April is Infertility Awareness Month. 1 in 8 couples experience infertility. During this month we invite you to walk with us along side of those who face fertility grief. Or to claim the story as your own! Please remember that Project Pomegranate’s recently published book – Though the Darkness Gather Round, Devotions about Infertility, Miscarriage, and Infant Loss – is a great resource. Please share it with your congregation!
You would think I’d have a better armor by now. If not armor, then a better radar to see comments when they are coming. I am several years into this journey of infertility. My husband and I experienced six years of infertility grief before the joyous birth of our son, who is almost four. We have discovered a new road of “secondary infertility” as we have tried to have another child. We know about medications, diets, ultrasounds, outrageous fees, and the two-week wait. We know about surgery, pregnancy loss, and doubt.
We know that joyous moments fill our days and loving people grace our lives. We should know by now that those loving people do not always know what we have experienced. People who want to love us well, with the best intentions, still do not know what not to say.
My mom and I were chatting in the car recently. While I drove, my mom asked me about a recent appointment with our reproductive specialist that had been quite frustrating and upsetting. She meant to offer reassurance, but her well-intentioned words hit me in a place I did not have protected. I took a deep breath and searched for the most gentle response. “That’s not what you say, Mom. That makes things hurt worse.”
“What can I say? I don’t know what this is like and I don’t know what to say.”
I felt a wave of compassion for mom as she sat in the passenger seat. I also know how it feels to stumble through a sensitive response when someone shares a diagnosis. I explained that it is okay to say nothing or simply say “That really sucks.” I know my mother, though. She does not use the word “sucks” and she definitely does not do silence.
She wanted a conversation that would bring her closer, words that would narrow the distance between our experiences. She wanted to know and understand. The problem is that knowing and understanding does not start from getting the words just right. It often starts from asking the right questions.
Questions can open a door, just a crack, to let someone into a space that is unfamiliar. Thoughtful and respectful questions can show you care. Let’s be clear, intrusive and nosy questions are hurtful. There are some things that are just none of your business, especially when it comes to infertility. But asking a question that invites someone to show you snapshots of their day to day rhythms can help piece together the whole picture.
There are questions that can open the door of understanding. For each question, a perfectly valid answer is “I don’t know.” For each question, listen for what snapshots being offered.
Here are a few questions to ask a friend experiencing infertility:
What is your favorite curse word these days?
They have one, I promise. Asking this question recognizes that there have been and will be days when the only thing you can do is cuss. Going through infertility means going through frustrations, dead-ends, and gambles. Ask and hear what words are getting those frustrations out.
What is the funniest thing that has happened with your doctor so far?
It’s okay to laugh at this stuff. Many people going through infertility have a goofy story. The positions and circumstances you find yourself in are really pretty hilarious. Ask and hear what ridiculous things have become the routine.
What do you want to do when you have a free afternoon?
This might give an idea of ways you can bring in a little fun. When infertility grief is so very present in your days, it helps to make a plan for something that has nothing to do with your cycle or your lab results. Listen to what they want to do, not what you think might be fun. (A massage when you feel achy is not always fun; a walk in the park when there are toddlers everywhere may be painful) Ask and hear what might bring light and gladness into their routines.
What is coming up next with your church?
If church is important to this friend, they need to hear that you realize how church matters. There may be an event in the near future that they will need to steel up to participate in. Easter egg hunts, VBS, Fall festivals, even church directory pictures can bring out painful feelings. Beyond that, this question recognizes that they are a gifted part of a community, with or without becoming pregnant. Ask and hear how church feels to them right now.
What are you wondering about these days?
Maybe everything. Maybe three nagging concerns. Maybe how to pay for infertility costs. There are so many things that race through the mind with infertility. Give space to let those wild thoughts form into words. Ask and hear what other questions emerge.
What time of day do you see your doctor again?
Listen carefully to what this answer tells you. It may be that your friend sees the doctor for ultrasounds every other day. Yes, even Saturdays and Sundays. It may be that your friend is missing work because of this timing or she is so tired of frustrating results that she is taking a break. Note the time. Send a funny or encouraging text to arrive while she is in the waiting room. Ask and hear how time is marked when facing infertility.
What’s the best restaurant or movie you and your spouse have been to lately?
Infertility grief is tough alone and tough together. Check in and pay attention to the ways your friend is journeying with their spouse. For my husband and I, the back table at Flying Biscuit Cafe in Atlanta became sacred ground where we shared biscuits and apple butter after doctor appointments. There may be a spot around town that has become special to them or a movie that sparked laughter when they had cried all day. Little hint: a small gift card never hurts. Ask and hear what you might offer this couple.
Each of these questions is a “what.” That’s because the questions of infertility often swirl around the whys, the hows, and the whens. Those are the constant, overwhelming questions. Asking a “what” question is an opportunity to let your friend point towards an external thing, while you follow the direction they are pointing.
Go ahead and ask. Knowing and understanding can start from asking the right questions.