A while back* when I pointed you all to the infertility edition of the "What I'd Like for You to Know" series at Rocks In My Dryer, one friend asked if there was anything I would add to it. Here are a few personal additions, but first a caveat. This is a list of challenges that are often overlooked. People can see when I'm doing well, and by God's grace I have grown in contentment amid infertility. Here, I'm addressing some specific temptations that you wouldn't be aware of if you haven't experienced infertility or a similar trial.
I don't just grieve over our inability to have a baby; I grieve over a whole set of dreams.
We don't have a baby. I've never been pregnant. But the ache of infertility isn't just about these efforts for a first child. We wanted to have a full family, maybe four kids. Even if we do ever conceive once, I know that won't be a magic bullet that kills off our infertility once and for all. One child would be a miracle, and I would be overjoyed. More than one child... well, that seems like too much to ask at this point. We will probably exhaust our arsenal of fertility treatments if we get pregnant. Or we will exhaust our finances (after having to scrape the funds together in the first place) if we pursue adoption. Infertility doesn't just mean we can't have one child; it means we can't have the family we hoped to have.
Milestones are bittersweet.
The anniversary we celebrated recently was delightful. We're grateful for every year of marriage. But I'm also very aware that an anniversary marks one more year that we haven't gotten pregnant or had a baby. When people enthusiastically say, "Happy anniversary! Wow, has it been six years already?!" - I welcome their kind joy for us, but I also think, "Yes, it has been six years, six years of just the two of us, many more years than we expected to be childless." My birthdays and Aaron's birthdays remind me that we won't get to be young parents like we wished. The new year means another year of disappointed hopes has passed, another year of trying to build a family has turned over.
And it's not just our own milestones. Your anniversaries cause pangs of jealousy; "Oh, they've been married for four years and already have two kids." Your children's birthdays can be the hardest of all. When you're celebrating your child's third birthday, I'm aware that you announced your pregnancy with that child just as we started trying to conceive. Your two-year-old? He was born during our first failed IVF cycle. If your baby is turning one, I'm steeling myself for the impending announcement of the next pregnancy. Now, we love you, and we love your kids. I sincerely do rejoice with you at your milestones. But they are also vivid reminders of what might have been, and what clearly isn't, in our family of two.
Stories of Joe and Suzy, who did (fill-in-the-blank) and then got pregnant, don't help.
One of the default attempts people make to sympathize and encourage when they hear about our infertility is to tell an anecdote of some other couple they knew. "I knew these people who couldn't get pregnant and they gave up trying, then seven years later they had a baby!" "Bill and Mary finally adopted, and then she got pregnant!" "The Smiths had twins through IVF, and then they conceived on their own four months after the twins were born!" I understand that those stories are meant to convey hope. But they don't. It would be kind of like telling a friend who just found out that she has breast cancer that you knew a guy who had prostate cancer that was cured by a little radiation. Misses the point, huh? Infertility has so many underlying causes - female factor, male factor, ovulatory dysfunction, endometriosis, thyroid disorders, poly-cystic ovaries, and so on. Your friends who ultimately got pregnant probably had an entirely different reason for their infertility, and so their success has about as much bearing on our situation as the case of prostate cancer would have to the case of breast cancer. It's much better to ask questions about our specific struggles than to offer a random story of so-and-so. (I would imagine that this would go for most health challenges or significant trials.)
Relatedly, it's also not helpful when you only offer blind optimism that ignores my very real doubt that we will ever have children. All of those types of stories mentioned previously have one common thread - the "happy" ending. When people assume we will get that same "happily-ever-after" to our story of infertility, it hurts more than it helps, because it misses the fact that a large part of the struggle is the uncertainty, the fear that our family will never grow. We've had people visit our new house and make comments about how certain rooms will make a great nursery someday; that's like salt in the wound, because we might never need a room for a baby. I need others to hope and have faith for me, but not at the cost of belittling the pain of how small that hope often feels. And not in a way that communicates that the only happy solution is the one where we get the baby. God will be faithful and will bless us even if we never have children.
Reaching across seasons of life should go both ways.
Most of my friends have children. Most of them have young children, which means they're in a season of life where motherhood is fairly consuming. Their thoughts and therefore their conversations tend toward what's going on with the kids. This increases exponentially when the conversation includes a group of moms. That's understandable, and I generally want to know what's going on with my friends kids and how they're enjoying or being challenged by being a mother. But I really appreciate those who are sensitive toward the temptations those types of conversations pose for me. It means a lot when a friend makes an effort to talk about the areas of her life beyond being a mother, or when she asks me about my life. It helps so much when someone steers a group conversation to a topic that everyone - including me - can discuss, or when someone pulls me aside after a talk-fest about kids' antics or schedules or what-have-you and asks how I'm doing or acknowledges that the conversation was probably hard for me.
At my church, we emphasize that our common bond is not in a season of life or in certain practices, but in the gospel. As the odd-woman-out, I often feel like the burden falls on me to make the efforts to find that unity in the gospel. I'll keep making those efforts, but I'm blessed when those in the majority resist the urge to rely on the common bond of circumstances and make those efforts toward unity a two-way street. (Again, this would apply to many different trials - to the single in a group of married women, to the public-schooler in a group of home-schoolers, etc.)
These few temptations aren't the whole story of infertility. And these temptations aren't necessarily constant. By and large, I have outstanding friends who are deeply sensitive, who have shown great kindness and made serious efforts to understand over these past four years. I'm so grateful for the gifts that I have even while I suffer - for my marriage, for my home, for my church, for grace to persevere. But hopefully this list will help you to understand some of the unspoken challenges and to learn how to extend even more compassion and comfort to those who need it.
*Two months ago, I noticed when I dug up the older post. Have I seriously been thinking about the question for that long? My blogging is finally starting to catch up with my thoughts... And sadly, thinking about this post for so long hasn't really made it well-written. Oh well.