How to Support Someone Experiencing Infertility (And How Not To)

When one of my friends who has recently experienced the physical, emotional and financial rollercoaster of infertility told me that she was thinking of writing about her experience, I jumped at the chance to ask her if she would let me publish it on my blog. I felt that it was fitting that she wanted to keep her identity anonymous, because the face of someone experiencing infertility is impossible to pinpoint in a crowd. Oftentimes, we have friends or acquaintances struggling with infertility, but don’t know what to say to them as they navigate their way through this challenging circumstance. Sometimes, we try to find the words to be helpful, but, without meaning to, say things that are less than constructive.

This was what I asked my friend to talk about. How can we, as the people who care for someone going through infertility, be sensitive to their situation in the ways that we speak and act towards them, and what kinds of things should we try to avoid?

There is still a lot of stigma and misunderstanding surrounding infertility. To speak openly about this journey takes incredible courage, and I am so thankful to my friend for sharing this not just with me, but with all of you as well.

We live in a world where our fertility is often taken for granted but unfortunately infertility is more common than we’d like to believe (latest statistics say one in six Canadian couples will face infertility issues). One of the crazy things about infertility is it can happen to people who are otherwise healthy, it can really happen to anyone. The face of infertility could be your doctor, your lawyer, your child’s teacher, your pharmacist, or even your best friend and you wouldn’t be able to tell just by looking at them that they are embarking on probably one of the hardest and most difficult journeys of their lives.  

Imagine years of weekly to monthly medical appointments, tests, and treatments poking and prodding the most intimate (and sensitive) parts of your body.  Each one bringing nothing but bad news.  Each trip to the fertility clinic is filled with anxiety and emotion with the anticipation of what bad news the doctors will discover next. In fact, there is only ever one “good” appointment for patients at the fertility clinic, when a viable pregnancy is achieved. Fertility treatments can consume your life. Despite all the advances in fertility treatments, infertility can still seem like a taboo subject that makes people very uncomfortable. Many people are left speechless and don’t know what to say to help or support someone who is experiencing infertility.

Below are some things that probably aren’t the best things to share with someone who is battling infertility. Many of these comments probably are not coming from a malicious or cruel place, rather a place of discomfort, uncertainty, or lack of knowledge as to what to say to make someone who is going through one of the toughest times in their life, feel better.

Things Not to Say and Do…

  1. “If you just relax or stop trying so hard, it will happen…..”

    While this may be true and for many people they might actually conceive when they are not trying or have finally given up trying, when someone is battling infertility, especially if they are undergoing fertility treatments, this is far from relaxing.  Picture spending thousands of dollars to shut down your own hormones so that you feel like you are going through menopause and then shocking your system with high doses of hormones and drugs that make you gain weight and feel crazy, then see how relaxed you feel about trying to get pregnant.

  1. “Have you tried _____________” (fill in the blank with taking herbs, standing on your head, laying with your legs up in the air for 20 min, going on a holiday, eating pineapple, the list goes on and on).

    While it may seem helpful to give a suggestion, it becomes much less helpful when you start listing off several things that a person should try. The reality is that person has probably spent hours scouring the internet looking for that magical cure that will result in their miracle pregnancy. While you may be trying to be helpful, it’s not really as helpful as you might think.

  1. “Have you thought about adoption?”

    No actually, it’s never crossed our minds (sorry a bit of sarcasm there).  Of course, people battling infertility have thought about adoption, it’s probably one of the first things a couple has to talk about when trying to conceive becomes an issue. But the reality of adoption is not like what you see on the movies or television, where a couple miraculously gets this perfect bundle of joy in a matter of weeks. Even with international adoptions there are often age, marriage (number of years), ethnicity, religious, and heterosexual requirements. People who have chosen to adopt are some of the most caring and brave people, as the adoption process is not for the faint of heart. The truth is that private adoption costs can range from $15 000 to $50 000 and the wait times are often years, not months. Not to mention that adoptions in Alberta are all open by law, so although you might be willing to adopt a child, you are really adopting a child and his/her entire family into your life, for better or worse.

  1. “Did the fertility treatments work,” or “are you pregnant yet,” or “why don’t you just do IVF?”

    This one really should not require an explanation but for whatever reason when some people find out someone is undergoing fertility treatments, they think it’s okay to ask this question. But would those same people ask someone who is doing it the old fashioned way if the sex they had 2 weeks ago has resulted in a pregnancy….ummmm no they probably never would, that would be outrageous! IVF (in vitro fertilization) is a very expensive and complicated procedure which can often take multiple cycles to achieve success. It’s not something you can just sign up to do, or call a doctor for. It requires months (usually a year) of failed timed intercourse, a referral to a fertility clinic, months of waiting for an initial appointment, tests, and months of far less expensive and invasive treatments. IVF is not usually the first treatment option couples are given, it’s actually often their last option to conceive after trying several other treatments.

  1. “I really want a girl/boy so I only want to get pregnant again if I can have that particular sex,” or worse, “I don’t know what I’ll do if it’s another boy/girl.”

    Yes people actually say these things, even if they don’t actually mean it. While this may be a huge personal concern for you, don’t share this concern with someone who is struggling to conceive, especially if they are at the mercy of fertility treatments. All they want is to: 1. get pregnant, 2. stay pregnant, and 3. have a healthy baby, they don’t care about the sex of the baby at all.

  1. Please don’t compare a person’s infertility to your own fertility.

    It doesn’t help the situation to jokingly say things like “well I’m as fertile as a rabbit,” or to discuss with your infertile friend whether you should try for that third child or not.  Think of it this way, would you brag to your blind friend about how awesome your eyesight is?

  1. “Baby Showers…why don’t you want to go? Are you jealous?

    Depending on where a person is in the infertility process, going to a baby shower can be a personal and emotional minefield. Not because they are not happy for the expecting couple or are jealous of their good fortune, but often because this is when people decide to ask others if they have kids or do they want kids and you are also surrounded by conversations about how amazing it is to be a mother.  It’s an entire celebration about being fertile!  When struggling with infertility, the last thing someone wants is to be put on the spot about why they do not have children, or hear about how amazing being a mother is and how you can’t imagine not being a mother.  They also don’t want to get upset at an occasion that should be filled with excitement and happiness. If you invite someone to a baby shower that is battling infertility and they decline the invite, please don’t take it personally, they truly are happy and excited for you but they just may not be strong enough mentally and emotionally to be in an environment solely centred on babies.  Also, if you truly care about that particular friend, don’t avoid the elephant in the room.  Call them about their RSVP and have a heartfelt conversation.  Perhaps schedule a second, more intimate lunch for you two to celebrate your pregnancy.

  1. “You just have to keep believing and never give up!”

    You are essentially calling the couple a failure if they decide to stop treatments and get off the infertility rollercoaster.  Actually, when a couple stops treatments they are in fact getting their life back, and often regaining a lost intimacy in their relationship. Sex becomes fun and spontaneous again, not about cycles, temperatures, and ovulation kits. Every person or couple has to decide when they’ve reached their limit emotionally, physically, mentally, and financially when it comes to infertility and moving on  It truly does look different for everyone. There are people who have been trying for almost a decade and are still trying, and there are people who decide to only take it as far as less invasive procedures like IUI. Only the people struggling to conceive know when they’ve reached their end point and it’s important that people support them when they make that decision.

Things to Say and Do…

So now that we’ve discussed the not so helpful things to say or do, here are some pretty simple things that you can honestly do that will support your loved one or friend.

  1. Just honestly being there and checking in to see how the person is coping without prying too much.  

    Let them guide the conversation.  Simply letting the person know that if they ever want to talk about things, that you are there. Also, ask them how their relationship with their partner is doing.  Be supportive and let the person share when they feel ready to share. Don’t pressure them to disclose things when they aren’t ready.  Please don’t stop talking to them or ignoring them to avoid an uncomfortable conversation.

  1. Talk to them about things other than their inability to conceive.

    It’s refreshing to talk about the craziness of a reality show, the latest celebrity gossip, or exciting travels. Believe it or not, talking about things other than the inability to get pregnant (which has taken over a good chunk of the person’s life) is refreshing and extremely helpful.  It’s a reminder to the individual that they have a life outside of infertility.

  1. It’s also okay to tell them when you are pregnant.

    One of the hardest things for people is telling someone they are pregnant when they know that person has been struggling to achieve that very outcome.  Will there probably be a little bit of a sting…yes there might be a tinge of “why won’t that happen for me“ but does that mean they are not thrilled for you…absolutely not!  More than likely the person will be happy when they hear that someone they care about has been blessed with a pregnancy. No one suffering from infertility would wish this journey on anyone.

Now to end with a quote from Jennifer Aniston who has all too often been harshly scrutinized and criticized for her childlessness:

“I don’t like (the pressure) that people put on me, on women, that you’ve failed yourself as a female because you haven’t procreated. You may not have a child come out of your vagina, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t mothering – dogs, friends, friends’ children.”

 

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