'After exhaustive tests it seems that the chances of my partner and I ever having a baby are virtually nil. We can't afford to adopt from abroad, and only want a child of our own, anyway. Even though we both have jobs, I'm extremely low. I can hardly see the point of living any more. How have other people coped? And what do we say to friends?' Yours sincerely, Juliet

AS SOMEONE who has herself had a brief - and extremely upsetting - brush with the world of infertility, I was staggered and hurt by the reactions of most readers, even of those who were infertile themselves. They were certainly enough to make me strongly recommend Juliet and her partner to say absolutely nothing to anyone. Anyway, as Audrey Hunt of Woodford Green, Essex, rightly wrote: 'Why on earth does Juliet think she should say anything to her friends? What the hell has it to do with them?'

There was the buck-yourself-up advice:

'Juliet should accept that no one can have everything from life. She should stop feeling sorry for herself and concentrate on what she has, not what she has not.' Bridget Glanville, Fareham, Hampshire

'Society needs community aunts . . . help with Sunday school teaching, scouts, guides, WRVS, meals on wheels, neighbourhood council member.' Ian Care, Derby

'There is plenty to life without children. After all, she has a brain, which is more important than a uterus . . . And the world created by Thatcher and Major is so appalling that we are glad we have no descendants who would have to inherit it.' Audrey Hunt

And there was the 'why do they want kids at all, they're not that great' line. (But how Juliet must long to be able to have those feelings first-hand])

'Our adoptive son is so vile and disruptive, into petty crime, lying, drinking, threatening . . . Sometimes my husband and I wonder about how much more money and independence we could have had without him. I could probably have had a good career, a smart home, perhaps a holiday home as well, holidays abroad . . .' Jean

And, with children at last, Agnes Spier and her husband now just 'yearn to have time on our own]'

Jane Weightman, of Altrincham, Cheshire, says: 'Why do they want children?

For the unconditional love expected between parent and child? . . . To develop and influence younger people?' One helpful suggestion - to 'ask her GP to refer her to a suitable psychotherapist who would certainly be able to help her through this very difficult period in her development' - from A Moorhouse, King's Lynn, Norfolk, might have been more useful had he mentioned the existence of a far more useful resource, an infertility counsellor. Most losses ring bells of previous losses, and if Juliet is feeling suicidal, she's probably experiencing painful echoes of past hurts, as well as the painful present.

The most brutally good and honest advice came from Linda, of Kent: 'Make a gratitude list for all the good things in your life - but remember that you mustn't undervalue the hurt. It may be permanent.'

However sympathetic friends may try to be, it would take a very good one to begin to understand how Juliet feels. Sometimes friends can appear to empathise, but then they blow it all with a throwaway hurtful phrase like: 'You're always welcome to my little monsters]' Or: 'Well, you've always got each other/your health/ your job.' As if you didn't know it. Really the only people who can help are other childless or infertile couples, contactable through the self-help group, Child (helpline 081-893 7110).

I have always been comforted by the words of Dr Viktor E Frankl, one of the greatest psychotherapists since Freud and Jung. In his book Man's Search for Meaning he tells of how a man whose children had all perished in Auschwitz and whose second wife was sterile asked how it was possible to go on living in the circumstances. 'I observed,' wrote Frankl, 'that procreation is not the only meaning of life, for then life in itself would become meaningless, and something which in itself is meaningless cannot be rendered meaningful merely by its perpetuation.' In other words, life has a meaning beyond reproducing oneself.

If Juliet feels cheesed off with me for quoting this - after all, she wants to be a parent, not to find a spiritual meaning in life - it's because to offer anything except sympathy, plain and simple, in the face of childlessness inevitably seems hurtful and patronising. Perhaps Juliet's best bet is to find a friend who can listen and listen and listen, and when she speaks, say no more than: 'Poor, poor you. Isn't life a bitch.' If life can be good without children, it is up to Juliet to discover it for herself in her own time, not for others to point it out.

Picture of misery after a portrait Dear Virginia, When I mentioned to an artist friend that I wanted a portrait done of my daughter, he suggested that he do it himself. I wasn't very keen, so thought if I asked what his charges were, I could turn him down. However, he waved his hands airily and said not to worry, he'd always wanted to paint her. I assumed he would waive his fees, or reduce them. After several sittings he has come up with a really chocolate-boxy portrait. That was bad enough, but he has also sent a bill for pounds 4,000, which I can't possibly pay. How can I get out of it with the least embarrassment and expense?

Yours sincerely, Duncan Readers' comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen by Paper:Mate. Please write to me at the Features Department, the Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB; fax 071-956-1739, by Tuesday morning. If you have any dilemmas you would like to share, let me know.

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