry for their loss. Know that you are unlikely to understand what they are experiencing. You don’t have to.  I had absolutely no idea of the impact of infertility until I was myself “that statistic”.

4. Ask what support looks like for them.

Let them tell you what they need.

5. From time to time, ask how they are getting on

There are 5 stages to grief, and grieving involuntary childlessness is exactly the same as grieving the loss of a loved one. Ask your friend from time to time where in the 5 step cycle of grief they think they find themselves.

6. Holidays / social gatherings

When holidays and social gatherings are on the cards, ask how your friend feels about going to that party/ playground/ girls night out where they will be the only person not a mum and conversation is likely to revolve around kids.  Ask how you can be of support on the day. Be patient if your friend cancels last minute and blames a headache/ work.

7. Ask about your friend’s life outside of trying to conceive and celebrate that 

 

8. This is important:

  • Your friend will most likely have read and tried most advice available to humanity on fertility, and indeed alternative routes to parenting. Stay mindful that you are highly unlikely to have up-to-date information on the complexities and costs of donor conception, or the latest fostering and adoption policies or realities of those  processes in your friend’s specific location. Most likely they will.
  • If you can, also stay mindful of:”Have you tried.. [insert any number of healing modalities/ herbs/treatments/ supplements/food/magical potions] or motivational pep talks like “My friend/ someone in my office sister just had twins…if it can happen for them it can happen for you!”/ “You are still young!”/“It WILL happen for you! I just know it!” 
  • Every single case of infertility is different to the next. For one woman all she may need is energy healing of her womb space or acupuncture to support conception. Or a conscious conception workshop. For another, menopause kicked in at 28 or her eggs aged prematurely. Yet for another woman, it may be a case of chromosomal breakdown of their partner’s sperm which absolutely no amount of Chinese herbs can fix. 
  • Assume that fertility is a highly complex and individual matter with any number of variables at play energetically, physically, emotionally and mentally. 
  • It’s not rude to ask! If you are uncertain of how IVF/fostering to adopt or single/double donor conception really works, ask your friend. They will be happy that you took the time and energy to understand their reality, in the same way you are grateful that they take the time to play with your kids or listen to you complain about failing baby sleep routines or teenage tantrums. 
  • If your friend chooses to not adopt/proceed with donor conception, they are still allowed to feel sad. There are a multitude of reasons why infertile couples don’t adopt or choose to not proceed with donor conception. Ask your friend if you want to understand them/their options better and respect their choices. Stay mindful that you may have a romantic view of what their options might be that bears little resemblance with their reality or options. Stay mindful that what you think you may have done in a similar situation may be nothing like what you may actually do if you were. Assume nothing. 

9. The sadness of not being able to birth a healthy living child is something we may live with for the rest of our lives.

Just like the grief of losing our own mothers. With time comes acceptance and the knowledge that nothing and no one apart from ourselves can make us feel whole and complete, not even a baby. The sadness doesn’t mean we, at the very same time, don’t feel immense gratitude for our lives and what we have. The sadness doesn’t mean we don’t feel excitement and joy for the future.

 

The bottom line is this: let’s break the silence of infertility and involuntary childlessness just as the silence around the challenges of motherhood is beginning to break.

 

Let today be the day we celebrate and say YES to ONE sisterhood. One womanhood. United in love and respect for each other’s fates, journeys and choices.

Together we can all feel more supported, less divided, and more connected.

 

 

  Photographer: Priscilla Du Preez | Source: Unsplash

 

Today I’ll be celebrating the Mother in me, the one who has held the beginnings of babies in my womb space, the one who has birthed impactful, heart-led businesses and projects, the one who mothers her friends’ and relatives children, who mothers the inner children of my clients, the one who campaigns for the rights and wellbeing of all children.

Today I celebrate the mothers of all times and indeed Mother Earth herself – she who lives in all of us.

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