For infertile couples, Facebook is a minefield

"I have to unfriend people for a while," Diane Colling, at home with her husband, Eric, and their dogs, says of friends who post pregnancy updates on Facebook.
"I have to unfriend people for a while," Diane Colling, at home with her husband, Eric, and their dogs, says of friends who post pregnancy updates on Facebook. (Deb Lindsey)
By Ian Shapira Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2010

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. As she scanned her news feed, she noticed that her cousin's profile photo had changed to a grainy image.

"The post said, 'Here's a picture of our little baby.' I felt like I got punched in the gut," said Rivers, of Alexandria, who has spent $80,000 on fertility treatments and leads a monthly support group for infertility patients. "You want to be happy for people, but you take it personally. I was like, 'Why the hell does [my cousin] have a sonogram for her profile picture?' I called my mother and she said, 'Oh, we were wondering how we were going to tell you.' You feel like people are pitying you and they are avoiding telling you things. When they do that, it makes it that much harder."

Katherine Klegin, 27, of Springfield, who had been trying to conceive for 15 months with egg-stimulating drugs, has a love-hate relationship with Facebook. Two months ago, the government contractor was at home using her laptop when she discovered a friend's pregnancy on Facebook.

"I burst into tears," she recalled. "It made me so angry. She had just gotten married, and there's this presumption that it was an accident. I can't comprehend having an accident."

Klegin didn't want to disconnect from her online life, so she switched mostly to Twitter, which has fewer photos and instead features snappy 140-character musings. "I found a huge community of infertile women on Twitter, and people announce pregnancies all the time there, but it's different," she said. "You don't see it."

Later, Klegin picked up Facebook again, telling friends how she was dealing with polycystic ovary syndrome, which produces cysts in the ovaries, making pregnancy more difficult. "Shockingly," she said, "I've had 10 or 12 people contact me, saying, 'I've dealt with this, too.'"

This month, Klegin's relationship with Facebook changed: She's close to halfway through her first trimester. "I feel guilty for being happy," she said. "But if someone hides me [on Facebook], they hide me. I'm not going to lose sleep over it."

Some women have no qualms about using Facebook's "hide" feature to clear their news feeds of baby announcements. "As soon as I find out they're pregnant, I hide them," said Sarah Hopper, 27, a middle school teacher on Maryland's Eastern Shore who has been trying to conceive for four years. "I have a long list of hidden friends."

Sometimes, however, Facebook announcements still manage to upset Hopper. Last week, she discovered that her friends are expecting when the woman mentioned the fact on another friend's page. "I went into my bedroom for 20 minutes and cried," Hopper said. "I didn't even tell my husband."

It's not as if infertile women can easily ask their expecting friends to temper their enthusiasm on Facebook. "I think that would push my friends away," said Colling, who learned recently that her latest cycle of IVF treatment had not resulted in pregnancy. "People get very offended when it comes to their kids."

At home, lounging in the kitchen with her husband, Eric, and their dogs, Colling came across another posting by her brother's girlfriend about her pregnancy. She read parts of it to Eric: " 'Feel like crap . . . feel in pain, stressed out, so sick of this feeling.' "

Diane tried to suppress a frown. "I'd kill for that sometimes," she said. "I'd love to be in her place."

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