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When Someone Experiences the Unimaginable

Tips for supporting parents and caregivers in crisis.

Throughout our interviews for our recent book, we examined particular health crises possible during the "life-cycle of early motherhood" (pre-conception through early toddlerhood). These crises include (but are not limited to): fertility challenges, pregnancy behavior, outcomes, premature birth, infant loss, and postpartum health issues. Listening to others' stories helped us have a much better idea of what people needed... and what they didn't. We hope the wisdom of our interviewees helps you if these struggles come up in your community.

Infertility: After approximately 30 interviews with individuals who had undergone infertility treatment (one of the authors also went through four years of failed infertility treatments), a series of publications, and a documentary and work with Rev. Dr. Stacey Edwards Dunn and the folks at Fertility for Colored Girls, we've learned (and for one of us experienced) a lot.

  • Don't tell them to relax, go on a cruise, suggest sexual positions, tell them to adopt to get pregnant, offer your husband's sperm (yes, this happens all the time), tell them how easily you get pregnant (my word, someone only has to look at me!), remind them about [insert religious figure's] timing, ask them if they are doing acupuncture, vitamins, yoga, meditation or literally anything else.

You might be thinking: So what can I say? Try this: "How are you doing? If you ever want or need to talk, I'm here to listen." And then if they take you up on it, just listen and validate their feelings: "Wow, that sounds really hard."

  • Have their back at social/religious/family events. If someone brings up having children, hop into the conversation, and talk about your dog, tell a funny story, redirect. Make sure you let your friend know you are up for "shielding" work at events they feel they have to attend and come up with a plan that makes them feel comfortable. If you are part of the same family network, consider sending an email out with tips from RESOLVE, the national infertility association. Make sure your friend or family member doesn't have to do all the emotional labor. They will appreciate it.
  • If they do not want to attend a baby shower, be understanding. Same goes for holiday celebrations, dedications, baptisms, any religious event involving children, first birthdays, school plays—these can be a landmine emotionally for your friend or family member. And you know what? They don't want the day or event to be about them and their feelings. It may seem selfish, but it is actually respectful to you to send their regrets, particularly at certain points in treatment cycles.
  • Remember, Mother's Day is difficult. Religious communities can do this day better—we've talked to so many folks that just stayed home those days.

Still not sure what to say?

  • We worked with 170+ people who had been through treatment, and we put together a series of greeting cards.
  • Ask them what they do want to do: go to movies, drinks, exercise together, talk or not about infertility: "I'd love to spend time with you. What works best for you right now?"

High-Risk Pregnancy: Some of our participants had high-risk pregnancies, such as pre-existing conditions (e.g., high blood pressure, diabetes, HIV), multiple births, and advanced maternal age (35+). For example, one of the authors of the book had gestational diabetes (GD) for two pregnancies; even following the diet religiously, insulin was required, along with induction at 39 weeks and extra time and observation in the hospital postpartum.

Along with eating five times each day and taking a blood sugar level four times each day, beginning at 32 weeks, she had to go to two extra appointments each week—a stress test and a Bioscan. That was on top of the regular appointments, diabetes center appointments, and any other kind of care. What can friends and family do when pregnancy is risky and/or there is more to manage?

  • Something that meant so much to her was the low-carb Baby Sprinkle for her second baby. The diet for GD can be very restrictive, and a group of thoughtful friends put together a little buffet of "safe" items, checked in about the best options, and even considered timing given potential blood sugar spikes. This was so thoughtful, and the bonus: everyone got to eat a lot of cheese. It really made the event special to be joyfully considered.
  • Don't ask questions about or make suggestions about the person's diet or health conditions unless you are specifically asked for information. Remember that each person is different—some folks with GD can't eat brown rice or corn; some can. So, asking, "Where would you like to eat lunch," is much more helpful than offering nutritional advice. Even if you are a nutritionist—if your friend isn't your patient (if they are that's pretty complicated), hold back.
  • Does your friend have pre-eclampsia or some other issue? What do they need? Did the two of you run together before? Maybe a movie is all they can do now. Say, "I'd love to spend time with you. What works best for you?" Then listen to the answer and do that thing.
  • Help with other children: Health issues like GD are a lot to manage anyway, but even harder with another child. Do you have an hour or two you can spend with another child in the home to give the parent a small window of rest? Can you bring groceries around or do a load of laundry? Make a cup of tea? That can ease the physical and emotional burden of a high-risk pregnancy.
More from Margaret M. Quinlan, Ph.D., Bethany Johnson MPhil, M.A.
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