Infertility is misunderstood. It affects 7.5 million women in the United States, and more than one in 10 women of childbearing age have used fertility treatments while trying to conceive with varying degrees of success. We have so many stories to share, and yet fertility struggles happen in private because—let’s be real—it’s painful. In honor of National Infertility Week, mbg is sharing real women’s stories that speak to the ups and downs of their journey to build a family. We’re in this together. And if you have a story to share, please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the two years since our battle with infertility began, I've learned that there's a sliding scale of how people respond to your diagnosis. The age-old problem of I feel like I should say something deep and personal here, but I have no idea what that is. Everyone wants to offer something profoundly inspirational, some piece of advice that will act as a balm to your aching heart, an anecdote that will renew your faith in your poorly functioning reproductive system. Everyone wants to relate…but the overwhelming majority simply can't.
I can appreciate this deeply compassionate side of people; in fact, I don't think we see enough of it in the world. In these moments, I do my best to look past the delivery and deeper into the intention behind it with gratitude. The problem here is that often, the words that are offered have the opposite effect from what's intended; more often than not they are maddening, cliché, and in the worst of circumstances they can belittle the pain that woman is just barely managing on a day-to-day basis.
Avoid saying these things to someone struggling with infertility.
After two years of enduring these brutally uncomfortable conversations, it occurred to me that perhaps we (infertility survivors included!) could all use a guide in approaching these uncomfortable yet inevitable conversations.
1. "Stop trying and it'll happen! You'd be surprised."
I'm almost certain that each and every person who has learned of our journey has offered this irrelevant and statistically unlikely tale, with the hope of lifting our spirits and awakening our inner optimist. It always begins the same way: "So these friends of ours tried and tried for like three years! Anyway, nothing worked and when they finally stopped trying altogether, they ended up pregnant like two months later! That'll so be you." I see where you're going with this one and I appreciate your unrelenting confidence. I, however, have sat through hundreds of disappointing appointments, spoken at length with doctors of every variety, and am fully educated and aware of my personal statistical chance of getting knocked up sans medical intervention. Are statistics written in stone? Of course not. But logic tells me it's best not to rest my hopes and dreams on that little nonscientific stroke of sheer luck your friends experienced.
2. "Just relax; you need to let go."
Every woman who has been in my shoes is nodding her head furiously at this one. When has telling someone to "relax" ever been sound advice? Furthermore, how easy do you find it to relax on command when your circumstances are physically, emotionally, and financially stressful? Don't you tend to find that "suggestion" more of a stressor than a light bulb? By the way, relaxing is not a solution to a medical issue. If someone had a stroke, would you tell them to relax as a course of treatment? I didn't think so.
3. "Maybe it's a sign?"
I don't hear this one as often, but I'm thinking we've all gotten it at least once during the course of infertility struggles. Inevitably, someone with a little less social awareness than the rest of the general populace suggests that perhaps your infertility is a sign that you're not meant to have babies. Sure, they probably mean that in a positive way like "You'll have a booming career instead!" or "You'll travel around the entire world!" and I get it. But telling someone who is desperately trying to create a family that they should interpret their physical inability to do so as a sign is just plain audacious.
4. "I know how you feel; we tried for five whole months."
For me personally, this is the most insulting of all of the responses received. Of all the women I've become close to who have experienced this medical condition, we unanimously agree: It's unacceptable. Sometimes, people are just desperate to relate but the truth of the matter is if you've never experienced infertility…you can't. And that's OK! We don't expect you to. For the love of God, please do not equate your five months of actively trying for baby No. 2 to my two years, over 3,000 pills, hundreds of shots, multiple surgeries, failed IUIs, and a round of IVF for just one child.
There is nothing more demeaning than having someone who has had multiple successful pregnancies (or even just one!) tell you that they "understand exactly what you're going through" because they didn't have success in their first three months of trying. I would liken it to telling someone who has stomach cancer that you understand their plight because you once had a stomachache. You wouldn't do that, would you?
Here's what you can do to help.
Every person who has ever offered one, or more, of these responses to my story has done so out of a place of love and sympathy and for that, I remain grateful. But I have also learned throughout many of these excruciating and vexing conversations that when you can't relate, don't have good advice, or aren't sure what to say—just offer a hug and an ear to listen. The emotions that are associated with the inability to conceive are so complex, so deeply rooted, and so personal that the only appropriate type of acknowledgment is the one in which you admit to your incapacity for understanding but demonstrate your willingness to be there.