As I was growing up, I was raised with the idea that I needed to prevent pregnancy at all cost. Until I was emotionally and financially ready and in a solid relationship that could help me support a new little being in the world, no getting pregnant. The thought was if I messed up once or looked at someone wrong, I’d be pregnant! It is so easy to get pregnant that it happens by accident all the time, right? Better be very careful. So I was.
Shortly after our wedding in 2009, my husband and I began trying to conceive (affectionately acronymed TTC in the infertility world), without a thought that we’d have any trouble. We had a group of friends who playfully discussed us all having 2010 babies. When 2010 and 2011 came and passed, I went to the doctor. I’ve been going to infertility doctors ever since. My husband and I have been trying to conceive for five years now.
This is where I spend half my time.
More than 7 million people in the United States are facing infertility right now or 1 in 8 adults of childbearing years. Chances are that you know more people than you think who are in this group because it is a vigorously held secret among most who are going through it.
This is where I am the other half the time.
Infertility is difficult. Treatments are hard to suffer through. A grieving process occurs every month after the two week wait (TWW). Most people going through infertility hide it because it is too painful and embarrassing to talk about and makes you feel out of place everywhere you go. Even television commercials of dancing pregnant women and baby-filled websites can evoke a harrowing sense of inadequacy. I can not explain the range of emotions you go through when dealing with infertility. It was best said to me by a friend who also struggled with infertility, “If you haven’t gone through it, you just don’t understand.” I think that is true. In many ways, it feels like a failure, a failure of our bodies to do what we were told they would do when we wanted them to, a failure in our masculinity/femininity, a failure of one of our most basic biological drives, procreation, to come to fruition. It is difficult to come to terms with the idea that we may never be able to experience the joys of parenting.
You can be empathetic and supportive to those in your life dealing with such a devastating process. There are things you can say and do that will either uplift and ease the struggle your infertile friends and family are dealing with or will send them into a demoralizing downward emotional spiral marred by spikes of pain straight through their hearts that will cause them to completely avoid you and cry at the mention of your name. Let us start with the things you can do that will cause the latter of these two options so you can immediately stop doing those things.
- Don’t assume they want to talk about it. Try not to jump into a lengthy conversation about stories you’ve heard or ask detailed information about what they are going through without checking with them that they are comfortable discussing it. They are dealing with infertility constantly and may not want to engage in another conversation about it. It’s uncomfortable for them too. Being in your company might be a nice distraction for a while. However…
- If you are close to them, don’t avoid saying anything at all, ever. Awkward silences and avoidance of the topic just add to the discomfort. It’s a huge part of their life. Infertility treatment eats up endless time, energy and finances and is emotionally trying. It is on their minds all the time. If you are close to them, check-in on how they are doing but keep it private, which leads to ….
- Don’t bring it up at Thanksgiving dinner or at a party. Make an effort to ask how they are and be there for them, but do it in a private setting. Not a text, not an email. If you can’t see them, this is one of those circumstances a phone call might be in order. But remember, they might not want to talk about it, so be ready to talk about your stories and updates in life and offer them that time to not think about it for a while.
- Avoid giving "helpful" advice. Light-hearted suggestions of sexual positions, exotic foods known to optimize pregnancy or mentioning they can alway adopt, minimizes what they are going through. Unless you have gone through the struggle of infertility yourself or know of someone close to you that had successfully resolved their infertility issues and your infertile friend is open to that conversation, keep your advice to yourself.
- Don't ask if they are pregnant. I feel like this one should be obvious, but you have no idea how many people like to ask this. It is a painful question to answer. Know that they will tell you if they are. Never ask.
- Don't assume they are pregnant if they are not drinking, not going on a skiing trip with you, are eating different or other behavior that might suggest they are pregnant. Many of these changes are necessary when trying to conceive and going through rounds of infertility treatments. Hinting that you know something special is happening is uncomfortable and might put them in a situation they are forced to talk about their infertility. Hopefully something special will happen, but it doesn't mean they are already pregnant.
- Don’t tell them horror stories about pregnancy or infertility treatments. I feel like this should be self-explanatory. Help them stay positive by not adding unnecessary stress.
- Don’t suggest they are lucky they haven’t got pregnant yet because of finances, life circumstances, or health. It doesn’t feel lucky to be infertile. Your intentions for them to see a silver lining is noble, but don’t be surprised if they can not see your point.
- Don’t express your fears about what they are doing. They are already under so much stress as it is. They are not the ones you need to be relying on to help you deal with the emotions and stress concerning this issue. Support goes in the direction towards the persons dealing with the problem meaning the person closest to the problem seeks support from those further from the problem. I’ve seen this go wrong in circumstances such as when acquaintances rely heavily on the widow for emotion support through a death. If you are troubled by what is going on, find someone else to express and process that with. Your infertile friends have enough of their own fears to deal with.
- Never, ever, ever ask a childless couple “So do you just not want kids?” or “When are you going to start having kids?” Getting these questions are like a punch in the face. It is not a choice for everyone.
- Don’t suggest they just need to relax. “Just relax. Then you’ll get pregnant.” Brilliant! Why didn’t anyone think of that earlier! Perhaps they are not relaxed but telling them that isn’t helpful and it’s rather annoying. It is incredibly stressful going through treatments and “the two week wait” every month. Relaxing isn’t possible just because you mentioned it. And it isn’t as though they had not thought about that before. If you have specific relaxation techniques you can share with them and walk them through that has worked for you that might be nice, but only if they are open to that conversation.
- Don’t suggest it is better to not have kids or condemn the idea getting pregnant. “Why would you want to have kids? You are so lucky to just be free and do whatever you want.” Even in jest, it is suggesting that all the joys that parents get to cherish with their children, all the love they share with them, all the experiences and the life they have with their offspring is a waste of time and not worth having. I know of no parents that would agree with that.
- Do not spring the news of your pregnancy on them or unexpectantly flash them with newborn pictures. You never know what devastating news they may have just received so remember to be cautious and kind with the delivery of your big news. Give them the opportunity to be happy for you, which is what you both want, rather than just triggering their deepest grief.
- Don’t forget about them. Couples and individuals dealing with infertility can feel very alone and its not uncommon for them to isolate themselves when they are going through it. Going through treatments, coping with miscarriages and loss, basing their entire schedule around cycles, it is not much of a life. They might have to be home early to do injections or might be uncomfortable sitting at a bar when they are not drinking, but that does not mean they don’t want company. Try to do activities with them that are fun and support them through this time. A hike, daytime hanging out, board game or movie night, brunch and shopping are some ideas of ways to spend time with them. Don’t let them fall off the face of the earth. Be in contact!
- Please, don’t judge them. Among the hard choices you have to make when facing infertility are to do treatments, adopt, or do nothing, none of which are easy to make. Adoption and infertility treatments are physically, mentally and emotionally trying not to mention extremely expensive. Making the decision to go through them is one of the most difficult life decisions a person could make. To decide to do nothing bares it own constant mix of emotions with which to cope. If you are opposed to their decisions, do not make the same decision for yourself, but it will not help them to know you disagree with their decisions. Do not make it any harder on them by judging them for it.
It’s not just emotionally painful.
- Be supportive if someone shares with you about his or her infertility. It is a difficult thing to come out and say. Try not to freeze up or avoid the topic. A simple, “I’m so sorry you are going through this. I’ll hope for the best.” is a nice way to express support and empathy. They are going through much more than you can imagine and they are probably doing a really good job hiding the struggle so your support is valuable.
- Be encouraging. Once any decision is made on the path of infertility, doubts and fears can set in. The mental fortitude to put oneself through the process of treatments just once, not to mention multiple times, requires every ounce of hope and courage the person can muster. If you find they are open to talking about it and you know positive stories about how people dealt with, resolved or overcame infertility, share it with them. Be hopeful with them. Letting them know you are thinking of them can ease some of the stress they are dealing with on a daily basis. Asking if there is anything you can do is also a great way to show you care.
- Be delicate about telling them you are trying to get pregnant, are pregnant, inviting them to your baby shower, or anything about your new joy. You want them to be happy for you, but try to deliver the news in a considerate way. Don’t avoid telling them. Being considerate for what they are going through is appreciated. It may be hard news to hear about your pregnancy after they just found out their last cycle failed, their tests came back with poor results or the adoption fell through. Most of my friends were very sweet by delivering the news of their pregnancies privately and in person while giving plenty of notice of where the conversation was going, “We have some news. We wanted to tell you in person…” It really helped me shift gears and allowed me to be present and joyful for their happy news.
- Be positive. Help them stay hopeful. A surprise bouquet of flowers from a friend helped me dig out of a dark mental rut I thought miners could not have dug me out. A positive quote on my Facebook timeline brought me out of my tears. A funny book sent by a friend helped me laugh through one of the toughest times. These gestures are so helpful and they need you to keep going in those all-too-common tough moments.
- If you are pregnant, be particularly sensitive to your infertile friends. Recognize that the two of you may be in different places now. To your infertile friend, it may feel like you are better or more than they are or as though nothing they do will ever be as important as what you are doing. It may feel silly or weird for them to hang out with you and talk about their life while pretending everything is just as it was before you were pregnant. While you are pregnant, especially for first time moms, being pregnant might be all that matters to you, understandably. It's all you’re thinking about and maybe all you want to talk about. Just know that your description of how you decorated the baby room or how miserable your feet and back feel are all excruciatingly painful reminders of what they are going through. Some of the infertile women I know have become experts at hiding their pain and swallowing their tears through these conversations. A simple check-in on how they are doing before you launch into mentioning baby names you are considering might be really appreciated.
- Talk about your kids. It is awkward when people try to avoid talking about their children especially since it is one of the largest parts of their life. I know you are trying to be sensitive, so be sensitive about how you go about it, but don’t stop all together. Children are everywhere. The truth is there is no way to know what will trigger emotions to come up If you are sharing with your infertile friend about your son’s fifth birthday party and she chokes up or starts crying, know that you didn’t do anything wrong. She might be crying often (especially if she is on hormones) and there is no way to know when or what is going to make that happen. Just be gentle and give her the space and time to cry. Your compassion is needed in those moments most.
- Be forgiving. Infertility makes you very unfocused. You can forget bills, birthdays, and to call people back. Some of the medication can play with your thinking abilities and majorly messes with emotions. They may not know what will trigger a meltdown. Try to not take it personally. Try to forgive if they have to cancel on something last minute or can not make travel plans. Infertility treatments depend on the timing of the ovulation cycle and that can be very unpredictable. They might never know when a treatment will need to be scheduled or what will happen next so plans are tentative at best. Their whole life may be focused and scheduled around treatments, appointments and emotions. Also, know they might not be comfortable explaining why they can’t make plans or have to cancel, so try to be forgiving and kind.
Your friends or family members that are going through infertility can use your support. Hopefully, I’ve shared some ways you can offer support in a very kind-hearted, delicate and considerate manner. Just reading this article shows how empathetic and supportive you are. Now go show them!
Title Art by John Buford.
If you know someone struggling with infertility, there are resources to help them through this time (including you, now that you know what to do). Resolve is the National Infertility Association and has information on family building options, support groups, chat rooms, community-building and understanding infertility. Check them out!