Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Sing a Song of Six Rents

Dear Jane: I had an amazing friend. She was a co-worker and we got each other through some real shit times at work. She is like the sister (honestly, the whole damn family) I never had.

When we moved last July, we kept in touch via e-mail. She is well aware of the fertility problems we have been through and I have always kept her up to date on our treatment. She has been there the whole way pulling for us. Until last September when I got an e-mail from her. She said she had good news: she was pregnant and expecting a little girl in March. I honestly had absolutely nothing but happiness for her. I must say I've been blissfully unfettered by jealousy or anything like that throughout our infertility treatment. And then I didn't hear from her again.

In October, I got a long e-mail: the baby didn't develop well, no kidneys, not enough amniotic fluid, etc. She was induced, delivered after 27 hours and the baby died immediately. They named her and buried her. She e-mailed me about two weeks after it happened and explained it was too hard to talk about on the phone.

So I didn't call. I should have. But I didn't.

And I didn't tell her a thing about what was going on with us. How do you tell the person who just lost their baby about trying to get pregnant? Within a few weeks, our infertility treatments really kicked up. We went through a
canceled IUI, a canceled IVF cycle, another IUI, and Clomid to no avail. It is the second hardest thing I have been through after my mother's death. At the time I most needed a good friend, I didn't have anyone to turn to. I didn't tell her anything.

She e-mailed this week (the first time I have heard from her since the bad news) that she is pregnant again. I've sent several e-mails in the meantime with no reply.
I'm still very happy for her, but I feel like I've lost the ability to relate. She seems exceptionally wrapped up in herself — mourning the loss, attending support groups, etc. And I understand that. I don't mean to sound self-centered, but at some point I want to ask — what about the shit I'm going through? My dad is dying. I'm moving overseas. And I can't get pregnant for love or money. She really used to care. I don't know how to proceed with our friendship. Is this something we should try and work out, or have we just grown too far apart? I feel like this is the time I should be there for her the most, and yet I almost hear myself asking, "What's in it for me?"


Singing the Friendship Blues

Dear Blues:

In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy admits, "I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle." And while he may think that he is telling Elizabeth the most original thing in the world, I think at the root of it, we're all selfish in practice though few are also selfish in principle. We have good intentions of being thoughtful, caring individuals. And then human nature gets in the way.

Jane would never let pride be the reason to lose the friendship. She'd take a stroll through the garden and discuss Life with a capital "L" and by the end of the walk, both friends would come to an understanding. And we'd all learn a lesson and shut the book.

That's what Jane would do.

But what should you do?

If you take your problem back to its root, you would probably see that it has nothing to do with your infertility or her loss or any of the other factors we could point at to shoulder the blame. At the core is the fact that people are self-absorbed. You feel your own emotions so intensely that you can't believe someone else can't feel them vicariously--even a toned down version. If I were to rate my own emotional pain that I feel about infertility, I would give it a fair 10. It has literally driven me to my knees. So how could you not feel the emotions radiating off of me, even if you only receive the residue of my pain at a paltry 5? Or 3? Or even 1? Pain is still...painful. You would expect the person to feel something.

But maybe pain also has an oily outer coating that pushes away what anyone else is feeling, leaving each and every one of us self-absorbed. I think it is the rare person who is always thoughtful before being told.

I think the success of Rent by Jonathan Larsen is the proof in the pudding. We recognize ourselves in those characters even if we're not bohemians living in Alphabet City. Take a little listen and you'll notice that each of the characters barely acknowledges what anyone else tells them. They just stand on the stage and sing about their own pain (and though it's obviously a theater technique to cheat the body towards the audience, I think it's the perfect stance for these characters because no one actually seems to give a crap about what anyone else is saying).

At the funeral for one of their friends, two former couples get into a graveside fight. Joanne spits out to everyone: "We used to have this fight every night, she'd never admit I existed." Mimi responds without even acknowledging the point Joanne makes except to use it as a jumping board to sing about her own shit: "He was the same way! He was always run away, hit the road, don't commit, you're full of shit!" Beyond the fact that they're so self-absorbed that they're ruining everyone else's attempt at mourning, they're actually a damn good example of our natural tendencies to focus on ourselves and use another person's experience to explore our own thoughts and feelings.

Knowing that, don't take her actions personally...yet. The great philosopher, Maimonides, had a theory about the best way to give that can be co-opted to think about how we dole out attention to others. The lowest rung of his 8-rung ladder is that the person gives begrudgingly and not enough after being asked. So apply this to attention: the lowest way to give attention would be that the person needs to point out to you the fact that you're not listening to them and you partially tune-in and then bring it all back to you, giving a brief nod in their direction to indicate that you listened.

A much higher rung of this attention ladder would be that the person gives more than enough attention before being asked, not only providing a patient ear, but also asking pointed questions to help the speaker come to a better understanding of their own situation. In between are all the shades of grey where most of us exist. I think that all of us are capable of attaining one of the higher rungs with just a bit of effort and humility on our part: once the speaker points out how we're not listening, we need to apologize and start giving them what they need. Even the best mind-readers sometimes need a boost to know exactly what you're expecting at that time.

Mend the friendship by calling or writing your friend and explaining the situation. Start by apologizing for not calling after her loss and explain your reason and how you made that decision. Talk about how you regret that decision now because it may have sent the wrong message to her about how important she is to you or the distance you want from her. Explain not only that you need her now but how you need her now--"I need to be able to talk about our fertility treatments and get that support from you." Give her the space to admit her own needs. She may be so wrapped up in her fears about this pregnancy that she needs to focus inward for self-preservation. Think about whether or not you could live with that. Are you willing to allow her to turn inward and not be there for you during this time and leave the door open for her to return once she feels able to do so (there's no right answer--it's just a matter of drawing your own comfort zone)? Be clear about your needs while still trying to keep it natural--I mean, it's not completely helpful to say that you need a weekly email when you may need constant communication at one point in your cycle and barely any at another point. Instead, point out that need for support--via email, phone calls, visits--and explain that you want to be there for her as well.

After you've put your heart on the line and explained your needs, it's up to her to step onto the ladder and for you to determine which rung you're willing to accept as her upper limit. If she doesn't step up and meet you halfway, you have my full permission to turn your focus away from this friendship. But if she's the sister you never had, she sounds worth an explanation.

Now you (yes, you--I'm talking to you. The one reading this advice column) need to weigh in. Put yourself in Blue's shoes and employ a what would Jane do attitude to give her advice on this situation. Leave a comment for Blue elaborating or contradicting my advice--just do it in a ladylike or gentlemanly way.


Inconceivable said...

I know that I could not do a better job offering advice - that was FANTASTIC!!

Anonymous said...

"....Mend the friendship by calling or writing your friend and explaining the situation. Start by apologizing for not calling after her loss and explain your reason and how you made that decision. Talk about how you regret that decision now because it may have sent the wrong message to her about how important she is to you or the distance you want from her. Explain not only that you need her now but how you need her now..."

That is some seriously great advice. Loss and grief changes people, and no doubt your not being there for her when she most needed it has had an impact. Be open, be forthright, be honest - I hope that she can be friend you need even though you weren't the friend she needed. (Sorry that sounds harsher than intended! But I hope you know what I mean!)

Bea said...

Sounds like good advice. Sounds like you've both made the same error, or perhaps "got caught in the same trap" is a better way to word it.

I don't know about anyone else, but I think it's often really hard to be supportive of others' troubles in the midst of your own. Some people can do it, but they're more or less saints. I wonder if, even if you have to de-focus for now, whether you can't get it back together in future once one of you has things on track? If you can at least have a talk which allows that? Although hopefully something more, of course.


Bean said...

I just needed to add a little "Wow" here. I could never have come even close to giving such good advice. "Jane", you're in the right business!

The Town Criers said...

Anonymous, I agree with you that sometimes we truly can't be there for another person because we have to focus on ourselves first. I think of that as the Airplane Airbag clause where you need to put on your own mask before assisting others or you'll pass out and be of no help to them. You have to do that in life too. Someone who doesn't focus on themselves and deal with their own problem is at risk of being no help down the road because they'll never heal.

That said, I think there are acute problems and chronic problems. Acute problems overtake ones life and blot out the ability to focus outward on others who don't fall into the necessary camp (such as a parent continuing to take care of a child). Those are the huge, life changing events such as pregnancy loss, death, divorce. The chronic problems are life crises that unfold over time and usually contain good days and bad days. Infertility is a chronic problem with acute flare-ups that can last for days or even weeks. Searching for a job is a chronic stress. These are the kinds of crises where you need to think like a marathoner instead of a sprinter to get through. Since there are also good days, I think those experiencing a chronic problem could focus outward. Though not during a flare-up. And not when walking into a situation that could cause a flare-up. Blues admits that she doesn't have a problem with jealousy, but I think it would be very difficult to hear day-in-and-day-out about someone else's pregnancy and birth when you're going through the raw yet chronic pain of infertility.

Tigger said...

I think you're right. Approach the friend, explain things from your point and say sorry...and leave things in her court. If she comes back, you can work on mending. If not...sometimes you have to let them go. Mom always used to tell me that people came into my life for a reason - sometimes long term, sometimes short - but always for a reason. When that reason is finished, it's time to let them go.

Kami said...

I'm with Bea. I think a good friendship can survive some time apart. Maybe you each need a little time to take of yourselves.

mandolyn said...

I personally think this is beautiful advice. It steers away from finding (and assigning) fault and turns toward understanding. I think we all have times when we need to realize that everyone else doesn't see the world exactly as we do through our own eyes. I know that I need to be reminded. And I truly believe that honestly talking about everything will do wonders- I hope it does for you, Blue.

Mandy said...

I thought this was beautiful advice.

Patience said...

Really great advice - but please don't be too hard on your friend or yourself; you've both had/have much to endure and it takes a very very strong friendship to survive both the death of a child and infertility.

BestLight said...

No advice to add, but I did want to comment on the awesome Mark and Mimi rendition.