Help me support a friend who will not have a kid?
June 4, 2016 5:12 AM   Subscribe

I have a very good friend who has tried most ways to have a child of her own. (Adoption is not really a possibility as she is not partnered). The ways she has tried have all failed, and she has had medical advice that she is "at the end of the road". Have you been told you won't ever conceive? What did your friends say that helped? Or not say?

I am looking for advice on how to broach this subject with her and be a good friend. We have not seen each other for a few years as we live in different states (although we stay in touch). I will be in her city next week and we will meet.

This issue - that she will be childless, most likely, is a big one for her. One I somewhat fundamentally don't understand. I kind of boil it down intellectually to "she wants to love someone". And she loves kids. She works with them in a specialised field.

I have never felt an instinct to reproduce or to want kids at all. I understand why people do, but I have never 'felt' it myself.

Some other details: She is an only child, mid-30s and straight. I am one of many, 40+ and gay. Our friendship has always been platonic.

This not about me saying the wrong thing (been there, done that, got the t-shirt), or not saying anything at all (Hi elephant! How did you get in here?).

I need to say the RIGHT thing. I'm traveling for work and we may have only one or 2 chances to meet for dinner, either in a restaurant or a pub. I have a lot of water-under-the-bridge with this person, 20 years worth, and I have to apologize and acknowledge my ass-hattery for a few other reasons and intend to. A long story and not looking for advice on general friendship maintenance. It would be a blizzard of snow-flakes if i went in to it. A card, flowers or some token gesture won't help this situation. If i get this wrong, I might lose my friend.

Thanks. Please Mefimail me if you have a personal response you would rather not share.
posted by esto-again to Human Relations (28 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
"I love you. I can only imagine your pain. I'm here to be whatever you need when you need it. I can be silly, distracting or just let you talk. Tell me what you need. But I can see how big this is for you and if you want me to, I'm here for the bite sized chunks we can manage together. The world sucks and you've made an enormous difference in my life and many others. My solution to making sure my legacy continues is to do xxxxx (silly/sweet/powerful/poignant thing) and I hope we can leave a rocking mark on this universe together. I suggest we create a song or a story that's so subversive for young people, we are never forgotten. Let's get tequila and a notebook and start."
posted by taff at 5:24 AM on June 4, 2016 [7 favorites]

"I'm sorry. That is really an unfair thing to have happened to you. You'd have made a great mom. Is there anything I can do?"

And then you listen. :) She may have been putting up with "it's God's will" and "you're meant to be a fantastic auntie/teacher instead!" and strange home remedy options "have you tried cough medicine?" and everyone else's success story "my cousin's sister-in-law is 51 and just had her 8th/what about Janet Jackson?" for months now and more than anything, wants to vent. OR, she might not want to cry in a pub and just pat your hand and thank you cooly. And then you follow her lead.

If she's in a country that observes Mother's Day, send her a card/email/etc a week after it every year telling her how much you cherish your friendship.
posted by kimberussell at 5:45 AM on June 4, 2016 [11 favorites]

This not about me saying the wrong thing (been there, done that, got the t-shirt) ... we may have only one or 2 chances to meet for dinner ... I have a lot of water-under-the-bridge with this person ... I have to apologize and acknowledge my ass-hattery ... If i get this wrong, I might lose my friend.

Be careful about "broaching" a subject that's not yours to broach. There's a lot here that has nothing to do with her and a lot to do with you.

How do you know this person's situation? If she told you directly, then I would assume you'd already offered your condolences then. If she hasn't told you, and you've learned about it second-hand, then anything more than "X told me about your situation and I'm sorry" or "I saw your post on facebook about your dr. visit and I'm sorry" is inappropriate.

Dinner out with an old friend who's passing through town can be a gift all its own. Don't burden her with the responsibility for forgiving your past transgressions under the guise of offering her solace.
posted by headnsouth at 6:05 AM on June 4, 2016 [18 favorites]

Here's something vague: "I want you to know that I support people's right to be angry and sad whenever they want, and I don't mind listening to you be angry and/or sad whenever you want that. I might not be a perfect listener, and I might not always know how to be supportive, but I like to think that my friends know they don't have to pretend to be something they're not around me. (and maybe some version of: )Also, thanks for letting me be myself with you, too."
posted by amtho at 6:10 AM on June 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: headnsouth: We communicate directly by text message and I have known about her intentions, actions and results first-hand for years. But I heed your message. Thanks!
posted by esto-again at 6:10 AM on June 4, 2016

"Be careful about "broaching" a subject that's not yours to broach. There's a lot here that has nothing to do with her and a lot to do with you."

Right on. There is no "elephant in the room." You're only going to see her for a short time, so why bring it up? You indicate there are things you need to apologize for; make it short and get on with your friendship. Resist wallowing.
posted by BostonTerrier at 6:30 AM on June 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I don't know your friend, but for me it's always helpful if a friend creates an opening since I worry that they get sick of me talking about it if I do need to talk and because it indicates they care enough to remember my issues even if I don't want to talk.

I'd just give it a quick "hey, I was really sorry to hear that this is not going to work out for you and I wanted to let you know that I'm here if you want to talk about it, or if you just need to have fun tonight and not dwell on it. Just let me know what you need and know that I'm here for you no matter what"
posted by scrute at 6:40 AM on June 4, 2016 [15 favorites]

I'd be tempted to say "it's so unfair," but the words "you'd be such a great mom" would be trembling on my lips, and I think it's better to not say that part, because it just rubs salt in the wound even though it is superficially validating.
posted by puddledork at 6:40 AM on June 4, 2016 [14 favorites]

Do not talk about silver linings. No "at least you can X" and no "at least [other bad thing] didn't happen". This is a loss, pure and simple. It is a future that she desperately wants and cannot have. If you do talk about it, simply acknowledge the grief here and offer empathy. Infertility is a painful sad thing with no upside. It is a years-long grief. Decades.

I do think you should acknowledge it. This is a grief that gets glossed over as no big deal far too often and it means a lot when our close friends support us in it. Scrute's script is good. You won't know beforehand whether your friend is having a big grief day or a good day when you see her, and that script lets her talk or not talk as she needs to.
posted by sadmadglad at 6:46 AM on June 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

"You'd have been such a great mom" might also be really, really difficult to hear if she's experienced miscarriages, especially after seeing a heartbeat. To many people, those are their babies, though it can be difficult to find the words to talk about it with others who haven't been there. One of the worst parts about that kind of loss is that it hurts so very much, and yet, to the outside world, it's like nothing ever happened. When you say that everything she's tried has failed, I wonder if you know that means, the depths of grief it holds. Apologies if you do; combined with you not understanding wanting kids, it just seemed like the sort of factual-yet-harrowing thing that gets written in medical charts, and I'm sure she doesn't need a dinner companion talking that way.
posted by teremala at 6:57 AM on June 4, 2016 [4 favorites]

For you, definitely not for her: singleness by itself does not rule out adoption in many places. I hope she has actually investigated her options there rather than assuming being single rules her out.

There are plenty of other reasons adoption might not work for her, and honestly even if adoption is in her future, reaching the end of the road as far as bio-kids can still be felt as a loss. I think recognizing her pain and loss here is most important, so my comment is for you and not for her.
posted by nat at 7:00 AM on June 4, 2016 [10 favorites]

Response by poster: I should clarify because my conceit to "broach" this subject is a given: I will ask her about it. And it would be weird not to, even if we are somewhere public for a finite time. It's the first face-to-face meeting in an overlong time. We used to f2f daily, for years. And discuss all kinds of details of personal stuff including health, sex, relationships etc. But this news we have not discussed f2f. Thank you for the answers, all the varied answers, so far.
posted by esto-again at 7:23 AM on June 4, 2016

My rules of thumb for this type of conversation involve broaching it very gently on the order of "Thanks for telling me about Thing. How are you feeling?" And then listening and asking questions and offering support. I try to stay away from advice, questions that are thinly disguised advice ("have you thought about fostering?") or offering my opinions except when those opinions clearly align with theirs (like, it's okay to say "that sucks!" but not "well, IVF is unnatural anyway", not that you believe that). Basically, let her guide the length and depth of the conversation and be sensitive to stuff that may be going on under the surface.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 7:41 AM on June 4, 2016 [15 favorites]

I wouldn't ask her about it. But I would make a statement that allows her to respond if she likes.

"I know you've just had your heart ripped out hearing you won't be having a baby, if you'd want to talk or not talk about it, I've got tissues, a shoulder and three gallons of red wine with your name on it. I'm also happy to burp the alphabet and talk about Trump if you'd rather not."
posted by taff at 7:53 AM on June 4, 2016 [5 favorites]

In any case like this, the thing to avoid is putting words in her mouth. That's why "I am so, so sorry" is pretty safe. Anything beyond that is a potential trigger. Maybe she doesn't think it's unfair, or at least at any given point she may be at a stage of grieving where she recognizes how very very complicated it all is and "unfair" is reductive. I personally wouldn't say something like "you would have been a great mother" until she opened the door on saying something like that.

Which is why you have to follow her lead. Don't force words or emotions on her unless she says them first. Listening is your most important job. Just love her and be sorry she's being denied something she very much wanted. And yes, you can make that sort of offer like "I will talk about this any time you want, and stop talking about it whenever you don't want" and also "I'm not going to judge you for your pain, you can say anything you're thinking to me even if it's horrible" as long as that's true and you won't. Women are under such a burden to have the "right" feelings about...everything...if you're someone she can drop the mask with, that's a gift.

I feel like a friend's job is to sing backup on these things. Obviously, you can disagree if she has moments of "it's because I'm a terrible person" or "I wasn't good enough", but if she says "unfair" you say "damn straight" and if she says "I would have been a great mom" you say "the best". That's why it's called support.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:42 AM on June 4, 2016 [15 favorites]

A lot of what people are suggesting sounds better for a card or email. For example, I don't really see where this speech about being willing to listen fits. For the conversation, I think you just offer a light opener that assumes as little as possible. ("I saw your text about the doctor appointment. That sounded really hard. Has anything happened since, or have you just been sitting with what he said?") Then respond sympathetically as Lyn Never and The Elusive Architeuthis describe. I suppose if she says "oh I don't want to spoil our one dinner with such a dark topic," then you can clarify that you really are willing to listen to the hard stuff (I'd go with "oh but dark stuff is the essence of life sometimes" rather than anything that risks sounding self-aggrandizing), as well as being willing to help her forget about it and have fun.
posted by salvia at 9:29 AM on June 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

I have to apologize and acknowledge my ass-hattery for a few other reasons and intend to.

This is an admirable thing to do, but read the room. It can be easy to take the giving of an apology and turning it into an "all about you" session like "My failings, let me show you them" in a way that takes the focus away from the other Big Thing going on. So if you want to think about "Ways I could do this wrong" I'd think about not making the apology be the center of this discussion. If she's been burned before by you for whatever reason, even if it's something in the past, she may be wary about wanting to talk to you about something deeply person. Or not, maybe you guys can take your past closeness and you can really help her out. In short, your post sounds like (I am projecting, obviously, and could be wrong) you want to "win her over" by being spectacularly sensitive to this issue while also apologizing for being spectacularly insensitive in the past and that sounds ... like it may be challenging given your history.

I kind of boil it down intellectually to "she wants to love someone".

Maybe just leave it alone, this filtering her emotions through your lens and ask her about it don't try to figure it out? You admitted you don't get it (and I am a childless person and totally AOK with it but I just accept that there are things about other people I don't and will not entirely understand) and that's actually totally okay and, to be honest, somewhat refreshing. "I have a hard time understanding what you're going through but I am your friend and care about you so feel free to talk or not talk about it as you wish. I am here for you." Make it a goal to basically not talk about yourself unless she asks beyond whatever brief apology-making you feel like doing.

I'd really not think about what you are going to say, so much, but think "I am there to listen" and if there are apologies, make then brief and to the point and then move on.

Incidentally, it's good that I don't want kids because I also basically couldn't have some without some serious medical intervention. I don't talk to people about it because the things they say tend to be unhelpful. Don't want to hear I'd be a good mom. Don't want to commiserate with people. Don't want to even talk about adoption. Don't want to hear I'm lucky, or unlucky. Don't want helpful FIXER advice. Don't want people talking about other people's paths to parenthood OR childfree existences. Don't want to talk about it. I am probably an edge case here but that's been my perspective on this.
posted by jessamyn at 10:04 AM on June 4, 2016 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: I'd really not think about what you are going to say, so much, but think "I am there to listen" and if there are apologies, make then brief and to the point and then move on.

themes here!
posted by esto-again at 10:22 AM on June 4, 2016

Response by poster: Thanks everyone.
posted by esto-again at 10:35 AM on June 4, 2016

If it's been a few years, I think it's entirely probable that the subject won't even come up- not out of avoidance, but just because you'll have many other things to talk about.

That said, I'd let her bring it up, if it's going to come up at all. Then empathy and love is the best thing you can offer as a friend.
posted by stewiethegreat at 10:54 AM on June 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

First, it's amazing you're willing to support her and discuss this with her. So many people are so uncomfortable with the idea of a woman who wants kids but will apparently never have them, that they either change the subject immediately or dismiss it, like it's NBD. That said...

Do acknowledge that this is a huge thing in her life. You say you don't quite get it yourself, so replace it in your mind with some other huge life goal a person might have. The kind of goal you dream of since you're a kid and try to work towards starting in young adulthood. Imagine that it's something quite common, not like becoming a pop superstar or Olympic athlete, but like getting married or becoming a doctor. Just picture something that you, and lots of people, want very badly in your life and that you've achieved or are on your way to achieving, and then imagine how you'd feel if you realized you'd never achieve it.

Do commiserate about how in general, life is really unfair. Tragic things do happen to good people. Some people get what they want and others don't, and it doesn't all even out, some people just get really sucky breaks.

Don't say things like "Well kids are annoying/expensive/loud/tiring anyway" or "X friend of mine who's a mom said that she loves her kid but if she had to do it again, she probably would have not had a kid" or "you never know though, you could have had a kid who had some developmental problem or grew up to hate you so it could be better this way."

Don't say things like "now you have more time to sleep late/work harder/do hobbies/travel the world" or "now you can always have fancy white carpets/a house full of pets/a flat stomach."

Don't say "but maybe you'll meet someone and then you can adopt" or "I heard about a single woman who adopted a kid" or "have you thought about fostering instead" or "what about..."

Do (if you can do it in a non-patronizing way) talk about whether she thinks anything positive might come of knowing this, of finally having some certainty when making future plans.

Do ask her if she thinks she'll change anything about how she lives, now that she's not always half-waiting for a future she wasn't sure would arrive. Will she keep working with kids? Stay living where she does now? Etc. This is actually a good way to broach the topic if you don't want to be like "So, about that dying alone with no family thing...." Just ask about what she plans to be doing with her life in the next 5, 10, 20 years.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 12:33 PM on June 4, 2016 [4 favorites]

Please rethink bringing this up. I basically am your friend. If I brought it up it would be one thing, but anyone else bringing it up would be torture. Consider the fact that she may be looking forward to seeing you as a respite from thinking/talking about all of this. But of course, if she brings it up, then the advice in this thread is excellent.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 12:38 PM on June 4, 2016 [8 favorites]

It seems like you have two agenda items here:

1. Acknowledge terrible news about her inability to have a baby
2. Apologize for 20 years of being a shitbag of some sort (I should note here that most 20 year friendships seem to build up some mutual shitbag debt, and that sometimes it's better left alone, but I'm taking you at your word here.)

They're not connected, and if I were in your shoes I might lead with a text the day before and say:

"Hey, a couple things before we hang out. I'm so so sorry about your shitty news, and I wanted to tell you that I'm open to talking about it or not. I'll follow your lead. Also, I want to apologize for [shitbag details follow]. Let me know if you want to talk about this in person as well. Love you always and always."
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 5:08 PM on June 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: There is no "best answer" here. There is an amazing amount of advice, both very pertinent and also unsettlingly insightful, that I am overwhelmed. Thank you all. I think I favorited everyone because you all said something that was real and good and valuable to me and I hope to my mate.
posted by esto-again at 1:49 AM on June 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

It is strange that adoption is off the table due to her single status. Private adoption may be plenty hard to pay for on one salary. But adopting as a single person through foster care is not a problem at all. Plus, it is often subsidized, free or very low cost. If I were you, I would gently probe to find out if she is familiar, and to encourage her to investigate. There are many misconceptions about foster to adopt that can put it off people's mental option list.
posted by The Noble Goofy Elk at 1:54 PM on June 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

But adopting as a single person through foster care is not a problem at all. Plus, it is often subsidized, free or very low cost.

That's likely very country-specific, and we don't know where the friend lives.
posted by lazuli at 2:28 PM on June 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hi, I am basically your friend except I have a husband.

Not being able to have a child when you want to have one is a special kind of hell. You feel like you're grieving the death of someone you never met, and the loss of the mother role you thought you would have. Have you lost anyone close to you? It sort of feels like that, but there's not any ceremony or closure attached to it. Hardly anyone recognizes it as a very real and devastating loss.

So when you see you friend, you may want interact with her in the same way you would interact with someone who recently lost a parent or partner or sibling. "I am so sorry this happened to you. How are you doing?" should suffice, and she will (or won't) take it from there. You don't need to try and make it better because frankly, there is nothing you can say to make it better. If she wants to share her feelings with you, she will.

Some days I wish people would ask me more about my infertility. Some days I don't want to talk about it at all. I agree with the other posters that you need to meet her where she is, and not try to make her talk about this deeply painful topic if she doesn't want to do that. Let her control the conversation about this, not you.
posted by purple24 at 12:11 PM on June 6, 2016 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Hi everyone

we met. She brought it up. Turns out the "end of the road" does not mean the end of the journey - she still has options. Our Friendship is secure and I thank everyone who helped make it easier for me to navigate this, all of you. Thank you all so much. I re-read this before our meeting.
posted by esto-again at 5:29 AM on July 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

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