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Impacts on friendships and family relations

One thing that many men and women often describe is the disruptive impact that being unable to conceive has upon their family relationships and friendships.  The experience of infertility and IVF treatment is a very personal and private one.  It is complex and often not easily understood by others, even when they have the best intentions to be supportive.  For all of these reasons it can put pressure on relationships with family and friends, create misunderstandings, and cause isolation.

Coping with pressure and expectations (from society)

Having children is considered a measure of success, a rite of passage, an expectation.  Pressure on women – both explicit and implicit – to have children is particularly pronounced.  The result of all these assumptions and expectations is that women and men struggling with infertility often feel inadequate, compounding their already fragile identity and sense of failure.

It feels like there is nowhere I can go without feeling like a failure.  I hadn’t realised how prized motherhood is until now.  I can’t find any positive examples out there of being a woman without children.”

Having children is considered a measure of success, a rite of passage, an expectation.  Pressure on women – both explicit and implicit – to have children is particularly pronounced.  The result of all these assumptions and expectations is that women and men struggling with infertility often feel inadequate, compounding their already fragile identity and sense of failure. 

Pressure and expectation to have children often comes in the form of questions like “When are you having children” or “When are you having number two” and comments like “you’d better not leave it too long, you’re not getting any younger”.

Coping with such questions is far from easy.  How you respond may depend on who is asking.  It is important, however, to respond in whatever way you please.  This might be to simply ignore the question, or give a prepared answer that feels safe, or say that you’d prefer not to talk about something so personal.  It might be to open up about your struggle to conceive, or explain that you’re doing IVF.

Coping with feelings of isolation

Isolation from friends or family might happen because it feels easier to manage your sadness, resentment or anger alone. 

We don’t get invited to baby showers and birthday parties anymore, which hurts.  We probably wouldn’t go, but it actually feels worse not to be asked.”

Many people fear their friends will get tired of their continued struggles or that they will become a burden.  Isolation might happen gradually as friends have babies and conversation and activities become dominated by children.  Others may withdraw because of hurtful things that are said to them.  Isolation may also occur because friends withdraw due to their own discomfort.  The following suggestions may assist you to navigate challenging relationships with family and friends:

  • If you have withdrawn from friends or family because you don’t want to burden them, remember they may want to be burdened.  Try not make that decision for them.
  • Friends and family won’t know what you are going through unless you tell them.  Help them understand by opening up a little more about what you are going through, and what you need from them.  Let them know how they can help you.
  • Seek support from a psychologist who can help you manage the feelings of loneliness as well as help you find way of easing the isolation.
  • Connect with people with shared experience.  Immense relief, comfort and reassurance can be found by participating in support groups, either local groups you can attend or via online communities.

Managing difficult situations with others who are pregnant or have children

Some of the most painful and distressing feelings are triggered when confronted with family and friends’ fertility success.  A friend’s pregnancy announcement,  the birth of a baby due around the time of your own baby who miscarried, the success of a fellow IVF patient who achieved a pregnancy on their first cycle.  All of these experiences tear at the very heart of what it’s like to not have your longed-for baby.

I’ve taken myself off social media, I just can’t cope with seeing another happy announcement.  It takes me days to feel OK again.”

Tips to help you cope in difficult situations:

  • Give yourself permission to feel jealous, angry, or resentful.  Whatever your feelings, they are arising from the distress of what you are going through.   Loading guilt on top of these natural, normal feelings is not going to be helpful to you.
  • Give yourself permission to stay away from certain events and certain people when you are feeling vulnerable.    There is so much that is out of your control with infertility and IVF, it is important to give yourself control over what you do and who you see.
  • When you simply cannot avoid trigger situations it can help to prepare a script.  Prepare answers for questions you find difficult, such as – Do you have children? How many children do you have?  When are you having children?
  • Go armed with several safe topics to talk about so you can steer the conversation.
  • Go with a support person and keep them close.  Have a signal to alert each other when you’ve had enough and it’s time to leave.

Coping with feelings of shame and embarrassment

We live in a very family-oriented society where reminders of families with children are everywhere.  Movies, commercials, and TV shows all promote the ideal of parenthood and being unable to achieve it can create complex feelings of shame and embarrassment.  It is very easy for a failure to conceive, or a failure to carry a baby to term, to be felt as a failure of the self, and profoundly impact identity.  If you are struggling with these feelings consider the following:

  • Focus on aspects of you that you are proud of, that help validate you, and that you value.  Write them down, and keep reminding yourself of them.  You are much more than your infertility or your failed cycles.
  • Explore your feelings of shame and embarrassment with someone you trust.  Your infertility experience might be triggering past hurts and experiences which require professional support to resolve.

Building supportive relationships

Studies consistently find supportive relationships to be an important protective factor when experiencing stressful situations, including infertility. 

Having people to confide in and receiving caring support can help buffer the emotional impact of the crisis.  A key part of building supportive relationships is letting your family and friends know what you are going through. 

Of course, not everyone has the capacity or empathy to give the support you need, and you may discover this through trial and error.  Once you have selected your key supports, let them know what the best version of support looks like for you.  Do you want them to simply listen without offering advice, or will problem solving assistance be more helpful?  It is often the case that people want to help but struggle with what to say or do, so guide them.