The Other Side


Inserting infertility into everyday conversation

It was just another every day moment. I found myself in a conversation with a fellow musician after having complimented her on how great she sounded. We had just finished performing a concert with the band I’m in and were mingling around a refreshment table at the venue getting to know one another better.

Although I’m ultimately an introvert, nine years serving part time in restaurants developed in me a propensity for small talk. I truly used to enjoy talking to people I don’t know before infertility came along and turned every day conversation into such a fencing match. And in this conversation I was, for a flicker in time, enveloped in the ease of connecting spontaneously with someone I didn’t really know. She was a fantastic conversationalist (with two or three slightly older children), and we shared compatible points of view and feelings on music teaching, auditions, and musician burnout, among other things. She was also very interested in other things I was doing and flowed well with my middle aged randomness (of course exacerbated by infertility) of “well I used to keep about twenty five private students and I had a wedding music business too for a while but things have shifted and I started writing and I’m fairly certain I’m going to complete my yoga teacher training soon…..” Yes, she was able to roll with it all fine. And then, her question. “So what you do write about?”

Now this is where a normal (and smarter) person would lie. This is where the savvy aversionists of the world would come up with an answer that is both creative and benign, enough to peak one’s interest but not so much as to provoke too many questions. Even more realistically this would have never come up at all, since those endowed with the ability to keep themselves in the shadows would have never even mentioned their writing in the first place. I don’t completely know what the temptation is with me. I get nervous and anxious just like everybody else, perhaps even more so, although I wasn’t in this particular situation. I do know that because infertility is a part of life, I believe it belongs in conversation. And I’m willing to go out on a limb for that when I’m able. Is it one part pride, one part I kind of suck at lying? Probably. I strongly feel I’ve done nothing wrong as far as infertility is concerned so therefore why should I wither away and hide? And for all of the pitfalls of self-revelation, there is something I truly LIKE about throwing down a thorny unexpected subject matter and seeing what comes of it. So for whatever reason, if there’s a can of worms to be voluntarily opened, apparently I’m your person.

“Well, it’s a tough thing that I write about.” I never said I didn’t believe in fair warning. And I need a segway myself. A brief pause in time and space to prepare for the abrupt screeching road runner like halt of energy that most often occurs when infertility is brought into the mix. Usually to be followed by a conversation that has a much more obstacle laden, plummeting, splattering coyote like tone.

“My husband and I just spent the past three years and eight months trying to conceive a child, and it didn’t work. So I write about infertility. We’re going through a very sad time now and I find writing to be extremely therapeutic.” Since infertility is so soaked with negatives, I make every effort to include in conversation the 2.3 positive things that have come out of it.

“Oh yes, that’s something a lot of women deal with” she said as she looked away.

Back when I was 39, in my younger naïve days, I actually took this as a sign that the other person understood. My how I’ve grown. It’s in our conversation patterns to say we know even when we don’t, and for some reason fertile people have a particularly difficult time wrapping their heads around the fact there’s something child related they are clueless about. But I pretend to take her cue and play that we’re on the same page.

“Yes, it’s extremely alienating and isolating” I say as I nod in “agreement”. Meep meep…..well at least I’m off and running.

She covers extremely well, but at this point it’s clear, more from the expression of her body than her face, that she is uncomfortable. She said she was sorry, which I always appreciate and made sure to let her know, and then broke into the “solution part”. “You know what you do? You know those horrible kids that are just obnoxious disasters? Focus on them. Because, I mean, you can get ANYTHING when you have a kid.” Attempts to make the loss of one’s biological children “ok” have the potential to be about as successful as the coyote’s attempts to catch the roadrunner. Figuring I’ll save THAT, as well as the point that the very off chance I could have given birth to a serial killer does not exactly soothe the loss of my biological children for some other fine day, I laugh but then realize she’s actually serious. “Well, it IS a crap shoot,” I offer. Now who says I’m not reasonable??

“And you can always foster or adopt,” she says, as if I can do that with the ease with which I buy milk.   I understand this is her attempt to point out that these are methods of family building that are just as valid as natural conception, which is a very good thing. However at this point all that I’m dealing with flashes through my head. Having to find the energy to speak with adoption attorneys upon the traumatic end of our fertility treatments in order to find out if my husband’s immigration status will prevent us from adopting altogether (fortunately it looks like it won’t be a problem). Investigating fully open adoptions, the idea of which right now feels entirely upsetting, invasive and violating. Learning that private adoptions involve independently soliciting pregos and even possibly taking them out for dinner. Eeeew. I’m so NOT there right now and I may never be, who knows? The knowledge that most children in foster care have some type of mental, physical, or emotional disability. And that a couple such as ourselves who has been traumatized and depleted by infertility is likely not in the right position to take on such a responsibility. That after the loss involved with ten failed fertility treatments bonding with a child or children who then leave my home would not be in my best emotional interest. I don’t think my PTSD would take too kindly to it either. How to come up with the $35,000 or so we’ll need to adopt after spending everything we had and some we didn’t ($77,000) on not getting pregnant.

And yes, I’ve been around this carousel enough times to know the arguments that can come up. That I can’t expect everyone to just understand my problems. And that who am I to expect people to just know about infertility. Turns out I can answer to all of that. First of all, this isn’t just “my” problem. Infertility effects approximately 12% of the child bearing aged population. Second, I don’t expect people to understand. Let me be clear, it’s the inherent ASSUMPTIONS that things like going through fertility treatments, choosing to end them, and considering alternative family building options are EASY that need to change. Last, people absolutely can know more about infertility. It is a trauma, and it’s estimated that 50% of our population endures some type of trauma throughout the course of their lifetime. I wouldn’t be surprised if the actual percentage is higher. Infertility can happen to anyone. Assisted Reproductive Technology is something that has changed the landscape of the type of life crisis people in their family building years endure. Since we are a culture that obsessively talks, shares and inquires about everything baby and family, then we can know about all of it, not just the easy part. Infertility IS the baby family aspect of my life.

The notion, however well intended, that I can now trot along after the transfer of 24 embryos that turned into nothing and mindlessly pluck a child to raise up out of nowhere, all in a single bound, is not something I’m willing to let slide. And I have no problem attempting to redirect this misperception through calm matter of fact conversation. It’s not like our talk had fallen completely off the tracks. I let her know that although we may adopt, it’s a lot more complicated than it looks. That we just went through something arduous and would need time before entering the tangled maze of adoption. That I wasn’t in shape for much after one surgery and ten failed fertility treatments, but that I had found the energy to contact adoption attorneys to find out about my husband’s immigration status in regards to adoption. I let her know it seemed that his status likely wouldn’t be a problem and that we were grateful for one less potential obstacle to deal with. Like I said, I always include the positives. There are so few so it’s not as if they are hard to remember. I acknowledged that many people adopt successfully, but that it’s a lot to take on. Especially since right now the most important thing is for us to grieve. I finished with “The main thing I tell people is that I can’t tie this up with a neat little bow, it’s really a very tough thing.”

As I was trying to get all of the above words out, something different hit me. “This is hard for her,” I realized. And for a brief moment, I saw a slight glimmer of the other side. The other side that is the innocent inexperienced unsuspecting person from our limited western culture who is suddenly stuck absorbing the infertility story in three minutes flat. I do really think she meant well, and I don’t say this lightly because I don’t believe everyone who throws their two cents into the infertility pool does mean well. I’ve ended up in my share of stale mate conversations, as I’m sure all of us infertiles have, where I’m told dismissively “I’m SURE they meant well.” Which is really code for “I’m not interested in hearing your feelings”. To which I’ll sometimes respond “No, I really don’t think they meant well at all. I really don’t” (conversation plummets down ravine –splat!).   There are many who walk amongst us who believe that avoiding the “bad stuff” is actually an MO for dealing with life. These people, who are typically void of a connection to their own emotions, actually believe they are better off by staying away from people like me, or from anyone who is having something bad happen to them for that matter. But then there are those who do care, who are trying to do the right thing in conversation but just don’t have the tools. I guess in the midst of all of my pain I had been figuring to an extent that if I actually lived through infertility and survived, then how challenging could it be to hear about it? Hearing about it is much easier than going through it no doubt, but for this brief moment I could see that hearing about it is tough too. And really, if I can’t fathom it all having gone through it myself for almost four years, why wouldn’t someone hearing about it for the first time be a bit overwhelmed? So yes, I had flash of empathy for the fertile world. Hold onto your hats, fasten your seatbelts, alert CNN, do whatever you’ve got to do. But in this moment, I for whatever reason was able to see an otherwise open, intelligent, insightful person reach the limit of her current skills and capacity. Infertility really does that to everyone, not just its direct victims. But it’s not only the components of infertility and the individual that are in play here. It’s also the fabric created by the things our culture perpetuates – the coyote-like attributes of avoidance through action, desperately needing resolution, and not stopping to pause, just to name a few, that can lead these conversations to form figurative splattered outlines against rock.

There are many reasons for the awkwardness. We women thrive, too much I think, on having things in common with one another. Men seem to leave much more space for the differences between them. But more importantly, in taking a look at our conversations with one another, I wonder this:

How often do the conversation patterns in our culture willingly acknowledge loss?

Acknowledge trauma?

Demonstrate comfort with and acceptance of emotional pain?

Dwell in the space of “no answers”?

How often do the conversation patterns in our culture stay away from the need to fix?

Stay IN the present (for ex. “how are you right now”)?

Possess an inquisitive tone (for ex. “what challenges you”)?

How often do the conversation patterns in our culture accept a lack of resolution?

Allow capacity for the unfathomable?

How often are any of us really willing to take the leap of faith that we might actually be enriched, or at least informed, by sitting with the pain of another?

I venture to say the components that are most deficient or quite possibly entirely absent from our conversation patterns are what we infertiles need the most from people. And that, perhaps, is one of the culprits of the repellant dynamic that is so often present in conversation between fertiles and infertiles.

Our conversation, as to be expected, dissolved both somewhat gracefully and awkwardly, with her bowing out having to head home. In a way, we simply parted as two human beings limited by our own needs, perceptions and expectations, and influenced by those that pervade our culture. Hers could have been anything from feeling uneasy with the lack of resolution and my outright unwillingness to say everything was OK, to an unreasonable expectation to make others (me in this case) feel better, to the discomfort people feel when we find out something we hadn’t given a second thought to is really much more intricate and torturous than expected. Or maybe none of the above, who knows? Myself, I was left wresting with a bit of what I call “infertile guilt”. Which is really the discomfort I feel in the process of divorcing myself from the childish patriarchal notion that my main job in conversation is to make people comfortable.  It isn’t, plus, like lying, I was never so good at that either so it’s high time I officially move forward……..meep meep.


So instead of a song (or a sauwong, as they say here on Long Island), I leave you with a cartoon.

Substitute the word “cartoon” in the sign in the last scene with the word “conversation”.  That says it all.


What’s The Fertile World To Do?

My commentary and suggestions on our society’s lacking infertility etiquette

One day about a month after hurricane Sandy, my husband got up and went to work. Normal enough, most would think. But for someone dealing with infertility this is often the beginning of things that aren’t good. As a chef and co-owner of a few french bistros, my husband has a good amount of contact with not only the crews in his kitchens, but also with the general public. A fairly normal component of many jobs, but for someone dealing with infertility perpetual contact with one’s fellow human beings is often the equivalent of an emotional landmine.

We had just reached the two and a half year mark of our infertility. I had endured five failed IUI’s with injectables and at our two year mark had been diagnosed, quite surprisingly, with endometriosis. That summer I had stage three endo surgically removed and was, at our two and a half year mark facing the disappointing truth that having my endo surgically removed was not going to be enough to get us pregnant. We had about five failed natural cycles under our belt after my laparoscopy and were anticipating an appointment with our new doctor that would get us set up for IVF. It was an early Friday evening as my husband made his way around the bar crowd at one of our establishments before heading back to the kitchen. Out of nowhere and with no prompting whatsoever, one of our regular customers pulled out his wallet and asked my husband “Have I shown you pictures of my kids?” My husband let him know that we were dealing with infertility and that he really didn’t need to see pictures of other people’s children right now. “Tell your wife to just relax. Then it’ll all work out,” he thoughtlessly said as he kept the pictures of his no doubt cluelessly procured children right out in my husband’s line of vision. Making his way to the other end of our bar my husband came upon a woman who had been in the week before. She had nosily asked why we don’t have children, as she of course does so then shouldn’t EVERYONE???, at which time my husband told her of our plight. The five failed IUI’s, the surgery, two and a half years of trying, the whole bit. And this week she apparently needed a round two as she went to work again assaulting my husband with the same nonsense. “Why don’t you have kids?” she dumbly asked again. “I told you why last week” was my husband’s reply to which she launched into a lecture on the importance of having children and that, according to her, we just HAD to have them.

Failing to comprehend that people conceive children NOT because of anything right that they did or anything great that they are, the overused and unoriginal lecture on the importance of children is really a fertile world smoke screen for “I’m better than you are.” To which I say, “You’re not. It’s doesn’t take a genius to fuck. I do plenty of fucking myself. You’re just lucky. Not special. There’s a difference.” But this was not my conversation. And, truth be told, my husband is generally a much nicer person than I am. So, around a growing group of people yet entirely empty handed in the “empathy from your fellow human beings” department, he made his way back to the kitchen to work his magic.

Later that evening he came out to the dining room again to check on the customer perspective on things. Conversing with a family of four with two teenage children about their meals, he was of course asked if we have kids. I’m still not sure to this day what the connection is between starting a family and braised lamb shank. But the fertile world has this weird quirk of connecting fertility to everything, from landfills to existentialism to cross country skiing. When my husband replied no, he got the “you’d better get busy” lecture, especially after they learned of my ripe old age of forty. “Oh, you really need to get started”, they continued with their bombardment, inappropriately assuming that we had done nothing. “You don’t call two and a half years of trying, five failed fertility treatments and a surgery starting?” my husband asked. To which they of course had no reply so they had to switch to the “everything will work out fine, you’ll see (How in the hell do you know??)” channel. Opting out of informing them that they are just stupid turds who had their kids in their mid twenties when they probably weren’t fit to be good parents ANYWAY, my husband who is nicer than me left them to their undeservedly wonderful food and again escaped to the kitchen. When he came home and told me about his day, interaction after interaction, my mouth dropped open as my eyes grew wider. I listened to each and every last word (which is unusual) and then said, “But, honey,” as my eyes welled up with tears, “Did anyone even bother to say they are sorry for what we are going through?” And of course the answer was No. These people want to know everything, yet they listen to nothing. That a person could be in that much pain and not even get sympathetic acknowledgment of any kind from a fellow human being is still incomprehensible to me. It is a problem in our society and it needs to change.

In case it’s not yet apparent, I could mock the fertile world until the sun goes down and comes back up again, until the cows come home, maybe even until hell freezes over. In the eyes of the infertile community they are the ultimate example of saying the hurtful thing to someone who is already hurting, ahead of the class when it comes to blaming the victim. They are always there to be unfeeling when you need empathy, to talk about themselves when you need your suffering acknowledged. I’ve often heard that “being a parent makes you a more compassionate person” but I’ve yet to see evidence of this. If anything I’ve mostly experienced the opposite. So getting past the mockery, the point is this: my husband came home from that day feeling sad. Defeated. Alienated. And this was just one day in his life. Just as often as not, his days will entail at least one comment like the ones above, from people telling us what to do in ways that are hurtful and will never be useful, to people asking him where our children are as they bring presents for his business partner’s easily acquired babies.

A few days later I was creating our Crate and Barrel Christmas gift registry. “Honey, what do you want for Christmas?” I called out. He came to the top of the stairs and informed me that he wanted for people to stop asking him if he has children and to not have to hear people talk about their children. “Well, I’m registering for a very nice soup puree-er and apple corer honey. You’ll just have to enjoy those while people continue SUCKING!”

The inappropriate insensitive things that are said to us could very well be the number one complaint of the infertile community. It comes up at every support group meeting, at any gathering that draws an infertile crowd. Infertiles who never met before can feel like they’ve known each other for years. As we’ve all had the same horrible unfeeling things said to us, we can bond in minutes over the experience.
So why does it matter? I’ve often wondered this myself, as I’ve tried to ignore or “shake off” the hurt caused by people disregarding my losses. I was watching an Oprah interview with Ellie Wiesel one Sunday morning and found myself captivated with most of what he had to say. Not only was I captivated, many many things he said resonated. This took me by surprise. I certainly am not putting infertility anywhere near the incomparable horror of the holocaust, so please do not misunderstand. Yet on a level I was fascinated with Mr. Wiesel’s insistence that people turning away and not paying attention to the holocaust was one of its main horrors, even in the face of the profound suffering and injustice that went on in the camps. After the unspeakable trauma of his experience I found it riveting that people turning away would even register in in his mind. But yet he mentioned it again and again, that the world turned away. I listened, stunned, as I felt a connection. “I have not a clue what he went through. I would never ever compare my suffering to that, but yet, in a strange way, I totally get it.” I found myself thinking. Throughout my ordeal I’ve often said that walking out into a world that either insists what I’m going through is not that big of a deal OR is just totally oblivious to it is about as painful as the original pain of being denied the privilege of parenthood. “I don’t know what’s worse, being infertile or having to walk every day in a world that just doesn’t care that I am,” I’ve been known to say. At the end of the day, we are human. That people see our pain matters and is healing. That people care about our injustices matters and is healing.

I recently had the privilege of reading Dr. Marni Rosner’s dissertation, Recovery From Traumatic Loss: A Study Of Women Living Without Children After Infertility, which shed some light on this issue. “Common with infertility is also a disenfranchised grief. Doka (1989) defined this type of grief as resulting from a loss that leads to intense sorrow which is unrecognized or minimized by others, and absent the usual customs, rituals, and validation that facilitate the grieving process. Disenfranchised grief is “the grief that persons experience when they incur loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported” (Doka, 1989 p.4). Disenfranchisement refutes the mourner’s right to grieve, fails to appreciate the significance of what has happened or the consequent anguish and loss of sense to the mourner’s life, and imposes needless and unnecessary suffering. (Attig, 2004).”

The “whys” of infertility not making the major life crisis list in our culture is the topic of another essay, if not a book, quite frankly. For now suffice it to say that infertility is a life crisis and it needs to be considered as such. The depth of loss brought on by infertility continues to go highly unacknowledged by society. This needs to change. “Whadaya want ME to to do about it??” I’d be saying if I were on the other side of things and reading this. This is not an easily answered question. Infertility goes easy on NO ONE, and that includes those in the presence (on every level from acquaintance to close family member) of people who have infertility happen to them. There you are, on the sidelines and grossly misinformed through no fault of your own. The societal myths and murky gag orders surrounding any negative baby making topic give you a shaky starting point at best. The unfortunate delusional notion that we are all somehow in control over when, how and if our children get here may set you up to be a bit more judgmental than you should be. You don’t have the intellectual chops to keep up with concerns about cervical mucous quality, luteal phase length, or follicle sizes and counts. The idea of even CONSIDERING that the sight of a pregnant woman or baby could provoke anything but sheer bliss and confetti throwing makes you squirm. But like most people, deep down inside you don’t want to say the wrong thing. As a good friend or family member you want to be helpful and supportive. What to do?

Here are some “short lists” for those caring folks who are willing to dip their toe in the water.

Top 5 Fertile World Conversation Mistakes

1) Being dismissive of the life crisis infertility truly is and of the depth of loss it brings.
2) Giving “Advice” when in reality knowing nothing about the subject matter and being naive to the actual experience.
3) Speaking about the subject of baby making as though it’s under one’s control.
4) Complaining about parenting.
5) Talking on and on about people who are pregnant and who just had babies while knowingly in the midst of someone who has suffered loss in the baby making department.

Top 5 Most Hurtful (and impertinent!) Things Fertile People Say

1) Why don’t you just relax and take a vacation? Relaxing and/or vacationing does not cure the medical issue of infertility. And now you also have to answer to the fact that women have been getting pregnant under stressful conditions since the beginning of human history.

2) Any babies yet?? No, and thanks for harshly and unexpectedly bringing up the most PAINFUL thing that has ever happened to me while I try to innocently go about my day!!

3) Everything will work out the way its supposed to. How in the Hell do YOU know?

4) It’s when you stop thinking about it that it’ll happen. There’s NO evidence of this existing anywhere on the face of earth. And now you have to explain all of the people who get pregnant deep in the midst of thinking about it. You have 30 seconds, go!!

5) Why don’t you just adopt? Adoption can be a great thing. A great thing that has nothing to do with alleviating the pain of infertility. And since when does anyone “JUST” do anything that requires years of working and waiting, piles of paperwork, and $40,000?

Below are some kind and appropriate responses to infertility. What blows my mind still to this day is the simplicity of these comments coupled with the precious few times I have heard them. The following responses are sadly an obscurity, they need to become commonplace.

Top 5 Appropriate Responses To Infertility:

1) I’m sorry for your loss (or losses).
2) I’m sorry you have to go through that.
3) I’ve heard that can be very challenging.
4) That’s so unfair!
5) I wish you well whatever the outcome.
**And for good measure, my absolute personal favorite…….”that REALLY sucks!!” Oh, you BET it does. It’s much more likely that I’ll have a worthy conversation with someone who is willing to acknowledge the truth from the get go.

And of course I have “long lists” too. Brevity ain’t my forte. Coming up with the short lists was much more obscure and challenging, as that’s just the tragedy of me. But I digress. The long lists are a bit more situation specific, and hopefully will stimulate some thought and conversation. If everyone kept just ONE thing in mind from these lists and practiced acting on it, it would make a massive difference. The pain of infertility would be a little less. The loss not quite so far reaching. The symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder brought on by the perpetual trauma of trying to start a family not quite so intense. Infertility effects approximately 12% of the child bearing age population. This is almost 6% of the total population. Infertility is not the result of any choice or action of its victims. The way that people suffering from it are received by the world matters.

General Do’s and Don’ts

DO know your infertility myths. Carry around the basic general knowledge that infertility is a MEDICAL issue. It is not an emotional issue or a personality disorder. It can NOT be cured or affected by a “positive” attitude, relaxing, taking a vacation, the right kind of liquor, a better alignment with the energy of the universe, or the way you have sex.
**For those who subscribe to any of the above, please also be advised that the status of planet earth has officially been changed from FLAT to ROUND.

DO be aware that assisted reproductive technologies don’t work for everyone. The media and people in general are gluttons for infertile success stories. The truth is that 30% of people who utilize the available assisted reproductive technologies such as IUI and IVF DO NOT come out of it with a baby. That means in terms of having a bio kid, reproductive medicine fails almost one third of its patients.

DO have compassion. Accept that there’s no good reason this is happening to me and not you, your daughter, your granddaughter, or any other close friend or family member. No good reason at all.

DO think about how you would want YOUR children to be treated if they were dealing with infertility. There’s an 88 % chance they won’t ever be in that position, but there’s nothing that can be done to keep them out of the other unlucky 12%. The way I’ve generally been treated and responded to is NOT the way people would want their children treated if they were in my shoes.

DO understand that if you have not been through it, living with infertility is far tougher than you could possibly imagine.

DON’T use words like fun, exciting, and happy when responding to someone’s infertility. Infertility is about as “fun” as chemotherapy, “exciting” as the death of a loved one, and “happy” as the next fatal car accident you’ll witness.

DON’T judge human beings on if they have children, or on how many they have. There is absolutely NO connection between worthiness and the ability to conceive and bear children. There are other great ways to create families besides having bio kids, and there are many other wonderful and important things to do in life besides parent.

Dos and Donts for Infertility Etiquette in Public

DO have infertility on your radar screen. Anyone you come into contact with could be dealing with it.

DO hold space for the fact that babies and baby making is not a positive thing for everyone. When the universe shafts you, it can evoke the most painful of feelings. This is reality, NOT a “bad attitude” on the part of the infertile. I often like to say in reference to the spectrum of baby making experiences, “One woman’s blessing can just as easily be another woman’s sharp knife through the heart.”

DON’T insist on forcing a conversation on someone’s child situation. If you must ask someone if they have kids and they answer a flat out “No” while offering up nothing else, DO shut up. This is where that conversation needs to stop. Period.

DON’T ask people about their child situation if at all possible. If they want to let you know they will. Remind yourself that while you may want to know, you don’t really NEED to know, and in most situations you can indeed survive without that information.

DON’T refer to baby making as something people have control over. None of us do, and that includes fertiles who got it easily. If you’re not sure of what’s going on with someone’s child situation, comments like “you’d better get busy” or “you’d better get started” are pointless AND have the potential to be extremely hurtful.

DON’T keep talking about your children or grandchildren if the person you are talking to doesn’t respond to your conversation. It is likely a signal this is a painful subject for them and they don’t want to talk about it. Talk about something else.

Dos and Donts For Responding to the News of Infertility

DO try to come up with an appropriate response. Acknowledging is generally much better than dismissing. Being straight and to the point is much better than rambling on about the supposed causes of infertility and adopting children from Ethiopia. (Yes, this happened to my Mom once….) Here again are some appropriate responses.

1) I’m sorry for your loss (or losses).
2) I’m sorry you have to go through that.
3) I’ve heard that can be very challenging.
4) That’s so unfair!
5) I wish you well whatever the outcome.

“I don’t really know much about that” can also be an option. Although it lacks empathy and acknowledgment of the infertile’s pain and loss, it is honest. And it does create space. I’ve had much better conversations with people who are smart enough to admit this right off the bat. Conversations with those who think they know but don’t always end up in a crumpled pile of destruction, or at least in a stale mate. I’ll let my unyielding nature take a small amount of the credit for this, but the rest has to be owned by fertile world ignorance.

DO tentatively ask general questions. “Is this something you prefer to talk about or keep private?” is a good one. If they want to keep talking “What’s one of the biggest challenges you deal with?” might work. And if things seem weird, talking about something else is perfectly fine and often welcome. At the end of the day infertility is not a reasonable subject for small talk amongst acquaintances.

DO wish someone well, no matter the outcome. Dealing with infertility is at first primarily about becoming pregnant. But when it goes on for more than a year or so, infertility becomes just as much about coping with the perpetual trauma of loss after loss and surviving the upheaval it brings to every area of one’s life. Good wishes for getting pregnant, especially those that are delivered aggressively (Like “Next time I see you I hope you’re pregnant!!”), can be painful. Good wishes not bound to this outcome, which I do not control, are much better. One of the nicest messages I ever got was relayed to me by my husband from my in-laws: “Tell Sarah we wish her the best no matter what happens.”

DON’T bring up other people’s infertile success stories. There is such a wide medical range amongst infertility cases that there likely won’t be a connection. Plus I’ve always said, I really don’t need to hear about yet another person who got pregnant who ISN’T ME.

DON’T give advice. Please please please please for the love of anything worthy on God’s green earth don’t give advice. If you’ve never experienced infertility, YOU HAVE NOTHING TO OFFER IN THIS DEPARTMENT. Please accept this and move on. Early on in our association, my infertility counselor told me that aside from my husband, there is no one who will ever even come close to understanding how difficult and painful my journey has been. Three and a half years into this I can say her point becomes more and more true every day. So you got pregnant easily, great, but that means you know NOTHING about having to work to get pregnant. Ease is wonderful but is not the sharpest of teachers.

DON’T be dismissive. Comments like “Everything will be fine” or “Oh, it’s not such a big deal” are hurtful and untrue. There’s no guarantee that things will be fine and not being able to have children should you want them IS a big deal.

DON’T make assumptions. Things like “I’ve heard that just wreaks havoc on your sex life!” especially in front of a group of people……not the way to go! Now in addition to being infertile, I’m also having trouble in the bedroom…..nice. The negative effects of infertility are many but do vary greatly from person to person. It’s best to let the infertile bring these up themselves if they want to.

DON’T complain about your children or the job of parenting. It doesn’t make us feel better, mostly because of the tragedy and intensity of what we infertiles go through. Things like sleep deprivation, whining, a sick child, going back to work after having a baby, the stress of sending a child off to college, having to entertain a 4 year old, the work of having two children close together, sibling rivalry, and the price of diapers, all evoke no sympathy from me. Compared to what I deal with on a daily basis these are problems I’d gladly welcome. I’m not saying these things should always be easy or pleasurable. But as the result of the hardships, suffering and loss I’ve endured, they don’t register on my radar screen as problems. I often like to say where the fertile world finds problems, infertiles find blessings. Keep in mind that what is tough and stressful for you is likely one of the best things that could happen to an infertile.

DON’T try and find common ground. I know finding common ground is the fashionable ukelele strumming kumbaya singing way to go as of late. But the fertile experience is completely different from the infertile experience. When people respond to me with something like “oh, I know, it took me 6 months to conceive my first because I was coming off the birth control pill” needless to say that doesn’t resonate. At this point I can’t even relate to someone who had a miscarriage or 2 and then conceived a healthy child naturally after a couple of years of trying. Because what I’ve gone through has been longer and so much more medically involved as far as getting absolutely nothing out of nine fertility treatments and one surgery. Not to mention way more expensive. Trying to force common ground when there is none only makes infertile people feel more alienated and isolated.

Dos and Donts For Friends and Family Members of Infertiles

DO understand you can’t make it better. Your loved one will often feel awful no matter what you do. You can make things less worse however, by being thoughtful, sympathetic, and non judgmental.

DO ask how your loved one dealing with infertility is doing. Via text, e-mail, or however. They often won’t get back to you, but it matters. They may even ask you to stop, don’t take it personally. My infertility has gone on for so long and taken over so much of my life that having people who know NOT acknowledge it has become kind of creepy.

DO let your loved one do what they need to do to manage their life crisis. This may entail things you don’t understand or consider ridiculous. Let them find their way. Most of the things I do to survive I myself would have considered emotionally dysfunctional and moronic two years ago. Keep in mind anything is easy and logical when you’re not the one feeling the emotions of it.

DO let your friend/loved one know when you think of them. A great friend of mine once told me how she went to her dentist’s office and it was lined with pictures of pregnant women and babies. Apparently the dentist was advertising the work of some baby preggo photographer, and my friend was horrified at the mere thought of me having to be in that room. Hearing this was sweet and funny for me. I also enjoy hearing how she wants to scream and fart on my behalf when they do happy baby pose in her yoga class. Another friend once told me that her Mom came back from the baby shower of someone who was having her third illegitimate child by her third baby daddy in quite the grumpy mood. My friend asked her what was wrong and as she was slamming things around on the counter she responded “It’s just so wrong that “so and so” can get three kids and someone like Sarah can’t even get one!!” It made me feel good that someone was willing to ride for a stop or two on the train of injustice I’ve been forced onto. Last summer when I visited my childhood home in Massachusetts my Mom informed me that, on my behalf, she told the ice cream man not to come down our end of the street. Given the child oriented nature of ice cream trucks she thought it would make me sad. Although I laughed pretty hysterically and replied, “What’s next? Are you going to ban all merry go rounds within a ten mile radius?” the lack o’ ice cream truck gesture was very endearing and made me feel cared for. Just recently my Mom was sitting beside a pregnant couple, and directly next to the woman, while waiting for my Dad in a doctor’s office waiting room. After pointing out that they seemed like a very nice couple my Mom informed me that the woman kept complaining that she was hungry. My Mom, though not hungry, realized she has a cookie in her purse. So what did she do on my behalf? She unwrapped the cookie as slowly as she possibly could and then ate it as indulgently as she could, enjoying every last morsel, right in the face of poor whiny hungry preggo. “I kept thinking, I just HAVE to do this for Sarah,” she said. It made my day.

DO make an effort to work with your friend/loved one in social situations. Group situations can be very threatening and emotionally damaging for infertiles. If it’s your event, take the time beforehand to let them know of any potential triggers that might be present, such as pregnant women, babies, and families with young children. Even if it’s not your event, staying by their side or checking in with them throughout can help. Suggesting or helping with an “escape route” if it all gets to be too much and they need to leave can be a great service. And never ever fuss over pregnant women or babies, or encourage related conversation in their presence.

DON’T try to change their feelings. When it’s not handed to you, starting a family is an ongoing grieving process. Feelings of bitterness, anger, overwhelming sadness, and helplessness among other things, are not only normal but are also healthy and should be expressed. And they are more or less what you would be feeling if this were happening to YOU. I’m always glad when I have someone I can express my intense feelings to who is not going to judge me. That’s truly a gift.

DON’T bring up religion and god. Is forming a closer relationship with one’s rapist a good way to heal from a rape? Enough said.

All of the above, both dos and donts, were born from painful experiences I’ve had with my fellow human beings, as well as loving ones from some of the closest people in my life who dared tag along on my journey. We learned together as we went. Dr. Marni Rosner’s dissertation Recovery From Traumatic Loss: A Study Of Women Living Without Children After Infertility offers a general description of the cultural gap in properly acknowledging the infertile woman: “Brabant (2002) emphasized that each individual is socialized by his culture in how to think about, feel, and process loss. Yet there are no clear norms for grieving the loss of a dream. For the infertile, cultural and societal expectations that result in silencing are often plainly conveyed (“relax”, “adopt”, “use a donor”) and suggesting that if the woman really wants to bear children, she will eventually get pregnant. These responses emphasize the woman’s infertility, reinforce that the woman’s grief, sadness, and distress has been passed over an unseen, and cause additional anguish and sorrow. When an emotion contradicts established cultural norms, validation by another that the loss warrants grief is critical to the healing process (Warden 1991).”

The other day my husband and I attended an adoption conference. Although it was primarily for the purpose of informing ourselves about different issues relating to adoption, the community of people was also enjoyable. The last workshop I attended was called “Are You Ready To Adopt?” and it attracted a lot of different people, yes, but many of whom had the shared experience of having IVF not work for them in one way or another. The facilitator prioritized group discussion so to initiate that we had to go around, introduce ourselves and say a bit about where we were at. In my introduction I mentioned that I had just gone through four rounds of IVF in nine months. Though subtle, I reveled in the collective gasp, scattered groans, and “Oh God” murmurs. I drunk in the “You must feel very depleted” response from the facilitator like it was the first glass of water I’d been offered in months. Why? Because everything, for that brief moment, felt right and normal. Because this is what is true. Going through four failed IVF’s in nine months with a long, intense and demanding drug protocol to boot is worthy of moans and groans and Oh gods and you must be tireds. So are the stories of any other veteran infertile for however similar or different their story may be from mine. Even though this should be common sense, out in the world we don’t get this.

One must be able to see a piece of themselves in someone in order to feel compassion for them. And let’s face it, no one wants to see themselves in an infertile. I often wonder what the world would be like if all life crisis were responded to in the same way that infertility is. Picture “what does that mean” as a response to someone doing their second round of chemo or “just relax and take a vacation” as a response to someone whose child was just diagnosed with a serious illness, or “everything works out the way it’s supposed to” to someone who lost their spouse in midlife. How far would that go in creating the kind of world we want?

As you ponder that I leave you with one final thought on disenfranchised grief from Dr. Marni Rosner’s dissertation that perfectly describes the infertile experience: “Attig (2004) suggested that: disenfranchisement fails to appreciate the extent of the loss of wholeness mourners experience: how their daily lives are devastated, how their life stories are disrupted and veer off their expected courses, and how meaningful and sustaining connections in the world around them are threatened and undermined. This misunderstanding of suffering actually compounds the loss and hurt that mourners endure….it induces and reinforces feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, shame and guilt. And it withholds from, breaks connections with, isolates, and abandons the bereaved in their sorrow.”

To download Dr. Rosner’s dissertation, click here: Recovery From Traumatic Loss: A Study Of Women Living Without Children After Infertility

Catching My Breath
Kelly Clarkson

I don’t wanna be left behind
Distance was a friend of mine
Catching breath in a web of lies
I’ve spent most of my time
Riding waves, playing acrobat
Shadow boxing the other half
Learning how to react
I’ve spent most of my time

Catching my breath
Letting it go
Turning my cheek for the sake of the show
Now that you know
This is my life
I won’t be told what’s supposed to be right

Catch my breath, no one can hold me back
I ain’t got time for that
Catch my breath, won’t let them get me down
It’s all so simple now

Addicted to the love I found
Heavy heart now a weightless cloud
Making time for the ones that count
I’ll spend the rest of my time
Laughing hard with the windows down
Leaving footprints all over town
Keeping faith karma comes around
I will spend the rest of my life

Catching my breath
Letting it go
Turning my cheek for the sake of the show
Now that you know
This is my life
I won’t be told what’s supposed to be right

Catch my breath, no one can hold me back
I ain’t got time for that
Catch my breath, won’t let them get me down
It’s all so simple now

You helped me see
The beauty in everything