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LFCA Latest Issue: Friday, September 25, 2009.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Art of Giving Pregnancy Announcements

Updated at the bottom:

AlphaMom recently had a question on the Advice Smackdown about giving pregnancy announcements to those who are infertile or have lost a child. I'm pointing this out mostly because it was actually some great advice and great advice needs to be applauded, especially when we all know there is some shitty advice streaming around out there. Amalah's response is sound and circumspect, explaining how to give information while keeping in mind the listener. It's advice that could apply to a whole host of situations.

But reading the original letter, I was thinking about a scene in Across the Universe (I know, I know, how many more times can I mention the Beatles in one week?) where the family is arguing at the Thanksgiving table. The uncle tells his nephew: "Maxwell, what you do defines who you are." And the boy responds: "Who you are defines what you do. Right Jude?" His friend, Jude holds the key piece of advice in his answer: "Well, surely it's not what you do, but the, uh... the way that you do it."

Because the art of communication cannot be reduced to a formula: email + news = good response. Communication is a grey area that requires the person to take a step back and approach the situation with circumspection, placing themselves in the listener's shoes and considering how they would like to receive the information.

The only thing the letter says is that her friend "decided to email the news a friend who recently lost her baby at 24 weeks gestation." And yes, using a medium that gives the listener time to compose themselves rather than stating the news in a public space is thoughtful, but like Jude says: "it's not what you do, but the way that you do it."

The reality is that without knowing what was emailed, the reaction of the listener becomes a moot point. We know that "The friend who lost the baby responded very poorly to the news and accused my best friend of being insensitive and selfish, when really she was trying to be the opposite." She may have been trying to be the opposite, but without the original email, it's difficult to understand the reaction or offer advice except to reframe how we give news in general.

I mean, did she email and sensitively acknowledge the situation of the other person and then share her news and then step back and allow the other person--the person who maybe needs it more--to take the lead? Or did she email, but write something along the lines of "I have great news!!! I'm pregnant and here are the last three sonogram pictures because I just know you'll want to see them!!! Baby dust!"

Er...which is sort of akin to calling up your recently widowed Grandma and shrieking, "I'm getting married and we are so in love and you are just going to love our wedding. We are young, young, young, and just starting out our life, you decrepit old woman!"

Okay, perhaps not that drastic, but the way we say something tells a lot about how much we're actually paying attention to the other person and communicating with them rather than just speaking at people because we have news and we want to share it, damnit!

Think of it this way: even when you are imparting information, you are entering a conversation. Some people hold what is essentially a conversation without listening, meaning, they start talking without noticing what is happening around them and with little regard in actuality (though a different amount in theory) for the person taking in the information.

Just as we expect people at the office to notice that we are deeply engrossed in work because we're on a deadline and it's not a great time to jump into a conversation about another project, we expect people to take into account things happening in our lives (as best they can know) when starting a conversation with us. Email and the telephone mean that we don't have the visual cues that we depend on to know whether it's a good time to impart information. But we can still hold a conversation with listening, which means taking into account the silent words being spoken by the listener before we start speaking aloud our actual words.

The comment section, though, is where the true conversation starts to unfold concerning the post which has a multitude of great points the most important one being that there isn't a way to truly state the best way to give sensitive information because everyone has a different preference. One agreed email was best, another said they'd rather hear it through the grapevine than be singled out. And over and over again, the point was made that you could do everything "right" and that when someone is in emotional pain, you're most likely not going to be able to create the response you want to see.

Think of it this way, go slam your hand in the door. I'll wait. That was painful, right? You're screaming right now and shaking your hand in pain. This wouldn't, of course, be the best time to brightly smile and tell you my good news, would it? Though sometimes, we need to give news so a person holding their throbbing hand would still understand that sometimes news needs to be delivered when we're not in the best space to hear it, and hopefully, if it's delivered well, we can roll with the poor timing.

At the same time, we all know that physical pain tends to recede and become forgotten whereas emotional pain has longer staying power. And knowing this, her friend is in emotional pain and while she may still need to hear information, the reaction to that news should be viewed through the lens of someone who is in pain. The person may simply nod, or may be frustrated that you gave them news when they weren't in a state to hear it, or may not respond at all. Because very few pieces of news can transcend emotional pain.

And that is the point to keep in mind if you have news to give another person. My happy news does not create happiness in others much in the same way that my sad news does not create sadness in someone else. We seem to understand how it works in one direction--we can see a sad movie, read a sad story, hear sad news and if it is happening to someone else or a character, we can also go back through our day without carrying those sad feelings with us. We understand that the sadness belongs to someone else and we are merely the witnesses unless it affects us directly.

But as humans, we don't seem to get the opposite idea--that our happiness cannot create happiness in others. We can be happy for another person, but that does not mean that we are happy like the other person. Which is to say that with the exception of a close friend where I know I will be the child's fictive kin or my own siblings, I am never truly happy like the other person when I hear a pregnancy announcement and it has nothing to do with infertility. I am happy for the person and I can express excitement for them, but they own their happiness and I'm merely a witness to it.

Which is why it's strange how much excitement we take in giving happy news. I had a friend who didn't want to tell me about her pregnancy over the phone because she wanted to see my face. And I couldn't completely understand that mentality, especially when she wouldn't have said the same thing about imparting devastating news (I didn't want to tell you that I ran over your dog because I just had to see your face when I told you about it!). The fact is that as humans, we truly believe that while our sadness does not create sadness in others, our happiness can transcend other situations and make other people actually happy once they hear what is happening in our life.

And that just isn't the case.

As nice as it would be if it were true.

So my advice would be to always return to Jude's wise words and think not just what you're doing, but the way that you're doing it. And to the greater end, why you're doing it. If you're telling your friend about your pregnancy because people should be kept abreast on major changes happening in your life (a move, a job shift, a baby, a marriage) and good friends will want to celebrate and support you, then go ahead and speak the words. But if you're telling people to generate that happy buzz of people excited for you, well, you may want to take a step back and decide who fits that category (a sibling, parent, best friend) and who may not have it in them to give you back what you need.

Which is to say that friends come in different levels and the response we expect from a close friend should be different from the response we expect from a peripheral friend--even one that we see frequently but hold at arm's length for negative news. My feeling is that if you wouldn't share your most embarrassing, most humbling news with the person--the kind that needs to be spoken to a best friend over alcohol or ice cream--they're actually a second-tier friend and one that while much loved may also not be the one you expect too much out of in terms of response. A poor or good response does not a friend make and our reactions are usually more indicative of our personal situation and not a reflection of how we feel about the other person.

I know I'm preaching to the choir, but this post felt like it belonged here too. And I know I've said all of this before in one way or another, but I wanted to jump off Amalah's post and point it out because it was good advice and then got too wordy for...words.


Serenity makes some great points in her comment below and I just wanted to agree with it. And while this may not come out the right way, I think y'all know I mean by this: being infertile or going through a loss does not mean that you've perfected empathy. We are all human and just as we want people to speak to us while taking into account our situation, we also need to extend the same courtesy to everyone else--being infertile doesn't mean that we naturally tell people about our pregnancies in the best way. We need to do the same amount of work.

Going through infertility or loss doesn't give you a bye with manners or circumspection. It needs to flow between all people and yes, I think the thoughts above apply across the board. To be mindful about crowing about your new job or all your new purchases to your friend who is out of work or in danger of being downsized. To be mindful about another person's relationship status as you discuss your own.

That said, feeling something and expressing something are two different things. I don't think we should ever squelch our feelings or brush them under the rug, pretending they're not there. But I think for the sake of sensitivity towards others, we need to sometimes squelch what we want to express. Though anyone telling another that they shouldn't feel what they're feeling--that's simply bad advice. We can't mess with our hardwiring, we can't talk ourselves out of our feelings. We can only talk ourselves out of our actions stemming from those feelings.

So if you're hearing an announcement and it's upsetting you, feel that emotion. don't express it outwardly towards the person.

Cross-posted, mostly, with BlogHer.


BigP's Heather said...

People can be happy for us - but unfortunately, our happiness can make someone sad. It isn't fair that it works that way. That the emotions that we can evoke in others isn't always the same emotion that we feel.

Gina said...

love this post

Tash said...

Wow, this is awesome. I have half a mind to out myself and forward this to all of my in-laws, and prop their eyelids open with toothpicks and make them read it. Apparently one (of the many) reasons BIL is not speaking to us is that we were happy FOR them when their baby was born a few months after Maddy died, but we were not personally ecstatic, dancing in the streets, calling every five minutes, and (missing the first week of school, finding someone to take care of dogs and cats and) flying down to see them immediately.

I'm discouraged when I hear of stories where the news-giver reads the reaction as a sign of imbalance, selfishness, or starts reading into things and imagining the listener is angry. I think people giving news need to be extremely open and mindful when the listener tells them exactly how that made them feel and try not to read other things into it. Like you said, it's how you do it.

N said...

This is such an amazing post, and something that I think can really be applied to all aspects of communicating - not just about the telling of a pregnancy, you know?

Circus Princess said...

I've often wondered about the whole "do unto others as you would have them do on to you". Since everyones paths and frames of reference are different it might not always hold true.

My additional advise would be to not forget about your gut feeling, sometimes over thinking things dilutes your original intention and makes it "muddy".

Baby Smiling In Back Seat said...

What you said about trying to generate a happy buzz is so funny because I did the exact opposite. More than one person, when I sheepishly told them I was pregnant, said, "Congratul-- uh, that's a good thing, right?" And of course nothing made me happier and no pregnancy has ever been wanted more, but communicating that to the rest of the world was something I couldn't do.

Kate said...

I am 6.5 weeks pregnant (knock on wood) and when I was pregnant the first time (lost it) I planned to tell people as soon as I hit the second trimester, heck I even began telling people sooner. Now, I won't tell anyone until they figure it out for themselves. I didn't get the concept of "happy for you and with you" until I experienced loss and have dealt with IF. I am happy for people but not happy WITH. Unless they're dear friends, or someone I've been follwoing forever- but even then, my happiness is not the same as their own for themselves.

TexasRed said...

This is an excellent post and a great way of explaining the situation.

AnotherDreamer said...

Great post. You really touched on the heart of it.

It really is hard to tell sometimes on what the best way to tell someone good, or bad, news... because it comes down to how you yourself handle it, and how well you truly know the person... and how you try to bridge that great divide. Ah, I'm just going to confuse myself- you said it best, and I loved the movie-musical reference.

Hope Springs said...

This is a great post, but sadly there's no right answer to this. I have a sort of sliding scale - I'm more happy for people that I know have struggled to get pregnant, and they can tell me whatever way they want to. Then there are the ones who get pregnant "by accident" or in the first month of trying, and to be honest, I don't think there is a right way for them to tell me - although there certainly are plenty of wrong ways.

I blogged about one of those wrong ways this week - the friend who sent a great long e-mail saying she was pregnant, describing her pregnancy symptoms and her concerns about the 12 week scan in great detail, and finishing up with, "By the way, how's the IVF going?" Her follow-up e-mail after I'd sent congratulations through gritted teeth said she hadn't wanted me to find out through Facebook (which was considerate of her), but then gave me more detail that I really didn't need to know and her apology that "I'm sorry to share this with you when things aren't going entirely to plan for you" was a bit too understated for someone who had just spent half the weekend crying over a cancelled IVF cycle!

I acknowledge that she tried, and I hope I didn't communicate to her how badly she'd failed, but I'm glad it came by e-mail so that I don't have to see her and put on a brave face in front of her before I'm ready to.

Lauren said...

Thank you for this post!

I hate when I'm made to feel bad for not being happy enough for pregnant friends. I smile, I congratulate, buy gifts and drive hours to see the new baby. But if I'm not positively beaming the entire time, I'm a bad friend.

Lynn said...

There is an assumption (or at least I've found this) from people on the outside of IF that you're being selfish if you're not jumping up and down anytime someone says they're pregnant. My mom (who knows we've been trying for a long while now) seems to take immense joy in telling me of the pregnancy of every individual I might ever have come in contact with in our small town. If I express a disinterest or say that, at the moment, I really don't want to hear about it, she takes offence and goes on about how the reason I haven't been able to have a child is that I'm selfish and care about no one but myself, that it is not the fault of the individual she's telling me about that we've been unable to have a child (as though this is news to me) and that I should not express upset at our inability to conceive because no one is interested. Sometimes it feels very much like not being jumping-up-and-down-while-throwing-confettii excited for people I barely know is a crime in my mother's eyes.

HC said...

You hit the nail right on the head. Very reflective post. Divide your sorrows and multiply your happiness by sharing it with friends - isn't always true.

Anonymous said...

Great post - I totally agree! Everyone, across situations, needs to read this! And give it some thought too!

erica said...

I love this post. About 6 months after our loss, my sister in law called us with news of her pregnancy. She'd been one of my biggest supporters as I was grieving and she broke the news to us early, directly, and thoughtfully. I'm still grateful for that. It made it easier to be happy for her and allowed us to maintain our friendship.

adena said...

This was a very interesting post. Here is my take. Humans are social animals, and often feel the need to share news, both good and bad. Sometimes you are in a place where it's hard to gauge how the other will feel, but do you just not share the news? Having recently dealt with bad news (breast cancer) myself, I know it was very difficult for me to "tell" people, but on the other hand, people wanted to know once I told them (even tho it made them sad). So I think I'm on the side of sharing more, even if it might cause pain on the other side.

Unknown said...

Very well put. Most of my friends and family have gotten pregnant on the first try. And when we were told, I was always grateful they were miles away and told me over the phone because I didn't want them to see how upset I would get. I truly am happy FOR each of them. But I'm not happy with each of them. The only one I have been happy with them for, was my cousin, who took 4 years to get pregnant. I wish a few of my friends would read this post and understand the art of telling someone who has been trying for years.

Serenity said...

Well said, Mel.

It means actually LISTENING to another person and considering their thoughts and feelings before you speak.

And not just for the loss and sadness they may be feeling, for their happiness, too.

BUT. I would say that it SHOULD go the other way, too. When we were struggling with our treatments and fear of infertility, many of my friends said the wrong thing. But what I DIDN'T think of was that they were saying it out of a place of empathy and feeling badly for us.

It took me a while to focus on giving people the benefit of the doubt and look past the words to the gesture behind it.

Because even if they say the wrong thing, most people MEAN to be helpful.

Like. When my SIL insisted I be at her baby shower, right after a cancelled cycle, her motive was actually kind. She wanted me to feel some sort of bond with her baby, so that maybe I wouldn't be so desperately lonely. Like maybe if I had a baby in my life, it wouldn't matter that it wasn't mine. She wanted to SHARE.

Misplaced as her motive was, it came from a place of kindness.

I'm just saying - it's not just the art of them saying something to an infertile - it's also the art of the infertile looking past the words to the gesture BEHIND the words. It's the only way we can move past the whole "IF vs fertile" war.

I certainly don't mean to hijack this post for some sort of soapbox vent, but I really think that it's important to note that being thoughtful really does go both ways.

Brenna said...

Sometimes I think it takes a very perceptive, extraordinarily sensitive individual to get this right UNLESS they've been through a loss or infertility themselves. If you haven't lived through IF or child loss, it seems hard to understand a reaction that's anything less than -- well, at least falsely pleased with the news of someone's pregnancy.

Personally, there are times in the past year when I've cried upon hearing that someone is pregnant (my sister, my sister-in-law, my best friend...). The news came in different formats--my sister told me face-to-face, my best friend called from California when she was well into her fifth month of pregnancy to break the news, we heard about my sister-in-law through the family grapevine. No matter how sensitive the approach (both my sister and my best friend were as incredibly kind and gentle as they possibly could have been with me) it's still hard to hear sometimes.

So you're absolutely right--sometimes another person's happiness can be appreciated, but not shared.

Coffeegrljapan said...

Yup. It's not an easy line to walk. But I think with the best of intentions we can get a lot farther.

Chickenpig said...

I agree with you to some extent, but I disagree in others. I can't believe that the person who hosts LFCA doesn't see that other people's good news, or bad, can truly affect another person. I have been over the moon happy when reading about other people's positive betas, and I have cried with sorrow, more times than I can count, over strangers losses. Some times posts have made me so terribly sad that I can't respond...I feel almost numb with sorrow. I don't think the reaction I have is one just of a witness. Perhaps because I have been there I am just reliving a little of my own happiness or pain?

I think the key here is empathy. Putting yourself in other people's shoes. Even in the depths of infertility hell, I never expected other people to meet me more than half way and be sensitive to my pain. Why should I? I want my friends to be excited with their pregnancies, not terrified (like me). I want the people I love to be optimistic, to have boundless enthusiasm, because I know that it can end all too quickly. People are often insensitive. We are at our most insensitive when we are wrapped up in our own happiness or tangled in our own grief. When one person is shouting out her happiness inside her happy house, and the person she's shouting to is crying in her cave, there is no way the two can hear each other. Both people have to open their windows and stick a head out.

I'm sure there are people who will strongly disagree with me, but even when you're deep in your own pain it doesn't give you a free pass. You still have to try and see where other people are coming from. It's funny about that example of the widow and the young couple, because that happened to my grandfather. My grandmother passed away, my grandfather was ill, and my aunt announced her engagement. There were tears in my grandfather's eyes...tears of joy. Because that's the kind of guy he was, gracious and understanding.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant, Mel. Thank you.

I'm not sure I understand the first part of your comment, Chickenpig. I understood that Mel was saying that the opposite of "not being affected by other people's news." Can you clarify what you meant in your first paragraph?

Lollipop Goldstein said...

But Chickenpig, we actually agree due to double reverse psychology :-) And for talking for so long via IVFC.

I'm sure your aunt said it sensitively, so your grandfather could jump right to happiness. What I meant by witness vs. experiencing it...when a sibling announces their pregnancy, I can jump straight to happy because I'm actually involved--I'm an aunt, not a witness. Close friends too. But acquaintances and peripheral friends--as much as I love some of them and see them regularly due to circumstances (like being in the same shul), I also get that I'm a witness. I'm not a permanent part of their life.

I do think we can feel intense feelings about people we don't know--I certainly started family building early due to that nameless NY woman who lost her husband. And I have cried over many losses in the blogosphere--most of them from people who I read prior to the loss. And I've jumped around the living room for some. But I do share more with some rather than others, and that is perhaps what people should keep in mind as they tailor information. If I were the most fertile woman in the world, I would tell my best friend how long it took me to conceive. If I were the most fertile woman in the world, I may be a bit more circumspect crowing that fact around the office having no clue how others will hear my news.

If you look at your relationships like a circle, with the people you're closest to in the center and those who are lesser known towards the outer circle, I'd give the most information, expect the largest reaction from those in the center. I'd expect little and tell little (unless they ask questions) to those on the outer edges. And anyone who has taken the time to share with me aspects of their life would have me remember that I keep it in mind when I speak with them. If they don't tell me, I can't know.

Lollipop Goldstein said...

I agree somewhat with the idea of not having a free pass EXCEPT in regards to time. Our friends had just lost their child, to expect them to come to our child's baby naming would be cruel.

I love cultures that have a certain dress for the mourning period--to give a clear sign to those who encounter them that they are in mourning and tread carefully. It gives respect to the process. I think in the US, we're too quick to expect people to heal.

Kristin said...

Wonderful, wonderful post...both this one and the original at AlphaMom

Lori Lavender Luz said...

I love this: "We can be happy for another person, but that does not mean that we are happy like the other person." So true.

Here's the theme song for this post. It will be in my head all day tomorrow, and now in yours, too :-)

Jamie said...

This is a great post. Also, Serenity's comment about remembering that people typically have good intentions, even when they come out all wrong.

I have a friend and co-worker who went to the same RE as me and chose to adopt about a year before I got pregnant. As much as we talked and as much as I know what she went through, I can't tell you how many times I've kicked myself for saying something that came out ALL WRONG.

Serenity said...

Yes, yes, and yes to this: "being infertile or going through a loss does not mean that you've perfected empathy."

I can't tell you how hard I've had with my SIL's recurring miscarriages, my own sister's IF, and now with my friend S's cancer. I am terrified of saying the wrong thing, I have probably SAID the wrong thing, and I truly hope that they all forgive me my stupid comments because I mean it from a place of love and kindness.

That's exactly what I meant when I said it really does need to go both ways. And it's applicable EVERYWHERE. Giving someone the benefit of the doubt, really trying to understand PAST the words they're saying goes a really long way.


Eve said...

Wow, I've been on both sides of this. While TTC this past 18 months, I had to remind myself of the fact that other people's luck with fertility was not DIRECTLY causing my infertiilty (though it often felt that God was only passing out so many BFPs for the month, and the quota was taken up by the Duggars, Octomom, my 'we just tried once' friend').

I think one of the benefits of being completely out in the open with my infertility this time around, was that I was able to set up 'pacts' with my fertile friends. Those that were TTC, agreed to tell me FIRST and in private, so I could kindly bow out of big announcement or cry for myself. This agreement was made after one of my very good friends told me LAST of everyone (trying hard not to hurt me, I know), but it left me feeling like I had the plague or something.

Now I'm on the other side of this as I have two friends who are dealing with IF while I have gotten a bfp with twins no less. The best that I could do was to all them privately, and check in often that they didn't feel I was 'rubbing their noses' in my news.

For me, transparency has been the key. They more fertiles understand the dynamics of infertility, the more understanding they become.

Andrea said...

I have many friends who look at their husbands sideways and get pregnant and a few who are experiencing IF like myself. And a couple who are still single and devastated by that fact. The ones who blink and have a baby have no idea what this journey is like nor do I expect them to understand. I also don't expect them to temper their own happiness around me or for me. BUT I do expect a little bit of grace when sharing news, asking favors, like going to Costco to hold their newborn, while they shop for their three year old's birthday party. I believe our friends will ask things of us, tell us things we might not want to hear, and it is up to us to set our boundaries, let them know and take care of ourselves. If that means you can't make it to the birthday party for the three year old, then so be it.
Note to Self: You are the only person in the world who can make you happy or sad.

Aurelia said...

I've had friends who took it well live or email and I had phrased it ever so delicately---

And I had another friend who sincerely has never ever been able to be nice to me again. Even though she has since adopted a child and it's been years, she just can't stop resenting me because I got pregnant. (This was true even when I had gotten pregnant and had miscarriages. She was literally jealous of my dead babies, because at least I got to be pregnant. Yaaa, jaw dropped.)

I have always tried to be careful. Always.

But some people, will never be happy. And at some point, I had to let it go.