Infertility sucks. Women and their partners who are experiencing infertility may be facing anxiety, depression, and feelings of grief and loss. They are likely pumped full of hormones, experiencing weight gain and mood swings, and arguing with their partners. They may cry hysterically when they see on Instagram that a D-list celebrity is pregnant (or was that just me?). They may be having difficulty focusing on work, and may feel isolated from their friends and family members who don’t understand what they are going through. So how can you provide support to your loved one if you just don’t get it? Let’s start with what NOT to say:
- “So, when are you guys going to have kids?” If you have a friend who is of that age and doesn’t have kids yet, don’t say “Hey! When are you and Bob going to finally pull the goalie and have some kids? You’re not getting any younger, am I right?!” Okay, maybe you wouldn’t say it quite like that, but though your intentions may be entirely innocent, this is THE dreaded question for those struggling to conceive. Not only does this put them in the hot seat, it requires them to either divulge private information to you or to fudge up some BS response and quickly and awkwardly change the subject while nursing their fake drinks. Remember you have no idea what someone else might be going through, never assume anything, and it’s none of your business (no offense!).
- “Just relax! Stop stressing and it will happen!” This one might be the most annoying thing people say to those struggling to conceive. Maybe you have a coworker whose sister’s neighbor tried to get pregnant for two years until she gave up, relaxed, and POOF! Pregnant! Maybe you’re dying to share this nugget of wisdom with your infertile friend. Don’t! Don’t tell her to relax! Women undergoing fertility treatments experience month after month of medication, shots, hormones, timed intercourse, and invasive and painful procedures…only to get their period and their hearts shattered and to start the whole shebang all over again the next month. Not relaxing, no matter how much yoga and deep breathing you try.
- “At least you already have one kid! You should feel lucky!” To the woman struggling to conceive after already having a kid or two, this comment is a tough one. This is known as secondary infertility, and can be every bit as challenging as for the first-time mom. Of course she is thankful and grateful for what she has, but she may also be feeling overwhelming loss and grief over a sibling for her child she may not be able to have, and for the family she and her partner had envisioned. This comment just gives her a healthy dose of mom-guilt on top of what she’s already dealing with.
- “Will you adopt if it doesn’t work this time?” Regardless of where she stands on the subject of adoption, keep in mind that infertility can be a long journey of month after month of trial and error, with many interventions to try if one doesn’t work. I personally dreaded this question because for me, the thought of adoption meant the acceptance that none of the treatments were going to work and I was never going to be able to have my own biological child. It meant giving up hope. And although I think adoption is a wonderful option, at certain points of my journey I just wasn’t ready to go there. Instead, ask her where she is in her process — adoption may be right around the corner, or may be 10 steps ahead of where she is. Meet her where she’s at.
So what CAN you do? Let me count the ways.
- LISTEN. Too simple right? Wrong! Simply being there and listening without judgment is incredibly powerful and supportive. I can’t tell you how many people’s eyes would glaze over when I was describing the details of the female anatomy and what actually happens during ovulation (who knew??)…those friends and family members who simply held space for me, let me talk, let me cry, asked questions, and showed genuine interest in my experience made the world of difference to me. Remember, you don’t have to understand what it’s like, just listen!
- Let her off the hook. When you’re bloated, moody, sad, anxious, and hopped up on hormones, chances are you aren’t feeling up to doing the things you once used to enjoy. Certain people (ahem, pregnant people) and activities (ahem, baby showers) may be triggers. If your friend seems to be kicking it at home more often these days, let her without judgment. It might be exactly what she needs.
- Allow her to “what if” without judgment. A big struggle for me was that I needed to mentally and emotionally allow myself to go to all the darkest places in my mind. What if we can never have children? What will I do? What will life look like? Will we be happy? Imagining these possible scenarios was actually somewhat cathartic for me. Answers: I will open a french bakery and spend my days baking chocolate croissants a la Meryl Streep in It’s Complicated (as soon as someone teaches me how to make croissants), we will travel the world and have at least five dogs, and yes! Maybe some day we can be happy. The trouble was, many well-meaning loved ones felt uncomfortable going to the dark places. Instead they filled the gaps with “Don’t think like that! Be positive! It will happen! I know it will! I have a feeling! JUST RELAX!” While it’s always nice to have positivity, I’d say let’s also let her be real.
- Encourage her to seek support. At the end of the day, nobody can truly understand the turmoil of infertility unless they’ve experienced it themselves. Therapy, support groups, holistic mediums, friends and acquaintances…the power of a common bond is unbeatable.