You know they’ll play havoc with your hormones, finances and ability to wear skinny jeans but, says Caroline Corcoran, when it comes to babies, it can be our friendships they affect the most
Foreboding may not be a usual reaction when a friend talks about the chance of your group of mates having simultaneous pregnancies, but three years ago at a barbecue it was the overriding feeling I had. “Make the most of it,” she said lightly, topping us up with prosecco. “This time next year we’ll probably all be pregnant.”
At that point I already knew enough women with fertility problems to guess that just because four 30-something university friends tipsily confided in each other that they were all about to start trying for babies, these domino-births weren’t likely. But still, I underestimated how messy the next part would be. We thought trying to become mothers at the same time would be a bonding experience, instead we were constantly checking to see whether someone had ordered sparkling water instead of wine in what came to feel like a baby race.
As the months passed, one friend after another did indeed start opting for sparkling water. I, however, was still at the starting line. There were operations, failed fertility treatments but no reasons why I couldn’t get pregnant. While it made my relationship with my boyfriend stronger than ever, it had a catastrophic effect on my friendships.
I told a few friends what we were going through but then headed to every subsequent catch-up feeling paranoid, convinced they were pitying me. I regretted putting a ‘FERTILITY PROBLEMS’ sign above my head.
I swerved baby showers, snapped at unknowing friends who made flippant comments about pregnancy and arrived on the few nights out I went on fearing everything from baby announcements to questions about why I wasn’t drinking (due to various treatments).
After a round of IUI (intrauterine insemination) failed, two friends announced their pregnancies within 24 hours. My congratulations were harshly brief. Worse, when one of my closest friends told me she was suffering with postnatal depression, I couldn’t find the words to comfort her because I was full of hormones and selfishness.
For two years I felt prickly, defensive and aware I was making people who loved me feel deeply uncomfortable. It devastated me. As someone who’s taken lifelong solace in the closeness of female bonds, I felt sad, guilty and disappointed in myself for being this way; for corrupting everyone’s joy and for not being able to deal with my situation better.
So I stopped talking about what was going on but, as one of life’s oversharers, omitting the issue at the forefront of my brain felt unnatural. I saw myself through my friends’ eyes: stilted, awkward and distracted. I was no longer myself. Jody Day, author of Living The Life Unexpected, says that this narrative is a common one because there is a taboo attached to fertility issues. “After years of discussing anything, suddenly here is something that we can’t,” she says. “The friendship becomes a performance: you pretend you’re still intimate and honest but you’re just going through the motions.”
And for every woman struggling to conceive, there is another who feels guilty about being pregnant because her friend has just miscarried. There’s the single girl being envied by her mum-friends when she’d give it up tomorrow for a family. The woman who resents her new mum friend who simply isn’t interested in her work success. And there’s my friend who is very sure in her decision not to have children yet has to cope with her parent friends demanding to know how she will ensure her life has ‘value’.
No matter where you are on the fertility experience, one of the hardest things to navigate is the isolation your situation can bring. Whether you’re a mum up at 5am on two hours’ sleep or a woman on a hospital bed with your legs in stirrups it’s near impossible you’ll be in-sync with everyone around you and the feeling that you’re ‘apart’ from your friends can be devastating.
For Abbey*, 35, a barrier between her and her best friend, who was having trouble conceiving, came when she got pregnant with her second child. “She hates to be reminded of pregnancy and I feel awful that I’m inadvertently making her feel worse,” she says. “This could have been a time for us to grow even closer. Instead, it’s pushing us apart.”
On another side of the fence, Suzy*, 31, who is child free, admits, “There is an ever-widening gulf; I feel really left out. It’s all my friends talk about bar a token ‘What are you up to?’ where they glaze over because what I’m saying isn’t about Sophie the giraffe. I know it’s a huge life change but it can make me feel really lonely.”
“Loneliness and isolation are toxic to human beings,” says Jessica Hepburn, author of The Pursuit Of Motherhood and director of Fertility Fest. “Friends often try to be sensitive to their differences and don’t invite each other into certain parts of their lives but that creates further isolation. It’s complex and so difficult to navigate.”
So, how are we supposed to preserve our friendships through the most testing of times? It’s an issue for this generation of women because with the average age for a woman to give birth in the UK being 30-34 and one in 10 babies soon to be born via fertility treatment, the years when we are trying for children are condensed into an intense, often stressful window.
Lucy*, 37, and her wife went through seven IUIs and two rounds of IVF before they conceived twins. At the time, she felt her friends hadn’t been there for her so she confronted them via email about what seemed to be their lack of interest and support.
“I brought out the stats: ‘Do you know that I’m injecting myself in my stomach every single day? Do you know that I’ve been to hospital 58 times this year?’” she says. “They wrote back telling me that they didn’t always know what to say, that they didn’t want to remind me of it all the time, and pointing out, rightly, all the times they had checked in on me. I admit I was being a bit of an idiot, but my friends just didn’t know what I was going through, how scared I was and how hopeless and out of things I felt.”
Hepburn argues that brutal honesty is the answer. “I kept my fertility problems secret from even my closest friends for four years but when I ‘came out’ things improved dramatically,” she says. “If I hadn’t confided, I would have pushed myself so far away that the distance between us would have been very hard to reconcile.”
She cites a TED talk by professor Brené Brown on the power of vulnerability, which deals with embracing our imperfections and recognising that we are all worthy of friendship.
“People who are happiest admit ‘This is the thing that hurts the most in my life and I’m going to tell you about it’,” says Hepburn. “It builds bridges because you connect to other people and come to the realisation – we all have our shit.”
This is also a time to be kind to yourself. Going through infertility or indeed parenthood can evoke emotions in ourselves that we’re just not proud of: jealousy for the colleague who got pregnant in her first week of trying; the frustration of an exhausted new mother seeing her friends heading off for a lazy holiday. “We don’t like our envy and anger and we wish we were ‘better human beings’,” says psychotherapist and counsellor Julia Bueno. “But the truth is that these emotions are part of being human.” In other words, acknowledge your feelings then allow them to pass.
Without jettisoning your existing friends, significant life stages can be an ideal time to expand your friendship horizons. Day, who founded Gateway Women, a support network for childless women, believes new friendships can benefit longstanding ones. “If you make new friends who get what you’re going through, it takes the pressure off old friendships,” she says. “You can go to the christening or baby shower with a gladder heart if you know you can check in with a friend who understands your feelings and tell them how much you’re dreading it.”
In November, after two and a half years of trying, I finally became pregnant through IVF. Seeing the positive pregnancy test was an out-of-body moment of ecstasy and the relief of being able to just be me again has been enormous.
What I’ve been through won’t ever completely fade. I hope it doesn’t. A fertility counsellor told me that the emotional intelligence I’ve gained through my experiences will mean I can help others going through similar situations and now I’m conscious not to be the one going on about babies when I know others could be struggling.
I have my regrets. I wish I hadn’t, as one friend put it, “gone on lockdown” and that I’d allowed the people who love me to help more. I wish I’d been less defensive and empathetic about where they were coming from and what might have been happening in their lives. I know now that no-one was ever trying to say or do the ‘wrong’ thing; they were just trying to handle it the best way they knew how.
Mostly I wish I’d been able to see that, even if I had never got pregnant, by trying to make sense of my life and an identity as ‘not a mother’ I was losing myself to anxiety and creating a very lonely future. But in the thick of it all, I didn’t have the clarity to know how to hold onto my sense of self.
Of the four friends at the original barbecue, three are now mothers and I am a mother-to-be but we’ve all been on complicated journeys. Our closeness has ebbed and flowed but I’ve learnt that some friendships need occasional space and distance – especially during The Baby Years – and will hopefully strengthen in the long term.
And what next as longed-for children compete for our attentions? Day advises that those who don’t “collapse their identities into motherhood” when they have children will fare better and this is something that when our baby comes in July, I plan to work on. My friendships matter to me and to my identity; I want to stand around chatting at that barbecue with my friends and a prosecco for many years to come.
“The truth is that if the friendship is a strong one, it will survive,” affirms Bueno. “Healthy relationships contain the flotsam and jetsam of life and that includes this period. In simple terms, if you love each other enough, you’re going to forgive each other.”
For more information and advice go to infertilitynetworkuk.com
Photography: Getty Images
*names have been changed