How to Talk to Someone Dealing with Infertility
Updated: Sep 16, 2020
This post is a little different than our typical shares, but equally as important.
1 in 8
Approximately one in eight couples are affected by infertility in the United States. That’s about 6.7 million people each year who have trouble conceiving.
So why don’t we know about it? Infertility is the club no one wants to belong to, but somehow it is like Fight Club. The first rule of Infertility Club is that you don’t know about it? Shouldn’t the first rule of Infertility Club (thinking of a better name soon) be that we DO talk about it?
There is a term in therapy called “universality”. It basically means that you are not alone in your struggles. How empowering would it be to know you are not alone, when dealing with infertility?
Now, I know there are many reasons people don’t talk about infertility, which I will discuss below.
When a man or woman is dealing with infertility, shame is often a common and normal reaction. Sometimes, your friends will feel broken. Why share with others when you feel broken? You must be very vulnerable, which is VERY HARD.
Women and some men who experience pregnancy loss – especially repeated losses – have similar reactions. Why can’t my body hold onto a baby? What is wrong with my sperm or genetics that it can’t help create a sustained life?
On top of this, people may wonder if they did something to cause the loss (or they themselves will worry others will think they did something wrong). Most causes of infertility and miscarriage are not under the direct control of a couple. However, even when a person knows this, the nagging feeling that this is all my fault pulls at them.
Interestingly, you don’t see this as frequently with other medical issues. How many people with type 1 diabetes, asthma, or celiac disease blame themselves, or are ashamed to admit they have their disease?
What’s the difference? Is it that we don’t know how to tolerate struggles? Could it be those on the other end, that haven’t experienced infertility, are too afraid to say the wrong things? Could it also be that talking about women’s issues (though it is also male and female) are taboo in our society????
Infertility and miscarriage make you no less human, no less woman, and no less man.
As stated above, sharing with others takes vulnerability, and vulnerability is hard. It requires us to be okay with rejection, feeling misunderstood, putting ourselves out there and not getting what we need…Vulnerability takes courage. It requires courage over comfort. While dealing with infertility, you are required to have enough courage to be scared. Let your friends know you see them and hear them (and see the topics below on what to say).
Empathy Versus Sympathy
Of course, we love Brené Brown. Watch this video about empathy versus sympathy, avoiding statements like You should… and At least…
Empathy fuels connection.
Sympathy drives disconnection.
What not to say?
· Don’t tell them to relax or go on vacation. Comments like If you just relax…are particularly hard and cause more stress, especially for the woman. It implies they are doing something wrong, and it is their fault for being too high strung.
· Don’t minimize the issue. Failure to become pregnant is very painful. Statements like Enjoy sleeping now…Just enjoy getting to do whatever you want, etc. do not offer comfort. Instead, people dealing with infertility feel you are minimizing the problem. Your friends would give anything to have sleepless nights or crying babies.
· Don’t push adoption or another solution. Your friends are living day to day, and the ones that make decisions for their family. Maybe adoption is too expensive, or they worry about the heartache of the birth mother changing her mind. There are many factors that go into each decision your friends are making.
· Don’t ask whose “fault” it is. Hopefully this goes without saying, but there is a lot of guilt and shame with infertility. 1/3 of infertility is a female factor, 1/3 is a male factor, and 1/3 is unexplained.
· Try to not complain about your pregnancy. The ups and downs of pregnancy are a lot to deal with. Struggling with infertility makes it hard to be around pregnant friends. Just be mindful.
· Don’t be crude. Comments like I can carry your baby for you, or I will donate sperm, while in “good fun” take away from the experience of your friends struggle. There is no “quick” answer to infertility, not matter how silly you want to be.
NOTE: You may accidentally say something hurtful and realize a moment later (or days later). If this happens, apologize, and say you don’t know the right things to say, so sometimes you say the wrong things. This will show your friends you are trying to be empathetic and understand.
So, what can you say?
· Let them know you care. This journey can feel isolating, so checking in and seeing how your friends are doing makes a big difference. Something as simple as I am thinking about you today can go a long way.
· Ask them what they need. Sometimes, when you are in the depths of infertility, asking for help is the last thing on your mind. You can be specific. Do you need to talk? Do you need some food? Can we go for a walk? Taking the stress away of needing to reach out to others, is helpful.
· Remember the male friends, too!! Remember what I said about women feeling it is their fault? Men feel this, too! They also have to see their partner struggle (if in a heterosexual relationship) month after month, and see what mediation does to their partner’s mind, heart, and body. Many times, men feel out of control and need encouragement, too.
· Remember them on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Oof! These days are tough for those dealing with infertility. Remember that your friends will feel especially emotional on these days. A simple I am thinking about you today, again, makes a difference. Remember, they can feel very alone. Such a simple comment knows they have a community.
· Ask them what they need you to say. As stated in the video statements like At least you know you can get pregnant, or You should try the Whole 30, while good intentioned, is not helpful. Saying I don’t know what to say to comfort you. What do you need to hear right now? helps someone dealing with infertility understand you are truly interested in their well-being.
· Do you research. When your friends share their experience, read up about infertility, and the options your friends are considering, so you can stay informed if your friend needs to talk.
· Let them know about your pregnancy. I know. This one sounds weird, but you can feel grief and joy at the same time. Make sure you share in a private space, though.
· Offer help. Infertility is expensive, emotional, and overwhelming. If they are asking for financial support, give what you can (we promise that $25 makes a difference). If they need someone to bring them food, mow their lawn, watching their older kids during a procedure, show up how you can. We can all provide in different ways; provide how your heart calls you to.
To our friends who are dealing with infertility, we hope this post helps you feel seen and understood. You are not alone.
“Never underestimate the power of being seen”- Brené Brown
- Dr. Sarah