How to Talk About Infertility

A few years ago, after we’d just received our infertility diagnosis, my husband and I made a visit to our hometown in South Dakota to see our moms. We were out for dinner downtown when we ran into an older couple that my mother-in-law had known for years. The woman, whose name escapes me, was eager to meet Jeff’s wife and hear all about our life together. After the preliminary “so where do you live, what do you do”, she asked “any kids?”

When I said “not yet” she gave me one of those looks. If you’re a woman, you’ve probably been on the receiving end of one of these at some point. She tipped her head back and looked down her nose at me, suspiciously, as though to say, “Well what’s the hold up?!” To paraphrase Tayari Jones, she looked at me like I was holding my mother-in-law’s grandbabies hostage inside my body. I smiled and mumbled a weak “hopefully soon”, while inside me a voice was screaming, “WE. ARE. DOING. OUR. BEST!!!”

I know that she meant no harm and was just showing an interest, in her feisty-old-gal way. I’m sure that if she’d known about our infertility, she’d have never given me that look. But it’s emblematic of the emotional minefield those of us in the infertility community feel we have to walk whenever conversation turns to our struggles to conceive. We know it’s a very difficult subject to talk about openly – we know that better than anyone. And we know of course that no one wants to offend. But it happens. Perhaps the hardest thing about living with infertility is the intense isolation you feel when it seems like no one you know can understand or relate to what you’re going through. The way people talk about it can make these feelings worse. To avoid this, here are some things you should try not to say to someone fighting infertility.

Have you tried…

Sometimes when I first tell people about our infertility, they struggle to wrap their minds around the idea of not being able to get pregnant. Needless to say, these are usually people who have had no trouble conceiving in the traditional manner and don’t really know much about what happens when that doesn’t work. They think they’re being helpful when they say things like, “have you tried lying on your back for a few minutes afterwards?” or suggest a different position. Invariably their advice is all very obvious to anyone who’s experienced infertility, but they mean well (most everyone means well). I always want to say “Of COURSE we’ve done that, what the hell do you think we’ve been doing this whole time?” But I can’t. I just nod and smile patiently. Suffice it to say – Yes. We’ve tried that.

Just relax, it’ll happen as soon as you stop trying!

This old chestnut implies that we’ve just been too stressed out to get pregnant. It’s true that stress can mess with your hormones, which can in turn affect ovulation and fertilization… but I don’t think this is what people mean when they say this. I think they mean that infertility is all in our heads, and that if anything, the problem is we’ve been trying TOO hard. And while I appreciate irony as much as the next person, if not more, I don’t really think it’s the guiding force of the universe. If you say this to me, you will get an eye roll, which you will deserve for saying something so dumb.

Don’t worry, you’re still young.

I honestly can’t believe that at 39, people are still saying this to me, although now they add the qualifier “by East Coast standards”. My husband does this thing where once a week or so he’ll casually mention some celebrity who had her first baby at 42. It’s not that I don’t appreciate people trying to tell me I’m young; I love it, please do it more often. The problem is that, while it does get harder to conceive the further away from 35 you get, infertility can strike at any age. Telling someone they’re still young seems to imply that they’ve got PLENTY of time to conceive so they should just slow down and relax (“it’ll happen when you stop trying!”) In fact, doctors encourage anyone under 35 to seek infertility diagnosis and treatment if they haven’t been successful after a year of trying, and after six months for women older than 35. I spent years laboring under this delusion, too angry and resentful to seek proactive treatment for our infertility, and now I’m ALMOST 40. This is where “you’re still young” got me.

You can just adopt!

Let me be very clear: when it comes to infertility, nobody “just does” anything. Every decision you make is carefully weighed against your medical needs, career demands, and financial reality, to say nothing of your deeply held beliefs, dreams, and desires. Adopting a baby is endlessly complex and, for many, prohibitively expensive. Also, like… maybe I don’t want to adopt. Or maybe it’s a topic I want to discuss only with my partner. The point is, saying “you can just (whatever)” makes it sound like we have this simple list of alternate plans that we can magically apply and then everything will be perfect. Easy-peasy! I can think of a lot of adjectives to describe infertility, but ‘easy’ sure as hell isn’t one of them.

Maybe God has a different plan for you

I don’t even know where to begin with this one. To be fair, it’s rare that someone says this to me, and it’s always someone who does not know me well, doesn’t really understand what we’re going through, and – of course – means well. But it is so terribly offensive. What it implies is that some people are “meant to be” parents and some people aren’t; that God has found some deficiency in us and has assured that we will never have children; that people without infertility deserve all the happiness and enrichment having children has brought to their lives, and we deserve to suffer. Here’s the thing, though – infertility is a disease. Would you tell someone with cancer that God had other plans for them, namely tumors and painful operations and horribly taxing treatment? Of course you wouldn’t. So even if you believe it with every fiber of your being, please don’t say it. In fact, unless you know the person really well, maybe don’t talk to them about God at all. Trust me, you don’t want to go there.

So… are you pregnant yet?!?

This one is kind of a problem of my own making. As we share more about the treatments we’re undergoing trying to conceive, of course people are eager to know if they’ve worked. I so appreciate that my friends and family are following our journey and rooting for us every step of the way. The love and support they’ve shown throughout this process has been overwhelming and truly sustaining. But there’s never just one text asking if this month’s procedure worked, and then I find myself in the position of having to say over and over “nope, not pregnant, not this time”. And weirdly, feeling guilty for disappointing them. Rest assured, when we get pregnant YOU WILL BE THE FIRST TO KNOW. Also, I love you.

I know it’s going to happen for you!

Really? How do you know this? Because even though I tell myself the same thing daily – nay, hourly! – I still have trouble believing it. Pray tell, where did you get this fundamental certainty? Your parents must have been very encouraging. Also, can you please consult your crystal ball and tell us how the 2020 election turns out, because if things keep going the way they are, we’ve all got bigger things to worry about…

I know I’m being a jerk here but it’s only because keeping hope alive and really believing that we will get pregnant someday has been the most difficult part of this journey for me. I can’t tell you how many times a week I dissolve into tears thinking to myself “it’s never gonna happen for us”. I’m kind of doing it right now. So for someone on the outside to express such confidence in our success, it just sort of baffles me.

Only the Best Husbands Get Promoted to Daddy

I need to take a deep breath before I begin this one because it makes me absolutely LIVID to see this on t-shirts or adorning Instagram posts every Father’s Day.

Okay.

Usually I see this from first-time parents who have that annoying sense of self-importance because they have functioning reproductive systems and want everyone to be impressed by how they’ve managed to accomplish this miracle of biology. It takes every ounce of self-control for me not to reply to one of these posts with a deadpan “well… fuck you”. What you’re saying is that YOUR husband, because he’s managed to impregnate you, good on him, is better than MY husband, and I’m sorry, but NO MAN is better than my husband. That’s just a fact. I’ve also seen the variation “Only the best dads get promoted to grandpa” so now, on top of the pain of infertility, I’m engulfed in sorrow over the fact that both of our dads died before they could meet any of their grandchildren, and that our kids, when we eventually have them, will never know their granddads. Are you happy now?

Happy Mother’s Day

I don’t know why anyone would say this to me, but they have. Often it’s students who must just assume I have kids because I’m an adult woman and all adult women they know are mothers. So they’re being polite, but it’s quite jarring and unexpected and I find myself mumbling an awkward “um – er… thanks”, not correcting them out of fear I’ll start crying. Or perhaps they mean (as some have said) that I’m like a mother to my students. But I want to be more than like a mother, and while it’s humbling that anyone would think of me this way, it does little to diminish the heartbreak of not being able to have children.

Mother’s Day is an incredibly fraught holiday for people experiencing infertility. A simple “I know this must be hard for you”, a warm hug, an offer of cup of tea all go a long way in making it not quite so awful.

You want a couple of mine?

Sometimes my friends will say something like “you are so lucky you have time to (travel/ read/ cross-stitch/ do yoga)!” What they’re saying is, “if I didn’t have these kids, I would do those fun things too”. And what I want to say is “… swap?” I actually did say that to my pregnant sister at Thanksgiving after she bemoaned how comparatively thin I looked in my cycling tights. I felt bad about it; I know she wasn’t being malicious. But it’s tiresome when people try to minimize infertility by attempting to convince me that the grass isn’t any greener, that I don’t really want that life. I do, actually. I want it more than anything. I know people who say this are just trying to lighten the mood or provide some sort of comfort, but it just doesn’t. I would give anything to not have time to cross-stitch and cycling tights aren’t flattering on anyone.

Nothing

I fully appreciate that infertility is a topic that makes some people supremely uncomfortable. All the talk of sexual organs and functions that is so ordinary for people who live infertility every moment of our lives can deeply embarrass others. I understand that it’s awkward and you don’t know what to say. But if you’re close with someone going through it, and you know about it, and they know you know, saying nothing can be interpreted in many hurtful ways:

  1. You don’t care about them, at least not enough to get over your discomfort
  2. You don’t think it’s a topic they should be open and honest about
  3. There’s something shameful or illicit about this very difficult thing they’re going through

The simplest way to broach the subject is just to acknowledge that you don’t know what to say, but you’re thinking of them and hoping for the best. This is exactly what one of my young friends (who also happens to be a former student) said to me this week, after a fashion. If a 21-year-old sports journalist can be this eloquent and sensitive, surely you can find the words too.

A wonderful message I received this week from a true friend

What to Say Instead

Right now you might be wondering, “seems like everything offends you snowflakes, what’s the point of saying anything?” But that’s just not true. There are some very simple, thoughtful things you can say that will make your infertile loved one feel your care and support. Here’s a brief list:

  1. This sucks in the worst way.
  2. I’m sorry you’re having to deal with this. You don’t deserve it.
  3. You two would be the best parents. This is so unfair.
  4. I’m thinking of you and hoping for the best.
  5. Sending so much love.

Cheerleading is also very much appreciated. Fighting infertility is a grind, and a simple “you can do it, champ!” is exactly what we need to hear sometimes, especially if we’re about to undergo a procedure that’s a bit scary or painful. Here’s an amazing message I received from my friend Holly on the eve of our first IUI that encapsulates this sentiment beautifully:

My dear friend Holly’s delightful IUI blessing for us

Announcing a pregnancy to someone with infertility can be bit dicey too. Don’t get me wrong – we are thrilled for our friends and family when they find out they’re expecting and the last thing we’d want to do is take away from their well-deserved happiness and excitement. Probably the best thing to do in this case is send a text or an email rather than announce it face-to-face. Pregnancy announcements are often an emotional trigger and by making yours in this manner, you give them the chance to have whatever response they will have in private. When my girlfriend Rena told us that she was pregnant, my friend Alison, who always says exactly the right thing, sent me a text that read: “Love you friend! I am well aware that is it possible to simultaneously be super happy for someone and still feel that little twinge. You are wonderful!” That’s how you do it.

As we wind down National Infertility Awareness Week, I think it’s important to acknowledge the tremendous strides we’ve made in bringing this painful disease out of the shadows. The more we talk about infertility, the more we can erase the stigma, bring it into the public consciousness, and fight for expanded access to the treatments that offer hope for a cure. Thank you so much to everyone who has been willing to go there with us. I know it’s not always easy or comfortable, but it shows that you’re standing with us in this battle and gives us the strength to fight another day.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. sunnydaysontheway says:

    Yep all of these get hard sometimes, and the numerous variations of the “only the best” always bugs me a lot. Love the positive examples and texts you shared 🙂

    Like

    1. They’re absolutely what gets me through -for every stumble or bit of bad news, there’s 2 or 3 nice things like that to remind me of how much support I have. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Emma says:

    As a teacher I’m now on the Summer break. Today’s classic comment “now you’re on holiday and less stressed it might happen naturally” No no, sperm count is still the same. I know they try to help, but it just doesn’t does it!! https://alittleblobofhope.home.blog

    Like

    1. Ugh, I hate that one! I’m sorry you’re having to deal with this – thanks for reading *hugs*

      Like

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