It changes everything about a woman, disrupting her worldview, her usual positivity, her feelings toward her body, and on and on. It can often consume every waking minute of a person’s – even for women who previously were not the obsessive type. Women with passionate hobbies, rising careers, mad skills and active social lives can find themselves with little else to think or talk about. Work performance may or may not suffer, and they can find themselves isolated from friends.
Slowly, as months drag into years, infertility can change the experience of a woman so much that she may not even recognize herself. With that in mind, I’ve been asked by a few people in my life what they should and should not say when dealing with a friend with infertility. It’s a very tough question. I’m so happy they ask me!
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in that I rarely hear “the wrong thing.” My friends and family members have treated me golden. But I also recognize that I’m lucky and possibly the exception, as I know many women who only hear the hard stuff.
So, what is the wrong thing to say to an infertile woman? Let’s explore the topic in a game of Say this, Not that!
Say: “I am so sorry.”
Not: “In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t a big deal!”
“I am sorry you are going through this” is the one and only thing she needs to hear. Say that, and you have done enough.
The worst thing an infertile woman can hear is that her problems are borderline First World Problems. Minimizing or trivializing her very real and raw experience can inflict a great deal of damage.
Say: “I am sure you are looking at all of your options. I support you.”
Not: “But you can always adopt?”
Adoption is a beautiful option that most of us are already seriously considering. It is costly, and it warrants great deliberation. The biggest barrier that keeps infertile couples away from adoption is one simple thing: they are not ready for more rejection. Because adoption equals a hell of lot more agony and rejection. And investment. Your best to not suggest adoption unless you are willing to personally donate the $40,000+ dollars it costs for your infertile friend to adopt. You got the cash to splash? By all means, bring it up!
Another tricky dimension to the adoption tips I’ve heard from well-meaning friends is that I don’t hear you say, “You should adopt.” What I hear you say is, “You are so screwed, your only option is adoption.” I feel bummed. I feel you’ve accelerated ahead at breakneck speed to an option I’ve lined up for myself after exhausting a series of other options first. Adoption might not be a couple’s Plan B or Plan C. In between Plan A (let’s call that, a perfect genetic baby, conventionally conceived and carried to term), there are a host of options, resources, medical interventions, medical miracles (donor eggs, donor sperm, embryo adoption, surrogacy), connecting a couple’s path between Plans A and Z.
When your struggling friend mentions the topic of adoption, that is your cue to ask about it. I enjoy talking about adoption now. Because I’m ready for it. I wasn’t ready earlier in my journey.
Say: “I understand why you cannot come to my baby shower. I still love you.”
Not: “When you get pregnant, I will remember that […you weren’t at my shower].”
Ouch. That happened to a close friend who endured seven excruciating years of infertility. By Year 5, she was gracefully ducking out of baby showers, always with a thoughtful excuse and a gift. That was not enough for one of her friends who told her when she finally got pregnant, “It’s hard for me to be happy for you, because you did not attend my baby shower (for Baby #3).” Don’t be an Amy.
We appreciate your grace and forgiveness of our absence.
Say: “I am pregnant” in an email to share your news.
Not: “I am pregnant!” in a public setting lest your friend sneak off to the bathroom to cry. Her tears in no way detract from her joy at your blessed good news. She is happy for you; sad for herself. That is all – and, yes, I know it feels like we’re being hypersensitive divas. Total Arethra Franklins without her Snickers. We don’t mean to be a-holes unable to find the joy in others’ good news. We are simply in pain.
Say: “It must be hard to relax going through this stressful time.”
Not: “You should just try to relax!”
This is the one we hear the most. “Just relax!” It’s also one of the most insidious and shudder-inducing platitudes on the eardrums. The proverbial nails on the chalkboard comment to the infertile. Why? For three main reasons.
For many of us, relaxing will not get us pregnant. Many of us have 100% medical conditions that 100% prevent us from conceiving naturally or carrying a baby to term. Imagine a woman with no tubes for which an egg to travel down. Imagine a woman with no eggs left. Imagine her husband has grave sperm morphology. There are so many medical reasons where they cannot just “relax” and execute baby-making at home. Even if your friend has a chance for success without medical intervention, you’re safer to operate under the assumption that her condition warrants the expert care she is seeking, which relaxing and unplugging won’t fix.
You wouldn’t tell a gay couple to just relax, and they’ll get their baby. Nope. They have to do something. Something that could probably end up being stressful. So any tip to just relax quickly becomes bunk because THIS IS A LIFE CRISIS, people. <– She says with a smile.
The Relax! comment is further a minefield because it also suggests that we are the problem. What we hear is, “If you were only less stressed/more relaxed, you wouldn’t be in this pickle.” That problem you have? You’re causing it! That is what our vulnerable hearts hear.
And finally, infertility is a medically classified disease. Epilepsy is also a disease. If you had a friend struggling with epileptic seizures, you probably wouldn’t tell her to just relax.
Exhaustive studies have been conducted to uncover whether the old adage is true that “once you relax” or “once you adopt” or “once you just stop trying” then you will fall pregnant. The research shows that the percentage and likelihood of conceiving is not higher nor improved for those who stop and relax/adopt/take a break, as they were before such action. Study after study confirms this. So let’s put this myth to rest.
Say: “What can I do or say to help you?”
Not: “I had this friend who just [adopted a baby, got acupuncture, went to a mountain, went gluten-free, gave up coffee, gave up running, stopped trying, fill in the blank] and then got pregnant!”
This one is tricky because we are genuinely happy for your friend. She is the success story we crave to be. We know your story is coming from a place of love and helpfulness. It’s just that, well, we’ve heard a lot about The Friend. And the cumulative effect of so many people having cracked what we need to do, amounts to one big pile of over-input and confusion, it hurts the brain. We cannot process it all. Chances are, we’ve already tried three-quarters of what you are suggesting. We are following a treatment plan that feels right to us at this time, and deviating from the script disrupts the fragile House of Coping we have constructed.
We do appreciate the advice though. When in doubt, remember that less is more.
Say: “My children are a blessing. I know how lucky I am.”
Not: “You’re so lucky not to have to deal with some of the awful [whiney/baby puking/sleeplessness] stuff I’m dealing with.”
That one really stings. All that crap that is so tough for a new parent? Bring it on! I’m ready to face it, moan about it, and deal with it.
Say: “You don’t deserve this. Life can be so unfair.”
Not: “This is all happening for a reason.”
I don’t know what that reason is, or whose reason it is, but that reason eludes me. We’ll never know. We have to leave it at that.
If you got through all of this, you deserve a trophy for being a true and loyal friend.
Thank you for looking out for us.