NOTE: Last year, I wrote an essay about infertility, miscarriage, and infant death. This week is National Infertility Awareness Week®, a nationwide campaign intended to educate the public about infertility and the concerns of the infertility community. In honor of the campaign, I reposted my “Unsung Lullabies” essay.
I’ll never forget the day I realized I was ignorant in my belief that having a baby is one of the simplest and most entitled acts in the world. My husband’s cousin Michael and his wife Tina were days away from delivering their first child and we were all excited for little Emma’s arrival. Then, in an instant, excitement turned to grief. Through a series of frantic phone calls and bits of information left on voicemails, we learned that the unthinkable had happened and Emma didn’t survive.
The aftermath was as sad and confusing as you might imagine. Even more than the trips to the hospital and the funeral, my most vivid memory is of watching the frenetic activity around me from within a cocoon of numbness. I felt like I was floating through a strange world that had spontaneously filled with uncertainty and betrayal. You see, I was just 25 at the time and Jason and I had begun conversations about starting a family. Those happy conversations were safely protected by what I thought was impenetrable hope. I had never known anyone who had suffered a miscarriage or lost a child in this manner and the only thought in my head for days on end was, “How can this happen?” Sure, childbirth USED to be serious business back in the day, but not now!
What I didn’t realize at the time was that modern technology has its limits. The reality is that pregnancies still end and babies still don’t make it. When I got pregnant with Bailey, I began to hear the stories I had been shielded from previously. Multiple miscarriages without any knowledge of the reason. Miscarriages at 16 weeks – long after the “safe” 12th week. Planning for months, even years, for a baby that inexplicably hasn’t become reality. Premature babies spending months in the hospital. In short, I became aware of a whole world of heartache I never knew existed.
While the list of women’s issues is long, few matters have remained closer to the hearts of women throughout time than the ability to create life. While some of us have always envisioned our lives with a gaggle of kiddos running around, others have taken steps along the way to preserve a life free from that responsibility, either temporarily or permanently. And, of course, the debate about abortion and reproductive rights wages on to this day. Regardless of the path we choose individually, we collectively have a stake in the reproduction game.
I am thankful I’ve delivered two children without issue, and I know I can’t fully understand the nuances and emotions attached to infertility, miscarriage or infant loss. However, I know intimately the crushing pain I feel inside when my thoughts wander to all the potentially devastating tragedies that could befall my children. I also know how quickly I fell in love with both my babies long before they had a name, a gender or a personality. Most of all, I know how unfair it seems that some people who desperately want children and would treasure them do not get that chance, while many others become parents to children they neglect or abuse.
I often feel guilty about being the exception to the rule. I can name only a few friends of childbearing age who have not suffered at least one miscarriage. Further, I have 3 friends who have confided in me about their struggles to get pregnant and the sense of loss that accompanies the increasingly familiar monthly disappointment. Experts say that 1 in 8 couples experience the infertility crisis, and close to 20% of recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage.
I wrote previously about unanswered prayers and my thoughts on God’s faithfulness through adversity. I will not repeat those thoughts here, but encourage you to revisit this post if you are struggling with the “why?” and the “why me?” of your situation. Here, I want to discuss what we as women can do to support other women we care about through these difficult times. I know I’ve wrestled with the right words to say and how to be supportive without inadvertently making things worse.
According to experts, I’m not alone. Most people don’t know what to say, so they wind up saying the wrong thing. This only makes the journey so much harder for their loved ones. Here are some dos and don’ts according to the National Infertility Association and the American Pregnancy Association:
Don’t Tell Them to Relax
Everyone knows someone who had trouble conceiving or carrying to term who finally achieved their dream once she stopped stressing over the process. Comments such as “just relax” actually create even more stress and anxiety and create feelings of loss of control over other aspects of life in addition to childbearing.
Don’t Minimize the Problem
Couples on this painful journey watch their friends give birth to children and see all the joy a child brings into someone’s life, and they feel the emptiness of not being able to experience the same joy. Comments like, “Just enjoy being able to sleep late while you can” do not offer comfort. Instead, these comments feel like attempts to minimize their pain. You wouldn’t tell somebody whose parent just died to be thankful that he no longer has to buy Father’s Day or Mother’s Day cards.
Don’t Say “There Are Worse Things That Could Happen”
Different people react to different life experiences in different ways. To someone who has trained his whole life for the Olympics, the “worst” thing might be experiencing an injury the week before the event. And, to a woman whose sole goal in life has been to love and nurture a child, infertility may indeed be the “worst” thing that could happen. Respect and honor their feelings and do not try to compare their experience to something you deem more devastating.
Don’t Complain About Your Pregnancy
If you are pregnant during a friend’s crisis, just being around you is painful. While you should remember that this isn’t your fault and should never try to avoid her because of your pregnancy, you can make a concerted effort to avoid venting about the discomforts of pregnancy, weight gain, hormones, etc. Stay sensitive to your friend’s emotions, and give her the leeway that she needs to be happy for you while she cries for herself. If she can’t bring herself to hold your new baby, give her time. She isn’t rejecting you or your new baby; she is just trying to work her way through her pain to show sincere joy for you.
DO Let Her Know You Care
The very best thing you can do is to gently let your friend know you care. Send cards. Let her cry on your shoulder even if you don’t have any words of wisdom. Let her know you are praying for her dreams to come true. Offer the same support you would offer a friend who has lost a loved one. Knowing she can count on a pat on the back or a note of encouragement is most important.
DO Remember Her on Mother’s Day (and don’t forget Father’s Day)
With all of the activity on these holidays, people tend to forget about women who cannot become mothers and the husbands going through this with them. Mother’s Day is a particularly painful time and it’s hard to get away from the TV ads, posters at the stores, church sermons devoted to celebrating motherhood, and all of the plans for celebrating with others. A quick acknowledgment is all that is needed!
Do the experts have it right? What do YOU think is the best way to show support to your loved ones?