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Should You Tell People About Your Infertility?

Sheryl Sandburg is an eloquent woman.  I haven’t read her new book, Option B, but I’ve been drawn to all the articles about it (and added the book to my TBR pile) because I think she is excellent at articulating thoughts about loss.  While her book is about death — specifically her partner’s death — many of the thoughts are applicable to any kind of grief, including infertility.

Especially the idea of kicking the elephant out of the room.

Which means telling people about your infertility.

People magazine writes,

Sandberg writes that the loneliness she felt after the loss of her husband was compounded by some interactions with friends and coworkers, who, not knowing exactly how to support her, either said nothing or said things that made her feel more isolated.

While death is obvious, infertility isn’t really as hidden as we’d like to think.  Assumptions are made when you’re in a certain stage of life, and while these assumptions suck and I wish they didn’t happen (not least of which since having a child should be a decision, not an assumption), they are following you around like an elephant.  Sandberg’s advice is to acknowledge the elephant:

And when they asked “How are you?,” she writes, “I started responding more frankly. ‘I’m not fine, and it’s nice to be able to be honest with you about that.’ ”

“I finally figured out that since the elephant was following me around, I could take the first step in acknowledging its existence.

I tried to imagine how that would change all conversations; if the problem was acknowledged and firm boundaries were set for the conversation.  Would it guide comfort?  Would it guide support?  Sure, there would still be terrible advice given out, but that could be honestly and kindly dealt with as well because the tone was set at the beginning of the interaction.  Telling, in this Sandbergian way, feels like control.  It feels like a way to guide yourself to the support you need while heading off some of the more hurtful interactions.


The other thing I loved was her advice (by way of her rabbi) of leaning into the suck; of not being surprised when you’re in a moment of grief.

“If you’re facing loss or adversity, the first thing [you have to do is] lean in to the suck. This is gonna suck,” she tells PEOPLE of her rabbi’s counsel.

“It gave me the understanding that, this is going to be terrible, and I stopped fighting the terrible moments because I knew they would happen. And when I stopped fighting them — ‘Oh my God, I’m heartbroken, and I’m upset that I’m heartbroken’ — they actually passed more quickly.”

I sort of love that idea of knowing that — without a doubt — this is going to suck.  And then allowing yourself to feel that and move through it vs. fight against it and try to convince yourself that you should be okay.  Just lean into it.

Has anyone else read the book?  Have it on their TBR pile?


1 Jill { 04.25.17 at 9:15 am }

I like this idea. Grief from losing a loved one or from infertility can be so isolating. Even if people know about it, there is the assumption that you will get over “it” according to their schedule.

I suffered from RPL, but have since had 2 wonderful kids. Their existence does not negate the pain I felt experiencing my losses. I have been fairly open with our story, but it doesn’t stop sone people from being inconsiderate (namely my sister in law) when topics of pregnancy/babies, etc come up

2 Turia { 04.25.17 at 9:43 am }

Ooh, I will add this to my stack on inactive holds at the library!

I think it would be exhausting to tell everyone. Sometimes I don’t want to have to manage other people’s emotions / reactions, y’know?

3 Turia { 04.25.17 at 9:44 am }


4 Working mom of 2 { 04.25.17 at 10:01 am }

Eh, I found lean inannoying eonindoubt I’ll read the new book.

Re: talking by about infertility–now that it’s over, you bet, although it’s not like I randomly bring it up. But if it does come up I have no problem. But before:no way. Reason: to protect myself. I am very private, especially at work, and the last thing I needed when going thru IF hell was people asking me how it was going or pitying me. My husband foolishly told some people at his work about our first IVF and I got a taste of this–people meant well but they were ignorant–we were at his holiday party which coincided with the tww (back then I didn’t poas) and people were asking us what names we picked out, etc. like it was a sure thing. (it took 4 more years, 4 more ivfs, and 2 more clinics to get our first rlb). Anyway, It absolutely was right for me to be private. Also at that time I had one employee who was one of those anti-having kids people, and another whose wife had two kids while I was ttc. It would’ve been immeasurably harder if my struggle was public. I did confide in my boss after my 1st m/c, and he was thrilled for me when I eventually had 2 kids (after I had moved on to my current job). And by the time I started that job I was 40 and chances were slim so I wasn’t about to publicize our quest there either. (Except my boss, but only bc she walked by my office right after my 2nd m/c and asked “how are you?” (She’d been out for a week) and I burst into tears.) I also had a next door coworker at the time with a big mouth (I know a lot of personal details about a lot of people thru her) so I knew better than to confide in her.

5 loribeth { 04.25.17 at 10:33 am }

In my ” to read” pile too (in fact, we’re going to the bookstore later today; I’ll be looking for it then 😉 ). I wrote about Sandberg & grief after she wrote that Facebook post shortly after her husband’s death ( http://theroadlesstravelledlb.blogspot.ca/2015/06/sheryl-sandberg-on-grief-loss.html ). Obviously, she has access to a lot more resources to help herself & her children cope than the average person — but I understand that a lot of the advice she offers in this book is stuff that anyone can work on. If she can get people talking about grief, loss and “Option B” in the same way that she introduced “Lean In” to the public consciousness, I think it will be a good thing.

6 kate { 04.25.17 at 10:37 am }

It’s a tough situation, because it’s not just one person whose “secret” you are sharing. In my case, I’m a pretty “open” person on the whole, and I’ve been living with a fertility-challenging condition for a very long time now. Talking about infertility has always felt appropriate as an extension of talking about PCOS. But it’s not just me– male factor infertility was a much bigger problem than PCOS was, and my husband is desperately private, so while I will talk about infertility, it’s harder to talk about the details, and they are details that are, for me, extremely important. We seem to have almost a double standard as concerns male factor vs female factor. In the news, it’s always “she couldn’t conceive”, not THEY couldn’t conceive or HE couldn’t conceive. The world needs to know that if “she” can’t conceive, there’s a pretty good chance that it’s “he” that needs to be diagnosed. But my “he”, and many other “he”s see ability to impregnate as some sort of display of masculinity and feel embarrassed by that “lack”– women certainly do, too, but I don’t feel like there’s the same societal notion of power or lack of through female factor infertility vs male.

So, yes. It needs to be talked about, and I do talk about it, but I cannot talk as openly as I would like, because it’s not only my secret to tell.

Which brings up the entirely separate issue of privacy as concerns my children. They know that a doctor mixed our cells together and then put those cells back into me, but at what point does me telling my infertility story become me telling private information that my children may not want to be known about them? My boys are about to turn seven (SEVEN… What the fuggggh???), and they are intensely self conscious at this age. And they really are at an age where their little brains have truly begun to develop insane awareness of the world around them, and they don’t like being different from their classmates (oddly enough, one of their classmates is, unknown to me until recently, also a product of fertility challenges, born apparently the day before they were, so they really aren’t all that different from their peers, I suppose…).

Anyhow, thanks for the post, as always, reminding me of the strange interconnected nature of family building and grief and privacy and advocacy…

7 dubliner in deutschland { 04.25.17 at 12:17 pm }

I agree with this. I remember going back to university after my Mum had died during the Christmas holidays and one friend who I knew for sure knew what had happened just acted all normal and didn’t say anything. That upset me more. I just wanted her to acknowledge it and say “I’m sorry”. I would like to be more open about our infertility struggles but it is hard with certain people who get really awkward about it. And I wouldn’t want people at work to know as it just feels so personal.

8 Alexicographer { 04.25.17 at 1:23 pm }

I think it’s tough re: all grief, because sometimes you don’t want to talk/think about it and sometimes you do. I remember as a college kid when a friend had committed suicide shortly before the holidays, and I came back home and was at a party having a pleasant-enough time (catching up with friends and not sobbing my eyes out for literally the first time in weeks), and then another friend came up to me and hugged me and gushed, “I’m so sorry,” and wanting to talk about (or believing I wanted to talk about) how I was dealing with my grief … it just wasn’t the right time/place for it (as it happened). I recently saw a friend whose (adult) child had died, similar setting (in the sense of being a gathering of friends for a basically happy get together) and ended up just hugging her and saying, “I’ve been thinking of you,” because I didn’t want to go down the path of discussing things she was perhaps not wanting to discuss (with me, there) and yet wanting to acknowledge her child’s death. Not sure that was the right approach or choice of words, but I hope it was close. She did talk (some) about her loss during the event, but not much, and my sense was, what she did was right for her (and thus for all), but of course I don’t know.

And — yes, family-building involves multiple people, not just the parents or hoping-to-become parents, but also perhaps kids. And I wonder at the wisdom of sharing that info., not with each kid themself (of course not that), but in ways that others may (or do) find out and thereby taking away the kid’s privacy about what and when to share with others. This particularly in the US, knowing what we do about how early life events (and genetics) shape the probabilities of various future health outcomes, and given the uncertainty of protections here against things like being un-insurable.

9 Jill A. { 04.25.17 at 1:51 pm }

It took me a long time to realize that there will always be periods of grief, that nothing I can do will fix it all up. I learned to follow the path of least resistance. Which is going to take less time, energy and effort at this point, allowing the grief to be with me or stomping on it and doing something else? Can it be dismissed or do I need to tend it now? Because the grief and my needs change. All the time. So one answer, one solution, does not work. It takes too much effort to force grief and life into a single, correct way to be.

The same with talking about loss and grief. Do I need to now? Do I have the time and energy to spend on it at this time? Is this a safe person, a safe situation to make myself open and vulnerable? Does this person seem to be in a place to hear me? Does he or she seem to want to hear me? Those are some of the thoughts I use to decide when to talk to someone and when to stay on the surface.

10 Lori Lavender Luz { 04.25.17 at 2:33 pm }

Lean in to the suck….wise counsel for lots of things.

11 Mali { 04.25.17 at 6:51 pm }

Rather than lean in to the suck, I guess I was told (and have since been telling people for years) to roll with it, which is an analogy I prefer. The principle is the same though. Knowing it’s tough, not fighting against it, accepting that grief is normal, all helps us get through it.

As for the issue of talking about infertility or grief as the elephant in the room. I think that some individuals need to talk, and most importantly, are able to talk, and others aren’t. Some people need to talk at the time, and others can’t, but will talk about it later. When it’s something like the death of a spouse, you are “outed” without any choice. Infertility is a bit different, as it’s very much an invisible experience – which makes it both easier and harder.

I also think that it’s your choice about who you’re going to talk about it with. Some people deserve the honour of sharing your most intimate feelings, and will deal with it responsibly, others don’t, and won’t.

12 Beth { 04.26.17 at 6:51 pm }

I talk about it more now, both because I am no longer trying to conceive and because my younger daughter is adopted.

This question of whether or not to share comes up a lot more with her adoption. We are open, it’s not a secret but it has surprised me how often it (awkwardly) is forced into conversation (questions or conversation assuming I was pregnant for certain experiences etc). I tend to just blurt it out and then smooth over the edges.

This then leads often to, so… is your older daughter adopted too? No. And then the infertility comes up. Generally I do not mind but I don’t get into specifics. This is primarily because it is my daughter’s story as well. For the same reason when I share the adoption story, I do not share details of the birth family.

I never shared when we were trying to conceive for the reason Turia mentioned – I don’t want to have to manage anyone else’s emotions.

13 Counting Pink Lines { 04.26.17 at 8:37 pm }

Most of my close friends know – if nothing else, it staves off some questions of why I can’t do X or Y. For the most part it’s been helpful. And part of me sees it as paying it forward — some of my friends talked to me about their infertility and it was enormously helpful.

The one thing that I’ve been struggling with is whether and what to tell people at work. Ordinarily I’d say nothing but in the middle of a career transition, I was struggling with figuring out how to ask about maternity and sick leave policies. What did everyone else do?

14 Cynthia Coleman { 04.27.17 at 11:17 pm }

Haven’t read the book. I think it’s up to the individual as to who to tell and when. If you are single and don’t want to adopt, I think you should discuss it with anyone you seriously date; because if they want kids, it may be best for them to move on with someone who wants children and can have them.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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