Listen up: This is what helped me

This week is National Infertility Awareness Week, and the theme for 2017 is Listen Up! If you want to find out more or get involved, check out the stories, social media images, and events on the website.

It’s really hard to know what to say when someone you know is struggling. I’m not just talking infertility here, either. It’s hard to know what to say when someone in having a rough patch in a relationship, when someone is diagnosed with an illness, when someone is experiencing discrimination and harassment, when someone is dealing with loss, when someone is struggling with their mental health, when someone has had a traumatic experience, when someone hurting.

Emily MacDowell Empathy Card

Card by Emily McDowell

And the difficulty of finding the “right words” is one of the reasons that I really appreciate this year’s Infertility Awareness theme, because really the best advice really comes down to one word: listen.

But even though this advice is simple, it’s far from easy. And because one word doesn’t really cut it (or at least doesn’t make for much of an article), there are many people around who are telling us what NOT to say and what NOT to do. This advice absolutely has its place in raising awareness around many issues, and it can be very helpful. But it can also make interactions feel a little like a conversational minefield, where even though you’re trying your best you never know when you might accidentally offend.

Emily MacDowell Empathy Card

Card by Emily McDowell

If you’re supporting someone with infertility, the last thing you both need is to be second-guessing everything you say. So I thought I might share some of the things that have been helpful me to hear or read over the years.

Firstly, I want to reiterate that one-word advice, with a little addendum. Because, seriously, listening is the number one most important thing you can do. But for this to work, you need to also care about what you’re hearing and you need to listen to understand (it’s amazing how often we all listen to respond or to give advice or to correct or to judge – and I’m definitely including myself in that “we” too, this stuff is not easy!)

Emily MacDowell Empathy Card

Card by Emily McDowell

Secondly, I want to add two of my favourite articles. This first piece is about holding space. It focuses on the work of a wonderful palliative care nurse, but the advice holds up for so many areas, including the grief that can come with infertility. The second one is infertility-specific, and is a letter to family and friends of someone struggling with infertility. Not everyone will share the exact experiences of the author, but a lot of the feelings and advice she shares were very true for me and many others I’ve known in the same situation.

And finally, I wanted to give some credit to the amazing people who have supported me over the years by sharing some of the words and actions that have really stuck with me and eased the hurt of this hard situation.

  • One of the simplest has been just hearing “Ohh, that is so hard. Do you want to talk about it?” (and respecting if the answer is “no” or “not right now”).
  • And if this is followed up with a hefty dose of empathetic listening, and very little advice (unless explicitly requested), all the better.
  • I will always appreciate the heads-ups and private announcements I’ve received from friends before a public pregnancy announcement. When you’ve seen what feels like a million negative pregancy tests, a picture of a positive one can be a real punch in the gut. But with some preparation time, it’s always easier. A quick text or a little conversation aside let me process my sadness for myself before getting to the happiness for my friend.
  • And I also appreciated the addition of some rituals to the infertility process. Our society has many rituals that help us process sadness and celebrate happiness, but there aren’t really any that apply easily to the sadness of infertility. My husband and I had several little rituals with our “treatment days”that helped them to feel less terrifying, and even though the rituals were silly, they really helped. Another infertility ritual I’ve heard of (though it didn’t really work in my situation) is the “period party”, where every month that someone’s faced with the disappointment of yet another period, they drink wine and eat sushi (or similarly non-pregnancy approved options) with a close friend.  What a great way to add some fun to an otherwise shitty situation.
  • One of the only good things that came from my experience with infertility is that being open about it led others to share their stories. I was proud to bear witness to my friends’ struggles, and it was reassuring to know that I was far from alone. It’s easy to shy away from talking about things, but basically – don’t!
  • Everyone’s different on this one, but I loved to be included in kid-stuff when I didn’t have a kid (birthdays, baby showers etc.). When all your friends have kids, if you’re not included in the kid-stuff, it can feel like you’re not included in anything.
  • But equally, it’s great if not everything is kid stuff. I always loved having some time for a proper chat or some grown-up time. This is good for parents AND people struggling with infertility; win-win.
  • Overall, the message I most appreciated hearing was “you are strong and wonderful and important, and whatever happens here, you’ll still be a great person and I’ll still love you.”  I didn’t need a cheerleader – I was way too aware of the various possibilities to believe “don’t worry, it will happen one day!” and I just needed to know people were there. This is one of those things that I think we usually assume go without saying. But when you’re faced with judgement and sadness from so many sides, this is not something that goes without saying. I recommend saying it!
Emily McDowell Empathy Card

Card by Emily McDowell

And if all else fails, you really can’t go wrong with an Emily McDowell Empathy Card. (All images in this post are from her site). They’re pretty much great enough that I could have replaced this whole post with a link to her site. But that wouldn’t be much of a blog now, would it?

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