What to do if you’re pregnant and your infertile friend isn’t

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Infertility can be a lonely place, made even lonelier if your friends and family haven’t experienced it. It affects one in every six couples in some way, even though it may seem that most women in their mid-30s or younger are able to easily become pregnant.

On the other hand, a new pregnancy incites a whirlwind of emotions. At one moment, you’re trying to keep your food down, the next, you’re picking names from a baby website. And the next, you’re a wreck because you haven’t felt the baby move in your belly in an hour.

Both situations could benefit from a caring friend. In a perfect world, you and your friend would be pregnant together.

As a perinatal psychiatrist at Ohio State, I treat this relational situation a lot, from both sides – pregnant women who don’t know how to act around a friend (or sister or colleague) who can’t get pregnant, and an infertile friend who can’t share in the joy of their pregnant friend.

How can pregnant women help non-pregnant, infertile friends through changes in their relationship? And how can infertile friends break free from their internal pain?

First, let’s look at the relationship from the point of view of the pregnant woman. 
What can she do to help smooth the situation? What’s typically going through her mind?

There sometimes is a terrible level of avoidance. You may feel you can’t share this important thing in your life because you’ll inflict pain on your friend. But the truth is that the most painful thing for your friend is to find out that you’re pregnant from someone else. This makes your infertile friend feel even more ostracized or alienated. It’s best to tackle it head on.

It may be difficult to comprehend, but you should not expect them to share your joy – after all, your baby bump is something they may greatly desire. It’s the only time in your pregnancy that it isn’t about you, so rise to the occasion. You shouldn’t expect your baby-seeking friends to throw a party or a parade for you.

The best way to tell your friend that you’re pregnant is either over the phone or one on one. The phone allows your friend to get out of the situation quickly if they want to.

Here are some things to say to get the conversation started:

  • I understand that this may be difficult for you, but I have something important to share. I’m pregnant.
  • I know you’re going through a difficult time and that this may make it even more difficult. Losing our friendship would be heartbreaking to me. I would like us to work through this.
  • I acknowledge the elephant in the room that you’re currently not pregnant. I don’t want to lose you as a friend, and I respect that it’s challenging for you.

The last thing you want to do is avoid them or rub their face in it. Respect their boundaries. I’ve seen many friends get through this beautifully, if done right. It can actually cause a friendship to grow.

Here are a few things you don’t want to say:

  • I thought you’d be happy for me.
  • I’ve always been there for you.
  • Keep trying: You'll get pregnant when you least expect it.

Now, let’s discuss what’s typically going through the mind of the infertile person in this relationship.

The infertile friend is triggered by a variety of things – the cycle of her own periods, friends getting pregnant, baby showers. These are constant reminders that she isn’t in the situation she wants to be in. It’s a constant baseline of sadness.

To the infertile friend:

It’s not fair that you are being denied a healthy pregnancy. You’re now part of this (unfortunate) club of women and their partners who know it’s not a straightforward process of becoming a family. It’s OK to mourn the aspect of not having the pregnant experience. It’s also possible to work through this with mindfulness and therapy. Hating your friends who are pregnant is not helpful, though.

You don’t have to be a victim of your feelings. It doesn’t have to be outside of your control. You can work to gain a level of comfort. I don’t coach people to avoid their pregnant friends or pregnant women in general. It’s unavoidable, because they are everywhere It’s unrealistic and not a positive outlook for your health.

You also don't need to be a robot and say, “this does not hurt me at all.” Your goal should be to participate in your life fully. If you’re not doing that, it’s important address it. Infertility is isolating, and cutting yourself off from friends and social support will lead to further isolation. If you remove yourself from your village, you won’t have a village when you need one. It’s important to allow yourself time to grieve and process your infertility without allowing it to decimate the rest of your life. If you find yourself giving free reign to hatred and frustration, it may be a sign you would benefit from therapy.

I’m not suggesting you throw a baby shower either.

Here are some things you can say to your pregnant friend:

  • I really want to be there for you, but I’m going to need some time.
  • I appreciate your flexibility. This is really hard for me, but I hope that we can continue to work on this together. I want to be there for you.
  • Please continue to check in on me. I appreciate that you recognize my pain during this important stage of your life.

Can the friendship survive?

Of course, it can. With direct and gentle communication, at a speed with which both friends are comfortable, progress can be made. And while there may be painful moments at times, there also will be  sweet ones, as long as each friend is able to be authentic and kind.

Tamar Gur is a prenatal psychiatrist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.