The Things They Say: Friends, Family, and Fertility

Blank pregnancy testSometimes, in the lighter side of dark moments, I have a fantasy of creating a sort of Bingo game just for people going through infertility. Instead of numbers, the boxes under B, I, N, G, and O would contain snippets of the not-very-helpful things people say when they hear you’re trying, and maybe failing, to have a baby: “Just relax.” That’s a perennial favorite, followed closely by its cousin, “Go on a romantic vacation,” and, “I always got pregnant the first time!” Or, “My husband and I just had to throw our underwear on the bed and we’d get pregnant.” (This person needs a basic biology refresher.)

Sometimes they offer alternatives that maybe hadn’t occurred to you: “You can always adopt,” and sometimes they try to make a joke, saying, “Are you sure you want kids?” Which is often followed by, “You can have mine.” Some people, earnestly trying to be philosophical, offer up this chestnut: “Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.”

In my fantasy Bingo game, the players would howl and roll their eyes in recognition as the quotes were read aloud and more and more markers were added to their boards. Eventually, someone would fill an entire line with markers and call out, “Bingo!” But it wouldn’t feel like winning.

Whether you are newly struggling with conceiving or are a veteran of multiple procedures and losses, being on the receiving end of these comments can be devastating. Your own disappointment is painful enough; it doesn’t feel fair that you also have to endure the tactlessness or insensitivity of your friends and family. These people are supposed to love you and support you and help you feel better. Why can’t they? What can you do?

Find Community
Maybe you’re fortunate to have friends and family who know how to support you, what to say, and what not to. If not, you might find it an enormous relief to communicate with others who do understand what you’re going through. Your area may have support groups for individuals and couples struggling with fertility issues; your therapist or physician may be able to help you find one (or use the links below). If you do not have a therapist, many mental health practitioners are versed in fertility issues and make a commitment to staying current with problems in reproductive health. Finally, you may find understanding and connection with others in online communities dedicated to support for people who have issues with fertility. There are many such supportive online communities; here are just a few places to start:

  • For support around specific fertility issues and losses: http://www.nationalshare.org/additional-resources.html
  • For up-to-date resources and support: http://www.resolve.org/support-and-services/

Pick Your Battles
You do not have to educate everybody about fertility in general or your challenges in particular. Sometimes, people going through fertility problems feel overwhelmed by just how much the people around them don’t know and don’t understand. You might feel caught between your desire for understanding and the very real limits of your energy and patience for the task of educating others. So, know that you get to choose when to let someone into your world—to help them understand what it means to you to struggle with infertility, to give them the facts of your experience and to dispel the myths—and when to decline. You, and only you, can decide if you feel you have the time, patience, or emotional energy to correct someone’s misperceptions. If you decide you do not, it can be a real act of self-care to allow yourself to not fight that battle. However, there are times when it matters to you greatly that someone close to you—a dear friend with children, your sister-in-law, your parents—can come to understand what you’re going through, and can learn how to support you in the ways you need.

Allow Friends and Family to Learn
When you decide to educate your loved ones—to help them help you—you may ask for them to approach you with open-mindedness. To ask you what, for you, would be helpful for them to say or do. To be open to you wanting to talk about your fertility one day and wanting to talk about anything else the next. To ask you how you are feeling and to show that your answer matters to them. To accept that you might diverge from your usual social patterns—not wanting to go to birthday parties, for example, or wanting to travel alone instead of meeting the entire family for a holiday dinner—while you negotiate the physical, emotional, and financial labyrinth of fertility issues. Most of us don’t come pre-programmed with understanding of infertility—we come to that knowledge the hard way, through experience. Once we’re there, it can be difficult to recall the cheerful ignorance we once enjoyed. It can be an act of compassion toward your loved ones and yourself to remember that they are coming to you from this place of ignorance that we once enjoyed, that their missteps come from not knowing, not from not caring. And the ones who matter will learn from you as much as you let them.

There are myriad, wonderful writings about how to support someone going through fertility issues. Here are links to a couple that you can read for more ideas, or send as letters to the people you choose to let into your struggle:

  • Letter you can show to your friends who want to know how to be supportive: http://www.tertia.org/so_close/2004/05/how_to_be_good_.html
  • A (slightly more strongly worded) letter to friends and family: http://www.stirrup-queens.com/2007/10/manifesto/
  • A number of resources for family and friends to educate themselves, including fact sheets, fertility myths, how infertility can affect a range of relationships, and more: http://www.resolve.org/support-and-services/for-family–friends/

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Siri Hoogen, PhD, therapist in Portland, Oregon

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 5 comments
  • Leave a Comment
  • Jess

    Jess

    November 16th, 2012 at 2:18 PM

    Most of the time I really don’t think that people mean to say things that are insensitive, they just do. That’s the way it comes out and many times they mean well but don’t have the tact to come across that way. I have a dear friend who said the dumbest thing to me one time when i had a miscarriage, like it was meant to be or something like that. I dwelled on it forveer and let it destroy our friendship, but looking back now I think that she was only trying so hard to comfort me that she didn’t know how to phrase what she really meant. Sometimes just a really strong hug is enough to convey your thoughts and let someone know that they are in your prayers.

  • Eric

    Eric

    November 16th, 2012 at 9:36 PM

    People are generally bad at empathy and more so at expressing it.Add to that the lack of knowledge on the issue and it is no surprise that many provide such responses.Not everybody can be a good advisor or counselor.I have realized this from experience.The only thing to look for would be people who make you happy and you are comfortable with.Anythin beyond that is a plus.

  • brandi

    brandi

    November 17th, 2012 at 4:09 AM

    I am going through this same thing right now.
    I had two children with my first husband and was not sure that I would ever want more.
    Now I am remarried and my children are 13 and 10 and my husband now and I want a child together.
    I had no problem getting pregnant the first two times- why am I struggling now?
    It’s not as if I am old because I had the first two when I was very young, but now my husband and I are having to think about doing IVF because we have tried and tried and it just isn’t working.
    There are times I become so frustrated and wonder why this isn’t happening for us.

  • Ernie B

    Ernie B

    November 19th, 2012 at 4:03 AM

    Most of us have no experience with infertility, so I think that that one thing is why most of us tsruggle with knowing how to act and what to say to those who are encountering it. My wife and I have had no problems in that department but my brother and hos wife have been quietly struggling for years to conceive and it hasn’t happened yet for them. I know that at this point they are questioning whether this is something that is meant to be for them or if they shouldn’t just give up and try adoption instead. It has been hard for the whole family, especially as I want to say and do the right things for them but always end up feeling like a screw up when I do try.

  • Siri H

    Siri H

    December 3rd, 2012 at 5:45 PM

    Hi all,
    I think you have hit the nail on the head, collectively. Jess, I’m so sorry for your loss, and I think your suggestion of a hug instead of trying (and failing!) to find the “right thing to say” is a good one. Eric and Ernie, it’s true that few people are naturally gifted at empathy, and it’s even more difficult to show empathy when you really don’t have any idea what someone else is going through (and we can never really know what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes, so even when you think you have a good idea, it’s probably not smart to say “I know exactly how you feel!” We never know, exactly, only approximately). Brandi, I am so sorry, and I hope you are finding support, both from your doctors and from your friends and family. Good luck.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

 

Advanced Search

Search Our Blog