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 not 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.