“So what’s new with you?”
It’s a simple question from my long-time best friend, but I’m suddenly doing speedy mental gymnastics to sort through what I should and shouldn’t say. We can’t find reliable pandemic daycare? Nope. We are thinking about having a fifth baby? Definitely not. I land on some vague small talk about work stressors, which is a safe zone. I’ve done this for years with my friend—we’re walking a sort of friendship tightrope as I grow my family and she struggles with fertility.
When I conceived my second, third, and fourth child, my friend waited years to conceive, only to be met with multiple devastating losses. For a brief moment during this time, I also experienced a miscarriage, which united us in our grief. But when I went on to conceive again and ultimately gave birth to a healthy baby—and she didn’t—my guilt returned. I wonder all the time how I can support her while staying true to the daily events in my very real-life full of diaper changes, playdates, infant onesies, and breastfeeding. And in a wider context, can two friends leading such different lives remain close? So far, our relationship has proven that we can.
I talked to Chelsea Skaggs, a perinatal life coach, about how women can make their friendship survive as they navigate different fertility and family paths. I’ve compiled her advice, as well as what’s worked in my own friendship, below.
1. Balance the conversation
If I notice myself talking too much about my decision to have more kids, I pull back and try to maintain awareness that this might sound so ridiculous to someone begging all the powers that be to just have one healthy baby. So, while I try not to avoid the truth behind things I’m thinking or worrying about, sometimes I save the full depth and breadth of that conversation for other confidantes. I find myself turning the conversation back to her as much as possible to ensure we are both heard, which is a general “how to be a good friend” rule to follow regardless.
2. Read the room
Some days, my friend is raw. On other days, she’s over it. And sometimes she’s hopeful. My job is to know what day it is, and after decades of friendship, I’m mostly confident I can figure that out pretty quickly. Skaggs, who is also navigating a friendship with someone going through fertility struggles, says that you can come right out and ask your friend what would help. “Ask and truly listen to how they want to be loved and supported, and don't assume that it’s the same as it was before [their fertility challenges]...your love language, your ways might be different,” she says, encouraging friends to redefine what it means to meet each others’ needs right now.
3. Develop a code word
Create a word or phrase to say for when it’s all just too much. Maybe you have been talking about baby-related things for a while, and your friend says, “time to change the subject,” which could be your code for when, emotionally, it’s enough. Skaggs said the code word can signify to both friends that the conversation is uncomfortable. While my friend and I don’t have a code word, I know her well enough after two decades of friendship that it’s easy for me to change the subject away from fertility when it’s necessary.
4. Play defense
It’s possible I’ve over-accepted defense as my position in my friend’s life, but when we are in a larger group, I tend to subconsciously mitigate triggering comments that others might make. Friends have jokingly talked about “lending their husbands” or serving as a surrogate to my friend or pushed too hard for details on trying to conceive. The insensitivity around some of the well-meaning and light-hearted comments can be downright devastating for someone enduring infertility for years. I notice myself changing the subject for my friend—playing referee, goalie, and defense—as I try to redirect others who I feel are going too far. But Skaggs says it’s important to not try to solve the problem for her. I’m completely and entirely guilty of that.
5. Quit trying to fix it
As someone who has been in the pregnancy and postpartum phase of life for around 8 years now, and as a women’s health writer, I find myself engrossed with these topics constantly, spewing an overabundance of knowledge on everything from ovulation testing strategies to the latest IVF success rates. So, I often have to step back, acknowledging that my tendency to try to “fix it” for her isn’t going to help. Skaggs says this natural tendency friends have definitely isn’t helpful. “You don’t have to make it shiny and happy, and also don’t take it personally if some of the things or conversations that you used to have aren’t a fit right now,” she says.
6. Educate yourself
If you have a friend struggling with fertility issues, and you’re not well-versed in reproductive health, it can mean a lot to educate yourself so they can come to you to chat, Skaggs says. Out-of-line comments come up innocently, but as a result of ignorance, she explains. She also recommends offering to go to fertility appointments with a friend who is struggling, especially to fill in gaps if a partner can’t be there. Her own friend talks about how meaningful this was for her when friends helped with this.