It’s often said that it’s tough to be a parent, but what doesn’t get talked about as much is just how tough it can be to become one. According to RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association, Infertility affects one in eight couples—that’s more than seven million people in the United States.
As a company that honors and celebrates real life, we wanted to shine light on this issue to let hopeful parents know they are not alone—and help you, our dear readers, to have a better idea on what to do or say to support loved ones. By addressing this experience that touches so many (but is often not talked about) we hope to inspire more acts of compassion and kindness in support of those struggling with this heartbreaking disease.
To raise awareness of the importance of offering support to those experiencing infertility, we wanted to share with you our Being There Through Infertility series, to provide an inside look on the topic of infertility, as told by the people who have lived it.
In our first installment today, we’re featuring a conversation with Elizabeth Grill, Psy. D, and member of the Board of Directors for RESOLVE.
How did you first become involved with RESOLVE?
I first learned about RESOLVE when I was a fellow at The Center for Reproductive Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College. I was looking for ways to help and support patients on their family building journeys beyond the Center at Cornell. I was fortunate to be invited to a RESOLVE support group leader’s meeting and quickly joined forces with other mental health professionals in New York volunteering for RESOLVE. I began running support groups for RESOLVE 17 years ago and have remained involved with this amazing organization ever since.
How important is a support system to women and couples going through infertility?
When diagnosed with infertility, many individuals and couples may no longer feel in control of their bodies or their life plan. Women, men, and couples face loss of perceived control especially over the plans they made and fantasized about throughout their lives related to how and when they would conceive. They may experience loss of status and security. There can be loss of self-esteem, sexuality, femininity/masculinity, relationships, and potential loss of genetic continuity.
Feelings of isolation and social separateness begin to develop when the individual/couple realizes that others seem to conceive and bear children effortlessly. They at once feel different and alone. This sense of isolation may develop when the individual/couple is continuously questioned or teased about their childlessness. The need to insulate oneself from the emotional pain brought on by others’ curiosity or by social celebrations such as baby showers, christenings, and family events is acute. To avoid this pain, many infertile individuals and couples tend to withdraw, to isolate themselves from family and friends with children or avoid activities that include children. The resulting feeling of isolation can significantly affect self-esteem. The infertile individual or couple thus feels different, impaired, and prohibited from being part of a larger, childbearing society.
For all the reasons stated above, infertility is often the first life crisis that drives individual/couples to seek counseling with a mental health professional who is familiar with the emotional experience of infertility. Individual, couple’s, and/or group therapy help people to cope with the emotional roller coaster. Mental health professionals can offer support, teach coping strategies, and help with important decision making. Support groups offer a place for individuals and couples to share practical advice and helpful tips as well as meet and talk with others undergoing similar experiences.
What is the most important piece of advice you would give to someone who wants to show up and support someone going through infertility, but maybe doesn’t know where to start?
The first thing I would say is congratulations for understanding the need to offer a loved one, colleague, or friend support during this difficult life crisis. The mere recognition that someone you know needs support is certainly the first step in the right direction. Sometimes, all it takes is just showing up and telling the person that you care and that you are there to listen and/or lend support. Don’t try to solve the problem or give unsolicited advice. Instead, ask how you can help provide support, LISTEN to what the person’s needs are, and be prepared for those needs to change on a daily-even hourly basis. In some cases, friends and family members need to be educated not only about infertility and its treatments but also about the ways in which they can provide support. Go to the Family and Friends section of Resolve.org and educate yourself about infertility and how to support those you care about.
How do you avoid saying the wrong thing, and what are some examples of things that you shouldn’t say to friends going through this?Involuntary childlessness is an inter-generational crisis that can strain or damage family relationships by impairing communications and interactions. When infertility interrupts the normal family life cycle, it is not uncommon that a family’s unique flaws can sometimes precipitate negative behaviors such as parental favoritism, poor communication, and/or unhealthy coping strategies. As a result, family (and friends) can sometimes be the infertile person’s greatest challenge. They say insensitive things (“I think you’re just too stressed and need a vacation.”) or pry into the couple’s personal lives (“Any big news this month?”). Many family members and friends, in fact, truly struggle with how to support the individual and couple’s experiencing infertility. Support and interest is usually very much appreciated by the infertile couple; however, advice is not. To be helpful, some family members will talk of “miraculous pregnancies” that they have heard about, cut out articles, or suggest treatments or physicians. This type of behavior is usually unwelcome and often insulting to individuals who have often spent months/years of research finding the right doctors and treatments and these comments suggest that the couple is incapable of making their own adult decisions.
What are good alternatives and examples of the right things to say?
Some suggestions for family and friends include:
- Acknowledging infertility as a medical and emotional crisis with a wide variety of losses, disappointments and costs
- Being sensitive to the pain, stress, and emotional pressure of childlessness or the inability to expand one’s family as desired
- Asking the couple how they would like to be supported
- Emphasizing the importance and value of the couple as family members and friends
- Keeping lines of communication open and stressing the importance of honesty, candor, tact, and diplomacy in interactions
- Respecting the boundaries that the infertile couple sets regarding their infertility and understanding that they may not wish to discuss the ups and downs of this journey.
What do you find most rewarding about the work you do with RESOLVE?
I’m proud to be serving as a RESOLVE Board Member committed to providing support and knowledge to people on their family building journeys. I have had the privilege of working on the front lines to support men, women and couples by leading groups and participating in RESOLVE Walks of Hope. Now, as a RESOLVE Board member, I also can work behind the scenes on RESOLVE’s mission to promote advocacy for coverage as well as access to care, support, community and education.