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This blog addresses various emotional aspects of experiencing infertility. It is written by a clinical psychologist who specializes in infertility counseling. Thank you for reading, and best of luck with your journey!

Friday, October 19, 2012

"Fertility envy", infertility and friendships

I came across this article about "fertility envy", written from the perspective of a woman without fertility issues who felt hurt and isolated when her closest friends distanced themselves during her pregnancy.   The author describes feeling disappointed and dismayed when her friends, who had not yet disclosed their infertility struggles, did not react with excitement to her pregnancy announcement.  As her pregnancy progressed, she felt increasingly isolated and unable to talk about her pregnancy and preparations for her children.  Instead, she felt burdened by having to spend time talking about her friends' infertility treatments.  In the end, she found herself spending more time with her friends who already had children or who were not interested in having children, and grew apart from her friends with infertility.

For me, the article stirred up a myriad of feelings.  On the one hand, I guess I couldn't help experiencing a little bit of "fertility envy" myself--after all, the author had no problems conceiving and carrying  beautiful twin girls.  Is it fair of her to be upset that her infertile friends, because of their own pain, couldn't be as excited about her pregnancy as she was?  On the other hand, though, it was an interesting perspective,  and one that as a therapist specializing in infertility, I don't often hear.  I suspect that many friends of mine may have felt similarly during their own pregnancies, but I don't think they would have ever felt comfortable admitting it to me.

I believe that disruptions in friendship and family relationships are one of the most painful aspects of infertility.  It seems that they are incredibly common and perhaps unavoidable.  However, what I find makes a pregnancy a "fatal blow" to a relationship is a preexisting problem in the relationship prior to the pregnancy.  Once a pregnancy occurs, the issue surfaces, and because emotions are so high, the issue is usually unable to be resolved.  For instance, in the article mentioned above, the author only learned upon disclosure of her own pregnancy that her friend had been struggling to conceive for three years.  To me, the fact that her allegedly closest friend did not feel comfortable sharing this with her prior to her pregnancy announcement was a sign that her friend was already having mixed feelings about the relationship.  It is also interesting that the author turned out to have several friends undergoing infertility treatment at the same time, none of whom shared this with her.  Rather than bemoaning the fact that her friends weren't available to her, she might be better served questioning why people she felt close to didn't feel comfortable opening up to her.  In a sense, what she really discovered is that her former friendships weren't really all that close anyway, and thus they were unable to withstand the emotional pressure of her pregnancy.

Much has been written about the difficulties that individuals struggling with infertility have when their friends and family members become pregnant.  I agree that this is often very difficult, but I think much of the difficulty comes from the attitude and expectations of the pregnant persons involved.  The pregnant person's reactions usually fall in one of two camps: either their is complete insensitivity to the feelings of the infertile person, or their is a high level of guilt and oversensitivity, which can then become burdensome for the infertile person to manage. 

Last year I had a relatively unique experience in this regard when I became pregnant (as a result of a frozen transfer from a prior IVF) somewhat unexpectedly, in the midst of working with several clients struggling with their own infertility.  I must say I was repeatedly impressed with how well my clients handled my pregnancy.  Perhaps knowing my long history of infertility, I got a "pass", but I think it had more to do with my willingness to understand and tolerate the fact that they would have negative feelings about my pregnancy, and that I didn't expect them to be excited for me.  In my own personal life, when I was embroiled in IVF, I found that I was able to tolerate, and to some extent enjoy the pregnancies of friends who understood that I was going to have my own feelings about it.  It helped that they listened to my feelings when I brought them up, but didn't force me to talk about it when I didn't.

As for the author's feelings of pregnancy isolation, I find this hard to believe.  It seems that our culture worships pregnancy and its related rituals and material goods, so it seems nearly impossible to me that she couldn't have found other women (other than the old lady in the checkout line) that would have been excited to share in her experiences with her.

I am curious to hear what your experiences with pregnant friends or family members and "infertility envy" have been.  Where there responses or attitudes that you found helpful, or that were less than ideal?

As always, thank you for reading, and please feel free to contact me with any questions or suggestions!

15 comments:

  1. I agree that pregnancy is and pregnant women are worshipped upon the highest possible altar in our society, second only to mothers (with children already born). There is simply no way this woman was being rejected by everyone ever. No. Way. The Daily Mail is a bit sensationalist so the article is probably exaggerated.

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  2. When we were waiting to adopt our daughter, the social worker who did our homestudy was pregnant with her fourth child (at our last post-adoption visit she announced she was pregnant with her fifth!). I had very much moved on to a place where it wasn't difficult to work with her but I did wonder how it might be for the other families she was serving. (She was the adoptive family social worker but it also made me think about a friend of mine who was a support person at a women's clinic serving women who were there to have abortions. She quit when she became visibly pregnant because she was concerned about how it might be for her clients.)

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  3. I have struggled with pregnant nurses at my fertility clinic and pregnant coworkers who made stupid or insensitive (bordering on mean) remarks right after my miscarriage. I do know from my own experiences that throughout my infertility path I have shut many people out to periphery positions in my life who were once upon a time people I considered important. I just chalked it up to we were at very different places in our lives.

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  4. Very interesting post -- thanks so much for sharing it. I think your observations about there already being fractures in the relationship is spot on. I find that I can much more easily tolerate the negative feelings alive in a friendship with someone pregnant if they try and are willing to talk about my infertility as much as their pregnancy. This shows sensitivity and true care in the friendship.

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  5. In my experience, it was more to do with the attitude of the pregnant person (and sometimes those around her), than whether she was pregnant or not. When I was in hospital during my second ectopic pregnancy, a 7 month pregnant friend visited. She was very matter-of-fact about her pregnancy, and very much easier to cope with than a friend who had two young children and didn't think I had lost anything. What I found hard to deal with were the comments to my pregnant friend by others. The congratulatory nature of comments that implied that she was finally becoming a real woman. That feeling of exclusion was always what was hardest.

    To be fair to the woman who wrote the article, she did say :

    "With hindsight, I can see that I was so excited about being pregnant that I may have been insensitive to them. It's hard not to get caught up in all things baby — and I think I was guilty of that. Now I can see that this was too much for friends struggling with infertility to cope with."

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  6. I know when my brother's then-partner was pregnant - same time as we were originally but lost ours - I believe she remarked to Mr Stinky that she couldn't understand why I wasn't so interested in her pregnancy. This being the same person who tried to draw parallels between how devastated I was after that loss to the feelings she experienced after an elective termination.
    I can identify with what you write " In my own personal life, when I was embroiled in IVF, I found that I was able to tolerate, and to some extent enjoy the pregnancies of friends who understood that I was going to have my own feelings about it" . . . I think it can be more about a persons general awareness of other circumstances that affects this

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  7. I loved your interpretation of that article. I agree that the woman who wrote the article must have been oblivious to problems in those friendships, and they merely surfaced when she announced her pregnancy. The whole tone of her point of view definitely made me view her as a self-centered person, which I was glad she admitted later in the article.

    That's been the characteristic in my pregnant friends and mom friends: how self-absorbed they are. Some friends, even those who formerly struggled with infertility themselves and seem to have forgotten immediately upon seeing a positive pregnancy test, come across as very self-absorbed and act as if they expect the world around them to cater to their every need and desire, simply because they are pregnant. As if they were the one and only person responsible for "achieving" that goal. (I'm a believer in Christ, and so I believe that only God creates life.)

    But other friends were very sensitive to my pain, and even if they did not struggle themselves, they were aware of my feelings, and made efforts to be sensitive to them. That selfless gesture allows me to be truly happy for their pregnancy and baby. When they don't force pregnancy news on me, I'm much more likely to ask how they're feeling, how was their appointment, etc. My best friend, who is now pregnant with her second child, has always been very sensitive to my pain, which allowed me to be happy for her and even throw her a baby shower - something I don't think I could do for anyone else while I'm struggling with infertility.

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  8. I never realized how profound my fertility envy was until the day that my friend called me on the phone to tell me she was pregnant. A side of me I never knew existed came out. I was drenched in jealousy and my heart broke. I always thought I was a fairly understanding person and wouldn't let my life struggles get in the way of being happy for others.

    So my inital reaction was a 'fake' congrats with umph and everything. Meanwhile I was numb inside with a golf ball lodge in my throat. Thank goodness that was all done over the phone because as much as I mustered up the enthusiastic congrats my body language did not match that enthusiasm. 5 weeks later my other best friend called to let me know she also was pregnant. This time my reaction (after I hung up the phone) was more visceral. I sobbed, I hung up the phone and simply sobbed and sobbed. Here were two close friends we hung out together all the time and they were pregnant essentially together. Meanwhile I'd been trying for a year and a half with no avail.

    I am now approaching 4 years of trying and one of those girls are already on their second, and she decided to tell me face to face, then proceed to tell me how much she hates being pregnant this time around. She's always known about our struggles.

    I've had to do a lot of soul searching. For a long time I'd feel so guilty for feeling how I did. I had to realize my pain and jealousy came from the realization of what I'm unable to do as a women. It's very real when it's someone you know and is harder to hide that guilt. For me pregnant women don't bother me if I don't know them as I don't have the personal tie. So I've learned that chances are I have to take time away from pregnant friends. I am very honest and open with them about my feelings and how this doesn't mean I'm not happy for them because I am so very happy another person doesn't have to go through this, and that they get the blessing. But that their pregnancy is a painful reminder for me. After the children are born I'm great (one on one). I know I can't really do a group of children. But put me one on one with our couple friends and I'm completely smitten. My best friend who had a boy I'm so very close with and love her son with all my being. I do not have any kind of resentment or pulling away feelings. She's ALWAYS been very understanding of our journey, she's been open to hearing how I'm feeling and I'd always try and ask her how she was doing. The fact that she understood and our relationship was what it was, it was so easy to pick up when I was ready to continue how we were before. Actually something that brings tears to my eyes is because of our story she is donating her eggs. She came with us for our first IUI (which ended in an 8 week mc) but the fact that she's been so invested in finding out what we're going through and being there. It makes me cry to have such an amazing friend, especially when I simply couldn't be as there for her when she got pregnant. Thing is she knew this and turned to friends she knew was better suited to hear her and support her. I feel a tinge of guilt because I see how she is with us and I wish I could have been there for her. But both her and I know emotions don't work that way and I never wanted to be fake with her. I wanted the moments spent together to be true and honest.

    All in all Fertility Envy brings out a very raw side to TTC. It puts walls up and at times brings out a bit of of we never knew existed. Once I understood that side of me and just what it was that was causing pain it made things easier. I had to literally ask myself "what about this situation upsets you so much."

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    1. Thank you... I needed to read something like this. I feel the same and we are not alone!

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  9. I can relate to the original article as I lost my best friend of 15 years from this conflict. I was interested in reading your perspective, but I found it odd that it's so brushed over with ideas that this woman probably had OTHER women she could've talked to about her pregnancy, or that there was a previous issue because she hadn't known of the difficulty to conceive that her friend fought with. I think a bigger issue is that many women don't talk about it freely.

    Neither of these were excuses in my situation. When my best friend conceived I cheered excitedly with her, and when she had ectopics with life threatening situations, I cried with her filled with devastation. That is love of friendship! Yet, when I conceived, she resented me and was angry. When I miscarried she showed more compassion and interest than she had when I found out I was pregnant! I conceived again and she did the same. It was cruel, and it was selfish! She was my best friend, and just as she needed me, I needed her.

    It's always interesting how people with on infertility boards and articles indeed must explain their blessing of conception.. being IVF or otherwise, along with how long they tried to conceive previously.. I agree with your statement, it seems to be your "pass". Infertiles are able to hate you or "resent" you less because it seems you can sympathize because you had your own infertility issues.. but they don't really embrace that fertile women DO CARE AND SYMPATHIZE TOO! Fertile women are not at all as easily forgiven! They are somehow expected to allow resentment and abandonment to be acceptable, but with deep friendships and support systems, that is a tough thing to swallow.

    I won't for a second say that I expected my best friend to be "excited" or even "happy" for me when I conceived... I will however say that I wasn't tolerate of her complete disregard of the baby I carried in my womb, as if because it was my womb that it was somehow less a blessing or a miracle. I allowed time and I didn't talk much about it to her. Imagine, the most amazing thing happening to your body and your life and you can't share that with your bestest of friends... And when I found out the sex being a girl I excitedly shared the news and she ignored it. Could she not for one second consider what I was going through, could she not muster even a small "congrats"? No, she couldn't. Finally, after a ton of tears and a mountain of guilt I realized that this child, should she make it into this world, should be embraced with love. My innocent child did not deserve to be ignored only to be enjoyed once the long, scary growing work was done. My daughter deserved more, and thinking of all the love and support I gave my friend for so many years, I realized that I deserved more!

    What about this situation upsets me so much? That I loved my friend so deeply that I shared her ups and downs, and when it came to those times in my life, she couldn't see past her own feelings and problems. That hurt me, and after such a long friendship it was saddening to discover that I devoted so much into someone who expected me to feel bad about myself for a blessing my family really wanted.

    I am a great Mom by the way. I am absolutely devoted to my children, they are my life! The anger was misdirected, and a poor way of coping. Maybe some actually therapy to help her work through her feelings would've helped her somehow. It's too late for us, I can't get that time back. I do understand that infertiles can have very lonely moments and such, but they should know true friendships and love when they have them.

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    1. I love this post. As a person suffering from IF for 6 years, 5 IVF's and knowing I will never carry a child, I could not agree more with you. We should not be punishing our fertile friends for not suffering or struggling like us. Infertility is painful but does not give us the right to be selfish. As hard as it has been for me to see all my friends get pregnant, and as hard as it is to hear about their lives as new mom's, I have the satisfaction of trying to raise about that and still be able to cultivate the deep relationships I have. I may not be a mom ever, but I still want to be a good friend.

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  10. This is a very interesting perspective. My husband and I have been in the throes of infertility for about 9 years now. We really got into treatments about 4 years ago and have had a failed FET and 4 failed IUI's plus some clomid and femara cycles along the way too.

    One of my best friends has had 2 children during this time and they are my God-Daughters and I adore them. When she was pregnant with them, it wasn't easy, but she was so great about it that I couldn't be mad at her! She and her husband (one of my oldest friends) were in a perfect place to have babies and they are great parents, so they knew it was difficult for me, but I could not ask for better friends. They have been so supportive to us during our attempts, they even made dinner for me and my husband after my egg retrieval, which made me feel special, since I know she does that for women that have just given birth too.
    Now, my Sister-in-law on the other hand is a monster. She and my Brother-in-law have a terrible marriage and they make babies just to try and hold the whole thing together, cause you know, babies are duct tape right? She acted so interested in my last FET attempt and the whole time she was trying to get pregnant! She ended up concieving, of course, and just had a baby, within a week of when our Due Date would have been if we would have been successful. I know this isn't normal, so it is hard to compare it to other people's experiences. She is jealous of me and my husbands relationship and a TERRIBLE mother, but she is continually blessed with healthy pregnancies and babies. It is truly heartbreaking and hard to accept as a person struggling with infertility. I hate when we are referred to as "infertiles" so awful!
    I really agree with your idea that the lady in the article didn't have very good friendships if she was oblivious to her friends infertility struggles. Good Friends are attuned to each other and share each others ups and downs. She could have been an extreme wretch to be around, like one of those ladies that complains for nine months! I always tell people like that that pregnancy is a miracle and there are LOTS of people in this world that would give anything to be in their position.
    Just found your blog today and it is really great.

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  11. I remember reading this article last year and thinking "oh boo hoo to you!" I'm not suprised that the daily mail published it. They love all sorts of rubbish. I'm glad that you found it too and wrote a post all about it! I enjoyed reading your thoughts:)

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  12. I can relate so much. I have had 3 cycles of iui and waiting to see if my third one was a success. I am starting to feel all those feelings when I see pregnant ladies. For me it is getting worse because even if I see someone on TV I get upset. Most of girls that I grew up with have children and some are pregnant. Everyone I was in varsity with. But I am trusting God will bless us one day. Sometimes it is hard to control what you feel deep inside. Otherwise I am very happy for all pregnant ladiss simply because they don't have to go through what I am going through.

    I will post with my new results and holding thumbs....

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  13. I went through horrible envy. I had to undergo 2 major abdominal surgeries in 2007 that left me with a lot of scar tissue and lesions. My husband and I tried Clomid and IUI and then a test showed that my tubes had blockages. During all this my close girlfriends and cousins were getting pregnant. I had to stop attending parties and baby showers because being around children was too hard. I was selfish I admit but I had to do what was best for me. My friends stuck by me and after one round of IVF I am happy to say that I have 2 beautiful 7 month old boys. :)

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