I received an email from a woman who wrote to ask if I could point her toward resources that would help her "be most supportive" possible for her best friend. The writer has children herself. Her best friend does not. I was touched that she took this initiative, and wrote her back...
Thank you for your email.
I myself have recognized a bit of a void in the area of 'how to support childless friends' and have been meaning to write about this.
How to support a friend depends to some extent on 'where' your friend is at - if she's still trying to have children vs. if she is trying to move through the grief of realizing it will never happen are two very different experiences. If she's still trying, maybe infertility support groups could be a resource for you to explore. If she is not, perhaps look at some of the resources (websites, books) I've listed as a start so you can better understand what she may be going through. Grief, isolation, anger, feeling invisible - these are fairly common feelings. Suggestions on 'what to do/keep trying' from friends or family tend to be upsetting, so best to listen and let your friend know you understand how hard this can be and let her know you're there for her if she wants to talk. For me, finding other women who were experiencing involuntary childlessness as I was going through was a huge turning-point - it really helps to realize you're not alone. And, talking with women with similar experiences also helps with maintaining friendships with our friends who are parents; as, when grieving and trying to 'accept' what's happening, the different experiences can be hard to bridge. Jody Day's Gateway Women website was a big help for me - there is an online community of women from all over the world.
I really appreciate you writing, and your concern for your friend and wish to understand how you can support her. She has a good friend in you:) It might even help your friend to know that you have tried to find resources so you can support her as she needs. You could let her know you came across this site and some of the others listed in the Resources section and see if she would be interested. But, most of all, I suggest letting her know you care about what she's going through and you're there for her to listen.
I hope this is helpful. Your email will inspire me to get my thoughts in this area written.
Take good care. Thank you so much for writing,
Answering this woman's thoughtful question, "How can I be most supportive?" deserves a dedicated page.
If you have a friend or family member who is involuntarily childless and have found your way to this website with wishes to understand how you can best support, thank you. You are a thoughtful friend.
What is Supportive and What is Not
Supporting an involuntarily childless person is about awareness, understanding, acknowledgement, empathy, patience and, above all, inclusion.
To be most supportive...
Support is not…
To be most supportive...
- Learn about involuntary childlessness and its impact.
- Involuntary childlessness involves profound, life-changing loss. It is not a choice.
- Childless grief is disenfranchised grief, meaning society typically doesn't recognize childlessness as a loss to be grieved, and so the childless person's grief is largely unacknowledged.
- The impacts are profound and life-changing, affecting one's identity, sense of self-worth, friendships, physical and emotional health and one's participation at work and in society in general.
- Moving through childless grief and healing takes time. And, the grief can be stirred as one moves forward.
- Be sensitive to the experiences of people without children - their experiences at work, at social events, on holidays, during life events...
- Have empathy.
- Listen gently. (Talking about childlessness takes courage - it's not an easy conversation for anyone. Create a safe, uninterrupted space for such conversation. There are no right answers. Listen gently. If it feels right, acknowledge the grief and loss, offer a gentle touch or hug.)
- Express empathy and support.
- What you're going through sounds really hard.
- I'm here for you.
- I'm here if you want to talk.
- You're in my thoughts today.
- Ask, "How can I help support you?"
- Keep in touch.
- Be inclusive - include non-parents in plans, conversations and celebrations.
- Respect their decision when an invitation is declined.
- Continue to reach out. Initiate contact.
Support is not…
- Complete silence (Involuntary childless involves deep loss and disenfranchised grief (a form of grief not acknowledged on a personal or societal level). Complete silence around this loss and grief can make people feel alone and invisible.)
- Suggesting 'fixes'.
- Have you tried…?
- You should…
- Why don't you just...?
- You need to...
- Keep trying.
- It's time to move on.
- Dismissive clichés
- If you want it enough, it will happen.
- You’re lucky. Take one of mine. Wish I had your freedom.
- Stereotypes: cat lady, spinster, etc.
- Leaving non-parents out...of plans, conversations, celebrations, etc.
- Telling a person without children...
- "I never knew love until I had children."
- How empty your home/life feels after your children leave/move out.