This week is National Infertility Awareness Week (NIAW). But I don’t think there will be any parades. No one will be wearing a certain color to work to show their unity. There won’t be ribbons. In truth, most people have no idea what infertility is really all about. Infertility is a silent illness. But it shouldn’t be. One in eight couples suffer from infertility. Look around you. Start counting off people. 1 in 8 is a lot. Yet most people still don’t know much about infertility – what it means, how it affects people, or what treatments are available. And they really don’t know how to support people going through infertility.
Many people have said unhelpful things to me during my years of infertility. Often they were well meaning, but uneducated. Others said downright hurtful things. So in honor of NIAW, here are some of the things I wish my family and friends had not said to me and why. If you are a family member or friend to someone struggling with infertility, read this. And pay attention.
1. “You just need to relax and it will happen”.
So this is probably one of the worst possible things you can say to me. When you say this you are basically saying that it is my fault that I’m not getting pregnant. And let’s not forget that for many women, infertility involves getting pregnant and having repeated miscarriages, so in that situation you are basically saying that it’s my fault I’m having miscarriages. Infertility is a medical condition. Now pause, and read that last sentence again.
If I had diabetes, would “relaxing” cure that? If I had cancer would you tell me that all I needed to do to beat cancer was “relax”? No, no you wouldn’t. Because you recognize that diabetes, cancer, and [insert any medical condition here] are physical illnesses that require medical treatments. Now is meditation, yoga, or other forms of physical and mental relaxation techniques beneficial for people with diabetes and cancer? Yes, of course they are. They are great coping strategies for dealing with the stresses of health related illnesses and overall good practices for your well-being and health. But they will not cure those illnesses. And they won’t cure infertility. No amount of relaxation will open my blocked Fallopian tubes. No amount of relaxation will remove the endometriosis inflaming my ovaries and compromising the health of my developing eggs. So just stop. Don’t ever say that to me again.
When you tell me to relax, I get really pissed off. Pretty much the opposite of relaxing. And then I have this moment of panic. Because deep down I am worried that something I’m doing, or not doing, is contributing to my infertility. I know that stress isn’t good for my health. As a psychologist I can name several physical conditions that are caused or exacerbated by prolonged high stress levels. And I know that I’ve been under significant stress during infertility. The relationship between stress and fertility is complex and still needs much research to really identify. Prolonged stress does impact hormones, which play a vital role in fertility. So yes, I do think I need to utilize healthy coping strategies for managing my stress during infertility.
But you tell me – after you go through a couple surgeries, have weekly vaginal probes by a doctor holding a wand while a med student stands by your feet, and stick four needles a day into your stomach – tell me, how relaxed do you feel? Infertility is emotionally, spiritually, physically, and financially taxing. I’m trying my best to relax, to cope. You throwing it in my face is not helping. And let’s not forget that back before I knew I had infertility – back when my husband and I had great sex, cuddled in bed afterwards with my butt propped up on a pillow imagining that we just made our baby, and were so excited to find out in two weeks – back then I was really relaxed. And I didn’t get pregnant.
2. “It will happen when it happens.”
Thank you, Yoda, for this sage advice. So obviously I’m getting a tad bit sarcastic now. But infertility can do that to a person. I suppose you are trying to be helpful when you say this to me, but really it just conveys that you don’t know anything about infertility or infertility treatment. And it also conveys that you haven’t bothered to google it. The truth is that there are a lot of treatment options for addressing infertility and I have to make a lot of BIG decisions that will impact what happens and when. I can’t just sit back, kick my feet up on the coffee table, and wait for something to magically happen to cure my medical condition and drop a baby into my womb. In fact, if I just sit around twiddling my thumbs waiting for it to happen, my window of reproductive opportunity is going to get smaller and smaller. Saying this doesn’t help me. If this is all you have to say to me, please bite your tongue. A good alternative is to say, “I’m sorry you are going through this. How can I support you?”
3. “I’ve been thinking about you but I didn’t want to bring it up and upset you.”
So you’ve been thinking about me and my struggle with infertility, but you thought that I’d become upset if you mentioned the “I-word”. (Pssst, that’s means “infertility”) Apparently if no one says it, I won’t think about it and become upset. Okay, let’s clear this one up. My days are filled with basal body temperature measurements, egg health supplements, fertility smoothies, medications and needles, doctors appointments, blood draws, transvaginal ultrasounds, fertility acupuncture, analyzing every twinge and ping my body has, hours researching IVF protocols, looking up strategies to help improve implantation, searching support group forums, and the list goes on. Infertility is already on my mind. You bringing it up will never ever make me say, “Oh shoot I hadn’t thought about that all day! I completely forgot about it. Why did you have to go and bring it up?”
Here’s the truth: you didn’t want to bring it up because it makes you uncomfortable. My distress makes you squirm a little. Or a lot. Maybe you don’t know what to say. Maybe you aren’t sure if I want to talk about it. Maybe you don’t know how to sit with my sadness, fear, and anger. And that all makes you uncomfortable. Don’t put that on me.
In truth, some people going through infertility probably don’t want to talk about it with you. It can be hard to talk about it with someone who really doesn’t understand and may not say the most supportive thing. On the other hand, some people want to talk about it with you – to share, feel supported, and get out into the open all the heavy thoughts and emotions they are struggling under daily. Truth be told, some days I will want to talk to you and some days I won’t. But I get to decide that. Please don’t pretend you are looking out for me by avoiding me.
If you’ve really been thinking about me and want to lend me some support but aren’t sure if I want you to ask me, please just say that! Ask me if I want you to ask me about what is going on, how my appointment went, how I’m feeling. Ask me how you can support me. Trust me, I will tell you. And that will make both of us much more comfortable.
4. “You could always adopt.”
When you say this you are really telling me that you have no idea what adoption entails. And you are minimizing my desire to have a child with my partner. Do you know how much adoption costs or how long it takes? Do you know about all of the uncertainties, losses, and ups and downs that happen in the adoption process? No, you don’t. Do you know what it would feel like for someone struggling with infertility to have a social worker invade their house and interview them, asking very intimate questions, to determine if they are “good enough” to adopt? No you don’t. I don’t either, but just imagining it while I was struggling to conceive my child was kind of a slap in the face. I also knew that we had a pretty good chance of infertility treatment working for us eventually. But if it didn’t end up working, well we probably wouldn’t have an extra $30,000 or more laying around to pay for adoption.
Adoption can be a beautiful gift. But it is not a decision made lightly by anyone. And there is a difference between wanting to adopt because of your moral values, beliefs, and preferences versus adopting because you are infertile. Certainly you can both have infertility and desire to adopt anyway due to your values. For some, adoption isn’t a viable option for a variety of reasons. And for some couples dealing with infertility, adoption isn’t the way they envisioned creating a family. And that doesn’t make them bad people.
5. “You should just go on vacation, then you’ll get pregnant.”
This one circles back to #1 above. This idea here is that we must just be “trying too hard” and if we could only relax, have fun, and don’t think about it (like when you’re having a great time on some tropical island), then we would get pregnant. So in addition to everything I said in #1, and probably #2 also, the only thing I want to add here is: do you have any idea of how much infertility treatments cost? Especially when insurance doesn’t cover it? I would love to go on vacation. Will you pay for it?
6. “At least you get to have a lot fun trying to get pregnant. Hee Hee Hee”
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times…Anyone who says this has NEVER actually tied to get pregnant.
Fertile couples have sex to get pregnant. Or they make love. Or they share a bottle of wine, a great dinner, and get naked. Infertile couples have a completely different experience when trying to get pregnant. They use ovulation predictor kits, basal body temperatures, and cycle charting to time sex in the fertile window. They know how long sperm and eggs live for. They know that most women don’t ovulate on cycle day 14. For infertile couples, making a baby may involve a woman, a reproductive endocrinologist (RE), and syringe full of sperm.
When my baby was made, my husband and I weren’t even there. An embryologist combined my egg with my husband’s sperm in a petri dish and the miracle of life happened. Then 5 days later, in a dimly lit room, err doctors office, my husband held my hand as the RE gently placed my little embryo into my womb. My husband got to see the image of this on a screen because I had an ultrasound wand up my vagina at the time. It was February and Christmas music was playing in the background. As bizarre as it sounds, it was pretty amazing. To see my tiny embryo-baby placed into my womb where she would implant and grow. Although at the time I didn’t know if it would work, so I was a bit apprehensive too. The whole thing was surreal. It wasn’t how I was taught about where babies come from. I was instructed to lay there for a half hour and my husband sat by my side the whole time. My acupuncturist entered the room as my RE left and stuck a bunch of tiny needles in me, which has been shown to improve IVF success rates. This is how I got pregnant.
I don’t think I’d use the word “fun” to describe this baby making. But given how many hormones I’m on, if you say this to me again I’m going to punch you in the face. Okay, maybe I won’t really do that. But you can be sure that I’m definitely thinking about it.
7. “You have an emotional block. Something is preventing you from getting pregnant.”
This is another one of those dangerous, blaming statements. You are saying that this disease of infertility is my fault – that I’m causing it. Do I have some emotional baggage? Sure. Everyone does. Trust me, as a psychologist I know we all do. But I’m actually pretty proud of myself for facing my emotional traumas head on, getting help when I needed it, working through it, using some healthy coping skills, and growing into the strong, healthy woman that I am. Saying that I must have some deep-seeded emotional block interfering with conception is hurtful and medically inaccurate. Learn more about the causes of infertility before you venture down a psychological rabbit hole.
8. “Have you tried xyz?”
Yes, I have. I’ve also tried “abc”, “def”, and “ghi”. In fact, I’ve tried everything from “A” all the way to “Z”. I get it; you’re trying to be helpful. You heard that a friend of a friend got pregnant after doing fertility yoga and another friend got pregnant after taking clomid for two months. But I’ve been doing yoga for a couple years now and I’ve done more clomid cycles than I probably should have. Trust me, anything you can come up with – I’ve heard about it and I’ve probably tried it. Please don’t try to fix me. Just listen to me. Offer your support by just listening.
9. “All I had to do was look at my husband and I got pregnant. Want one of my kids?”
Stop for a minute. You are talking to someone who has been struggling with infertility for years. Why on earth would you say this to me? If I made a list of the top 3 empathetic failures for relating to couples with infertility, this would be on it. Think before you speak. And yes, I’ll take that cute little one since you are so willing to give him away.
So, dear friend or family member, I know that you really do love me and want to support me. But here’s the best way to do that. Ask me what I need. Respect and accept whatever I say I need. Tell me that you are here for me and that you’re sorry I’m going through this. And then just listen. Even if I say the same things over and over again. Just listen.