About 10 per cent of women have difficulty getting pregnant or staying pregnant, so chances are good that someone you love is facing or will face infertility. But if you haven’t experienced it yourself (or even if you did but your circumstances were different), it might be hard to know what to say or do to support them.
When I asked friends, family and the members of the Offspring Parent Facebook Group for advice on how to support loved ones as they face infertility, almost everyone started their advice with what not to do.
Don’t tell them to just “relax”
This is the number-one piece of advice that I’ve heard loud and clear from women and their partners facing infertility: Do not tell them it will happen as soon as they relax.
Do not tell them about the friend of your cousin’s neighbour who once went through EXACTLY what they’re going through, did infertility treatments for years and then as soon as they gave up and relaxed, it happened! To imply that the reason they can’t have a baby is because they’re wound a little too tightly is insulting and hurtful. Science doesn’t work that way. These people have actual doctors and treatment plans for a reason.
In fact, don’t compare them at all
It’s also not helpful to tell them about the friend of your cousin’s neighbour who had it so much worse. Of course someone else has it worse. Someone else always has it worse, no matter how bad you have it. Pain, grief and loss are not a competition. Knowing someone else struggled harder or longer does not make a decent person feel better. You can validate without minimising.
Do not suggest adoption
Becoming a parent through adoption, while an incredibly fulfilling journey for so many, is also a path fraught with loss. Adoption is an expensive, lengthy process that simply isn’t feasible — financially, emotionally or logistically - for everyone. It is one path to parenthood but it is not an automatic replacement option for having a biological child.
To choose whether or not to pursue adoption is a totally separate decision they may or may not consider at some point. Do not suggest it.
Leave your essential oils at the door
Repeat after me: “I will not try to sell my MLM products to my friend to cure her infertility.” And whatever other idea you have of something they could “try” that worked for your sister-in-law or your best friend from high school is very likely something they already know about. They’ve probably researched it, tried it or dismissed it as irrelevant for them.
Remember that they’re living this, and they know more about their body than you do. If you are just dying to offer up something you think is a genuinely good idea, ask them first if they’d like any new suggestions or if they’re maxed out on ideas. Then follow their lead.
OK, so now you feel like you can’t say or do anything, right?
Wrong! You can say and do things in a thoughtful way. Here’s how:
Ask how often they’d like you to check in
We might know that someone we love is struggling with infertility, but it can be challenging to know how or when to check in to see how they’re feeling. On the one hand, you want them to know you’re thinking of them and that you’re here if they need to talk. On the other hand, if they’re having a good day, you don’t want to unnecessarily pull them back into the sadness.
Everyone is different; some people like to be checked on regularly and others find it overwhelming. When your loved one confides in you their struggle, ask how you can support them going forward so that you can be there for them without being overbearing.
If all else fails, send a funny or sweet message once in a while so they know you’re thinking about them without putting on pressure for a detailed update. Even better? The occasional bouquet of flowers, tin of home-made cookies or a pretty card with a Starbucks gift card tucked inside will brighten their day.
Meet them where they are
This is not the time to play “devil’s advocate.” If they’re sad, be sad with them. If they’re hopeful, be hopeful. If they’re mad, you are, too. Be a good listener and be an emotional support, but don’t give them false hope (“I know it’ll happen for you!!!”) because it may not and to claim it will isn’t helpful.
Reach out on appointment days
If a friend shares with you about an upcoming appointment for fertility treatments, make a note of it in your own calendar. On the morning of the appointment, send a text to let her know you’re thinking of her. That lets her know you’re there if she wants or needs to talk about it, but in a very low-pressure sort of way.
Be extra thoughtful if you’re pregnant yourself
For some people, hearing your pregnancy announcement is going to be difficult. Not because they don’t love you and want good things for you, but because this is the 18th pregnancy announcement they’ve heard since they started trying to conceive and it’s hard.
If you’re close with someone who you know is going through infertility and you become pregnant, tell them in writing before a big social media or in-person reveal. Telling them in writing (via text or email) gives them a chance to process the news and have their initial reaction in private. Then keep in mind that they simply might not be up for hearing your list of baby names, and attending your baby shower might prove too difficult. Let them know you love them and are here for them, and then try not to impose yourself on them. Let them take reins on how much they’d like to be involved.
And, as one person who is dear to me said, “For the love of all that is holy, don’t complain about your pregnancy in front of them.” Yes, pregnancy is hard! And there are so many other people in your life that you can preach that fact to who will be all, “I know, RIGHT?” Once the baby arrives, this also goes for complaining about lack of sleep or breastfeeding issues or really anything baby-related.
Remember that they’d give anything for swollen ankles and sleepless nights. Your struggle is real, but it’s important to know your audience when you need to vent about it.
Don’t forget about her partner
When a couple is going through infertility together, the focus is most often on the person who is trying to get pregnant. Remember that the process is likely also taking an emotional toll on her partner. Let them know that you’re here for them, too, if they ever need to talk.
Do all of the above for secondary infertility, too
Whether or not your loved one already has a child, and whether or not she struggled to conceive that child, secondary infertility is also a heartbreaking experience. Don’t remind them that at least they have one child they can be grateful for—they know that and they are. But they can be both grateful for the first child and desperately long for the second child at the same time.
When all else fails, as with anything difficult we experience in life, you can fall back on these words: “I’m so sorry, and I’m here for you.”