Infertile couples cope with prolific Facebook friends

By Ian Shapira Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2010; 6:05 PM

Diane Colling, an occupational therapist and fertility patient, was scrolling through her Facebook page last week when, once again, she was bombarded by a friend's exuberant broadcast about her pregnancy. "Your daughter will hold your hand for a little while, but will hold your heart for a lifetime," her brother's pregnant girlfriend posted.

"I know it's not meant to hurt, but you feel like you're getting kicked every time you see these," said Colling, 28, who lives in Baltimore County and has been trying to get pregnant since 2006. "I have to unfriend people for a while. If I was smart, I wouldn't go on Facebook anymore, but I'd completely lose connections with family and friends."

Before Facebook, infertile couples could try to avoid pregnant people at work or social gatherings, limiting their exposure to triggers of bitterness or jealousy. But that was when friendships were forged mainly in person, not via today's social media Web sites, where people can feel ambushed by photos of friends' - or mere acquaintances' - baby bumps.

Now, when more than a half-billion people use Facebook, couples yearning for children say they are trapped: They are unwilling to detach from the social network, but unable to avoid its frequent reminders - fetal sonograms are seemingly ubiquitous - of what might elude them forever.

There's no shortage of people who feel pain while scrolling through Facebook: Chronically single people may envy friends' wedding pictures, for instance, and those who've lost a spouse can feel overwhelmed by friends' wedding anniversary announcements. Infertile couples say they protect themselves by hiding most, if not all, Facebook posts from pregnant friends who can't resist hitting the site's "Share" button to show off, say, the latest in maternity ware.

Staffers at Shady Grove Fertility, a large provider of in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments in Montgomery County, said more and more patients talk about Facebook envy during consultations. Sharon Covington, the center's director of psychological services, said she tries to encourage patients to choose Facebook privacy settings carefully.

"Some people can't disengage from it, although it makes them miserable," Covington said. "I tell them, 'Go on a diet from Facebook for a week.' "

At Shady Grove, which has a Facebook page where infertile couples discuss everything from Octomom to egg retrieval, Covington hears candid admissions of envy and pain. "They understand their friends aren't trying to cause them harm, and they don't want to wish them ill will," Covington said, "but they end up feeling angry, resentful, and jealous."

At the McLean-based National Infertility Association, executive director Barbara Collura said many couples cannot fathom why friends post so frequently about their pregnancies. "What you're hearing in the infertile world about their pregnant friends on Facebook is: 'My God, they're obsessed. There's no filter.' "

But some who are coping with both infertility and Facebook angst acknowledge they would issue their own gleeful status updates, if only they could conceive.

"Sometimes when people would announce they were pregnant on Facebook, there is a pang, and you're like, 'Oh, I want to make that announcement so badly,' " said Susan Keenan, 37, who lives in Alexandria and is a director at a homeless shelter. Keenan has a 16-month-old daughter and is going through IVF treatment seeking a second child. "I want them to be happy for me when I get to make that announcement."

Some infertile couples suspect their peers, trying to be sensitive, are reluctant to impart their big news in person, leaving their friends to get the news from a Facebook status update. Elisabeth Rivers, 39, who has been trying to have her first child for four years, was recently getting a pedicure in Arlington when she pulled out her cellphone and logged onto Facebook.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company