We’ve all been in the position at one point or another where we have a friend going through tough times and we’re not quite sure what to say. Sometimes we give unsolicited advice or offer what we think are helpful thoughts. Even though these words (most often) come from a place of genuine support and care, they can inflict unintended pain. It’s really hard to find the best way to connect with or show love to someone going through something you’ve never gone through.
After having dealt with infertility for the past two and a half years, I’ve come to realize that the most helpful thing someone can say is “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry you’re having to go through that. Please just know that I’m here for you if you need anything at all — someone to talk to, someone to listen, or just space. I care about you, and want to be supportive in whatever way you need”.
This simple statement, however, is not usually what I hear. It seems people want to offer support but are unsure exactly of how to do so, or are extremely unaware of the way some things they say come across. People tend to advise on how they think you should handle the situation, without asking questions or speaking with sensitivity.
I took the liberty of creating a really badly drawn flow chart (see below) as a personal therapeutic exercise to work through my reactions to things people have said to me. Please note this is my personal preference for how people should talk to someone struggling with infertility because it’s how I would like to be spoken to. I don’t speak for everyone who has had the misfortune of experiencing this issue.
I also mapped out 12 things to NEVER say to someone with infertility. I have actually had people say all of these things to me. These statements came from friends and family members, and, for the most part, they were meant to be helpful. Below, I explain one by one why these are probably not things that someone with infertility wants to hear. They are especially painful when coming from someone who is pregnant or has a baby or young child (even if they tried to get pregnant for “a while” — unless they tried for years or went through fertility treatments to start their family).
1. “You’ve got to stay positive” OR ANY OTHER ADVICE ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF POSITIVITY
The path of infertility likely starts out with positivity. Mine did. During the first year of trying I was able to stay relatively positive, even when I would learn a friend was pregnant (“we weren’t even really trying!” or “my cycles were all over the place I didn’t even know at first that I missed a period!” were the worst things to hear). I could tell myself, “It’s ok. this gives me more time to get my body stronger and healthier. it’ll happen when it’s supposed to.”
But after 2 years and 4 failed IUIs, on the brink of IVF, and with what seems like everyone and their sister getting pregnant, it becomes extremely hard to stay positive. And that’s ok. When I hear someone tell me that I need to stay positive it makes me feel like a weak person for experiencing negativity, which makes me feel worse. A much more helpful alternative would be: “You must be beyond frustrated and upset. I hope you feel that you have the space to feel your feelings even if they’re hard to feel.”
2. “It will happen when you stop trying”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this one. People recount stories about people they know who adopted a kid because they couldn’t get pregnant and then BAM they got pregnant. Or stories they’ve heard of people who are told they’ll never be able to have a baby and then soon after that’s when it happens.
Here’s the problem with this advice: once you start trying you can’t just stop or turn off the trying with the flick of a switch. If only it were that easy! I’ve gone through this thought process many-a-times: “Ok, let’s just stop trying. I won’t take my BB temperature or try to monitor my ovulation at all. We’ll just have sex when we want and see what happens.” (seconds later): “But how many months are we going to waste “not trying”?! What happens if we “don’t try” for a year, with nothing to show for it, and then we have to go through IVF after all, and then the IVF doesn’t work, and then we have to adopt, and then all of a sudden I’m 40.”
You have to be ready to stop trying. You can’t just decide to stop.
3. “Stress is the worst thing for your body and fertility. Try to relax”
It’s really hard to find a balance between trying to get pregnant but not letting the stress of infertility run your life. I don’t just get stressed out that I haven’t gotten pregnant yet — I stress about EVERYTHING. What do I want to do with my life if I can’t have kids? Maybe we should move somewhere else to get a fresh start? Maybe I’m not meant to be a mother! Maybe I’m not meant to have kids with my husband! You know, small unsubstantial thoughts like these. (That was a joke). Oh, and did I mention that fertility treatments involve crazy hormones that cause you to stress out more than usual? And they are hella-expensive? If you have a full proof cure for stress and hormones then by all means, tell me not to stress and give me the cure! But if not, please be quiet.
4. “You don’t want to spend time around people with babies? I’m sorry you let other people have so much control over you”
Yup. This one really happened. When I tried to explain to a close family member why it was hard for me to be at a family reunion. Yes, I let other people have control over me. Come on, people!
5. “But you’re so young! You have plenty of time”
When experiencing infertility, a) “young” is a relative term — sure, I’m in my 30s, and plenty of people have kids in their 40s. But that’s not the point. b) I ready NOW to have a baby; it doesn’t matter how old or young I am; c) it doesn’t feel like I have plenty of time.
6. “Kids are so much work. You should be glad you don’t have them yet”
Easy for someone to say if they already have kids and had them easily at that. But when you’ve wanted to have your own baby for so long, and it hasn’t happened, the last thing you’re going to be is glad you don’t have one. Period.
7. “I have a cute kid. Why don’t you just babysit him?”
Again, this was said in attempt to offer support. The thought was if you want to have a baby then it must make you feel better to be around them. But this is not the case. Seeing other people with their perfectly healthy children is painful. It creates jealousy and sadness. Spending time with someone else’s child is not helpful.
8. “I don’t understand why you don’t want to hang out with me and my baby. Don’t you want to be a part of our lives?”
Of course I care about you and your baby and want to be a part of your life. But, like I said, it’s very painful to spend a lot of time with someone who is so happy and blissful with their own child. Please don’t take my need for space as a sign of hatred or contempt — please try to understand that I am coping with tragedy and attempting to care for and listen to myself and give my body and mind what they need.
9. “Hold my baby — it’ll help your hormones”
Maybe this is not such a bad theory — hold a baby, your lady hormones kick into action and just like magic your body realizes it’s time to make your own baby. Too bad it doesn’t work like that.
In fact, any time anyone says “hold my baby” or “do you want to hold my baby” or just plops a baby in my arms I want to run away. Not exactly the hormone kick we might be hoping for.
10. “Try putting your feet up after sex”
Been there done that. If 4 IUIs don’t do the trick, I think I’ve graduated past the ole feet up after sex rule.
11. “Having a baby can’t be the only thing that would make you happy. Find out what else will and do that”
Again, even though such advice comes from a place of care, it is very painful to hear because it glosses over the complicated emotional process of infertility. Do I pour my energy into this fertility path and do everything I can to try to make a baby? Or do I try to forget about that for a while and focus on my career and try to find happiness in other areas of life? These are big existential questions that are not easy to answer.
12. ANY OTHER UNSOLICITED ADVICE THAT BEGINS WITH “You should…” or “You need…” or “You’ll see…”
Unsolicited advice that begins with any of these statements is unecessary and quite frankly a bit rude. Try asking questions to the person you’re speaking to, rather than telling them what to do. In fact, maybe just ask them one question: “Do you want to talk about it?” or “Do you mind if I ask you questions?”. That allows them the space to say no if they don’t want to talk about it. It also allows them a sense of agency, a rare thing in the fertility quest.
I’m sure that I’m guilty of saying some of these exact things to people in the past, before I had experienced the trials of infertility first hand. On the other side, I now feel terrible for not just having said how sorry I am for them and leaving it at that.