How to Love Someone with Infertility
Infertility. The word itself sparks a reaction. For those of you with kids you cherish maybe your reaction is “Thank God I’ve never had to deal with that”. Or maybe you’ve been through it first hand and just seeing the word makes you want to run and hide. Or maybe you have a loved one who is suffering and you feel helpless to make them feel better. Here’s the thing: you don’t have to understand to be supportive!
Every person is affected by infertility differently. I can only speak from my own experience. No exaggeration, I came into this world wanting to be a mom. My first toys were baby dolls, the more realistic the better. I started babysitting when I was 10 (seriously, who lets a 10 year old babysit?). My want…no, need…to nurture and care for others drove my educational and career choices as an adult. I worked for years to become a counselor because I knew, on a very deep level, that connecting with people and offering care when they most need it is what feeds my soul and gives me meaning.
When my husband and I decided to start a family, I assumed that the universe would line up to throw babies into our lives. We are good people. We’re healthy, energetic, creative, and so in love with lots of love to spare. If our sweet dog could talk, I’m sure she’d tell you: we’re the best parents around! Fast forward through a lot of tears, anger, jealousy, heart-to-hearts, devastation, and exhaustion and this dream hasn’t yet come true.
Not only has it not yet come true, there is no guide book. There is no map showing us exactly how to get what we yearn for. There are only medical recommendations, which are financially and emotionally expensive but are not guarantees. When I look outside of my own sadness, I can see part of my struggle with fertility as a gift. It has opened a part of my heart that allows me to feel empathy in a deeper way, value connection with others more, and not be scared off by people’s emotions.
My hope is to share this with you. I get it; we usually want to take pain away. We want to make other people feel better. This leads to a lot of well-intentioned people saying a lot of horrible, ridiculous, so-bad-it’s-funny things. Since this is an easy trap to fall into, before we learn what TO say, it’s important to learn what NOT to say.
- “Just relax/It’ll happen when you don’t expect it/You’re trying too hard”
Usually said by somebody who slipped on a banana peel and got pregnant as soon as they heard the call of motherhood whisper their name. This seems dismissive and closes the conversation before it even had a chance to get started. Please don’t close the door on someone who needs you.
- “My friend’s brother’s wife’s sister tried….(head stands after sex, pink Himalayan sea salt, pineapple, cough syrup, not drinking, drinking, chanting, meditation, …) ”
This is generally harmless and well meaning. I know. I know you mean well. But please stop. I’m already consumed in every detail; what I eat, what I don’t eat, how I exercise (am I exercising too much?!), how I sleep, how I work. Remember earlier when you wanted me to relax??
- “At least you get sleep! I haven’t slept since Junior came along”.
Also disguised as “look at all the free time you have”. New moms: I love to talk with you about how your life has changed in beautiful and chaotic and exhausting ways. I promise to be a friend to you as you navigate motherhood. But please, please, please, don’t try to make my pain smaller by making your pain bigger. It’s not a competition. It’s not either – or. You can be exhausted and I can be hurting.
- “You can have one of mine”
So, I kinda think this shouldn’t need mentioning. I’ve heard this a few times (yes, I’m serious). You wouldn’t tell a homeless person that they could have your vacation home (you know, because you’re blessed with more than one) knowing full well that would never happen. To be clear: I don’t want your child. You may assume you’re making a funny joke. This is not a funny joke.
- “(awkward silence) Anyway, did I tell you about…?”
This might just be the grand-daddy of them all. During a night with a group of friends, I came out about my fertility struggles. While 2 of my friends breezed past the subject, uncomfortable and unsure of what to say, one friend asked if I was OK. Thank goodness for that friend. Thank goodness she was willing to share space with me in my sadness.
Now, here’s the good news. If your loved one feels comfortable enough to share their struggle with you, trust that this is an invitation. This is an invitation to ask questions, be curious, to just be present with them. This is not an invitation to fix anything. Here are some easy ways to be supportive:
- “I’m so sorry you’re going through this.” Period.
The most simple and moving statement. To show someone that their pain is heard, held, and witnessed is one of the most powerful gifts you can offer. Don’t feel pressure to say something wise or insightful or profound. Just let them know you see them and you hear them.
- “Does it help to talk about it?”
Since everybody’s journey is different, you may get different answers. While one person may want to share the whole story from the start, it may be enough for another person to simply let you know that they are in pain. The important thing is that you offer a choice and make it clear that you are willing to listen if they want to talk.
- “Can I check in on you?”
Oh, even thinking of those words feels like a warm hug. Struggling with infertility is an incredibly isolating experience with deep wounds that reopen with every failed cycle. For fear of being too much, too sad, too emotional, too negative, people will often go through each devastating month alone. It doesn’t have to be this way.
- “I’m so glad you told me”.
Validating. Encouraging. Connecting. Inviting. A perfect response when somebody tells you something so personal, so emotional. By saying this, you put the person at ease and allow them to take a breath. You allow them space to breathe in this experience of being accepted and heard.
Honestly, writing this is a selfish act on my part. In a perfect world, infertility wouldn’t even need to be a discussion. But for 20% of couples, it IS a discussion. It is serious and it is a lot to carry alone. Selfishly, I want every person to feel comfortable talking about infertility. When we connect, we are no longer alone. I want us to discover empathy. Empathy to ease the hurt.