The people that we spoke to had often found their relationships with family and friends difficult to manage during their fertility problems. While family and friends could and did offer fantastic support, those relationships could also make people feel isolated and different. It was sometimes hard to cope when friends and family seemed to have no trouble getting pregnant and having their own babies. ‘To tell or not to tell’ discusses people’s decisions about whether or not to tell other people about their treatment.
Women and men going through infertility often feel very isolated from their friends and society as a whole. Some gave strong and powerful descriptions of what this felt like. Sarah and her husband gave themselves the label, “childless social pariah’s”. Martin said he and his wife felt like “lepers- the Infertile”.
Liz is a midwife. She is divorced and has one son. Ethnic background' White British.
But all the people were feeling for us was sort of like sadness. And kept saying you would be a lovely Mum, you would be a lovely Mum and a lovely Dad and all this, you know. And that actually didn’t help very much. It just makes you feel worse actually, but what they are trying to be is kind and say, you know, it is definitely, I am sure it is going to happen. Always sure it is going to happen. Go on holiday and all the things, they try and give you advice about. It didn’t help at all. Not really. Not at all. It just made you feel worse, but the people are trying to help you and show their concern and all that, and it doesn’t actually help, because the thing about it, as you mentioned before, it is very isolating. And infertility is extremely isolating. I am sure the same as if it was as a terminal illness or whatever, you know, it is you, on your own. That is your situation, and whatever people say or do around you, it doesn’t make any difference actually. It helps but to you in that situation it is not going to make any difference. So I do think it is similar to that.
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Maggie is a writer and marketing consultant. She lives in Ireland with her husband. Ethnic background' White British.
It was very isolating not having children. I did feel that I had less and less in common with friends who had children. Things like sleepless nights and stretch marks and, you know, teething troubles and all of these kind of things that I just, I had no concept of, I couldn’t relate to. And I think my friends also kind of cottoned on to the fact that I wasn’t the appropriate person to kind of download their fears and gripes and concerns to. Equally, friends who’d chosen not to have children, I didn’t really have a huge amount in common with them either, because our ex-, although we were all childless, our experiences were different. They’d made a conscious decision to do that. It was also difficult associating with friends who were having fertility problems. Because then, the vast majority of my friends who had fertility treatment did then get pregnant. So I would find that we’d have gone through the whole thing together, you know, we’d go for treatment together, they got pregnant and they, they’d move into the camp then of people with kids. And then we were just kind of left like.
So we kind, we fell between the camps really. Once friends had been successful with fertility treatment as well, then they moved into the, the kind of people with kids group. And we did feel very isolated and left behind. I think also friends assumed that because we didn’t have children that we were still up for the big nights out, the restaurants, the theatres and that kind of thing, and that we wouldn’t be interested in doing kind of family-led things with them. When really we would have loved to have done that because we, we wanted, we wanted to have relationships with kids and to have that closeness, not be the kind of, you know, mad partying auntie and uncle kind of out on the periphery. So that was very very difficult.
Women told us they found it difficult to go out shopping and wander past a baby shop or go to a coffee shop and see pregnant women or mothers and babies. Others described crying as they walked past the nappy aisle in supermarkets, or feeling as though they couldn’t turn on the television without some baby-related programme or advert coming on.
The big calendar events of the year – Easter, Mother’s Day and Christmas – could be particularly difficult for childless couples.
Carol is a marketing manager living with her husband. Ethic background' White British.
They are incredibly… incredibly difficult to deal with. It seems to be more and more our consumer societies. It is geared up towards these special event days. And whether it be at church when it is Easter and they do talk still about getting the daffodils for the Mums and also Easter egg hunts. Whether it be Christmas and the joy of new birth coming into the world. It is extremely difficult, I can’t turn on the television without seeing kids surrounded round the Christmas tree, opening presents and being really excited and the number of times, that I have heard, “Oh Christmas is a time for children.” I could scream when that happens. I must be honest that Christmas I paint a smile on my face and go through the motions but I wish that I didn’t have to go through it and I put on a brave face for the sake of people around me. But inside I just think that I just really find this difficult to celebrate. Mother’s Day is incredibly difficult. There’s cards everywhere. The length of time that these things seem to be heralded in the shops seems to get longer and longer. So not only do you think oh well I have got two weeks and then it is Mother’s Day. It seems to be going on for six weeks before Mother’s Day. I am not denying mothers their moment of triumph in the fact that they have got a family, but spare a thought for those who haven’t. It is very, very difficult. Women who don’t have children, who can’t have children or are struggling to have children, feel like failures anyway. Whether it be at work when everyone is talking about the children going to school or where to get the uniform or the sub contractor that we have in at the moment who is complaining that he has got little sleep because he has got an eight week old baby. It is so difficult, but then having the events on top of it, it is just a double stab in the guts, just to say well look, you know, you are not a parent, you are a failure.
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Sarah is a hospital consultant and lives with her husband. Ethnic background' White British.
I mean what’s, back to Christmas, writing Christmas cards you know, because basically you find that everybody you are writing multiple names on cards and then we are signing our two names plus our dog, and you know, everybody has got a new name on the Christmas card, so year after year you go through your address book and you know, there’s people who have not even known each other for the amount of time that we have been trying for a baby and in less time then that, you know, they get married, they meet somebody and then they are pregnant, and you just think how come we have been left behind. Everybody else’s life is moving on to the next stage of adulthood and ours is not, you know, and it’s, it’s tempting to think oh let’s travel, let’s have an adventure, let’s do something different to all that.
And we went back to New Zealand March before last to go to a wedding and, you know, we thought. But then it were exactly the same and everybody that we met there, who are our kind of age, had all had got a couple of kids, and were all moved into next phase of, phase of their lives. And that is the hardest thing I think, when everybody else is moving on into the next phase of their life and we are not.
Several of the people we spoke to felt it was very difficult for those around them to understand what it was like to go through infertility, because they hadn’t been through it themselves. Lulu said, “It’s a really difficult one that, because you automatically expect people to understand, but people don’t. And not all women do”.
Catherine is a writer, married with two children. Ethnic background' White British.
Some friends were really lovely about it and really did try to help and would kind of talk to me about it and things. And other people were just absolutely hopeless. And I think you have to accept that people don’t really understand what you are going through, and people do say sometimes things that seem to you so crass and awful. But it’s just that they don’t understand. And they don’t mean to be unhelpful, or they’re not trying to be horrid. But I think sometimes it does really feel as if people are just trying to get at you. You know, people would say, I remember someone saying to me after our first IVF attempt didn’t work something about, “Oh, well, you could always adopt.” And I thought, “But, you know, this is only our first IVF attempt. Why are you saying this to me now?” And then other people would sort of assume that because you were having treatment it would inevitably work. And I remember saying, someone saying to me when we’d had our first lot of embryos put back something like, “Oh, well, you are pregnant really, aren’t you? Because the embryos are inside you now.” And, and to me that was just, I don’t know, it was just too unbearable to even think about. I thought it was a really upsetting thing to have said to me. But I know that the person who said it was actually trying to be really positive about it and, you know, upbeat and make me feel better. But I think it’s like anything, you know. People can’t necessarily understand unless they’ve actually been there themselves.
People often held off telling their families about their difficulties conceiving and their treatment, but usually found that once their families knew they tried hard to be supportive (for more see ‘To tell or not to tell’). Catherine described the support she receive from her mother as fantastic, “I can’t count the number of times I’ve cried all over her”. Lulu’s mother was “fantastic…. absolutely brilliant”. Belinda felt very supported by her parents, but “I think it is very difficult when you are not in the situation, then you don’t really know how difficult it is”.
Brian’s experience was unusual. While he and his wife were in the midst of treatment, his mother told him that his aunt and uncle had had IVF several years earlier, in the early days of treatment. He visited them and found discussing their experiences with them really helpful.
Fiona is a part-time teacher. She lives with her husband and three adopted daughters. Ethnic background' White British.
Did you talk to family about it or friends about it?
Yes. I was quite open. That is another issue [husband] and I had is that he was unwilling to tell his family, who actually lived quite close to us and who I felt needed to know what was going on. He didn’t want to tell them. So that took a while and in the end, I said to him, “Look if you don’t tell them. I am going to tell them, because I need their help through this.”
So we did tell them in the end but he found that very difficult. And they were lovely, you know, they were very, very practical, his family, they are not very emotional, but they rallied round.
And in my family, I’ve got two sisters, who I’m very close to, but I would say professional support, the only support I had was the counselling and I did use that, because I just didn’t know where to take what I was feeling.
And even talking to my sisters or talking to friends, I am a firm believer that you cannot understand what anybody else has gone through unless you’ve been through that experience yourself. So whilst people might say, you know, ‘how awful’, or whatever, they have no idea what you are feeling.
So I even questioned the counsellor quite often, saying, “Well how do you know how I feel? Have you got, you know,” I used to get quite angry about it. And I used to think how can people sit and sympathise with you, they have no idea. But then I think that was me being angry rather than anything else.
So, yes, I mean friends are brilliant, family are brilliant. I’m really lucky. I have got lots of lovely friends and lots of lovely family. So, that’s I think, what got us through it, and I did go to them, and I did cry and I did rant and rave and do a lot of things that you do. And they were always there, especially my big sister. She used to phone me every day, she was really good. So… but she has got me through it.
Several people acknowledged that their infertility was hard for family members, particularly for their parents who were hoping to be grandparents. Carol felt a failure. By not being able to have children, “We have failed, we have let our husbands down, we have let our parents down”. Maggie felt that when she and her husband were in the thick of treatment they did not really consider how their infertility affected the whole family, “That was something I hadn’t really considered and something that was hugely sad for my husband’s mum in particular. She was dying to be a grandmum”.
Sarah’s mum had moved city to be closer to her, and “Because they want to be nearer to grandchildren but they haven’t got any grandchildren.” She felt her parents were disappointed and worried that she was missing the window when her parents were still young enough to be active and involved grandparents.
Janine was a student, married to Steve (Interview 34) with two adopted sons. Ethnic background' White British.
I found it quite difficult to expect support from my Mum for example. And Dads are Dads and my Dad was sort of in the background and sort of, I’m sure he was supportive, but he wasn’t really included in any conversations about it or anything. Like his role was to be a background person. But for my Mum there’s always that issue of she’s someone who’s wanting to be a Grandma who can’t be a Grandma, so like it’s difficult for her too. Which doesn’t mean that she can’t be supportive. But I was always aware, particularly like when I was pregnant, and it was just for a few weeks, my Mum would knit bootees and jackets and all sorts of things. So I knew how much, how important it was to her so you sort of, you want to protect your loved ones from sort of saying, you know she’d get the phone calls oh it didn’t work again and but actually I didn’t want to discuss it loads with her, because I knew that it was quite painful to her too. And probably the person I did discuss with most in the family would be my sister-in-law. And she’s like a nurse, and been a midwife so somehow it was a different sort, and I suppose she wasn’t quite, you know, she would have loved [husband] to be producing babies, but somehow it wasn’t quite as emotionally close to her as it was discussing it with someone like my Mum so you have to think about that sort of thing when you’re looking for support from your… I had to.
As many people’s friends and siblings will be at a similar stage of life, it is inevitable that while they are struggling to have a baby, many around them are getting pregnant and having babies (apparently with ease). As Christine said, “The whole world seemed to be having babies”. People described other friends or family member’s pregnancies and babies as incredibly painful for them. Again the language that was used was strong. Finding out that a friend or sister was pregnant was like a “stab in the heart” or “the knife going in”. As they struggled to get pregnant, people also became far more conscious of babies and pregnant women around them.
Mary is married with three children. Ethnic background' White British.
But it was just, you know, as soon as I found I started trying, everybody was pregnant. The whole world and his husband, her husband were pregnant. All the secretaries in the office, you know especially the nineteen years old seem to be at the drop of the hat. And you would have to go “ooh lovely.” And all your friends and that I found… that is kind of … I was horrifically jealous, puce with jealousy. Eaten up inside, bitter, twisted, angry, couldn’t look at a man with a beer belly without getting upset and basically quite hysterical about the whole thing. And I laugh now but it was extremely painful because I just felt so helpless and powerless and yet powerless is not fun and I found the worse thing, the reason we didn’t tell many people, was that the people you do tell, tend to pity you and I find being pitied actually the most disempowering thing of all. So there is a physical kind of stuff that you are going through which is a bore and a drain and you know, having to rush out of work and get a scan and what have you. But it was, for me, it was more the emotional and sociological impact of it that made me suffer the most.
Some women found other pregnant women very difficult to be around, “Bumps were harder than babies.” Others found it hard to be around babies and children, yet also felt guilty that they withdrew from spending time with nieces or nephews, or the children of very close friends. Janine found it very hard at first when her friends told her they were pregnant. But then she worked out somehow, “That it was perfectly possible to be happy for them and sad for me”.
People acknowledged that it was hard for their friends to know what to say, or say the right thing. Martin described their position as “walking on egg shells”. Some thought their friends felt guilty. Others were cross that their friends made daft comments or insisted on telling them “miracle stories’ which were unhelpful and full of false hope. Given that infertility treatment may last over months or even years, some felt it was hard for friends to maintain interest and empathy.
Naomi is a project manager, married to Martin (Interview 29). Ethnic background' White British.
In a few different ways. I think it’s firstly not being able to talk about it. Which is their problem, and not my problem, I can see that now. It’s that they aren’t comfortable dealing with other people’s problems. But when it’s something that is so painful to me and they just don’t want to talk about it, because it is a bit awkward and they don’t really want to ask about how’s your latest cycle gone and we had one couple who were fantastic through our first cycle of IVF. They were absolutely brilliant. And when they found out they were pregnant with their first child, they came round, and made sure we were together and they told us, “We realise this is going quite hard for you to hear, but we are having a baby, we have just found out, we are really happy, and we wanted you to know really early on.” [Laughs]. When they moved onto the second child, we were just starting the adoption process, so I think their view was that we had packed up all our infertile feelings and put them in a box and weren’t worried about them anymore, because she ascertained that I was doing eighty, seventy, I was going fast down the M4 at the time she started to tell me she was pregnant on the phone. On my own in the car, doing eighty and she decided that’s a really good appropriate time to tell me she was expecting another baby. And then to add to it, that, “Oh it happened too soon, we’re really not that happy about it.” When she knows everything I had been through.
And other friends did the opposite, in that they won’t tell you they are pregnant because they think it’s going to upset you and then you find out from somebody else, or you know that they are pregnant, but they just haven’t told you. So it’s, yes, a lot of things like that. But it’s really just the not being willing to talking about it.
Yes, my best friend, from when I was seven I have known her, she doesn’t want children, she is not a family person. So she has no way of understanding any of the feelings that I have been through, but I can always talk to her about it, you know, she always listens to me, she always says the right thing. Whereas some people who should, maybe, be able to have be able to have more of an appreciation for it, just get it wrong time and time again.
What should friends and family members who want to be supportive do or say? Some of the people we spoke to had advice for friends and family members.
Clare felt that offering stories of miracle babies was particularly unhelpful, even though they are obviously intended to be the opposite. She said, “They’re not of any comfort to people who haven’t actually got to the end of their fertility journey at all”.
Sandra was grateful that her friends have supported her through her long years of fertility treatment, “They just say, they’re honest, and say, “I don’t know what to say but I’m here for you.” And my family are they same, they don’t trot out any clichés”.
Several women had made friends, through their infertility, who were a great support. But if one of them then got pregnant it could be really difficult for the other. Christine got pregnant first and wrote her friend a letter a few day before she saw her; “I knew how hard it was for me to hear it from other people and I just wanted her to be able to ingest it and react as she needed to react.”
Jonathan is a freelance TV editor, married to Marine (Interview 38). They have a daughter. Ethnic background' White British.
And did you get support from talking to friends or family or ...?
Well yes, and no. This is tricky. You have to be, it depends how you want to play it. I’m quite open. So I don’t mind telling everyone about this, but it’s much harder I think for the woman to go through this, because all the pressure is on her. For the man it’s very simple, you just go off and do and your bit and then you don’t really, you know, you’re just there being supportive, but all the pressure is on her and so people, how’s it going? Is everything okay? And that, you know, as we say to people, “If there was anything to tell you, you’d know. So don’t ask. There’s no real point.” If they are very close friends then it, but even then, there’s no point in asking, “How’s it going then?” Because it’s bloody obvious. We are not pregnant, so yes, don’t talk about it. And there’s good days when you can talk about it, and there’s really bad days when the hormones are playing up and you’ve, you know, you’ve had a row yourselves and it’s all just getting on top of you, and the last thing you want to do is talk about it, so …
But did you want to talk about it at any point? Did you find…?
We’d talk about it to some friends, but it has to be on your terms, and people can’t ask you and say, “Oh,” because, you know, people are interested and I think people are trying to be helpful. There were a couple of people who would keep pushing it, even though I would have a quiet word and say, “Please don’t say anything. Please.” But they would keep pushing it, and that would be really upsetting.
And I mean that’s a great thing for people to be aware of actually is to try and, it’s a great thing that the man can do in the relationship is to let people know that we don’t, or we do want to talk about it Some people are very open, but just to make it clear. Because people don’t understand, they want to be involved. And it’s like well, yes, this is really tough. So you’re not there all the time, you know, the friends aren’t there all the time, whereas you two are living in that relationship and its only you know how you’re feeling how you’re feeling at that time.