Over the last 17 years of sitting in rooms with couples and individuals who are dealing with infertility, I’ve seen the looks on patient’s faces when they think about the holidays, and the conversations that are bound to happen with well-meaning family, friends and strangers. As a culture, we still don’t have a comfortable dialogue around the subject of infertility or pregnancy loss. We don’t know how to support those going through it, and since there is still so much shame and embarrassment around the issue, many suffering don’t have the words to help others know what they need.
Last year I started recording a podcast called Waiting For Babies, where I interview people about their journey through infertility. I have been amazed at what these men and women have endured and been willing to share, and the further insights they’ve given me even after all of my own experience being a guide for patients. With the holidays just around the corner, I wanted to try and draw on my experience to help both those experiencing infertility, and those friends and family members who may unintentionally be hurting those closest to them. Below are some suggestions for how to have more supportive conversations this year if infertility is present in your family.
DO SAY THIS; FOR FAMILY MEMBER AND FRIENDS:
This one’s easy. If someone’s struggling, start simple: “I’m so sorry. That sounds really hard to go through.” That’s it. Stop. If they sound like they wish to keep talking, keep engaging in a kind way. If you know something about it first hand and want to share, please do. If it happened to a friend twice removed that’s probably not helpful, keep it to yourself. If they don’t keep talking about it, drop it. That’s it. Way to be a good friend!
DON’T SAY THIS; FOR FAMILY MEMBERS AND FRIENDS:
So, do you guys want kids?
Most of us don’t realize just how truly personal this question is. It can sometimes be a huge sore spot in a marriage if partners aren’t on the same page, there could be intimacy issues in the relationship that this question triggers, and of course, there is the possibility that they’ve been trying (and failing) for who knows how long. Do you really want to get into all of that over eggnog? Just let this one be - there are plenty of other topics of conversation.
You should just try and relax.
The vast majority of infertility cases have biological causes. Stress and psychological factors play little to no role in whether or not a man or woman is fertile. Besides that, what you are really saying is, “it’s your fault you can’t get pregnant because you’re too stressed out.”
Everything happens for a reason.
This is the worst. While this sentiment is really meant to be comforting, it insinuates that there is some larger reason why they’re not meant to have a child. Now that’s pretty hurtful when you think of it that way, don’t you think?
At least you are getting in lots of quality time together as a couple before having kids.
I hear this one a lot - “at least _______ .” It’s not your job to try and reframe someone else’s pain over the inability to create a family. In reality, going through infertility may be one of the worst times in a couple’s lives and their relationship. It’s the lack of understanding and acknowledgement from others that can make infertility feel so lonely. If we as a culture could be more comfortable with grief and loss, perhaps we could be more equipped to hear people’s pain and react with true empathy - not minimizing it and brushing it aside.
We’re so exhausted by our kids.
Any version of complaining about your children. It’s true, the challenges of being a parent are real. So often we use them as a way of connecting and bonding with others. However, in this case it’s a terrible trigger for those dealing with infertility. Try to notice if you use these complaints as a point of connecting or as a way to subtly say, “you’re lucky you don’t have to deal with this.” - then try thinking of another way to communicate.
RESPONSES WHEN YOU GET THE ABOVE UNCOMFORTABLE QUESTIONS; FOR THOSE STRUGGLING TO CONCEIVE:
We’ve actually been trying and are having quite a hard time. Right now we’re just focused on trying to relax and enjoy the holidays.
I definitely try to relax, but this is really important to us. The good news is that stress isn’t strongly linked to infertility - it’s really just about biology.
Well, maybe. It’s a problem that affects 1 out of every 8 couples trying to have a baby - it’s amazing how often this happens to people for no real reason at all!
Honestly, it’s pretty hard to think of it that way considering how badly we would like to have a family together. It’s actually really painful - I think most people who aren’t going through it have a hard time knowing there aren’t really any up-sides to infertility.
I’m sure kids can really take a toll! But for those of us who are struggling to have a family of our own, it sure seems worth it.
While it is certainly not your job to make others feel more comfortable with what you’re going through, it can be helpful to acknowledge that most people don’t understand that what they’re saying is hurtful. Someone has probably never responded to them in a way that helps them learn. These diplomatic responses may take a Herculean effort, but they could help lead the way towards more empathy and understanding. Too hard and you’d rather lay into them? Completely understandable.
If someone you know is experiencing infertility, I’d recommend you listen to an episode or two of Waiting For Babies - you’ll be able to hear directly from people who have been through it so you can work on your empathy. If you’re steeling yourself for an emotional holiday season because of infertility, consider doing something for yourself. We are offering a 1-hour massage for $65 (normally $85). Gift it to yourself HERE. Let your massage therapist know what you’re going through (if you’re comfortable) - at the Healing Arts Center we want to be a refuge for people who need empathy, healing and support.