Infertility has many dimensions, and the longer you are infertile the more dimensions you are likely to explore. One of the more challenging is how to handle relationships with good friends who have become pregnant or who are new parents. These women, often very preoccupied with how to anticipate or to juggle the new role of motherhood, seem to attract one another like magnets. Whether through childbirth prep classes, La Leche meetings, playgroups, or just the coincidence of several acquaintances becoming pregnant within months of one another, these women often bond together to form what I refer to in my book as "The Club." Happily (or apprehensively) counting the months until their due dates, new Club members seek out more experienced ones for advice on everything imaginable. All very well, unless you, grappling with infertility, are on the outside looking in.
The first sign of discomfort with Club members may come in an ob-gyn's waiting room. There the literature tends to focus on pregnancy and early parenting. Nothing on infertility. And the conversation tends to focus on pregnancy, nursing, labor and delivery apprehensions. Nothing on pregnancy loss, IVF or adoption. In other words, women with infertility feel in the minority, feel silenced, and feel hurt in the presence of talkative Club members.
In the early 1980's, Helen Hooven Santmyer finished 50 years of writing ...And Ladies of the Club. This 1,334 page novel refers to a small Midwestern town literary club whose members are involved from 1868-1932 in their town's political, cultural and social changes. The author, a determined individual, was in her 80's before giving birth to this book, which subsequently remained for weeks on the New York Times best seller list. So why do I think of Ms. Santmyer as I write this blog?
Well, let's see. She hung in there, as many women with infertility do, hoping that her efforts to produce might ultimately meet with success. She appreciated the support system that women can offer to one another, even as political and social change efforts pre-1932 were couched in the context of a literary club. She poignantly portrayed lifelong friendships, as well as the tensions and difficulties that threatened them. And she depicted women who, for whatever reasons, departed from the Club or never were included in it.
So, although that book is not directly about clubs of fertile women, it is about women supporting other women, juggling roles, sustaining friendships and meeting life challenges head on. And Club non-membership is, both in the Santmyer book and in the lives of women with infertility today,one of the challenges for which there are few road maps.
Non-membership tends to be an issue only for those women not in The Club. Club members assume that their doors are wide open to women who are pregnant; they just don't realize how stifling it can feel to be frozen out of a conversation because you have no reproductive stories to contribute. Or maybe you do, but who wants to hear about a chemical pregnancy, a miscarriage or hormone shots?
So how can women avoid the hurt of being sidelined from the Club because of infertility? If we assume the hurt is caused by unintended insensitive behavior, one strategy is to take your pregnant and parenting friends and co-workers into your confidence. Or, if you don't want to do this, see whether a close friend will pass along whatever details you are willing to share, along with hints of ways others could demonstrate their support. This could include not shouting new pregnancies from the rooftop, not waving sonogram pictures every which-way, not making a big deal about new maternity clothes and swollen ankles, and not expecting your presence (or presents) at baby showers.
Another strategy may be to distance yourself from some Club members, especially those who are unable to contain their pregnancy or parenting excitement and enthusiasm. In their place you can tighten your relationships with empathic friends and make friends with empty-nesters or women who are not setting their sights on motherhood. You may also find that an infertility support group offers the kind of Club membership that you need right now.
Some individuals will benefit from a direct approach. These are the folks who don't "get it" when the grapevine spreads word of your infertility, but who are capable of changing their behaviors if told specifically what they can do to help you feel better supported.
And then there will always be a few people who are so focused on their own needs that they have no plan to consider yours. These folks won't miss you when you close the door on your relationship. Unless they're family members, in which case things get more complex. Under those circumstances you can try the direct approach of speaking about what you need from them; you can write a letter emphasizing your expectation that they will take your needs into consideration; or, as a last resort, you can engage someone else in the family to run interference for you. Whichever route you choose, the takeaway message is that you deserve to protect yourself from selfish and manipulative behavior.
So, even though the subtitle of my Club book chapter is "on the outside looking in," this blog is less about being envious than it is about being articulate. Don't be shy about telling others what they can do to help you feel supported. Be clear about behaviors that are hurtful. Enlist your friends to help with this if it feels too overwhelming. And remember that new friends can be found in many places where the topics of pregnancy and parenting are not on anyone's tongues.