One of the most painful aspects of infertility is social isolation. Women in particular tend to find comfort in difficult times by talking with friends. For a woman who’s facing infertility (and the CDC estimates that 10% of women will deal with some level of infertility), realizing that nearly all of her friends are either pregnant or mothers of small children can feel like a cruel joke.
If one of your friends is having difficulty conceiving, you can ease the burden of social isolation for her by knowing what to say — or perhaps more importantly, by knowing what not to say.
Here are five things to avoid saying to a female friend who’s going through infertility:
1. "Have you tried acupuncture?"
The most important rule to keep in mind when supporting a friend who's going through infertility is this: Don't make assumptions. Questions like "Have you tried acupuncture?" assume that the "problem" is on her end, and that it’s treatable. It might not be. Statistically speaking, fertility issues are just as likely to be related to male factors as female factors, and male-factor infertility is often more difficult to discuss openly.
Unless your friend has a clear diagnosis and has decided to share this with you, don't assume that you know where the issue lies. But if she asks you if you know of a great acupuncturist, by all means, help her find one!
2. "You should consider…"
If your friend is talking to you about her struggle with infertility, chances are high that she and her partner have already spent countless hours on Google researching their options. When you make suggestions about treatments or diets or techniques, you're inadvertently implying that they haven't already done their homework. Back to rule #1: don’t make assumptions.
3. "Why not just adopt?"
Your friend has almost certainly considered this possibility, and may well be open to it as a potential outcome, but adoption is not a simple or inexpensive process in most cases. Adoption also comes with profoundly complex ethical questions that your friend may or may not wish to discuss openly with you.
Same goes with alternatives like sperm donation and IVF: while these may seem like simple solutions to some fertility issues, they’re deeply complicated, both ethically and emotionally (not to mention financially). Let your friend be the one to bring alternative solutions into conversation, and listen to her with an open heart when and if she does.
4. "I had a friend who…"
I promise: your friend has already heard the story of the couple who tried for months on end to get pregnant, adopted, and then miraculously conceived. Several times. This is not as comforting as you might imagine to someone who is actively going through infertility, and it assumes that the same outcome is biologically possible for your friend. It might not be. Remember: don't make assumptions.
5. If you’re pregnant yourself, don't complain about your pregnancy.
If you're pregnant, be especially mindful around your friend. If she has confided that she's having a difficult time with infertility, this means she trusts you. Honor this. Try not to absent-mindedly rub your growing belly or complain about your pregnancy in her presence — these actions will come across as profoundly insensitive.
At the same time, don't assume that she doesn't want to be part of your journey towards motherhood at all. She may want very much to support you in her own way. Ask her directly what kind of interactions feel good to her: attending your baby shower may feel too triggering, but she might love getting together for lunch or tea.
How to be a supportive friend
The most important thing to keep in mind is that your friend needs your support right now: she’s going through what may well be one of the most emotionally complicated and difficult experiences of her life. Listen to her with an open heart and an open mind. Don’t make assumptions, and don’t give suggestions or advice unless she asks.
If you’re feeling at a loss for words, don’t worry, your friend will be likely be forgiving. Here’s what you can say that will make her feel supported and heard:
“I’m so sorry you’re going through this. I’m here for you. What’s your experience of this like? How can I be there for you right now?”
And don’t forget that your friend still wants to support you: inviting her support in your life will help her hold onto the perspective that infertility is not the entire world, as it can sometimes seem to be for people who are in the middle of it. You may well be rewarded with a deeper friendship for traveling along this journey with her.
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