By Emily Frase and Mary Bruno
Bacon and chocolate, salt and caramel, ice cream and french fries, and a friendship between an infertile woman and a woman with two surprise pregnancies are some unlikely pairs, but somehow, it is possible for them to work really well together. We - Emily and Mary - found ourselves in this exact situation four years ago when we teamed up to work on a project which highlighted NFP charting from very different perspectives. Since then, we’ve developed a close friendship and founded a non-profit organization together, even though our work and personal experiences frequently activate the tender places of our hearts.
How does it work for two people with such opposing stories to develop and maintain a good friendship without constantly poking one another’s wounds? Well, the wounds are, basically, the key. Infertility hurts. A lot. This painful life situation throws daggers at a heart that deeply desires to grow new life inside of a womb, but receives a cyclic rejection instead. Alternatively, as wonderful as growing that new life can be, pregnancy carries its own unique crosses, and the gospels remind us frequently that death is the cost of new life. Navigating what could be landmines between friends is not without difficulty, and like most healthy relationships, it starts and continues with vulnerability.
Pregnancy for me is a mixed bag. It leaves me feeling like my body is no longer my own, that it is an object of use for the benefit of another human being. There is a cloud cast over those nine months, especially since my first two pregnancies ended in traumatic births. It demands everything of me, body, mind and soul. At the same time, there is no denying that I am grateful that my body has given me my three babies, even more so after getting to know Mary and understanding the longings of the infertile heart.
So when my husband and I started trying for our third baby in June 2020, I delicately let Mary know our plans. Having two surprise babies, I figured I’d be pregnant immediately. Since pregnancies take a toll on me, I knew this was going to affect the way I worked, and wanted to be open and sensitive about how we’d navigate that as business partners. I also knew the hurt that Mary experienced each time she saw a pregnancy announcement, and I wanted her to know there was space for her heart.
Much to my confusion, I ended up experiencing a year and a half of secondary infertility, and I got a tiny but tangible taste of what Mary had experienced. Then, for reasons I still don’t understand, I got a positive pregnancy test in early 2022. To say there was a mix of emotions is a wild understatement - guilt, joy, fear, gratitude, fear and guilt again, confusion, awe, and a little disbelief.
At this point, Mary and I talked daily on Marco Polo as we grew and developed FAbM Base. She knew we were trying to conceive, and had walked with me closely as I navigated my brief experience of infertility. I knew how to share the news, but I was still nervous. I didn’t want to cause more pain. I sent her a text message, because I knew that was how she would want to receive the news so she could process it in her own time. I kept the information brief, and let her know to take all the time she needed, and that I was here for her whenever she was ready. I encouraged her to be honest with me, which she was, and we both took time to hear one another and be heard.
My heart instantly sank when I read the news - but not because I wasn’t relieved for her. I was sincerely happy for her and Nick to experience this miracle after so much waiting, confusion and questions, and would eventually get to a place where that was my main emotion. My heart sank because my desire for pregnancy would be left alone again. She would get to experience the growing belly, baby kicks and cuddles I so deeply desired, but had zero chance of getting since I had recently become permanently infertile.
It had really helped that she made me aware of their efforts to conceive. I figured it would eventually happen for her, but it is kind of nice to sit with friends in between pregnancies when your bodies are sort of the same, and I had gotten comfortable. So my heart sank as I processed her words. But what happened next, and what had been happening the whole year or two prior, is what made all the difference moving forward.
First of all, Emily didn’t call me on the phone or ambush me in person or in a group setting to share this information. She sent me a text message, which allowed me to experience my range of emotions honestly, and in privacy. There was no expectation for me to have a specific reaction. Secondly, she expressed that she knew this would likely be hard for me and invited me to share my sincere emotions with her, whatever they were, and whenever I was ready. She gave me permission to be human and remain friends. But the only reason Emily had the awareness to take those first two actions was due to the foundation of vulnerability that had already been laid.
What began as a partnership turned into a friendship because we not only slowly but surely shared bits and pieces of our own personal journeys, but we were both willing to step outside of ourselves and feel the sadness and grief that the other person was still very much carrying and working to heal from. I told Emily how hard certain pregnancy announcements, baptisms and birthday parties were for me. She was fully aware of my physical pain, relentless ache for a child, the significance of my hysterectomy and even struggles with friends. And the more she asked about and entered into my situation, the freer I became to enter into hers.
For the first time, I was able to see the objective difficulties that many fertile women experience, and even more so, the trauma that is possible during some pregnancies and births. It was not nearly as simple as baby kicks and the promise of cuddles for her, but real fears, physical pain and deep emotional challenges. Emily and I began to recognize an underlying theme that continues to be evident in both of our stories today - the universality of suffering. Although there is so much that is different in both of our lives, we are learning similar lessons and being uniquely chiseled in our efforts to know and love God. It doesn’t have to matter so much what the context of our struggles are, but that we all have them, and we can choose to enter into them with each other.
So after I received her pregnancy announcement, I took some time to figure out exactly what I was feeling and mustered up the courage to message her about it. This wasn’t easy for either of us because being vulnerable is hard. I risked being rejected for letting her into the places of my heart that hurt and she sacrificed her own personal comforts to sit with a friend in pain, but these risks were worth taking. When I communicated how it all felt to her, she responded with three comforting words - “I get that.” Because she made space for and heard me, my pain in this situation didn’t endure. Of course there were and are some hard moments, but that is the nature of infertility and not our friendship itself. I was free to walk with her through a very difficult pregnancy and childbirth that weighed heavily on her due to past traumas. Our friendship continues to be a place of respite, rather than a place where my pain is prolonged because I choose to keep it hidden.
An invitation to unity
One thing that became apparent to us as we continued to share our wildly different stories was that where our different sufferings were often a source of rupture in relationships, when we shared them with vulnerability and compassion, they became a source of deeper unity.
It can be hard to sit with pain, especially our own. We had both been on individual healing journeys through therapy that helped us be more open to being uncomfortable in order to process our emotions in healthy ways. But the reward for having the courage to do so is profoundly beautiful. Because of our willingness to be open - which we had to work on and didn’t always get right - we weren’t in competition about who’s hard was harder. There was space for both. And of course, there was a lot of prudence and charity at play. Emily wasn’t texting Mary about all of her aches and pains as her belly grew, and Mary checked in with Emily about how she was feeling throughout pregnancy. Through intentional empathy, we found far more in common with each other than not, and a window into an experience that wasn’t ours expanded our individual capacities for compassion and love.
But it hasn’t all been about vulnerability with the hard stuff. We have a genuine appreciation for life outside of motherhood, and the unique gifts and talents that we each color the world with. We believe that the growth of our families is an incredible gift to seek and experience, but it is only one aspect of our very full lives. Our conversations are incredibly broad and span an array of our interests, weekend plans, struggles, and passions. It is a relationship that supports and encourages the whole person. This is how we build up the people we love.
So back to the food analogy. Ice cream and french fries may seem like an odd pairing, but anyone who’s tried it knows the truth. The fact that they are so different is what makes the pairing great. And that’s what we’ve learned. We definitely have some delicate territory to navigate, but we’ve learned time and time again that we have more in common than we ever thought. Our different sufferings aren’t a source of division, rather they are what unite us. The contrast of our experiences, if we allow it, has the capacity to bring out the best in us both.
Listen here for a podcast episode where Emily and Mary discuss “How to Talk Infertility with Friends & Family.”