Not too long ago, I sat in a crowded gymnasium lined with metal chairs while my students sang Christmas carols on a wooden stage. They were adorable in their green and red sweaters, sporting reindeer antlers, belting out song after song. As engaging as they were, my attention became focused on their parents, faces beaming with pride, cell phones out while they snapped shot after shot. During what had been an otherwise wonderful day, I began to hold back tears. It took a Herculean effort to not let those tears spill over and draw attention to myself.
All I could think was that it was another Christmas—and I was still not a mother.
Those parents were experiencing something magical that at that particular moment in my life seemed like an impossibility. The holidays are a hard time for anyone experiencing grief and loss.
With infertility, the wounds are not on the outside and those going through it aren’t always willing to talk about it. But the infertile woman is not hard to spot. She is often the one at the party whose smile doesn’t reach her eyes, huddled in the corner, hanging out with the men with whom she has more in common than the preoccupied new mothers. She is often quiet, making frequent trips to the restroom to wipe away tears or take a breather from all the kid-centered activities that Christmas is often about. I know that woman because I was that woman.
If you know someone or suspect anyone close to you is dealing with infertility here are some ways to help make the holidays more bearable for them.
Understand that their feelings are complicated. Someone had once accused me of being jealous of her pregnancy. Envy is probably a more accurate emotion. I didn’t want her baby, I wanted my own. Pregnancies and babies are a very concrete reminder to someone dealing with infertility of a gaping whole their life. It’s hard to watch other people’s lives progress with what seems like relative ease while yours is stuck. Please try not to take these feelings personally. And give them the chance to opt out of festivities if they feel they just can’t make it through.
Ask them about what’s going on in their lives. Whether it be their job or upcoming travel plans, ask them about their life. Make them feel that even if their life doesn’t mirror yours, it still has value. I remember talking to someone at a social event, telling them about all the things I had going on at work only to be interrupted mid-story with How’s your sister’s baby doing?” It’s natural for parents to talk about all the amazing things their children are up to, but if you know someone is suffering, maybe try and change up the conversation a bit.
Listen if they want to talk—but don’t be surprised or offended if they don’t. The irony of writing for a parenting blog is not lost on me. There was a time when I couldn’t talk about it. The pain was just too all encompassing. I was living it everyday, doctor’s appointments, and month after month of crushing disappointment. I certainly didn’t want to talk about it at social gatherings. Infertility still involves so much shame—lady bits that don’t work properly, ideas of femininity, worthiness, and self-blame. What did I do in my past that may have brought this on? Did I wait too long? Is it because I wouldn’t make a good mother? Often these thoughts are irrational but they don’t make it any easier to talk about.
Be patient. They will come around. They will find some way out of the fog and back to you. If they are in the middle of a treatment cycle, they’re often on high-dose hormones, putting so much of their life on hold and and are anxious about the outcome. Sometimes they may want to retreat into their dark cave to be alone or to lick their wounds. The holiday season may force them out, unwillingly. Know that grief comes in waves, and be ready to ride it out with them.
The holidays have become a wonderfully rich experience again since the arrival of my children, but I haven’t forgotten the hard days and am still in solidarity with my infertility sisters out there in the trenches. I know it’s not always easy to deal with someone who is so sad at such a happy time, but try not to think of it as dampening your party but more of stretching out a hand to someone who really needs it.
After all, the holidays are about giving and its always more fun to give than to receive.