Infertility, feeling like a leper and true empathy

by dee armstrong

In the Edinburgh support group I run on behalf of Infertility Network UK, sooner or later we end up talking about how friends and family handle the whole infertility conversation.  It's a very tricky thing to get right.  Some people are quietly hoping you will ask about the progress of their latest IVF cycle because it's the elephant in the room and others just want to get on with it in peace without having to handle other people's reactions and emotions.  One woman I was talking to recently had found out at the age of 29 that she had already had the menopause - no eggs left, none - and after she broke the news, clearly devastated, to her parents, they didn't mention it once again in the next 6 months!  It sounds like an extreme example but that sort of thing is not uncommon.

The marvellous Brene Brown talks about empathy in this great little video and the nub of it is when she says, "one of the things we do sometimes in the face of difficult conversations is we try to make things better ... and the truth is rarely can a response make something better":

On the whole I'd say that most will appreciate it if you can properly empathise.  It's a bit like the first conversation you have when you see a friend who's been recently bereaved - you know that nothing you say can alleviate her loss but you acknowledge her pain.  Jessica Hepburn puts it very well in her new book The Pursuit of Motherhood

Whenever I visit friends and family with babies I never ask to pick them up and, as if sensing my unease, they never offer. I have this paranoia that they think I might burst into tears or run off with them because I haven’t got one of my own. I don’t want to risk any embarrassment. In fact, I’ve started to notice that everyone is feeling more and more uncomfortable even mentioning babies around me. I know it’s because they don’t want to hurt my feelings but it actually makes things worse. They worry about telling me when someone gets pregnant because it will highlight that I’m not, and they’ve stopped inviting me to things where there will be children because they assume I won’t enjoy it. Of course they’re right. It does hurt. It hurts a lot. But, on balance, that’s probably better than feeling like a leper.
— Jessica Hepburn, The Pursuit of Motherhood