7 things you should never say to couples battling infertility
If you know a couple struggling with infertility, here are 7 some things you shouldn’t say
by Robyn Wolfson Vorster
Infertility brings with it an intimate, persistent pain that can last for decades. Unfortunately though, this private pain is often lived out very publically—everyone from close family to strangers on the bus want to know why you haven’t had children yet. As if the diagnostic exams and treatments weren’t invasive enough, suddenly everything from your health, to your emotional well-being and the private details of your relationship with your partner become public domain.
No doubt, it is exhausting for the couple involved. But, the long term nature of the struggle can also be tiring and frustrating for even the most sympathetic friend. That, and ignorance, are the chief reasons why people often say the most shocking things to infertile couples.
So, if your friends or family members are battling to conceive, here is my pocket guide of things that you should never say.
As a rule of thumb, think of infertility like grief: if you wouldn’t say this to a grieving couple, don’t say it to an infertile one.
- My advice is…
One of the most natural human impulses is to try to “make things better”. And, if you have had your own babies, it is tempting to believe that you have special insight into how best to conceive. Most women struggling to have babies have been given loads of unsolicited advice. Some of the most common are:
- All you need to do is have a holiday and everything will be fine
- It is time to simplify your life—you are too busy
- Stop stressing
- You should try using needles / supplements / hypnotherapy… or,
- Have you tried this position (oh my, this one is never welcome, especially when it is coming from your mother-in-law, or said stranger on the bus).
While some of these points may actually be valid, especially the one about stress, infertility is remarkably complex and many specialists have made it their life’s work to understand it. Even if you have been through it yourself, it is best not to give advice unless someone specifically asks for it and then it is probably best to suggest that the couple seek professional help at a reputable fertility clinic.
- What’s wrong with you?
Even if this is meant well, all this question does is to add to the pain and the shame of infertility. In truth, you probably don’t need to know what is causing the infertility but if the couple does choose to tell you, be sure to handle it respectfully. Don’t tell anyone else their story unless they have given you permission to do so.
- Children are hard work / messy / expensive—I’m sure you are better off without them
This one is particularly painful because it is almost always said by people cuddling their own kids. Simply put, no they aren’t better off without them. Granted, some infertile couples do suffer from unrealistic expectations about parenthood but most understand that there are huge challenges involved and most would happily navigate those challenges for the joy of what you have.
- Don’t you think it is time to move on?
No matter how painful it is to watch people you love grieving, and how much you may want them to move on, this is a personal decision (and one which they must make themselves—for their psychological health and well-being). Your concern can unfortunately sound like judgement and your role as a friend or family member is to support them in their journey—no matter how long it takes.
- You are always thinking about yourself / why are you so selfish / why can’t you just be happy for me?
It is completely understandable that you want your sister or best friend to come to your baby shower or child’s christening, but you are wrong to think that she isn’t happy for you. She is, very. What you may not appreciate though is that your source of greatest joy reminds her of her greatest source of pain. It is incredibly hard for her to be around pregnant women or babies when that is the very thing that she wants the most, but can’t have.
If you love her, put aside your disappointment and give her permission to be happy for you—from a distance.
- Be grateful for what you have
You are probably right, she probably does have loads of things to be grateful for (a loving husband, a fulfilling career, a home, pets and if it is secondary infertility, even other children). What might surprise you is that the extent of her grief regarding the infertility does not mean that she isn’t grateful for what is good in her life. Even if you are correct that she needs perspective, the biggest problem with this statement is that it comes across as very judgemental and it invalidates her right to focus on what she doesn’t have, not what she does—at least for a while.
- And my personal favourite: Never mind, you can always adopt
I am an adoption advocate but I still think that this is the worst thing that you can say to an infertile couple—for two reasons. Firstly, it doesn’t acknowledge the fact that they are grieving the loss of a specific child, not just any child. Even if they have never fallen pregnant, they are still grieving the child that they were hoping for: a biological child with their looks and family characteristics. Simply put, children are not interchangeable. You would never say to a grieving parent, “never mind, you can just have another child” (or at least, I so sincerely hope you wouldn’t). Infertile couples don’t want to replace the child they have “lost” so they need the space to fully mourn that child before they can be ready to move on.
Equally, adoption should never be seen as plan B. Adoption is plan A, a wonderful, joyous joining of lives and families. It is a gift of unbelievable proportions for those who choose it. But, if it is plan B, it can be very traumatic for the family and the child (especially if the parents are expecting the adopted child to be like the biological one they envisaged).
So, encourage the infertile couple to fully grieve their infertility and if, in time, they choose to adopt, you will be able to support and encourage them in their decision.
Infertility is devastating. But, it is a wonderful opportunity for you to be a good friend or family member. So, don’t disqualify yourself if you have already said one of these things—say sorry and start again. Chances are, they will love you more for it.
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