Despite the title of this post, I do not propose to speak for every woman who has struggled with infertility or who has endured the pain of stillbirth. I can only speak from my own experience. Every woman and every experience is different, so this advice may or may not be appropriate for the particular person in your life.
However, this approach is what has worked best for me on my journey. And perhaps, after using your own best judgment, it will work for you and your friend in this sensitive moment.
There is a poignant scene in the movie Julie & Julia that brilliantly captures the complex emotions of infertility, perhaps better than anything else that I have ever seen.
Julia and Paul Childs (beautifully played by Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci) are in their mid-forties at this point and have no children. They are not defined by their infertility in this story; this scene is only a minute or so, passing by so quickly that you may miss it. Yet, even in its brevity, we get a glimpse into how their infertility has scarred them.
To describe the scene, Paul walks into the kitchen where Julia, naturally, is cooking. In his hand, he holds a letter written to Julia from her recently-married, younger sister. Julia reads the letter aloud. It is good news – or so we think…
Her sister is pregnant.
Hearing this news, Julia bursts into tears.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” she says unconvincingly, as she buries her face full of tears into her husband’s shoulder.
We do not know her journey, but we can feel her pain. Who knows how many times she has cried these same tears? Tears tinged with happiness, yet also filled with the agonizing grief of an unrequited dream.
Tenderly, Paul holds her and kisses her forehead.
“I’m so happy,” she tells him, still crying.
“I know,” her husband replies lovingly, compassionately understanding this strange blending of love and happiness mixed with grief and pain.
<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/225169835″>Infertility Scene – Julie & Julia</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user68693859″>Jenna Heery</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>
Over the course of our own infertility journey – as my husband and I lost pregnancy after pregnancy, as we grieved the stillbirth of our sons, as we faced the painful prospect that we may never be able to bear children of our own – countless friends and acquaintances at the very same time went on to have happy and healthy pregnancies which led to the births of their happy and healthy babies.
This dynamic, a mixture of this intense grief and this overwhelming joy, can often come to loggerheads in one excruciatingly awkward moment –
the pregnancy announcement.
I cannot count how many times I have cried those same tears.
To an outsider, these kinds of reactions to the joys of another’s pregnancy may appear illogical, perhaps even irrationally jealous and selfish. I understand. Too often I feel the same way. My tears are first tears of pain and grief, then followed by tears of guilt and shame at my inability to hear such happy news with joy.
Yet, in reality, these emotions have almost nothing to do with the person who is announcing their pregnancy, and they in no way reflect the nature of our relationship. In fact, the closer that we are, the more painful this seemingly good news may be. Complexly, I can be simultaneously thrilled for your joy and, at the same time, flooded with an indescribable grief.
this pain is not about you.
I would hate for you to carry that burden.
To help explain this conflict of emotions, there is a line that I love in another movie called We Bought a Zoo, starring Matt Damon playing a bereaved widower. At the heart of the movie’s premise, a father and his two children are mourning the loss of their mother. And one night, as Matt Damon’s character tucks his daughter into bed, there is a party raging next door. With blaring loud music and the sounds of jubilant partygoers, the joyous cacophony makes an almost painful backdrop for this family’s grief. Poignantly, Matt Damon’s young daughter says,
“THEIR HAPPY IS TOO LOUD.”
And truly, that is all it is. The happiness of a pregnancy announcement is just too loud for me to bear.
Pregnancy announcements are instant, and often unexpected, reminders of everything that I have endured, every dream that has been dashed, all the grief that haunts my heart. They are triggers for all that I have lost and of all that I may never have.
Nevertheless, Matt Damon and his family do not try to silence the partygoers. They do not try to quell their joy. And in the same way, I would never, ever wish my pain on another person. My deepest wish for you is to have the healthiest and the happiest pregnancy, and that you may never know what this grief feels like.
When one of my coworkers was struggling with how to sensitively announce the birth of her baby to me shortly after the loss of our sons, afraid about how it may further my pain, one of my (male) bosses apparently tried to reassure her by saying,
“I am sure that Jenna would not mind. She would want you to be happy.”
Yet, thankfully she knew that is not what this quest for sensitivity is about. Of course, I am happy for her happiness. And for your happiness. But sometimes that happy can be just a little too loud.
During these past two years, I have experienced the gamut of pregnancy announcements. Some have gone graciously well. Other announcements, however, have been an assorted array of awkwardness and pain – often for both sides. Through it all, though, after all of the trial and error, I have found one method that works well for me.
As simple as that. A simple, sensitive, thoughtful note announcing your pregnancy can be a remarkable, friendship-saving gesture of love and grace in this sensitive moment. This note can be a handwritten letter, like the one from Julia’s sister in this scene from Julie & Julia, or it can be simply sent over Facebook in a private message. The means does not matter as much as the thought.
The most helpful note-announcements I have received have said something like this:
I wanted to let you know that we are pregnant. Things seem to be going well, and we are currently ______ weeks. We are expecting our baby on ______.
I love you, and I recognize that this news may be hard to hear. It might not be; I do not want to assume, so forgive me if I am wrong. But just in case, I wanted you to hear this news from me first.
Simple and direct, yet sensitive and compassionate.
There are real benefits to a note-announcement.
If written in advance, a note like this can prevent the overwhelming feeling of being bombarded by the surprise of a public announcement. Though these types of surprise announcements might magnify the joy for many, they may feel like a bombshell to someone who is struggling. The problem with public announcements is that they feel so exposing. For me, during public pregnancy announcements, I become excruciatingly aware of my facial expressions. While I may feel like I am dying a little inside, I know that I cannot show it. Instead, I have to appear as joyful and as excited as possible in public, before I can finally go break down when I am alone. Keeping up this facade can be agonizing.
This is why I also advocate against face-to-face announcements. This is the approach that may intuitively feel the most sensitive. After all, it is far more personal than finding out through a blanket Facebook announcement or being surprised publicly. Yet, I find even these more private pregnancy announcements similarly painful. It kills me to have the darkness of my grief taint the beauty of your joy, so again, I do not want my face to give away my pain.
For me at least, the beauty of a note-announcement is its privacy. It allows me to have whatever initial reaction I need to have in that moment without any additional pressure. It gives me space – space to cry, space to grieve, space to pound my fists or scream at the heavens, space to allow myself whatever emotions may emerge without fear of hurting you.
Because again, truly, this pain is not about you, and you do not have to carry my burden. All I need is space and time to process this news, and then, when I am ready, I will reach out and be able to congratulate you with a much more authentic joy.
So if you find yourself having to announce your pregnancy to me or to another infertile friend in the future, try a note-announcement. It may not take away all of the sting. That is ultimately not your burden to bear. After all, Julia still breaks down after reading her sister’s note. Yet, she was able to grieve in the way that she needed to, with the comfort and the security of her husband and with the privacy she needed to express her own pain.
So while it may not take the sting away, hopefully it will help…
**To witness the power of a simple note for women struggling with infertility, watch this incredible commercial from American Greetings. It is unlike anything I have ever seen, and I am beyond grateful for its message.
“A card is just a card. But in the right moment it means everything.”