Infertility

Relationships with family and friends

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”.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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. 
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.
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.”

Last reviewed July 2017.

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