Dear Fertility Nurse: Scrabbled

“I am really having trouble being happy for my friends and family who seem to be getting pregnant easily. I’ve cut off communication with some of them, stopped going to baby showers, and I feel like a jerk. How do I manage this?”-Heidi R.

Dear Heidi,

Growing up, I played a lot of boardgames, one of my favorites was Scrabble. Scrabble is a game where everyone gets tiles that are letters and you compete against 1 to 3 other people to use your letters to form words on the board. You are trying to get the most points and get rid of your tiles.

Playing hundreds of rounds of Scrabble taught me two things about myself that still hold true today: I love words and I hate to lose.

Most of the time, I would play with my immediate family or my sister’s friends and we would look for ‘tells’: signs that someone was about to unleash a word that would generate a bunch of points. If you are not familiar with Scrabble, the rarer the letter, the more points you could get, so an Z or a Q were each worth 10 points due to the degree of difficulty finding a word in which you can use them.

One time, I was riding high on an amazing (I thought) word that really pushed me past most players and tied me with my sister who was not only 7 years older, but a walking dictionary. As we were going around the table for one of the final laps, I see a change in my sister, a tell. Hers is an almost imperceptible smile, a look that I interpreted as smug and self-satisfied, and I knew it could only mean one thing: She is using her J. You see the J is the holy grail of Scrabble, in my opinion. It’s worth a whopping 8 points but you can actually use it in a decent number of words (unlike Z) and you don’t need to also have a U (unlike Q). The J is a game-changer and I knew then and there that my sister had won. I felt angry and resentful.

It felt like an unfair fight.

My sister and her friends knew more words anyway and were very clever. I needed a plan to level the playing field.

So, next time I offered to set up the game. I made sure that no one was around, then I pocketed two of the J’s. Not all of them, because that would be obvious, just two that I later could imperceptibly add to my stash of letters until I used mine or someone else’s letters to build the perfect J word. This worked for a while. I was often the winner if my sister wasn’t playing, and pretty even with her if she was, and it felt great. I felt redeemed.

Until one day, I was putting the game away and heard someone crying. I took a quick peek and saw that it was my closest friend. She had come in last that day. In fact, since she was the youngest she often came in last, but today she was burdened by a bunch of Q’s with no U’s and just shitty luck and I guess it felt like too much. My feeling of elation quickly soured and I realized that I had to confess. I told her about the J’s. She was both horrified and impressed. Then she said to me “Why are we even playing this game, Moni? It’s making us both so sad and frustrated.”

I strongly believe that it is a worthwhile skill to accept your feelings (even so-called negative ones) as valid and necessary in order to live a vibrant life.

You see, Heidi, your pregnant friends were lucky enough to have all of the good tiles. And it sucks because you try your best and persevere through your treatments and deep down you’re happy for them, but it feels like every time you turn over a tile, it’s another Q (without the U) or Z. Now you’re in a quandary because this bad luck is starting to really get to you and making you avoid events and conversations with people that you love which makes you feel disconnected from the person that you want to be in life.

My first question to you is do you want to ‘play the game?’ That is, do you even like going to baby showers or is this something that you feel that you need to do? I didn’t like going to baby showers. I had so many cousins and went to so many baby showers by the time that I was old enough to have a baby that I was ‘baby-showered-out’. So I reserved my right to say no to some people and only attend the baby showers of my closest friends and family members. This is one option for you. You may decide to conserve your mental energy to only attend the baby showers of your super-close friends, ones for whom the risk of missing their shower feels worse than going to it and possibly feeling sad for a while after. You can expect that you will probably feel sad or some other yucky emotion afterwards, but I strongly believe that it is a worthwhile skill to accept your feelings (even so-called negative ones) as valid and necessary in order to live a vibrant life, and allow yourself to feel them (I will be writing about how to do this on a future post).  

During your fertility journey, maybe if you can’t find fair, you can find meaning.

Remember when I said that playing Scrabble against older kids didn’t feel like a fair fight? During your fertility journey, maybe if you can’t find fair, you can find meaning. For many of my clients, it is the perfect time to cultivate an important life skill: setting and maintaining boundaries.

A boundary is for your benefit and defines what you will and will not do. For example, for many, scrolling your social media feed may feel like a land mine. You want to catch up on other people’s lives, but you have to carefully sidestep the endless parade of hot button issues for you. These can include your cousin who posts strong political views or a high school classmate posting pictures of maimed animals or your friend who keeps complaining that she “just looks at her husband and gets pregnant”. May I suggest that you “Marie Kondo” your social feed and pause, mute or unfollow those feeds that don’t bring you joy. Even if you like the people posting them. Getting bombarded by pictures of injured wildlife or pregnant bellies when you are struggling can make anyone feel like crap. They have the right to post them and you have the right to shield yourself from them.

“…those who are mad that you enforced a boundary probably benefited from you having none.

You may have to tell your close friends and relatives that you don’t want to talk about your family planning every phone call or family event. This should be done in advance via phone call or conversation and can sound something like: “Aunt Cathy, I’m excited to get together for Thanksgiving, but I no longer want to discuss when I’m going to have a baby.” Be both firm and fair and if someone doesn’t respect your boundary, then be prepared to enforce a consequence (i.e. you won’t go to Aunt Cathy’s for the holidays). I read once that “those who are mad that you enforced a boundary probably benefited from you having none.”

Setting boundaries can be difficult, but they are a huge component of self-care and one of the most important actions that you can take during your fertility journey to protect your mental health. There are many resources about how to set boundaries (one of my favorite is @the.holistic.psychologist on Instagram and and one of the best ways to practice these is to role-play with a trusted friend or family member. I’m not kidding. I do this with all of my clients and actually give them scripts before we practice (we call it ‘striking while the iron is cool’) so that when the time comes to actually enforce one, it feels intuitive.

Finally, Heidi, I hope you use my story as a cautionary tale. Consider and decide (on a case-by-case basis) if you want to engage in a situation or setting that tests your resilience.  If you do, don’t steal the J’s, like I did. Proceed with caution, but integrity, and expect to have an emotional hangover after. If you decide to pass, realize that this was the best decision for you at the time.

You don’t need to play the game.

Scrappy not scrabbled,


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.