Why we need better fertility allies
WHY WE NEED BETTER FERTILITY ALLIES
Elyse Ash, the founder of Fruitful Fertility, shares how a few words of support can make all the difference to a loved one who is struggling with infertility.
Ever since I could talk, I’ve had an easy time making friends. My mom loves telling the story of how at the age of three, I befriended a random stranger at a McDonald’s playground and then forced her to awkwardly call the girl’s mom (also a complete stranger) to formally request a playdate.
While this was an annoying trait to my mom when I was little, it eventually resulted in me building an exceptionally strong support system. These friends loyally stood by me during breakups, new jobs, new cities, and everything in between. I felt I could confide in them about anything.
I didn’t expect this would change when my husband Brad and I started trying to conceive. We had been married for three years, people had already been asking, and I had no reason to believe things wouldn’t go smoothly — why wouldn’t I talk about it?
However, as time passed and I still wasn’t pregnant, the conversations stopped.
As much as people love to talk about pregnancy, they really don’t know what to say about infertility; they tend to just avoid the topic.
Eventually, though, I had to start talking about it. I was sick of pretending things were fine and dealing with this emotional burden alone. I wanted to lean on my support systems, just like I had for everything else.
When I started talking, though, I was disappointed. While my family and friends listened and tried to be helpful, their input, advice and attempts to comfort me often missed the mark. Sometimes they would try to placate me, offering stress relief solutions like, “You should go on vacation!” Other times, they would express confusion about why we couldn’t “just adopt,” or if I could build stronger relationships with my nephews or other kids. These responses didn’t empathize with the intense sadness I felt at the potential loss of a future I thought would come easily.
Fortunately, I found solace in online fertility communities. I joined the Facebook group for my fertility clinic, and I found a lot of good resources on Tumblr. I felt relieved to talk to women (even strangers) who could fully relate to my struggle; there, I could share things I’d feel guilty telling other people, like “I’m having trouble being happy for my pregnant friend.” Talking to these women made me realize how comforting it could be just for someone to tell you, “I’m sorry, that sucks” (and really mean it).
However, while these communities played an important role in my journey, they had shortcomings. First, privacy is a concern any time you reveal health information on a social media network; that communication is far from “closed,” even if you’re technically using a “closed” Facebook group. Second, while women who are also experiencing infertility can provide a lot of empathy, it can also feel competitive; it’s really hard to see your peers get pregnant if you’re not, even if you genuinely want to feel happy for them. And finally, while these communities were incredibly supportive, they weren’t the friends and family who had always been there for me before.
Over time, I realized my problem was not unique; women struggling with infertility often feel very alone in their pain. This isn’t anyone’s fault — most of us don’t even learn about infertility until we experience it. As a society, we lack the knowledge and vocabulary to have nuanced discussions about these issues.
About a year ago, I decided to take this problem into my own hands by starting a two-sided mentorship platform called Fruitful Fertility. Women who previously struggled with infertility can sign up to be a mentor, and women who are currently struggling can sign up to be a mentee. This type of mentorship is particularly helpful for women who don’t want to be “out” about infertility issues with their “IRL” communities. It is also valuable for women to talk to someone who is “on the other side” of infertility because there is a deeper level of insight and perspective they can provide.
When you’re struggling with infertility, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of speaking with someone who’s “been there.” Many of us who have experienced infertility know that you’ll do almost anything to up your chances of conceiving, and we’ve heard from women on the site that being able to share those wacky choices — from scarfing down pineapple cores, to walking around with a bundle of herbs in your bra, to getting a “vaginal steam” — with someone who understands and won’t judge you. It’s even more important to be able to commiserate and share disappointments like the arrival of your period month after month while you’re trying to conceive.
While I believe our platform is uniquely helpful for our users, I think it’s equally important that we help people understand how to have better conversations about fertility. Even though many of my initial conversations with my friends about infertility were disappointing, it ultimately strengthened my friendships with those who learned to really be there for me in a meaningful, authentic (albeit messy) way.
If you’re afraid to talk to your friend who is struggling to get pregnant, know there is great power in just starting that conversation. Even if you don’t have the “right” words immediately, simply asking her how she’s doing is enough to get started. From there, if you listen to her and try to understand the kind of support she needs, you’ll be an invaluable resource to her during an incredibly difficult time, which is something she’ll never forget.
Want to become a fertility ally?
Here are three tips to becoming a more informed, compassionate ally from the team behind the #SaytheFword movement:
1. Start a conversation about infertility.
As Elyse illustrated, many people going through infertility feel isolated in their experience. It can be very powerful to let your loved one know that you recognize difficulties they’re going through and that you’re open to talking about their experiences in as much detail as they’d like.
2. Ask how you can best support them.
Sometimes words of support, even when they carry the best of intentions, can strike the wrong chord. A supportive phrase such as, “I believe this is going to work out for you,” may in fact add pressure. Instead of trying to force the “right words,” ask your loved one how you can best support them during this time. They may want some time and space to process, they may want you to check in with them once a month to see how they’re feeling, or they may need you to reach out more often. Everyone handles infertility differently.
3. Educate yourself
RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association has a wealth of resources built specifically for family members and friends of people experiencing infertility. Start here with Infertility 101 to learn the basics of the condition your loved one is facing. Then take a look at RESOLVE’s Friends and Family page to learn how to best provide emotional support during this painful time