When I called up Mel, my best friend of 15 years, to tell her I was pregnant, she replied with a whisper: “Can I hang up now?”
Throughout their years-long infertility journey, Mel and her partner spent upwards of $50,000, enduring five miscarriages and four failed in vitro fertilizations. I’d been one of the few friends Mel opened up to, and she’d been there for me when I miscarried six months earlier. Sometimes sharing pain is easier than sharing joy.
Whitney Barrell, LCSW, a therapist in Salt Lake City, Utah, recommends asking friends going through infertility what kind of communication and support they’d like. I did not do this. I thought I was being mature by picking up the phone to deliver my news. Turns out, Mel would have preferred an email.
Soon after, Mel told me she needed space. That space lasted years. I mostly understood, but wisps of resentment and hurt remained. I missed my friend.
While we were estranged, I read Sharon McKellar’s “A Letter to All the Pregnant Women in My Life.” McKellar, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, estimates during the five years she experienced infertility, 20 of her close friends and family had babies. In her letter, McKellar writes, “There are moments, brief and beautiful moments, when I am so in love with my life that I forget about infertility and I feel actual joy. Those moments never happen around you. I can’t forget around you.”
McKellar’s letter helped me understand how painful seeing or even talking to me was for Mel. It also revealed that Mel and I are part of a widespread cultural phenomenon.
Friendships are suffering — even ending — from the strain of infertility.
Though there is negligible research on the impact of infertility on friendships, Barrell and Dr. Loree Johnson, LMFT, in Los Angeles, both of whom specialize in infertility, agree that 100 percent of their clients experiencing infertility have strained friendships.
“From what I’ve observed,” says Dr. Johnson, “there appears to be a direct correlation between the length of time that someone struggles with infertility and the impact on their relationships.”
McKellar used to be more involved in her friends’ pregnancies. She says, “That was when I still had hope, when I thought, ‘This could be me next month.'”
But as treatments went on, McKellar needed to distance herself from some people, including her friend Claire Gunter, when she became pregnant.
They didn’t see each other until Gunter was six months along. McKellar had been doing infertility treatments for over a year.
“She did not look down to see my belly,” remembers Gunter. “She obviously didn’t want to talk about it. I imagined she was hurt, and thought it was directed at me. So much of pregnancy is self-centered.”
McKellar’s letter helped Gunter understand not to take McKellar’s distance and pain personally. Gunter sent her friend an email, with the subject heading, “So I Thought It Was Me.”
“That correspondence drove a really beautiful conversation for us,” recalls Gunter. Before then, McKellar thought of Gunter as a fun acquaintance. McKellar says, “Having her reach out to me with such compassion, care and openness bumped her into a different category of friendship. It made me feel like she’s someone I can trust and talk with about harder things.”
Their communication softened the blow when McKellar declined Gunter’s baby shower invitation. “I would have been honored if she’d come,” says Gunter, “but I knew there was potential for every single thing to be painful, like death by a thousand paper cuts.”
For people experiencing infertility, triggers are everywhere: a pregnant woman on the subway, a conversation about college funds, a billboard with a baby on it. Dr. Johnson describes infertility as “a web of invisible losses that don’t get recognized or discussed.” Infertility is an unacknowledged emotional experience for which there are no grief rituals. In the 1980s, grief expert Kennth J. Doka coined this type of unsanctioned bereavement “disenfranchised grief.”
“Infertility is not something people bring you a casserole for,” says Barrell.
The grief you do bring a casserole for is what sealed the friendship between Sara B. Franklin and Molly McHenry. When they were becoming friends in New York City, both were reeling from the tragic deaths of loved ones. “We went for so many 7-mile walks,” recalls McHenry. “We just walked our grief together.”
Franklin and McHenry both struggled to get pregnant, though always at different times, which may have helped ease potential strain on their friendship. Sara began her 3-year journey to conceive first. Even before McHenry and her wife began trying to conceive, she says, “There was already grief, knowing our kids weren’t going to be half me, half the love of my life. I don’t feel like I have an infertility issue. I have a lack-of-resources issue. Any jealousy I had with Sara is the jealousy I have with all straight people—they just get to bone and have a baby.”
Despite Franklin’s challenges getting pregnant, she knew this was a painful spot for McHenry. “I was caught between wanting her support as one of my closest friends and not wanting to rub it in her face,” Franklin said.
Nichelle Polston of Delaware was struggling to conceive with her husband in 2014 when her longtime friend Alisha Jones, a graphic designer, helped Polston build a website. She titled it “Give Me a Ring and a Baby”; in it, Polston chronicled her journey through marriage and infertility.
As Polston says of Jones, “She was that one friend I could cut up with.” They commiserated over both having polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a common hormonal disorder that includes infertility as one of its potential complications.
Then, in 2019, Jones unexpectedly got pregnant. “I wasn’t in a serious relationship, and it was a whirlwind of emotions,” she says. When Jones called Polston to work through her feelings, Polston thought it sounded like Jones was complaining about good news. Trying to feel better about her situation, Jones said, “Well, at least I’ll have a legacy beyond myself.”
Polston says, “Her comment pierced my soul in a negative way.” The two discussed it days later, but their friendship has not fully recovered.
It is no surprise such friendships are suffering. Dr. Johnson says that someone going through infertility is working through “a major life crisis” that often includes emotional trauma. While some friendships are able to weather infertility, others unravel beyond repair. As with all grief, time is a salve.
McKellar now has twins through IVF, and Gunter also has two children. They remain friends, and just before the COVID-19 pandemic began, they went to a Lizzo concert together.
McHenry and her wife have two children: a baby they adopted, and a 3-year-old they foster and hope to adopt. Franklin has twins through IVF. Their godparents are McHenry and her wife.
After a few years’ reprieve, Polston and her husband are trying to conceive again. She renamed her website “Her Normal” in 2019. Jones’ daughter will turn one this summer. Though the friendship is still rocky, Jones remains hopeful: “I think when we’re old biddies we’re going to laugh about it.”
As for Mel and I, we’ve found our way back to each other. She had a child through surrogacy around the time I had a second baby. We text each other pictures of our daughters and “LOL” at their fierceness.
I have another close friend about to embark on IVF. I’m planning to bring her a casserole.
Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon’s weekly newsletter The Vulgar Scientist.