Family relationships, friendships and relationships with peers can both influence and be affected by infertility or fertility treatment. As the two films below show, every person facing infertility or fertility treatment has a unique experience and network of relationships. Some people find family members, friends and peers a source of support and assistance, while others may experience pressure, judgment or unhelpful interactions within these relationships. Similarly, while some people’s instinct is to step back from socializing with friends and family while struggling with infertility or undergoing fertility treatment, others are intentionally open about their experiences. Relationships with other people becoming pregnant or having children – seemingly with ease – can be emotionally challenging to navigate, and several people we spoke to found talking with others with similar experiences particularly helpful.
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Navigating infertility and fertility treatment: Relationships with family members
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Kris describes the impact that her diagnosis of premature menopause and having children with the help of an egg donor had on her family and particularly her mother.
I always had in my head my mother had gone through menopause at 40. That’s why I was keen to sort of like, with that 35 mark in my head, that 35 mark was a mark that I had to be really conscious of. When I got the results back from the doctor, my mum had said to me it was probably more like 38 that she started to have issues with her cycle.
So I think it was really quite hard for her, in me going through early menopause so early, because she had been through it herself. So I think out of probably everybody in my network, the person who was probably most upset about it was my mum.
I think it was really challenging for my family because we hadn’t had any grandchildren on that side. So, and my mum just… I think she really felt the grief and I felt her grief, so I think that was hard. I think that she loves the kids more than anything in the universe now. So I think everything’s been positive at the end of the journey. My brother was very, very sceptical of the process, but again now is in love with these children.
So I think there’s a sadness in that side of the family that, it’s likely that that genetic line is not going to continue because there’s just my brother and myself. But I mean, mum’s been very – mum’s got the names of the kids in the family tree now. So I don’t think that there’s as much of a thought that they’re not… That they’re any different than if they had come from my eggs. So that’s a wonderful thing.
Eager for grandchildren, Hannah’s parents and parents-in-law would ask her and her husband when they were having a baby. This was difficult given the couple’s challenges with infertility and Hannah feels it has influenced family relationships.
In my experience, from what I’ve seen, it [infertility] affects relationships with the parents of the couple. What can I say about that? I think it’s a lot to do with shame, embarrassment, from the couple.
My husband and I both have siblings who have produced a lot of grandchildren, and that sort of plays on my mind, and you know, grandparents, rightly so, worship grandchildren, and put pressure – and most of the time, they don’t realise they’re putting pressure on – you know, “When are you going to give us a grandchild, or when are we going to get a grandchild?” or blah blah blah, and so, yes, I’ve seen a lot of instances where – a lot of families, where the grandparents are close to the siblings who have produced the grandchildren, and that sibling is, you know, the golden child, and the best thing since sliced bread, and they maybe don’t know how to deal with the couple who are having the fertility issues. They think they do know, they think they’re offering support, and I don’t really know, if I was in their position, or if they asked me, “What can we do to help?”, which they have in the past – well, to be honest, there’s nothing they can do to help, really, because it’s a medical issue, so yeah.
But yeah, that’s a whole other issue. But the bottom line is, it affects relationships between parents and their children, fertility does, and I have sort of a bee in my bonnet, and a bugbear about when – when people are complaining that they’re not a grandparent, when they have children, and it’s like, well, hold on a minute, they’re a parent – I’m not a parent, and I might not be a grandparent either, so – you know what I’m saying, like, why are you complaining?
But I think parents need to be mindful of the pressure they’re putting on children to produce grandchildren, and maybe – half the time, they already are trying to, behind the scenes, so you’re not going to achieve anything by just putting more pressure on them. They’re doing everything they can.
Aisha shares the challenges of navigating infertility, IVF and the possibility of donor conception in relation to her parents’ and mother-in-law’s personal experiences and religious and cultural beliefs.
When we first started trying, I think as it started to get more and more difficult, I basically stopped talking about it. I’m Indian so I’d get questions from my parents and my mother-in-law and my husband is Romanian, so I get questions from my mother-in-law about it. But it made me very upset to be asked by my mother or my mother-in-law. So they stopped asking because it would make me very upset.
We didn’t tell anyone I was pregnant until – we didn’t tell our parents I was pregnant until I was 14 weeks because we were so anxious about making sure everything went well until then. And then it was only later after that we told them we went through IVF, which was quite foreign to them because I think my mother got pregnant very easily with myself and my brother. My husband’s mother got pregnant at the drop of a hat I think she likes to tell me. So they don’t understand. They didn’t understand. They still don’t understand what it’s like to not be able to get pregnant.
My mother-in-law doesn’t ask too many questions about it. I think for her it’s just something that she doesn’t fully understand and she thinks the drugs are, you know, going to harm us. You know, she doesn’t – she’s not completely supportive of us trying IVF multiple times to have a second child because she thinks God’s will and that I should just, you know, be happy with the child I have now.
My parents are trying to understand. They know that we’re now looking at embryo donation. I was, you know, for them it’s very foreign and for our Indian culture, so I was a bit worried at them accepting our child that was not genetically related to them. But they have been very open with it. It has been difficult, though, because we were planning to go to in June this year and we couldn’t. And then I found out my sister-in-law was pregnant with her second child so that’s been quite difficult to know that. I’m kind of stuck at the moment.
I think my mum is more traditional than she realises and, you know, she – I got married before my older brother so, you know, she was very much waiting for a grandchild. So I think she didn’t – and because she didn’t have any trouble getting pregnant she thought, I think, she didn’t even think that there would be any problems getting pregnant. She didn’t even comprehend it. It didn’t even occur to her that I might have trouble getting pregnant.
Sue-en and her husband have just had their first child via IVF. She compares how different members of her and her husband’s family have reacted to the news.
Sue-en: When I told my mum I was pregnant she was a little bit shocked because she didn’t expect at all. She said, “Well it’s your decision but it’s not like -“. She just worries about me. It’s hard to have a baby et cetera. Because my brother was a premmie as well. He was born at 28 weeks and she just kept telling me be careful et cetera and I have a premmie too! She was like, “I told you so!” But, yes, now she’s pretty happy. Well, she’s very excited to see my daughter but because of COVID-19 she’s not [laughter] allowed to come but she’s in love with her now.
Interviewer: What about on your husband’s side?
Sue-en: They’re really excited because they all knew the process we’d done and my husband’s pretty open to everything and everyone so he has a really close relationship with his grandmother and so he kept updating her what’s going on and that. His mum lives just near us and she’s so excited for us to have a baby and since then she’s been around, help us a lot.
Because of what we have gone through they really – yes. I think they’re more excited for us because they knew…
Interviewer: How hard it was.
Navigating infertility and fertility treatment: Relationships with friends and peers
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Georgia has found it much more helpful sharing her experience of infertility with friends facing similar challenges rather than with strangers online.
I emigrated seven years ago, so my friends… It’s difficult, because a lot of my close friends are over Skype, or over some sort of messaging system. With the friends that I have here, it’s amazing to find out how many people that are going through this as well, that I never knew. Those are the people that I confide in now, because they are so helpful, whether they have children, or they don’t have children from this. Their experiences make me feel like I’m not alone, and that it’s like talking to myself sometimes. When I’d talk to these people, they’re at different stages of their treatments, and it’s amazing to hear their experiences and what they’re going through, positive or negative. They’re all the same.
Because I was always doing this on these Facebook pages. That became obsessive, and I felt like, “Well, you might be going through yours, but I don’t know you.” So it was me trying to find someone to talk to that might understand what I was going through.
Having had two children through IVF, Ruby and her partner now use their experience to help and support other friends who are thinking of going through the same process.
People come to us for advice all the time about IVF [laughter]. Not all the time but, you know, more often than I thought would be the case. Friends of ours recently had a lot of questions about the process as they’re going to embark upon it. Mainly to know what to expect, I think is what people want, out of someone who’s already done it before; what can they expect, how much will it cost, is it hard, is it painful, did you get a good outcome, who did you use, who did you like, because there are lots of very different practitioners out there.
Now that most of Skye’s friends have had children, she has noticed they are ‘living different lives’.
Skye: Most of my friends have children. So most of my friends had their children, you know, mid to late 20s and so they’ve most, yeah, they mainly all have school-aged children now. So, yeah, so now it’s kind of the second wave of friends that have waited this long and – and, yeah, so I’ve only got two friends that don’t have children. All of the rest of the school friends and stuff like that, they – they’ve all had kids now.
Interviewer: Has you not having children, regardless of the reason, impacted on those friendships at all?
Skye: I think – I think it definitely does impact on your friendship because you’re still out – going out and socialising a lot more and so your friends that have children they don’t do that as much. So you hang around with the friends who don’t have children and, you know, you do notice that there’s that segregation between the friends that have kids and the friends that don’t, just because logistically they’re going to be home putting the kids to sleep when you guys are already having pre-drinks and cocktails. So, you know, there’s just that side of things and, you know, once they – we have kids then we’ll move into that group I guess. But, yeah, there is that segregation and not deliberately and not because you don’t want to see them. But it’s just you’re living different lives.
Although Claire believes that infertility should be talked about more openly, in practice she has found it ‘really hard’ to share with people, particularly while friends are having children.
Claire: I suppose you’re talking to family and friends about it and people are constantly asking you and, you know, you want to be open and sort of talk about it. But at the same time that’s kind of all that you talk about to people so it can get really, really draining, yeah. So I suppose if I was going to go back again I probably wouldn’t share that I was doing it with as many people just because there needs to be more to you than the IVF that you’re going through, yeah.
Everyone’s asking you different questions about it so it – you – it – the more people you tell the more often you’re talking about it too, you know. People will always say, “Oh, I understand if you don’t want to talk about it”, but at the same time if you say, “Actually I don’t really want to talk about it,” I was always worried that that would say more than me actually talking about it if that makes sense [laughter].
I did want to be open about it and I didn’t want to, you know, I wanted to – I wanted people to know the experience that I was having because I think that, you know, too often women deal with these things alone. I’ve had friends that I didn’t even know went through IVF sort of say, “Oh, yeah, my babies were IVF babies”. You know, we were quite close and I just, yeah, couldn’t quite believe that it’s something that you could go through and not share with people. But at the same time it’s really hard to share with people [laughter].
Interviewer: With other people your age who were having children, was that – how was that for you?
Claire: Well, it’s always difficult and I know throughout that time all of my friends were having children and I know how hard it was each time they actually told me that they were pregnant. How difficult that was for me to hear and be happy for them. As, you know, as much I was happy for them it was really hard for me to be positive and supportive and ecstatic and things like that. Like, it just – it was really difficult. Yeah, and even now I still have friends who are going through IVF and are struggling to fall pregnant and I’m much more mindful of how I, you know, how I support them and really asking them what they kind of need from me. But often you’re not able to articulate that as well so it’s really difficult.
Belle shares how her ‘mindset’ in relation to friends’ pregnancies has changed over time.
In the beginning, I was probably a lot more annoyed, I guess, if people fell pregnant and we weren’t. But then as we went on the IVF journey for quite some time, you realise what a blessing it is and how incredibly lucky people are to fall pregnant.
And then my mentality shifted quite a lot, where instead of feeling grumpy or angry towards those people that were having babies or announcing that they were pregnant and potentially not wanting to go to baby showers, because it was all a bit too raw, changed into ‘Of course, I’m going to be there to celebrate with this person because it’s such an incredible miracle that they’re having a baby,’ and the more scientific medical information that you get through the IVF process, the more you realise just how much of a miracle it is. So that really helped as well I think, shifting the mindset from more of a negative, angry approach to other people, to a positive approach.
Managing infertility, IVF, friendships and family – Centre of Perinatal Excellence
Preparing yourself for difficult situations during the festive season – VARTA