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Infertility in the Family

Jun04

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Hi Amy!

I have read your blog for four years, and I love it. I especially love reading the Advice Smackdown questions and answers from all your readers. Anyway, I have a question I hope you can help me with.

I have two boys, 4.5 and 1.5, and am currently pregnant with my third baby, due in October. I’m 34, married (we cloth diaper-thank you for all the wonderful advice!) and my husband and I are self employed running a busy farm which is fun and chaotic and messy (oh my gosh so messy!), but is a life I wouldn’t trade.

Anyway, my actual question concerns my cousin. Who is 38. Married. Wants children. Trying to have them. Is not succeeding. When I was pregnant with my second boy, I called her and told her personally, early, and she was really sweet about it, but that was the end of talking about it. I emailed her about this third pregnancy to personally tell her about it before anyone else, and got no response.

I’ve spoken with her several times since, but we talk about her house, her dogs, the renovations on her house…everything and anything but babies, and little boys. I’m careful not to bring up anything about how I’m feeling or how the boys are and she doesn’t ask. I know this must be really difficult for her, so I’m a little concerned how to act when I do see her this summer.

Oh, and she never talks about trying to get pregnant, or babies or anything, but I know she has always wanted children. We USED to talk about it. Anyway, our family gets together every summer, and I know I will see her for about a week and I will be obviously pregnant with two little boys running in and out of the house all day. I’m not sure exactly what I’m looking for, except maybe some advice on how to proceed?

We don’t talk all that often, but I don’t want this to become a rift in our slightly difficult relationship (she has always seen herself as older and wiser and has a sort of patting-on-the-head attitude about my life which can make me roll my eyes). But I love her and have always loved spending time with her and we live across the country from each other so I really do cherish seeing her during the summers. I am worried because her mother (my mother’s sister) had a really awful time getting pregnant and then finally had my cousin after many years of fertility treatment. Then my mom had me a few years later, and then quickly had two more kids. This caused a terrible rift between them which took 20 YEARS to heal. 20 YEARS. I don’t want that to happen with my cousin.

Any advice would be appreciated.
Uncertain

This is always a super difficult topic to address, particularly when we’re only hearing from the fertile half of the relationship. Because we’re left to guess how the other half really feels, which can be anything from genuinely happy, indifferently over it, slightly-to-very jealous, annoyed over any kid-glove treatment, or just plain ragingly bitter at the entire freaking pregnant world.

And I admit that back when I was having difficulties conceiving my first (and my second, to a lesser degree), I probably felt all of those things, depending on who the pregnant lady in question was. A relative, or a good friend who also struggled? ZOMG I AM SO HAPPY LET ME BUY YOU BABY THINGS! Woman at work who I don’t know very well? Meh, kinda jealous, going to work out new path to bathroom so I don’t have to walk past her office. Woman I just plain never liked in the first place? HATE. WHITE HOT IRRATIONAL HAAAATE.

That last one, by the way, I’m not proud of. It wasn’t their “fault,” there isn’t some finite amount of fertility going around so other people’s successes would not ever affect my outcome, and feeling angry and rage-y about it certainly wasn’t good for me. Ultimately, whatever my reaction was, however, it really was on me to deal with and control, and to keep it from affecting (or even ruining) friendships and relationships.

After reading your letter, it sounds like your cousin is doing what she can to minimize the effect her fertility struggle has on her interactions with you and thus preserve the friendship, in her own way. She didn’t respond to your email, but maybe at the time she just didn’t have a “congratulations” in her. Maybe she’d just gotten a period or bad news from the clinic and chose to stay silent rather than say something petty or angry that she’d regret. She keeps conversations on neutral topics with you, prefers not to discuss the ins and outs of her treatment plan or efforts conceiving. You USED to talk about these things, but you don’t anymore. I think that’s probably okay. That happens, as we move into wildly different stages/phases of our lives with people we’ve known from past stages/phases. The current conversation boundaries are probably her choice, so it’s best to respect that.

Maybe she’s no longer seeking treatment and instead is working on finding contentment with a child-free life, with her dogs and a great home and all sorts other things that are genuinely important to her. Maybe she is still hoping for a child, but the last thing she probably wants is pity, or mothers who say boneheaded, smug things about children being the most validating important thing and way more meaningful than dogs or careers or whatever. (NOT saying that YOU would ever say stuff like that — and her careful avoidance of even the briefest inquiry about your children IS a bit of warning sign that no, she’s still not over this, or in a place where she’s able to find joy in being a special cousin-auntie-friend to your boys.)

As for seeing her in person this summer: Be genuine. Be yourself. Tell her how happy you are to see her and how much you cherish your time together. Ask how she’s doing, but don’t try to dig for details she doesn’t want to volunteer or topics you “used” to talk about. If she wants to stick to her dogs and dinner plans, so be it. Don’t bitch constantly about how pregnancy sucks and your kids are so wild, but don’t swing too far in the other “I AM A MAGICAL GODDESS BLESSED WITH MULTIPLE LIFE-FULFILLING ANGELS” direction either.

On the other hand, your children are there, and they exist. So does your belly. There’s only so much accommodating you can do. Again, a lot of this IS on her. (I know the tabloids love shrieking about celebrities having the audacity to FLAUNT THAT BABY BUMP!!1! any time a woman like, dares to go out in public while pregnant. You are not flaunting anything. You are human being who exists, while doing something that is required for human beings to continue to exist.) Hopefully she is also aware of your family’s unfortunate history and your mothers’ rift, and is similarly driven to not let that happen. Because again: You aren’t hogging the family’s fertility ration, here. It’s up to her to separate her jealousy or sadness from you, the person who she loves and wants good things for, much like you want good things for her, be it the baby she’s always hoped for, or peace and contentment with other things in life.

You two might continue to always have a complicated relationship that drifts ever more to the surface instead of growing closer and into equal confidantes. Accept that. Support and love her without pity or false empathy, while recognizing that while life is unfair, that is not your fault and you shouldn’t made to feel like your very presence is hurtful (and that goes for your children, too), or like, HOW DARE YOU KEEP HAVING CHILDREN THAT YOU WANT TO CONTINUE HAVING. If she can’t be in your presence or behave kindly or appropriately towards you or your children, that’s on her to work out, not for you to apologize or feel badly about. But it sounds like she’s built up some boundaries that she’s okay with, and isn’t so raw and sensitive that she’s canceling plans or screening out your calls completely. That’s good. That’ll do. I think you two will be okay, for now, for the long run.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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14 Responses to “Infertility in the Family”

  1. Nancy Jun 04 at 12:11 pm Reply Reply

    As one of those who struggled and subsequently pulled away from and lost a friendship with someone who was fertility queen, THIS is so true – “Ultimately, whatever my reaction was, however, it really was on me to deal with and control, and to keep it from affecting (or even ruining) friendships and relationships.”

    You can’t change or even know exactly what she’s feeling. Maybe SHE doesn’t even know. So just be yourself when you’re with her. Don’t ignore that your baby or kids exist, don’t NOT mention them, but don’t flaunt the new baby either (in conversation, that is. dress however the heck you want and flaunt that bump! :)) Invite her to do things with you and the kids together, but respect her decisions if she chooses not to. If you are in a group of family and the conversation gets all baby, baby, baby, maybe try to steer it in another direction if she looks at all uncomfortable, but I’d say that’s about the most you’re responsible for doing. 

    It’s GREAT that you’re being so sensitive and caring, but it’s not you, it’s her. There’s no guarantee about what happens down the road and there’s nothing that you can do to change what does happen other than to be there and respect her feelings.

  2. CKD Jun 04 at 1:50 pm Reply Reply

    I’ve been your infertile cousin – literally and figuratively – as I’ve watched nearly everyone in my family and work/social circle pop out kid after kid after kid and I have to say Amy’s advice is spot on. If I could write a letter from her perspective it would likely ask, “How can I let my cousin/friend/co-worker know that while I am happy for her, I’m still mourning and trying to come to terms with what’s in front of me?” I’m willing to bet she IS happy for you and also still wants to be seen as a PERSON with interests outside of the uterus, not your object of pity or condescension. I co-sign the advice not to counter her excitement over her dogs, job, vacation plans, new shoes, WHATEVER with “Oh, that’s nice but nothing will fulfill you like the love of a child!” Not helpful and just not cool. Not saying YOU would or have done this but other not-so-kind family members might chime in and that might be a good time to suggest you two take a walk or go hit up a bar for a drink. Pregnant chicks are the best designated drivers :) If her experience has been anything like mine, she has probably had people pull away from her and her FB feed is full of rants about how parents don’t have the time for the childless friends anymore. Her silence could be self-preservation; she may figure that a third kid means there’s simply no more room in your life for her. Again, it’s obvious you’re not freezing her out, but logic doesn’t always come into play here. Wow, sorry for the novel!
    Congrats on the new baby and I hope you two are able to share some laughs at the reunion.

  3. Lydia Jun 04 at 3:00 pm Reply Reply

    Yeah, this is tough.  You are already on the right path that you want to be sensitive to her, so you get massive credit for that.  But you can only control 1/2 this relationship.  Be kind, be thoughtful, and please don’t complain about your pregnancy or your children to her (while also not endlessly bragging either, fine line).  Amy is right though, that as an infertile you can not ask the world to stop reproducing because you are hurting.  I had some HORRIBLE pregnancy announcements while I was struggling to get pregnant.  Ones that came up and slapped me in the face and took my breath away.  But my friends were not trying to hurt me, it was just my life at the moment.  I usually needed time to digest it all and then I could really dig down and find my joy.  It was almost always harder to see them while pregnant, but I loved their babies once they were here.  Follow her lead, but don’t be ashamed about your own children.  Allow her a little lee-way in case she doesn’t act perfectly, she might mess up too, or be nervous about how she’ll be around you and your beautiful belly for her vacation.  So back to the start: be kind to each other and follow each other’s lead.  

  4. Kat Jun 04 at 3:11 pm Reply Reply

    I have a very dear friend who had some fertility issues. Same thing – at first we talked about it. She was nice and supportive when I told her about my pregnancy, and while they were trying for a baby she was extremely interested in how my pregnancy was going and how I was feeling and what our plans were and baby, baby, baby. Then she had a miscarriage. And was given some other bad news that meant having a baby would be more difficult. She told me about those things, but only after a few months of silence on her end. We literally live down the street from each other, and I haven’t seen her in six months, except to run into her at Starbucks. I deeply miss our friendship, but we just hit a wall. She turned her focus to fancy dinners and a new job, vacations to Hawaii. I was interested in my baby (now toddler and the struggle and joy involved in balancing a career and motherhood). I wish that we could have stayed close, and I think she tried but seeing our son and being confronted with all the things that changed in our lives was maybe too much. She was always kind, but set up similar boundaries which I did my best to respect. Not a lot of baby talk, instead I focused on my job, makeup, shoes, whatever. But I think we both knew that something had happened, and its just too hard for her to engage in a meaningful way anymore. I miss her, and I wish this wasn’t as hard as it is, but I have done a lot of what Amy suggested. I respected her boundaries, but I don’t hide the fact that I have a child and that for now, that toddler kind of runs the world. I miss her, and I hope someday we can rekindle our friendship, but if not I just hope she’s happy and able to grieve/move on/whatever she needs or wants to do.

  5. Rachel Jun 04 at 6:21 pm Reply Reply

    These situations are very hard. If it makes it easier to relate to, just treat it like any other case of one friend being more successful than another at something. Say you just got offered your dream job while your friend has been slogging away at dead end jobs for a year while desperately looking for something better–you’d probably not hide your new job from her, but you wouldn’t call her and gush about it either. Say your friend’s engagement just broke up badly and now you’ve just got engaged–you’d probably find a more subdued way to tell her than calling her screaming with excitement and expecting her to fawn over your ring. Infertility cuts deeper than almost all the other scenarios like this, but it can be treated in essentially the same way. Don’t hide anything, but don’t gush about it, and if they’ve found out and aren’t eager to have extended conversations about nursery furniture, just find something else to talk about with them.

  6. S Jun 04 at 8:54 pm Reply Reply

    You’re nice to be sensitive to her, but it doesn’t sound that hopeful for a close relationship to continue if you can’t talk about your kids! Complaining a bit about the kids, pointing out something cute, that’s not shoving it in her face, that’s just normal. When the kids are little, there isn’t much else going on in anyone’s personal life. And for her part, well, I have naturally-conceived twins, so naturally, we’re surrounded by IVF families who we only met AFTER it worked for them, and they still complain about infertility! It completely took over their lives. I don’t know how bitter and complainy your cousin is to other people, but I can only imagine she’s leaving out all of her usual conversation when she’s with you, too. So what other intimate life details are you left with to talk about? Hopefully there are lots of old childhood tales and some hilarious, beautiful, ridiculous shared experience happens on the trip so there’s something real to talk about.

    • Carolina Jun 05 at 3:29 pm Reply Reply

      ” When the kids are little, there isn’t much else going on in anyone’s personal life” — um, speak for yourself?
      I have other things to talk about, and I can somehow refrain from making the conversation all about kids when I’m with childfree/childless people. It’s called being a good friend and being supportive of people who have different struggles than you. You should learn about that.

      • CKD Jun 06 at 1:20 pm Reply Reply

        THANK YOU.  I’m having drinks with a friend tonight who is a single mom and while of course we’ll talk about her daughter but I know we’ll talk about our careers, travel plans, and whatever the hell else because she’s an adult capable of forming opinions and making conversation about a variety of topics.  

  7. Anon Jun 06 at 1:21 pm Reply Reply

    Amy’s advice is very good, as usual. I have been on both sides of this situation – I endured years of infertility and heartache and pregnancy announcement after fucking pregnancy announcement while undergoing invasive procedures without success. In the 11th hour I tried a different IVF protocol only to say I had given it a shot, not because I had any hope of it working. It did work! I have a healthy baby girl and I could not be more grateful for her. Now I am navigating a friendship with someone who was once very close who has gone through loss and infertility herself – it seems to me the only way to keep the friendship afloat is to not mention my daughter or to only do so when my friend does. I am okay with this but only to an extent. Recently I explained something very scary that happened with her (911 scary) and she never responded to me. I am having a hard time accepting this so now I have to decide how to continue or I guess if to continue at all. Anyway sorry to ramble, just wanted to say that both sides of this are very hard and kudos to you for your sensitivity and tact. Good luck to you!

  8. A Jun 08 at 3:34 am Reply Reply

    Not sure how my one sentence struck such a chord that it turned into be mean to me day. … I do work and travel and have friends! I work as an editor from home, during nap and after lights out, so my conversations about MY work with friends are often about those logistics since the actual work isn’t terribly thrilling and I am not allowed to discuss the interesting content of the works. Of course, I know what’s happening in my friends’ professional lives, too, and discuss that, but from my end, the work discussion goes back to kids. In particular, the trials of figuring out the “right” job for meeting family needs now and then how looking for my pre-kid work will go. I have traveled a couple of times since the kids were born, but only like visiting cousins. I do have a trip planned this weekend camping with the kids. So from my end, travel conversation also revolves around the kids. Maybe it’s their ages (2.5), the fact that it has so far been difficult (one is special needs, both are 2, neither were planned) and the fact that I can’t afford outside care to have gone out without the kids yet for other conversation topics to come up (apart from more impersonal books or current events). I just didn’t think that was so freaky unusual based on my friends with kids. And, like I was saying, in my experience, women struggling with infertility seem to always loop their thoughts back to it. I’m glad to hear things get easier, careers advance, and there’s a night out without the kids in most people’s future such that my comment, which seemed true in my place and time, was so incredulous.

  9. S Jun 08 at 3:34 am Reply Reply

    Ugh. And by “a” I mean S!

  10. MT Jun 10 at 12:39 am Reply Reply

    Thank you for answering my question! And thank you for all the wonderful comments. I will definitely be taking all of these thoughts into consideration when I see my cousin. I do love her a lot, and really don’t want to put my foot in it with her. I am prone to over talking and over sharing, so I think I will keep to safe subjects that she has recently brought up. I do want to wish her the best and hope that everything she wants does come true…but I guess life has it’s own plans that we have to adapt to. And as to my bump and the kids…I will just have to be practical and not make them a big deal. I’m a pretty low-key person, but I tend to over think “problems”. It’s good to hear that I can follow my cousins lead in discussion topics to respect her boundaries. Thanks everyone!

  11. Missing Noah Jun 14 at 6:25 pm Reply Reply

    I will say that sometimes an “I’m sorry, I know this is hard.” Can go a long way.  When a close friend and I found out we were pregnant the same week, and then I miscarried a week later it was hard.  I have an infertility diagnosis, and found out the extent of it a month prior.  But through her announcement, then my announcement and then loss, she was always there for me. She would ask if being around her, or talking about the pregnancy was too hard.  And she definitely was sensitive to it.   

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