With one in eight women dealing with some sort of infertility problem, you are guaranteed to have at least one person in your life going through the struggle of getting and staying pregnant. There is always loss when dealing with infertility. The loss of what you thought you would have, the loss of a dream, or the loss of a baby. Maybe even the loss of friends and family because they don’t agree with how you are going about it. All of these losses are painful and very real, which means that you are at some point or another going to be put in a situation where you will need to help a friend or family member through these emotions.
How do you join them in this hurt? How do you support them when they may not even know what they need?
It’s sensitive territory and important that you recognize it. While discussions around infertility are becoming more commonplace (which is great) there’s still a sense of taboo and shame associated. Because of this, most people don’t really know how to act around those that are dealing with it. Here’s a quick breakdown for you.
You Can’t Fix it For Us
A “fix” is usually the first thing that’s recommended when a friend or loved one finds out about infertility problems. Honestly, I always have to remind myself that it’s always done out of love because it is super frustrating. But I also get it—if someone cares for me, why wouldn’t they try to help me come up with a solution or think of a way to resolve my pain? At the end of the day what it actually does is bring light to how little people truly understand about infertility.
Did you know that infertility is actually considered a disease by the World Health Organization? After the years and endless appointments, getting poked and prodded, researching and discussing, I could basically have a PhD in reproductive science. Ask me about what your estrogen levels need to be on day 22 of your cycle and I’ll know it. I know how thick a uterine lining needs to be for success, what a mosaic embryo looks like and the lead time to get genetic testing results back. If there’s a new study or test going on—I know about it, even if it’s a trial of only three people and happening in Switzerland. Ya feel me?
There is literally nothing you are going to know more than me in terms of how to help me get and stay pregnant. By giving me advice on next steps all you are doing is making me feel like you don’t trust that I’m doing everything I can to be successful, and that hurts. In the society we live in today, we all struggle with the idea that not everything has a resolution out there if we work hard enough for it.
There’s a quick solution for basically everything we know, so when we are told that we don’t know why our body is acting a certain way, or that something is unfixable, our brains just don’t even know how to process it.
Sometimes there just are no answers, and we have to learn to embrace that. It’s ok to just be honest and say, “listen, this is something I have no experience in, but I can understand how and why it is so important to you. Please talk to me about it if you want and know that my heart is open to being there for you.” We need to remember that in this age of information, we sometimes think we have all of the answers at our fingertips. We don’t, and that’s ok. We can’t be experts in everything under the sun.
Allow us to Feel How we Feel
“Well at least you (fill in the blank here).” We’ve all heard it. To someone after a miscarriage, “well at least you know you can get pregnant.” To someone whose IVF failed, “well at least you can afford to try again.” To someone going through a surrogate, “well at least you don’t have to do all the hard work.”
While we so appreciate that you are trying to help us see the positive in things, comments like these invalidate our feelings, and that is hurtful.
Why is it so hard for us to just simply tell people that we care and are sorry that they are sad? Don’t get me wrong, I am at fault here as well. When I see someone I love hurting, I want to do everything I can to get them up and out of their funk.
It’s important for all of us to remember that being sad, or being mad, or spending some time feeling bad for yourself is not a bad thing. All emotions are deserving and are there for a reason, so if someone is grieving, let them. There is no way to speed it up, it needs to run its course. Simply give them a hug and tell them you are so sorry they are going through this, and how proud you are of them for being so strong. Ask them what you can do for them in that moment. Sometimes just listening can make someone’s day a whole lot better.
I remember vividly two moments that were so special to me. After my first failed egg retrieval my sister sent me a surprise bouquet of fruit with a big balloon. Opening the door and seeing the delivery person standing there holding that was more impactful than I think she will ever know. The other time I had gotten some bad news my sister-in-law sent me an awesome bottle of wine with a really special note. This was extra special in two ways—we weren’t as close as we are now at that point, so it was extra thoughtful of her, and she was also dealing with fertility issues on her end that I was unaware of at that time. What an amazingly selfless act!
Don’t Tell me What my Next Steps Should Be
Every family’s journey is different. You have no idea what discussions have happened behind closed doors. The drug your friend took? I can’t take that one. Acupuncture did the trick for your sister in law? Well, that hasn’t worked for me. Adoption? YOU DON’T SAY! I didn’t even know that was a thing! Just kidding, I knew, and you bringing it up like it’s the answer to all of my problems is honestly insulting.
Let me break down why this is a super frustrating one. A lot of times people go into their infertility journey thinking that they will be able to simply adjust some hormone levels or take some medications and all of their problems will be solved. One step at a time, you get further and further in. You’re emotionally and financially invested, and the only way to stay sane is by keeping your eye on the prize.
Adoption is a completely different road, and typically once you are so far down the infertility treatment path you don’t have the financial or emotional capacity to back all the way up and completely start over again (and even if you did, the one road will still lead to needing emotional support and empathy as it’s also not easy!) Every single bit of you is trying to hold it together every moment. So please don’t bring up adoption as a solution to the issue unless the person themselves brings it up. If they do, awesome! I think adoption is so great! But it has its own challenges which need to be recognized. One does not simply make a phone call and get a baby delivered to their front step with a thank you note.
Respect the path someone has chosen towards creating their own family.
There are a million different ways to make someone a parent, and none of those ways is the only way. Say “I can see how you must feel helpless because my heart aches just hearing you talk about how difficult this is. How can I be there for you?” instead of telling them what to do. Telling someone what to do, or that they should be doing something differently may unintentionally message that you don’t have room for the feelings that they are having about what they have already been through. Try to understand and recognize that every path selected on the infertility journey has the potential for heartbreak.
It’s Not Funny
One of the things that people do to bring levity to a situation that is uncomfortable for them is to make a joke. The most common one when discussing infertility with someone that doesn’t have it is, “feel free to borrow my kids for the day, you won’t want to get pregnant after that.” Oh, this one hurts so much. Do you not know that I would do anything to have what you complain about on a daily basis? Do you not know how absolutely blessed you are that you decided to start a family and it just happened for you? This one is like a punch in the stomach, so if you find it on your lips, think about if you are feeling too burnt out to be empathetic and excuse yourself rather than making things worse with the intentions of making them better.
If You Tell Me to Stop Being Stressed You Deserve to be Punched in the Throat
Why, oh why, oh why is this one still happening? I remember that after years of infertility treatments, surgeries, losses and other things that I honestly don’t openly discuss, I got pregnant. After finally hitting the “safe zone”, I sent an early announcement out to my immediate family. I’ll never forget my Grandma’s response, “See, I told you if you would just relax you would get pregnant!” Talk about a buzzkill.
I’d been through excruciating procedures, spent thousands of dollars on meds, literally have had the lining of my uterus scraped out, and have a picture of my daughter as an embryo in a petri dish, but apparently the real reason I got pregnant was because I stopped being stressed.
There is never, let me repeat—NEVER—an ok time to say this. As I mentioned before, the WHO classifies infertility as a disease. Would you tell someone with cancer to stop being stressed and it will magically get better? I sure hope not, because that would be completely ridiculous. Telling someone with fertility issues that they will get pregnant if they stop being stressed is equally ridiculous.
While we are at it, let’s take a simple step back here and discuss how impossible it is to not be stressed during your infertility journey. It’s the most stressful thing I’ve ever been through in my entire life! And do you know what always made me more stressed on top of everything else? Someone telling me not to be stressed. So just don’t. If you take anything away from this article, it’s that you should never ever say this.
Not Everyone is as Vocal as I Am
You may be thinking to yourself, wow, I can’t believe I don’t know anyone going through it! I can promise you that you do—you just don’t know it. Not everyone is going to be as vocal about their journey as I am. And honestly, there were times that I was dealing with such immense failure that I just had to go radio silent for a while. I could not handle telling everyone asking how things were when they had failed yet again. Just like anything else uncomfortable, people are really supportive the first few weeks or months, but then things taper off because they don’t know what to do or how to help you. That makes you feel sad and even more isolated. It puts you in a place where you feel like you need to make everything sound like it’s great.
Having to pretend like your world is all rosy when it isn’t is awful, but you don’t want to make people even more uncomfortable. Being the person that always brings the elephant in the room with them is beyond a bummer. So you go silent. Or hey, maybe you are of the mindset that it’s no one else’s business. That’s ok too.
My point is, that there are way more people around you dealing with this than you could imagine. And because of this, it’s important to be sensitive. Every time someone asked me when Seth and I were going to have kids it made my heart want to implode. And believe it or not, I’m still dealing with it. Now that Thea is three, I have to deal with some random lady at the grocery store asking when I’m going to have another kid ALL THE TIME. I don’t hate her for it, it’s a pretty standard small talk question. I’m not saying don’t ever ask this- there’s no need to be hypersensitive.
I’m saying that if you see a little flinch, or if someone doesn’t want to keep talking about it, please don’t pry. And please don’t ask again at every single family gathering for the next ten years.
Believe it or not, there are a hundred other ways to support people on their fertility journey, these are just the ones that impacted me the most through mine. Ask a lot of questions, don’t offer solutions and give us lots of hugs. Be understanding if we don’t feel like we can emotionally handle that baby shower, but know that we are still so very happy for you on the inside.
If you act out of love, and put your uncomfortableness with our grief aside, you will give us just what we need, even if we ourselves don’t know what that is. Be our strength when we need it, a shoulder to cry on, and an ear when we want to talk about how unfair the world can be. And if at the end of the day you are still struggling with how to support someone—just ask. Because the cold hard truth is you will never be able to understand it unless you’ve gone through it yourself.
This post originally appeared on Living the High Life. It has been reprinted with permission.