When my parents went through infertility many years ago, my mom didn’t tell a soul. She felt that it was shameful, a secret. Even ten years ago, research showed most women didn’t tell their own mothers. But today, perhaps inspired by the numerous celebrities who have spoken openly about the heartache of infertility and pregnancy loss, more and more individuals and couples are sharing their painful journey with family and friends. If you are reading this, it probably means that you know someone well who is experiencing the crisis of infertility.
The problem is, if you haven’t experienced infertility yourself (and even if you have, technology changes so rapidly that whatever you went through may well be completely out of date now), you may feel at a complete loss as to what to say, do, not say, or not do. The last thing you want is to hurt their feelings or to make things harder to bear. So here is some background information as well as a few do’s and don’ts.
Probably the most important thing to know is that infertility brings out emotions that your loved one(s) may not have experienced before. Primarily the intense pain they may well feel when anyone else gets pregnant. It isn’t rational, obviously someone else getting pregnant does not decrease their own chances. But most of my patients tell me that anyone else conceiving, even a celebrity on the cover of People, is tough. So even if you don’t understand it, respect it. Pregnancy announcements have to be delivered in a very careful way. Which means that if you are the one who has conceived, or you are the aunt/uncle/grandparent/godparent of the baby-to-be, keep your excitement to yourself when around anyone who is experiencing infertility. Ask them in an email or text how they want to be informed if you learn of a pregnancy. Give them control.
The urge to procreate is the strongest urge in the animal kingdom. Anyone going through infertility is potentially facing challenges to their partnership, sex life, relationships with family and friends, their job/career, their financial security, and their body image. Research has shown that women with infertility have equivalent distress scores to women with cancer, heart disease, or HIV+ status. That is how hard it can be.
So here are some Dos and Don’ts:
- Take the lead from them on pregnancy and baby talk. Don’t talk about pregnancies of others and babies unless they do.
- Read up on infertility and treatment. You don’t need to be an expert but understanding the various diagnoses and treatment options can decrease the need for intrusive questions. Good places to go are ASRM.org and Resolve.org.
- Ask them what they need. Don’t assume you know.
- If you are in a position to offer financial support, consider doing so. Treatment can be expensive and is not covered by insurance in most states.
- If you went through infertility, tell them. If you are going through it, tell them. You can ask them to keep it to themselves, but it puts you in a better place to offer support. But do remember that every case is different. What you experienced, how you were treated, your outcome, may not be relevant to their situation.
- If they tell you that they can’t attend a family or friend function, accept it gracefully.
- Contradict or disparage what their doctor is telling them. Unless you yourself are an infertility doctor.
- Make suggestions such as losing/gaining weight, increasing/decreasing exercise, working less, changing their diet in any way, decreasing stress, etc.
- Think you can inspire them with success stories of people you know or have read about or tell them how easily you conceived.
- Prod them to spend more time with pregnant friends or relatives, push them to attend baby showers or first birthday parties, baptisms, etc.
- Make them feel badly that they are feeling badly. Current research shows that the most women experiencing infertility experience high levels of anxiety and depression, and most men experience high levels of anxiety.
- Tell them to just relax. The World Health Organization has classified infertility as a disease and about 90% of couples will have a diagnosis of female or male factor infertility (and male factor makes up about half of the diagnoses). Relaxing won’t change the physiology of most cases.
What individuals and couples need from their family and friends is unconditional support, minimal advice, hugs, protection, and the absence of intrusive questions. Ask them what they need, provide it, and ensure that you are available to them. Hopefully their dreams will come true and you will be by their side every step of the way.