Friday, 17 April 2015

"My loss meant I couldn't be there for my friend"

When going through infertility, we are very good at shaming and blaming ourselves. We get angry with our bodies for letting us down, we blame ourselves for not being the women (or men) we thought we would be, and we are often unforgiving of the grief and stress we feel, and can be very self-critical when we can’t be as supportive as usual in our friendships or other relationships.

I began writing this post as a comment – many months ago – to a blog post. “My loss meant that I couldn’t be there for my friend,” the blogger wrote. She was beating herself up because she was unable to be wholly joyful for her newly pregnant friend. It was pain upon pain. She was in pain because she was reminded of what she wanted, but may never be able to have. And she was in pain because that pain stopped her being the friend she wanted to be. She felt that her friend had been there for her when she had experienced grief. And she was angry and upset that she couldn’t be there for her friend, to help her celebrate her joy, to be a good friend. She wanted to “repay in happiness.”

This is a reasonable response you’d think. I know it is a very common one. I’ve seen many people agonise in this way over my years as a blogger and infertility/loss counsellor, the latest example only a few weeks ago. We are angry at ourselves that our pain affects how we respond to our friends, and that as a result, their experiences of pregnancy or parenthood may be negatively affected. “Why should their happiness or behaviour be restricted just because I can’t deal with it?” we ask. We beat ourselves up, and take on the responsibility for the entire relationship. We want them to be happy, and so we take on all the pain.

But it’s a friendship. True friendships mean that sadness is shared as well as happiness; there are good times and bad. Our friends or family have many other people who are able to share in their happiness, especially when it comes to pregnancy or pride in their children. They have plenty of other people with whom they can share their love or joy or pride. After all, happiness is something people find it easy to share in, and people flock around. If we withdraw a little on that issue, they may not even notice, because others will step in. Yes, you may both feel sad that you can’t share this aspect of their lives in the way you had hoped. But it is not your fault. You did not ask for this. Don’t play the martyr. Taking on all the pain is kind of insulting to your friends isn’t it? It implies they can’t be sensitive, or that they don’t want to be.

The thing is, I don’t think your sadness affects their happiness as much as their happiness affects your sadness. Does that make sense? None of it is intentional, of course. My friend’s marriage broke up unexpectedly, and she was devastated. Her sadness didn’t affect my enjoyment of my relationship. Actually, if anything it reminded me to cherish it that much more. It didn’t mar my milestone-anniversary celebrations at all. But I didn’t tell her all about the romantic dinner we had together either, or the night in the fancy hotel room. That would have been cruel; it just wouldn’t have been right. I didn’t need to share that in detail with her to appreciate what I had. In an open, true, and considerate friendship, we will always make adjustments, thinking of the other person as much as ourselves.

I’m not suggesting you should ask your friends to stay away when they are pregnant, or never to talk about their children. But asking for and expecting some degree of sensitivity is not unreasonable. It’s part of being in a relationship of equals. After all, friendships are not relationships where nothing bad ever happens to the people involved. Friendships are not relationships where we keep score, where there is a quid pro quo arrangement that requires we have to give and take equally all the time. Over the life of a friendship, they probably balance out, but when one friend is in the thick of sadness, there will be a time where they need more from the other, and vice versa. In a good friendship, I think that we give what we can when we can.

And we need to accept that we can and should be open to receiving what we need, when we need it. We should give our friends the opportunity to show they can be considerate too. We should give them credit for being thoughtful, thinking friends. We should honour the friendships, and recognise that making excuses for them, or not asking for what we need, isn’t really helping us do that. There’s a real risk that we’re going to feel resentful in the end, or that we’re going to withdraw from the friendship completely, to avoid the painful reminders. And that hurts both/all of you in the friendship.

A friend who doesn’t acknowledge their friend is in need is not much of a friend. What sort of friends would expect their friend in pain to hide that pain? What sort of friends would put their happiness above another’s pain? I acknowledge that some of us do have so-called friends like this. But my focus here is on really about them. It’s about the friends who care. The ones who know our situations. The ones who, if they knew how much we needed help or that we were hurt by ways that they behaved (ie talking all about their children all the time, or going on about a pregnancy), chances are they’d be only too happy to change. These friends would I think feel awful that they hadn’t realised earlier, and would only be too willing to adjust to help the friendship. I for one have felt very hurt that a friend hasn’t shared their pain with me, especially in an area when I think I could have helped. So is it fair to them if we hide how we feel? Is it fair to take some of the responsibility for maintaining and nurturing our friendship away from them?

I don’t think it is. I think that we should give them the chance to show that they can be considerate too. Give them the chance to tip the balance of thoughtfulness and care their way. To care for us and nurture us, in the way we would care for them and nurture them. Because none of us ever know when they might need us in return.

12 comments:

  1. I understand what you're saying, but what about friends who have babies and can't easily be separated from them (because they are breast feeding, can't get babysitters etc)? If it's too painful for you to be around babies, then you end up not actually seeing them for months or even years on end. Can you expect your friend to understand that they're not going to see you for this length of time and can the friendship survive? Is it reasonable to ask them to make time to see you without their baby/ies when you know that this would be very difficult for them to arrange (the precious bits of 'me' time they have seemingly already being reserved for things like self care or time with hubby)? Is it polite to ask them to see you without their baby if they haven't offered it as an option themselves?

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    1. I can speak to this one as I've been on both sides of the equation. I was a breastfeeding, SAHM mom to twins after infertility. And I made damn sure that when I saw friends who were in the trenches to respect what they were going through and not to force my kids on them. Yes, being a new mother is hard as babies require attention. But considering there's so much literature encouraging those same mothers to take grown-up time, it's certainly not too much to ask your friend for time sanes baby it you're not in a good place or to point out that you need space.

      Infertility is a terrible disease that is so isolating. But part of empathy and love involves family and friends being sensitive that some things may just be too hard and to give space. We do this already in all other areas of our lives, so though there is sacrifice, friendships that are meant to last involve both parties being willing to meet in the middle.

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    2. I wonder if you do understand what I'm saying, because I think asking for something you need isn't impolite, as long as you are being reasonable too. For example, I'm not suggesting you avoid them entirely, or pretend the baby doesn't exist. But maybe your friends can understand it's difficult for you, and could suggest they see you when their babies usually have a nap, or if they have to breastfeed (breastfeeding for me is quite painful, for example) maybe they can suggest you go and make a cup of coffee. Or you could offer to fold the laundry so you don't have to watch the mother and baby. There are lots of ways where you can see friends with babies, without having the babies present all the time, and I think it is reasonable (and polite) to expect that they won't shove the babies in your face, or go on about the new joys (or trials) of motherhood all the time.

      Sometimes too, offering to help with the baby can give you some alone time with the baby, which I personally have found much easier than being watched or having hovering parents around.

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  2. I'm bookmarking this post to use for the future. Because everything you say here is spot on. There's a reason the term "happy-sad" was coined. And if the friendship is meant to last, friends will find a way to co-exist.

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  3. Good reflective post. Friendships are work and not always easy. But the good ones are fulfilling in good times and in bad. I like what you said about it all balancing out. It feels good to be able to give, especially if you have been on the receiving end.

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  4. You've just articulated so many things that have been bouncing around in my head. I also think that responses like Anonymous wrote are exactly why this post is so important.

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  5. I remember finally going to dinner with a couple we were very close with but ended up being distanced from when we were neck deep in our journey. At one point they said "you pushed us away", and I remember saying "we didn't know how to ask for help. Infertility is HUGE and it embeds itself into so many aspects of your life that sometimes it surprises you". We have grown apart over time, as it was too painful to watch family home-movies of their vacations...or even just have a dinner together. We were in pain, and although they were told "this is hard for us" they still pushed forward thinking the closeness was more important than our feelings. I stopped accepting invitations over time and now we have a gap.
    It is for people with kids to hear what your need when you are in pain...but a true friend will hear you, understand the adjustments and work to make things alright and allow you to voice your pain and fears and boundaries. Jamie is right, friendships do take work! Sometimes one person needs to lean more heavily on the other for a while and that is OK
    GREAT POST

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  6. I remember my SIL being very understanding when I was in the trenches and not looking forward to a big family baby visit, and having to keep my tears in. So I went there on my own (so I could leave when I wanted to) and she did say I was welcome, tears and all. That was enough for me to dare to go. And holding the baby without any pressure filed me with more joy than sadness.(Which was a weird and wondrous feeling between all the sadness)

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    1. Yes, those were exactly my feelings about my niece's birth too.

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  7. Amazing piece. I have to share this as it is one of the best pieces I've read on this subject.

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  8. What a beautiful post that resonated with me so much. When going through infertility treatments, I lost some friends and lost a level of closeness with others. However, I had wonderful friends who were able to be honest with me and understanding, and those friendships deepened. My best friend has three children and zero problem getting pregnant (for a while it felt like she had a problem with the ease with which she GOT pregnant!). We were able to communicate honestly with each other -- she could call me crying when she was pregnant with her third child (which I was horrified by, because I understood it was out of empathy for me, but how awful to feel that I cast such a pall on her happy news), told me, and then said, "I'm going to hang up now so you can process this and call me back when you're ready." It was so appreciated, because she understood that I would be happy-sad (sad-happy) and that I might want to feel my feels before talking with her about her news. I was able to tell her later that I couldn't be the one she complained to about having to buy a minivan, that she should complain to her other mommy friends about that particular Fertile Problem. And she was able to tell me that she needed me to ask about her kids more, that as a SAHM her kids were kind of her job and her day-to-day, and if I couldn't have a conversation about them with her then it meant that her life wasn't part of our discussions. (That also turned out to be a little bit her feeling badly about talking about her kids and then feeling resentful about the guilt, but we got through it.) She never asked me to hold her babies, she waited for me to be ready. She invited me to events but with the caveat that I could bow out if I needed to. With other friends, this wasn't the case and the elephant in the room that was our losses and infertility and our friends' fertility and new parenthood crowded out meaningful friendship. But I guess maybe we weren't as close as I thought we were, because that wedged itself so deeply between our friendship, quickly. I think it depends on your friendships... but I agree that not giving someone the option to be there for you or to understand your situation and work through your grief with you isn't being fair to your friends. Loved the analogy of the friend's divorce and your marriage. I have a sneaking suspicion that my best friend has had conversations with her husband about how lucky they are to have easily had their family many, many times after wrenching conversations with me after a disappointment or loss. Thank you for bringing this up!

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