Me And My Big Mouth

Sarah Pietrzak has learned that it’s best not to ask people, even friends, about their family planning.

I could have bitten my tongue off after the words left my mouth, although I suspect that the person I was talking to would have happily done it for me. To the casual observer, my question was pretty innocuous: “So are you thinking of having a family yourself?” But to those suffering the pain of infertility, these words are the verbal equivalent of a knife in the heart.

Since then, I’ve learned tact and discretion. I never ask friends about their family plans, regardless of how close we are. I follow their cues. I listen. But that night, before I wised up, it seemed like a perfectly natural question to ask an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in years. Her vehement reaction caught me off guard, as she hissed: “Don’t go there! Don’t even think about going there!” Then she walked off, leaving me feeling mortified.

As my friend Katie later pointed out, although I didn’t know what was going on in the life of my acquaintance, my question may have been the last thing she needed to hear. Katie had something similar happen to her, only she’d been asked the question herself, having just received the news that her second IVF cycle had been unsuccessful. She left the room in tears, leaving the person who’d asked her the question gobsmacked.

I’m the mother of three children. I had minor fertility issues with my first and third children, and I suffered an early miscarriage, so I’m not completely lacking in knowledge or understanding on the topic. But I haven’t done the ‘real rounds’ in the infertility boxing ring, for which I’m thankful. Many of us have been spared that pain. But as I get older, I’m aware that many of my friends are not starting families or adding to them in the way they had originally hoped.

The facts are pretty brutal. One in six couples in Australia is infertile so while I’m sure I’m not alone in making that horrible faux pas, there is a need for many of us to be more sensitive about the issue. One way is for us to engage in a dialogue about the complexities of infertility and its emotional impact on those dealing with it.

Recently, I asked some ‘fertility challenged’ friends a few questions. If you are suffering from infertility, do you want to talk about it? What do you want those of us who are not fertility challenged to say? And the kicker: how do you feel about your fertile friends? As with everything, the answers varied. But there was one common thread.

For those willing to talk about enduring the pain of infertility and multiple losses, it was important for their listener not to find points of comparison. As my friend Rach, who has suffered multiple losses, put it, “Do not try and understand where I’m coming from, where I’ve been, where I currently am and where I’m headed, because you just can’t. It almost feels as if people are trying to write off what we’ve been through when they try to compare it to other things that may have happened in their own lives. Trying to have a live baby for 10 years and suffering seven miscarriages compares to nothing else on this earth, absolutely nothing.”

And she’s right. I understood that completely. Eileen, who is pursuing adoption after several unsuccessful attempts at IVF, said, “I think the best thing that anyone has ever said to me was that while she didn’t at all understand what I was going through, she was available to listen if I ever wanted to talk about it. That was all she said, but I wanted to give her a hug right there and then. The worst thing is to give ‘advice’, especially if you haven’t been through it.”

So I’ve learned not to do that either. The key thing for me is to listen for cues from other people and unless the conversation steers in the direction of parenthood or the possibility of starting a family, I don’t ask them about their future plans. And I don’t compare my journey to theirs.

Lots of my friends do want to talk about what they are going through with their infertility, but not necessarily with close friends and family. They often feel a sense of pressure to ‘achieve’, and the sense of disappointment and sorrow they feel when a cycle or treatment is unsuccessful is further intensified when they have to make a round of phone calls to well-meaning family and friends to let them know the sad news. As a result, sometimes I’ve only learned of friends’ IVF treatment after their baby was born. (Conversely, I’ve had mere acquaintances tell me in detail about their IVF treatment.)

Another huge source of frustration to many are the well-meaning questions we ask about infertility. Kelly, who lost twins conceived through IVF, at 20 weeks, said, “A question that really bugged me was: ‘They must be doing something wrong. Are you going to a good clinic?’ Of course we are. What kind of question is that? At the end of the day, there is only so much your clinic can do.”

Rach concurred: “The only other thing that you could say which would make my blood slowly start to boil would be to ask if we’ve tried x, y or z in order to get pregnant. Or suggest adoption. You think in 10 years we’ve just been trying to get knocked up the old-fashioned way? Asking those kinds of questions just makes us look like idiots.”

In addition, I avoid giving advice such as ‘relax and it will happen’. I have learned that statements like this little gem are entirely unhelpful.

But how do those with fertility issues feel when everyone but them seems to be having babies? The vast majority of my fertility-challenged friends were happy that I had my little clan and expressed happiness when friends announced their pregnancies. What they did struggle with was when people made negative remarks about their children or complained about their pregnancies. And fair enough, too.

Some also said that they struggled with the fact that having been raised to think that they had all the time in the world to start a family, discovering that this was not always the case was devastating. Leanne’s bitterness was palpable as she said, “I feel I’ve been sold a bill of goods. I was encouraged to take my time, build up a career, and told that starting a family could wait. And now I discover it can’t. And it’s awful. And being asked by well-meaning friends when we are ‘going to start trying’ kills me, because at the moment that’s all we’re doing. I wish I hadn’t waited until I was 38.” With about one in 10 mothers starting families after the age of 35, Leanne isn’t alone in struggling with the complex ‘have it all’ issue that besets women today.

I’m grateful for my children and even though I sometimes struggle with motherhood, I’m keenly aware that I’m one of the lucky ones. And when it comes to my friends who are struggling with issues of fertility, I’ve learned to go slow. To follow their lead. To listen. Because I’ll never know just how hard it really is.

Illustrations by Madeleine Stamer