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“It’s a travesty that there isn’t a word in the English language for feeling happy for someone, whilst also feeling sad for yourself at the same time,” says Jessica Hepburn, the co-founder of Fertility Fest, who had 11 unsuccessful rounds of IVF. “That is the only way I can describe what it feels like.”
Hepburn is talking about the experience of viewing pregnancy announcements when you’re trying to conceive or have accepted your fertility journey has come to an end.
Her friend and festival co-founder, Gabby Vautier, agrees the bittersweet emotion needs to be spoken about more openly. “You’re so happy for that person, but a part of you dies as well,” admits Vautier, who eventually conceived twins via IVF, after a five-year quest for a baby.
Vautier remembers feeling “guilty” when she fell pregnant, so she decided to tell Hepburn her news via email, allowing her friend time and space to process it privately.
The pair appear in the latest episode of Am I Making You Uncomfortable?, HuffPost UK’s weekly podcast on women’s health, bodies and private lives, where we tackle the tricky topic of fertility and friendship.
If you’re experiencing fertility problems, or you want a baby but are unable to start trying due to your own circumstances, what’s going on in a friend’s womb can be unexpectedly upsetting.
Hepburn describes it as a double loss: you grieve the absence of your own child, but you’re also “robbed of sharing that joyous moment with friends” if they conceive. ‘Envy’ doesn’t feel adequate for describing such a complex emotion.
“In our head, we can be happy for someone and their joy, but in our heart, a little piece of us is wounded.”
Our inability to compartmentalise the two states stems from our tendency to compare ourselves to those within our social circles, says psychotherapist Lucy Beresford. Comparison is human nature – so you shouldn’t feel bad about it.
“We are very susceptible to comparing ourselves to others and deciding whether we are ‘better than’ or ‘not good enough’. Someone else’s ‘success’, such as delivering a healthy baby, can trigger feelings of being useless or even a bad person for not having the same good fortune,” she tells HuffPost UK.
“So in our head, we can be happy for someone and their joy, but in our heart, a little piece of us is wounded.”
There are tips for how to deal with the situation in person, and then tips for how to handle things in private.
“Have up your sleeve a couple of standard ‘excited’ phrases to wheel out when news of a pregnancy or birth risk making you wobble,” says Beresford. “A phrase like ‘that’s fantastic! I am so thrilled for you’ is something to say to the person who quite rightly wants to share their amazing news. In this moment, it is not about you.”
Privately, it is about you. Be truthful with yourself about your feelings, of sadness, envy, grief, anger or guilt.
“It’s healthy to acknowledge to yourself, and maybe a therapist or understanding friend, that you are finding this situation painful,” says Beresford. “Give yourself permission to not interact too much with people or situations that are proving hard, and treat yourself with compassion every single day.”
More than a decade after she began trying to conceive, Hepburn says “I’m never getting over this sadness. I carry it with me”. But in that time, she has developed tactic to allow her own feelings to co-exist alongside strong friendships.
A key factor, she says, is learning to forgive people for inadvertently saying or doing the wrong things. “People don’t put pictures up or invite you to baby showers or christenings because they’re wanting to hurt you,” she says. “And actually, to be honest, it’s even worse, I think, when you stop getting invited to those things because people don’t want to hurt your feelings.”
Vanessa Haye, founder of femelanin.org, who also guests on the podcast, says at times she’s politely declined invites to child-centred events, but sent a gift to the parent or parent-to-be, to let them know that she wishes them well.
Taking a pro-active approach such as this is important, says Beresford, as friendships will crumble without a bit of honesty.
“Authenticity is a crucial ingredient for any relationship, so at a later date (not when they announce their pregnancy or birth), explain that you are finding such information painful right now, and that you hope they can be understanding if you aren’t as available to them as you would dearly like to be,” she says.
It’s only by having these difficult conversations that we acknowledge and normalise the strain fertility journeys can have on a friendship.
“We do need to have a language for this, which we haven’t had historically,” says Hepburn, “and we need to encourage people to be able to talk to each other about what is right for them.”