By Jennifer “Jay” Palumbo
For Andy Williams, it may be, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” but if you’re dealing with infertility treatment or struggling to conceive, the holidays can be a particularly difficult time. It’s not just the reminder that Mary wasn’t even trying to conceive and got pregnant (although that doesn’t help!), it’s more the number of gatherings, be it work, family or friends, and the inevitable barrage of well-intentioned but often painful inquiries around when you’re going to have a family.
As Lisa Schuman, LCSW, a leading expert in family building and founder of Center for Family Building states, it’s common for families and friends to congregate over the holidays. Many times, people haven’t seen each other in a while and want to “catch up”. This catching up or small talk often involves questions like, “When do you plan to have a baby?” or “How is the fertility treatment going?”
Sometimes people undergoing fertility treatment will receive unsolicited advice about which doctor to choose or suggestions like, “Don’t be stressed” or “I heard if you adopt you will get pregnant”: These questions and comments, while they often come from a place of curiosity or concern, can hurt. Lisa shares that patients often learn how to handle these situations through trial and error, but then it is too late. Feelings are hurt. They may even share information they did not intend to discuss with anyone and leave feeling horrible. Therefore, her advice is simple: Prepare, prepare, prepare.
But how do you do that? This is when instead of turning to the “Three Wise Men” this holiday season, I sought the valuable insight of three wise women. Along with Ms. Schuman, I spoke to Carrie D. Gottlieb, PHD who is a Clinical Psychologist and infertility specialist and Tracy Ross, LCSW, who is a couples and family therapist to ask their insight.
Universally, they agree that doing a “group huddle” ahead of time is a good idea.
Ross recommends, “If you spend a few minutes preparing for and anticipating the most difficult and challenging moments and conversations, at the very least you will feel like you are a team and will be less likely to be blind-sided. It’s easy for couples to avoid certain topics, even with each other to avoid more. However, saying things out loud to your spouse can relieve some of the tension. Acknowledging the elephant in the room is better than trying to navigate around it.”
Dr. Gottlieb expands on this by suggesting, “Depending on the setting, the person asking, and how you might be feeling emotionally, you may want to think of something vague and not too revealing as well as a reply with more detail if appropriate. Also, keep in mind, that while potentially annoying and uncomfortable, those questions are usually well-meaning in nature.”
And a suggestion I’m particularly fond of is one that Ross made that uses humor and creates a bit of a game around the uncomfortableness is, “Try to rank which friends or relatives are the most likely to ask personal questions, predict who will be offensive or intrusive.”
Once you’ve decided how you want to handle things, Schuman suggests doing a dress rehearsal of sorts and practicing in the privacy of your own home. “Take turns trying to stump each other.” She says. “For example, you may say to your partner, ‘What if Aunt Jane says she has no grandchildren and she hopes we have children, so she has children to play with as she grows old?’ Talk through as many examples as you can so you are prepared for the family gathering.”
But what happens if, even in private, you’re not on the same page? It’s entirely possible one partner is ready to be open about their infertility but the other is not.
Dr. Gottlieb proposes having an open conversation about this as it is important to be on the same page. “Both partners really need to hear and understand the other’s perspective. If a couple cannot get on the same page, sometimes a compromise can be reached – like telling on only a few close people, in this way one partner can gain the support they might need while still be respectful of privacy.”
Ross adds, “The thing you really want to avoid is tension with each other and this often happens when one partner divulges information the other is not inclined to or comfortable sharing. Going through infertility treatment is painful enough without adding the additional strain of tension in your relationship.
Understanding that you each may have different needs around privacy and sharing and coming to an understanding in advance can go a long way towards keeping your relationship strong – which is more important than ever during this uncertain time.”
Schuman goes further and suggests that if you can’t reach a compromise, maybe it’s best to say nothing at all. “This may seem controversial but once information is out there you cannot take it back,” she states. “Remember that if you do not share the details of your journey, and decide later that you have changed your mind, you will always find the opportunity to share that information. Further, news travels fast and everything you share may be shared with others. Talk about the possibility of this happening as well.”
When you’re a parent, you often hear about presenting a “united front.” When it comes to how to handle your infertility diagnosis or where you are in your fertility treatment, it turns out that this is an opportunity to practice being that united front, especially if you want to keep your relationship intact.
Dr. Gottlieb asserts it can feel like a betrayal to have one’s personal information out there when that is not wanted. Ross agrees.
Ross shares that it’s more important to not be blindsided and to honor differences than to have absolute unity. “This goes for many aspects of relationships – it’s simply not possible to always have the same ideas or needs around how to handle some of life’s challenges,” she says. “We all have different coping styles and it’s helpful to recognize that there isn’t a right or wrong answer regarding sharing personal or painful information. The damage occurs when one person feels overly exposed without warning and betrayed. If you know there are people who won’t hesitate to ask questions decide in advance how you would like to respond.”
She also wisely points out a crucial point: just because someone asks a question doesn’t mean you have to answer. As Ms. Ross advises, “You are well within your rights to say, “it’s a holiday party and I’d prefer not to get into that” or some version of setting a boundary and letting people know you are not going to indulge their curiosity or concern. If there are people in your life you are talking to you can ask them in advance to give people a heads up to not ask about pregnancy.”
Should you take a vote and decide you’re both ready, willing and able to share your struggle, the next step is working out the best way to communicate to your friends and family how they can best support you. How do you do this though in a way to get people who don’t understand infertility to understand you?
Ms. Ross says, “You can’t expect well-meaning friends and family to necessarily know what makes you feel supported. This is a good time to speak up and let them know.” Ross maintains that, “It’s also okay to let them know that your emotions may be on somewhat of a roller coaster, what feels okay one day may trigger a burst of emotions on another day. It can also be hard to predict what can set you off, be kind to yourself about these ups and downs and give others in your life a heads up. Ask for what you need.”
She also suggests having statements in your arsenal like, “I appreciate your concern and I know you care but please don’t ask, I will let you know if there is something we would like to share.” This sets a boundary in a firm kind way.
Dr. Gottlieb concurs that honesty is the best policy and giving them as much direction as possible. “It’s important to be upfront and honest. Often loved ones, especially those who have never been through fertility hell, do not know how to act or what to do. Giving them guidelines is, therefore, generally welcomed and appreciated.”
Now that you have more of a hold on how to deal with friends, family and others, I asked the group how to best support each other during this time. Across the board, they all advocate for speaking openly and honestly.
“Communicate, communicate, communicate,” Dr. Gottlieb asserts. “Partners will usually respond differently to the same event, like an unsuccessful cycle. Talking about what feelings that brought up for you is so important, instead of expecting your partner to just know or to feel the same way.”
“This is a roller coaster and it’s not realistic for both people to be on the same page at all times.” Ross adds, “It’s important you honor those differences. Do not dismiss them! What one person finds devastating or hopeful, the other may not even have a reaction to. We develop our coping strategies over a lifetime of learned, observed, and characterological behaviors. What feels caring and loving to one person may feel like intrusion and interference to another. As with many other parts of your relationship, you must accept that you aren’t the same and instead of judging it or fighting about it tries to honor and understand each other. Really trying to understand one another’s experience goes a long way in strengthening your marriage. Differences don’t have to be dividers, it’s not about the actual differences it’s how you approach them.”
Once the holiday season has died down, thank you cards sent and the New Years ball has dropped,
Schuman suggests you do something to honor your hard work. “Although doing this exercise can save you a lot of stress and aggravation and help you and your partner feel more connected, it may also be a bit tiring,” she says. “So, do something nice to share the holiday spirit in your own way. Maybe you watch old holiday movies with a big bowl of popcorn or bundle up and take a long walk in the woods. It doesn’t have to be extravagant, it just has to serve the purpose of giving you time that is enjoyable, precious and relaxing. You may not be able to depend on friends and family to provide these feelings during the holiday season but that does not mean you should miss out on some moments of warmth, joy and peace.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Jennifer “Jay” Palumbo is the Chief Executive Officer at Wonder Woman Writer, LLC, Freelance Writer & avid Women’s Health Advocate. Her blog, “The 2 Week Wait” was awarded the Hope Award for Best Blog from Resolve: The National Infertility Association and was also named the “Best IVF Blog” by Egg Donation Friends. Her articles have been featured in Time magazine, Huffington Post, and ScaryMommy. As an infertility subject matter expert, she has been interviewed on news outlets such as CNN, NPR, FOX, NBC and BBC America, and was featured in the documentary, “Vegas Baby.”