Consumed by baby envy: The new social divide between women struggling in their late 30s to become pregnant and friends who have children
Karen Veness always thought herself a calm, rational and amiable woman.
But in her early 30s she suddenly became bitter, resentful and mean-spirited towards friends and even to her own sister-in-law.
The depth of her anger, jealousy and hatred took her completely by surprise.
Painful truth: Becky Bramall (26) from Hull, lost a friendship due to jealousy over her friend's pregnancy
‘I was feeling this really horrible set of emotions and it was a side of me I didn’t think I had – a very black side,’ says Karen, a 45-year-old writer in Nottingham.
‘My anger at the time was palpable. I felt physically sick.’
And the reason for her dramatic personality change She was suffering from profound fertility envy.
Karen was married and in her early 30s when she discovered that she would struggle to conceive. Knowing she wanted a family, and concerned that her fertility might have been compromised after her appendix burst during her 20s, she went for tests and learned one of her fallopian tubes was damaged.
But as she began her fight against infertility, it seemed that everyone around her was getting pregnant.
Most painful of all, Karen’s sister-in-law announced her pregnancy just as Karen and her husband James were starting IVF.
The prospect that a new child would soon arrive in the family knocked Karen for six.
From then on, Karen avoided contact with the expectant woman. ‘I couldn’t listen to anyone going on about being pregnant,’ she says. ‘I’d have probably told them I hated them or something.’
Her bitterness extended to every woman with a swollen belly who crossed her path. ‘These people had what I thought I’d never have,’ adds Karen. ‘Often I’d just fall into a heap and sob.’
While Karen was shocked by her personality change, her behaviour is by no means unusual. Counsellors who work in the field of infertility say feelings of anger or jealousy towards friends who have had babies are more common than not.
And, as more women leave motherhood until later in life, and consequently struggle to conceive, feelings like Karen’s are becoming increasingly common.
New babies, invitations to christenings and ultrasound scans posted on Facebook remind infertile women of what they cannot do
Nearly a fifth of British women are childless at menopause, statistics show – some by choice but many others by circumstance.
As Karen knows all too well, infertility can leave women feeling excluded from a privileged members-only club. At the same time, invitations to christenings and ultrasound scans posted on Facebook remind them of what they cannot do.
‘When people are diagnosed with an infertility problem, it’s almost as if women with baby bumps or prams start coming out of cracks in the pavement,’ says Diane Arnold, who provides support to women and couples via the Infertility Network UK’s professional advice line for members.
‘You want to be pleased for your friends, but deep down you’re thinking: “Go away with your babies,” ’ she adds.
But the topic of fertility and friendship can be taboo, and women often find their jealousy is compounded by guilt.
‘You feel like such an awful person. You don’t understand how you can feel mean towards someone who’s having a baby, but you do,’ says Karen.
Norah Harding, an infertility counsellor who helps couples through fertility treatment with stress-reduction techniques, agrees the emotions women experience can be multi-layered.
‘On top of feeling envy and a sense of failure as a woman, you can feel doubly bad because you’ve also become a bitter person,’ says Harding, of Reframe Counselling and Psychotherapy.
In surveys, women say infertility is the worst thing that has ever happened to them, even when compared to the death of a loved one, says Harding, who’s noticed an increase in people seeking emotional support around infertility. ‘When someone else seems to get pregnant easily or accidentally – that can be really difficult to take.’
Karen found herself in that position when a work colleague announced her baby news just after Karen and James had decided to go down the IVF route.
‘I remember she would joke: “My husband only has to look at me and I’m pregnant,” ’ she says. ‘I could have throttled her.’
And when Karen heard her sister-in-law had given birth — just before Karen had eggs implanted after a first cycle of IVF — her response to her husband was: “So what” She refused to go and see her baby nephew.
Then, there was good news for Karen — her IVF worked first time and she quickly reverted to her bubbly, optimistic self. It was as if a switch had been flipped.
I went from being a recluse to being this happy, generous person who was delighted to see pregnant women and children,' says Karen (picture posed by models)
‘I suddenly had the biggest smile and was full of cuddles for babies everywhere,’ says Karen. ‘Overnight, I went from being a recluse to being this happy, generous person who was delighted to see pregnant women or their children.’
When she was a couple of months pregnant, Karen visited her sister-in-law and for the first time met her nephew, by then a few months old.
Karen never discussed her infertility or her envy with her sister-in-law and both sides of the family moved on as if nothing had happened.
Soon, though, the shoe was on the other foot.
To her surprise, Karen conceived her second child, Georgia, naturally not long after the birth of her first daughter, Holly, and she had to break the news of her new pregnancy to a close friend who had failed with IVF.
‘She was shell-shocked. She couldn’t hug me.
She found it really hard to deal with,’ says Karen, whose daughters are now aged 13 and 12.
'On top of feeling envy and a sense of failure as a woman, you can feel doubly bad because you’ve also become a bitter person'
Fortunately, her friend did eventually have a baby herself and the relationship survived the infertility rollercoaster.
But things aren’t always so straightforward. Becky Bramall, a 26-year-old social worker from Hull, lost a friendship completely due to infertility.
Becky and her husband Mike spent two years trying to conceive naturally before finding out they both had infertility issues.
‘My close friend already had a child but that wasn’t a big problem,’ she says. ‘I didn’t mind being around children – it was pregnant women I struggled with.’
Then, one morning, Becky’s friend texted her to say she was pregnant again. ‘I was devastated,’ she says.
‘She already had a little girl. I knew then it was going to be too hard for me to continue with that friendship.’
As her friend’s pregnancy progressed, Becky found it increasingly hard to see her stomach growing or to look at her scan pictures. She gradually withdrew, not responding to messages.
‘I found myself getting increasingly upset and it just made it so hard every month when I got my period,’ says Becky, who eventually stopped seeing her friend altogether after about five months.
‘She did contact me not long after her daughter was born and asked if she’d done anything wrong. I explained to her that it wasn’t personal — I just couldn’t be around pregnant women. I just felt numb.’
Becky and her husband did finally conceive, through IVF, and now they have a three-month-old son, Finley.
After Finley’s birth, her friend congratulated her via Facebook, but the two haven’t spoken.
Becky thinks that friendship is over for good and she still struggles with feelings of bitterness.
‘People think that once you’ve had a child, all the pain goes away. But it doesn’t,’ she explains.
Pregnant pause: Many women who can't conceive begin to avoid expectant mothers
‘I look at my brother and sister-in-law who have two children who are close together in age and I think, we’re never going to have another child without it being a massive procedure.
'The anger and frustration that we can’t just have what everyone else seems to get so easily is still there.’
And things can be just as difficult on the other side of the fence. In a poll of 354 women conducted by the pregnancy and parenting website BabyCentre.co.uk, 86 per cent of women said they felt guilty when telling friends who were trying to conceive that they were pregnant.
While every woman deals with things differently, Norah Harding says some friendships may need to be ‘parked’ if one party is struggling to conceive, to be picked up again later when things have been resolved or feelings are less raw.
‘If you feel like people are walking on eggshells around you, that doesn’t help either,’ she says. ‘When you’re struggling with a sense of hopelessness, you’re very sensitive to imagined or intended slights.’
Sometimes friendships are never quite the same again.
One 41-year-old mother-of-two, who says the issue is so sensitive she doesn’t want to be named, explains she’s struggled for years with a friend she made at university 20 years ago, who has unexplained infertility issues.
‘Julia was such a brilliant friend, but
seeing her every day with her big belly was so hard…Her body was a physical reminder of what I
‘She’s been awful to be around,’ says the part-time teacher from London. ‘She’ll invite my husband and me to a barbecue and then add the comment: “Please don’t bring your children,” which makes it hard for us to go.
‘She tries to airbrush my children out of my life – she is always trying to organise weekends away with “the girls” which are almost impossible as we all have children.
‘I feel very angry that because of her reaction to her infertility, I always have to tiptoe around the subject of children.
‘I do try to be understanding and have changed the way we socialise to try to deal with the problem, suggesting we meet for weekday lunches when I’m not with my children. I have even thought about dropping the friendship. But, then, what kind of friend would I be’
Experts say the best solution to fertility jealousy is to talk openly about what’s going on.
‘Women who experience fertility problems need to give themselves a break and be kind to themselves,’ says Anya Sizer, support co-ordinator at the London Women’s Clinic.
In a poll conducted by BabyCentre.co.uk, 86 per cent of women said they felt guilty when telling friends who were trying to conceive that they were pregnant
‘Feeling envious at a baby shower or fed up of seeing pregnant women doesn’t make you a bad person, it makes you a human being.’
But talking about fertility jealousy can be difficult even for the closest of friends.
Clare Axworthy, 32, and Julia Shields, 33, have been good friends since they met through work at a publishing company in 2005.
But, a few years ago, their relationship was threatened by infertility. Both women began trying for a second child around the same time — their first children were only nine months apart.
Julia became pregnant straight away and instantly told Clare, assuming the same would happen to her. But Clare went on to struggle for a year.
They continued to work side-by-side, but the relationship changed as Julia’s pregnancy progressed.
‘Julia was such a brilliant friend, but seeing her every day with her big belly was so hard,’ says Clare. ‘I felt that it wasn’t fair. Her body was a physical reminder of what I couldn’t do.’
At one point Julia, now a full-time mother from North Somerset, tried to talk to Clare about her pregnancy but she clammed up, denying that there was anything wrong.
‘I couldn’t say to a really good friend that I couldn’t hang out with her because I felt bitter, jealous and insecure,’ says Clare, who lives in London with her husband.
Clare did eventually conceive, just as Julia’s baby was born, and both women went on to have a third child. Clare says they both agree their friendship is as strong as ever now, but she admits things could have been very different.
‘Had I not got pregnant again, I’m not sure how I’d have dealt with it, and I might have cut her off a bit,’ she says.
‘I think it would have been really difficult for us to stay such close friends.’
Sadly, there are an increasing number of women in Britain who know just how that feels.
Contact the Infertility Network UK on 0800 008 7464 or visit infertilitynetworkuk.com.