Words of Wisdom
author's name withheld
How to be sensitive when discussing infertility
Those of us suffering from infertility are often labeled "overly-sensitive" when it comes to discussions of pregnancy and fertility. Even the most innocent, well-intentioned advice can cause the floodgates to open and the tears to flow, leaving the advice-giver speechless (or worse, on the defensive). Truly, you can only understand the depth of emotion when you, too, have suffered through month after month of charting temperatures, looking for fertility signs, taking medication, buying expensive ovulation and pregnancy test kits, wistfully remembering the days of wonderful, spontaneous intercourse--only to be disappointed when your period starts and the whole process begins again.
The infertile couple deeply wants something that is basic to human nature-to have a child of their own to love and nurture. This desire leads to the deepest recesses of despair when it becomes clear that nature doesn't plan to fill that need. Nothing you can say will satisfy that desire or ease the desperation.
A man and woman suffering from infertility have read books, done research, and educated themselves about medical treatment. No advice you can give or information you can share will be helpful-they've already read it or heard it.
Your mission is to be sensitive to a couple's situation, no matter what that situation is. When she is ready to discuss things with you, she will. Until then, it is best to remain silently curious. The following is a list of topics, questions, and comments to avoid.
ChildlessnessUnless you have first-hand knowledge of a couple's plans to start a family, it is best not to comment on their childlessness. Perhaps they have been silently struggling with infertility for years. Avoid comments like:
- When are you going to stop focusing on your career and start a family?
- What are you waiting for?
- You're not getting any younger.
General Infertility Issues: Cause and effectThere is a general misconception that stress causes infertility. This idea had to have come from someone who never struggled with infertility. Infertile couples know that infertility causes stress, not the other way around! If a woman confides in you that she is struggling with infertility, avoid the temptation to give the following advice:
- Relax - you're worrying too much.
- Don't think about it, then it'll happen.
- You're trying too hard.
- Give it time.
Have vs. have notBeing a parent is the most unselfish sacrifice a person can make, therefore, it would be a mistake to make comments that imply that the desire to have a child is selfish, or that the couple isn't grateful for the things that they do have. Here are some things that you shouldn't say:
- You're being selfish.
- You should just adopt.
- Why don't you just adopt?
- You should be happy with the blessings you have.
- Think of all of your freedom-you can do anything you want, without having to worry about taking care of children.
What's good for the goose, may not be good for the ganderEvery person's infertility experience is different. If you struggled with infertility, or you know someone who did, avoid the temptation to make comparisons. Stay away from comments like:
- As soon as we stopped trying we got pregnant!
- My sister/cousin/friend thought she couldn't have children. After she and her husband adopted, they had two children of their own!
Laughter - not always the best medicineWhen confronted with a couple's infertility, one response might be to avoid discussing the couple's specific problem. This is most often accomplished by discussing one's own fertility or by trying to make light of the situation. This tactic, however, should be avoided. Don't say things like:
- If my husband just looks at me I get pregnant!
- It happened to me and we weren't even trying.
- My sister/cousin/friend got pregnant on birth control pills.
- I/my sister/cousin/friend got pregnant the first month we/she tried.
- My kids are driving me crazy-- want one?
Special infertility issues, fertility medication concerns and scaresOver the past few years, the media have drawn incredible attention to multiple births that have occurred in the United States. This attention has brought the medical professionals who deal with infertility under the scrutiny of everyone from the AFL-CIO to the Catholic Church.
The fact is that for the infertile couple the chances of conceiving one child, let alone a gaggle of children, is so slim that it hardly pays to be worried about it. The desire to have a child far outweighs the fear of having multiples. And if she conceives more than one, her joy is multiplied simply because she thought that it might not be possible at all.
Couples undergoing ovulation induction therapy have, in most cases, thoroughly discussed all of the possibilities with their doctors, and are well aware of the risks associated with various synthetic hormones. Your questions and advice about the decision to follow a particular treatment will be as welcome as the advice you receive about how you should raise your children. Refrain from making comments or asking questions like:
- Aren't you afraid of having multiples?
- You're not going to have a litter are you?
- Are you hoping to get a lifetime supply of free diapers?
- Will you abort a fetus if you conceive multiples?
Miscarriage/Infant DeathThere is nothing that can take away the pain of losing an unborn or newborn child. Unless you have experienced a miscarriage or infant death, you cannot possibly understand the emotions that the mother and father experience. Never say the following:
- You'll have another baby. Nothing can replace the child they lost.
- At least you know you can get pregnant.Maybe not. What if that was the one-in-a-million chance that couple had to get pregnant? The couple may have already been suffering from infertility and you didn't even know. The child may have been the result of months (or years) of expensive infertility treatments.
AdoptionA couple who chooses to adopt has certainly already struggled with many difficult questions. Once they make the decision to adopt, your advice or questions will only make them unsure of their decision.
- I hear adoption can be expensive.
- Are you sure you want to do that?
- But what if the child wants to find his/her bio parents?
- Won't you feel that the child isn't really your own?
So what can I say or do?
No matter what a couple's situation, the most important thing that you can do is to provide support - not advice. Here's a list of things that you should consider saying or doing when a woman confides in you:
General AdviceAsk if you may ask questions about her situation or treatment. When you hear her answers, do not react judgmentally. Simply say, "I hope it works out for the best."
Say, "I will be praying for you."
Ask, "Is there anything I can do to help, like take you to the doctor, pick up a prescription, or babysit your children?"
Miscarriage/Infant deathSay, "I will pray that your angel is up in heaven," or "I will pray that God blesses you with another miracle."
If the couple already has children, offer to take care of the children, do housework, or run errands so that the couple has time to grieve, and to be supportive of each other.
Say, "I know that this must have been a difficult decision for you. If there is anything I can do to help, just let me know."
Say, "It must make you feel good to know that you will be taking care of a child who wouldn't otherwise have a loving, nurturing home."
Say, "How wonderful to give a child a home."
Say, "I know you've wanted children for a long time. I'm so pleased that your dream will finally become a reality."