Disclaimer: Every couple’s journey with infertility is different in length, diagnosis, approach and emotional reaction. Infertility is a completely unique struggle that millions of women deal with. I can only speak to my own experience.
Seven Things NOT to Say to Someone Struggling with Infertility
Next week is National Infertility Awareness Week. As such, I thought it would be appropriate to give you a non-comprehensive list of things NOT to say to someone struggling with infertility. Please keep in mind that these are all real things that were said to me.
First, I suppose I should start with my story. My husband and I endured two-and-a-half years of hoping that this would be the month, that this procedure, or this hormone mixture, or this particular timing would give us the perfect bundle of joy for which we had been praying and yearning. 30% of infertility is attributed to issues with the woman, 30% issues with the man, 10% some combination of the two together and 20% of infertility is unexplained; we belonged to that last category. You can guess how well “unexplained” went over with my issues with control. There was no smoothie I could drink, no exercise I could do, no corrective procedure I could undergo, and no medicine I could take. There was nothing I could do to fix it; I felt completely helpless. We were fortunate enough that our last IUI (intrauterine insemination) before we moved onto IVF (in vitro fertilization) was successful. It made the HSG (Hysterosalpingogram), the countless RE (reproductive endocrinologist) appointments, injections, hormones, and other assorted alphabetical and Latin endeavors worthwhile.
I am fully aware that my journey had a happy ending, and that my 30 months pales in comparison to the time many women have endured. There are millions of women out there desperate to be holding their own first, second, third (or more) crying baby. For some, they will never realize that dream or that dream will have to change in some way. Every pregnancy announcement, baby shower and baby photo is painful for them. They are happy for their friends and family, but they so deeply yearn for their own announcements and showers. For those couples, I send my love, encouragement and hope.
The infertility journey is one that nobody wants to go through, and yet one in eight couples find themselves on that path. It is full of acronyms, procedures, superstitions, hormones, injections, disappointment, frustration, and often loneliness. Infertility is a taboo topic in our culture. When we are struggling with it and need help the most, we are afraid to reach out to others in the club. Instead of seeking out support, we silently suffer every month, holding our breath during each 2ww (two week wait), POAS (pee on a stick) and cry in the shower that this month wasn’t the one.
Contrary to what you might think, you don’t leave the club once you have a successful pregnancy. Even if you do get your BFP (Big Fat Positive) you still worry the whole pregnancy that something will go wrong, or that you might do something wrong. You analyze every single thing you put in or on your body (like that moisturizer you used that one time with retinol b in it). You obsess over the chances of a miscarriage. The anxiety of the waiting, the not knowing, the superstitions, “the what ifs” follows you through the whole pregnancy, even with all the extra monitoring. Oh, and because you worked so hard and spent so much money to get this little miracle you feel like you aren’t allowed to complain about any of the pregnancy problems (e.g., morning sickness, heartburn, sore muscles). You feel like you should just be thankful you are getting to experience it at all, but you are uncomfortable and miserable like every other pregnant woman.
You finally get your baby and you think that you are done with infertility. You consider your membership in the infertility club terminated. You still feel for those left behind but you survived and made your way out. However, that’s not every person’s story. Some feel infertility like a weight still following them as they consider expanding their family again. “Am I ready to go through all of that again?”; “Maybe it won’t take as long this time.”; “Can we afford to go through it again?”; “Maybe now my body knows what to do.”; “I can’t go through another (insert painful procedure).”; “The last round almost killed my marriage.” The list goes on.
So, what can you do for these couples? You can start by not saying things that will devastate them. Your “innocent” comment or question could be the straw that breaks someone. So, without further ado: a non-comprehensive list real-life examples you should NOT say to a person struggling with infertility:
1. "You have such a big house, why haven't you filled it with children?"
a. “Oh, you make it sound so easy! Is there some magic button I can push to get pregnant? Believe me, I am trying but also, it is absolutely none of your business.” – I said in my head while politely nodding at the stranger in my house for my friend’s baby shower.
b. Never ask someone why they don’t have children. You don’t know if they’ve just had a miscarriage, if they lost a child, if they are trying or if they have decided not to have kids for some other reason.
2. "Trust me, you don't want kids. They're too (insert excuse)..."
a. You saying that to me doesn’t change my yearning for kids but it does change my opinion of you. I would give anything to have the problems you are complaining about.
b. We all know that raising kids is loud, messy and hard. Please don’t lessen my struggle by making your blessing sound more like a curse.
3. "You just need to relax. All your stress is causing infertility."
a. Do you really think saying that is going to make someone feel less stressed? That’s akin to telling an upset woman to “calm down.”
b. It might help to consider which came first, the infertility or the stress? It is possible that the couple wasn’t stressed until they found out that they couldn’t get pregnant.
c. Is it helpful to be in a good mental state to get pregnant? Maybe. Research has found that high levels of emotional distress before a treatment cycle did not negatively affect the outcome. So no, stress is not the cause.
d. Yes, we’ve all heard about your “cousin Becky” who as soon as she stopped trying she got pregnant. That’s great for your friend/cousin/aunt but hearing that story only makes us feel worse.
4. "Your past birth control caused your infertility"...or..."You don't have infertility problems, it just takes two years for the birth control hormones to get out of your system."
a. Oh really? You’ve done more research than all these doctors with advanced degrees in reproductive endocrinology? They are wrong, and your little “PhD” from Google University makes you the expert on reproductive health. Let’s just disregard all the studies and experts that found no correlation between birth control use and infertility later.
b. No matter what myth’s you’ve heard, fertility normally returns within a few weeks, depending on what method you used. In fact, some doctors recommend going on the pill for a few cycles while TTC (trying to conceive) to help regulate your cycle.
5. "Why don't you just adopt?"
a. Adoption is a very serious and personal decision that should NOT be treated like a consolation prize for not being able to have biological children. This comment does exactly that. Beyond that, you overlook that adoption costs tens of thousands of dollars that are not covered by health insurance, that adoption agencies are strict about who can adopt (to prevent children from being treated like consolation prizes, as mentioned earlier), and that many couples can’t handle the financial and emotional costs.
b. Many couples need to go through therapy to mourn the loss of the biological child they will never have before they even consider adopting.
6. "If you are having so much trouble getting pregnant, maybe God doesn't want you to have kids."
a. Wonderful. So God wants to keep me from having kids, but He’s fine with plenty of neglectful and abusive parents out there. Umm, what? Beyond the logic of it, you think we haven’t thought this a million times before? Considering what deity or cosmic force is stopping us and why? This is truly painful.
7. "I wish I had your problem. Someone looks at me the wrong way and I get pregnant!"
a. Ok, seriously do I even have to say anything about this one?
b. Shoving your successful pregnancies in someone else’s face is just plain mean. Don’t do it!
I’ll end by saying if you know someone struggling with infertility (which basic statistics say you do) be there for them. Let them know you care and are open to talking about it if they want to. Have basic common sense and empathy and don’t say mean things. If you yourself have struggled or are currently struggling I encourage you to speak up, seek out community and support, if that’s what you need. You don’t have to feel alone. Most importantly, take care of yourself and do what works best for you. If that means continuing to try, taking a break, or eating some delicious brownies, go for it! Don’t let outsiders tell you how to start or grow your family!