Whenever any of us attend social gatherings and are introduced to people we don’t know, one of the very first questions we are asked is “What do you do?” When I worked in finance, this was a fairly easy answer: I am in sales in foreign exchange at a major bank. It was pretty cut and dry. After telling what I did I could safely bet my response would not stir many emotions inside the person asking the question.
Not anymore… Part of my work is empowering women in their struggle with infertility and miscarriage. Whenever I reveal that in a casual conversation, a shift in the conversation frequently takes place. While at first our talk may have been very superficial, with normal small talk, we shift into a much deeper space. Quickly voices lower. Emotions stir. And it’s impossible to hide. I have hit a nerve. Most likely the woman I am speaking to is either personally experiencing infertility or a dear friend or family member is. I see the next question written all over the woman’s face: Can I trust you with my story?
I see this question coming and after giving reassuring body language, I leave it up to her. After counseling many women who struggle with childlessness, one of the biggest lessons I have learned from my clients is each woman’s infertility struggle is unique. And how I can help her is limited. There is nothing I can personally do to help her bring a child of her own into this world. What I can do is sit beside her, shoulder to shoulder in her pain.
Sitting next to someone shoulder to shoulder in their pain is one of the greatest gifts we can give a person. Relationship expert Lana Tamaro says a common reaction to seeing a loved one in pain is a strong desire to solve their problem. She used an incredibly powerful metaphor that will always stay with me: the image of throwing a rope down the deep well that encloses the loved one to give her a way to climb out. It takes a special kind of spouse, friend, or colleague to resist throwing the rope, and instead jump in the well with the person; to be able to be fully present with their pain. For couples that experience infertility, there is no “quick fix.” There is no rope that we as friends, family, and colleagues can throw down the well.
According to the CDC, 1 in 8 couples have trouble getting pregnant or sustaining a pregnancy. Infertility has been called by some an Anonymous Epidemic. The part I want to focus on here is the word “anonymous.” A recent survey of infertility patients reveals that 61% hide the struggle to get pregnant from friends and family. As a professional in the space, I have noticed the silence that shrouds infertility further compounds the trauma. Feelings of isolation, shame, and confusion dominate the woman’s head and heart.
Research has shown infertility to be the fourth most dramatic life event in the lifespan of a woman, comparable with the death of parents and unfaithfulness of a partner (Matsubayashi et al., 2004). Also, infertility is found to be associated with high levels of stress, grief, depression, anxiety, guilt, and identity confusion. If infertility is considered one of the most intense events in the life of a woman, social support both professionally and personally is an absolute necessity.
A dear friend of mine who currently experiences infertility eloquently says: “I always thought my purpose was to have a child and be a mom, so determining what my life purpose would be without a child is challenging.” (As seen in A Dream Not Yet Granted)
According to the stats, almost all of us will either know someone who experiences infertility or struggle with it personally. How can we resist throwing the rope down the well, but instead freely jump into it and sit shoulder to shoulder in our loved ones’ pain? What is possible from that place of humility, love, and compassion?