As the mother of a gregarious 5-year-old boy, I experience parenthood in all its wonder and burnout. I’ve also had four miscarriages, which I continue to grieve. Those losses have led to others: I’ve let go of close relationships with friends who got pregnant with their first, and then second, and then third babies. At times, I’ve found their joy too painful to watch.
When people casually post their ultrasound photos on Instagram, I shut my eyes and breathe through flashbacks of my own devastating scans. If we aren’t close, I “like” the post and then unfollow them. No one has ever confronted me about it; I’m not sure they’ve even noticed.
Once, a good friend’s pregnancy was so painful to me that I ghosted her more blatantly. We had the same due date and would meet at a café to eat chocolate cake and imagine all the “firsts” our children would share. Then I lost my baby. She welcomed a daughter, and I disappeared. She sent me bewildered Facebook messages: “I miss you,” “Did you forget about me?!”
In those moments, I felt utterly alone, even though, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, 10 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage and, according to the National Institutes of Health, 12 to 15 percent of couples struggle to conceive after one year of trying. My friend’s prominent bump was a biological reminder of what should have also been mine. I miss the living baby I should have delivered. I miss my friend too.
I’m not proud of ghosting her. But Miriam Kirmayer, a clinical psychologist focused on friendship, told me that the intense pain of losing a pregnancy can overshadow any ability to express genuine happiness for a friend’s childbirth, even if that happiness exists deep beneath the surface. “It’s very hard to allow both of those feelings to coexist or to communicate that in a way that feels safe,” she said.
I’m not the only one with this experience. When Dina Wilson, a 43-year-old physician in Oregon, posted on Instagram about recurrent IVF failure and how she was triggered by pregnancy announcements popping up on the app, a friend at the time responded, “I don’t understand why you can’t be happy for someone who is announcing a pregnancy,” Wilson recalled to me. She empathized with her friend’s words, though the way they were delivered stung. “What a horrible situation it is to have somebody tell you they are pregnant, and all you feel is so incredibly sad and heartbroken for yourself—for what your body can’t do and what you can’t have.”
After that confrontation, Wilson stopped being so vocal about how friends’ pregnancies made her feel and instead backed off, sometimes permanently, when someone got pregnant. Now her husband refers to their “friendship graveyard.” However, after she had a baby of her own, Wilson repaired one friendship, which she attributes to the grace of the other party as well as to finding the presence of children less excruciating herself.
Quiyana Burt, a 35-year-old nonprofit specialist who lives in Georgia, has also quietly cut off contact with several friends. After confiding in her social circle about her four unexplained losses and the poor medical care she received, she says she was met with dismissive comments: “What are you gonna do with a baby?” and “It’s probably a good thing because of everything going on in the world.” When her best friend got pregnant, Burt didn’t go to the baby shower. “I’m not going to lie,” she told me. “I ghosted her. I ghosted her very badly.” Burt has since found community in Daughters of Hannah, an infertility and miscarriage support group for Black women, which has helped her preserve relationships with her parent friends, because she no longer feels the need to seek their support about her fertility struggles.
These issues can crack a friendship wide open. Rosario Ceballo, a psychology professor and the dean of Georgetown College at Georgetown University, co-authored a study on 50 African American women who had struggled or were currently struggling with infertility. “The experience that they were undergoing was so traumatically painful that they could not bear to discuss it with other people,” she told me. The women silenced and isolated themselves, sometimes out of shame. Ceballo partially attributes this to internalization of the “Motherhood Mandate,” the notion, named in a seminal 1970s study, that womanhood is defined by motherhood.
For some people, realizing that they can’t become biological parents easily or at all reorients their entire life—including their relationships. “We imagine having children around a similar time as our friends and seeing our children grow together … and that’s the next chapter of our friendship stories,” Kirmayer said. Not being able to continue in sync and suddenly not having as much in common can feel like another kind of loss, she added. On the other side of the equation, friends who are busy with new parenthood may lack the energy to nurture a relationship with someone they have less and less in common with.
Still, I want to believe that rock-solid, unconditional friendships exist. That they can weather the joys of parenthood and the brutal isolation of infertility. That they’re big enough for both the parent who’s overwhelmed by child-rearing in a society devoid of support and the person who would do anything to be in the same daunting position. That both sides have full lives, which are sometimes gratifying and sometimes back-breakingly difficult. “If we cannot have a friendship based off love, connection, and truth and honesty, then I can’t be there, because a part of being a human is being vulnerable,” Fatima Lathan, a 34-year-old director of social services at a health center in Arkansas who cannot have biological children, told me.
I want so badly to believe that those friends are out there, and yet I haven’t found one for myself.
While reporting this article, I’ve felt guilty about never telling my friend in person why I cut off contact. A few months after I first ghosted her, I sent a quick message to tell her I was hurting too much to meet up with her. But I never saw her again. I was rocked by grief and the physical aftermath of my loss, while shuttling among fertility specialists searching for answers. I believed that I was being empathetic by ridding my friend of the obligation to listen to my sad story while she was living out what I could only imagine was a happy ending—and that this was a healthier choice for my own well-being.
I recently connected with Lo Mansfield, a registered nurse who’s known as the Labor Mama on Instagram, and she shared a story that sounded like an uncomfortable mirror image of my own. A couple from her close-knit social circle was pregnant at the same time as Mansfield, but the friends’ daughter lived only a week, while Mansfield and her husband took their own baby girl home from the hospital without a hitch.
Despite Mansfield sending meals, gift cards, and invitations, her friend never directly contacted her again. Mansfield has a longing ache for what the friendship could have been. But at the end of our call she told me, “They owe me nothing … For those in a state of loss, the only thing that you can do is figure out how to get through another day for yourself sometimes, and the rest of us just have to be okay with that.” I knew that before we hung up the phone, when we wished each other well with a catch in our throats, we were each speaking to the memories of our former friends.