For many women, the decision to tell people that they’re having trouble getting pregnant is a challenging and brave one. As I learned the hard way, the ensuing conversations are so often fraught with peril – pet theories, unsolicited advice, the disappointment of loved ones – that it often seems less painful to keep the feelings to ourselves or to our partners (who are also emotionally drained and often even more reluctant to share their feelings). But instead of isolation, there can be another option: support. From you. It sounds easy, right? So why does it backfire? And what can you do?
If you’ve ever been pregnant and gotten the “Are you sure you’re not having twins?” question, you have some idea of what it’s like for women who are going through infertility. We know our friends and family are trying to be kind, but sometimes their advice is unhelpful at best and hurtful at worst. So in an effort to help you help us, here’s a primer of some do’s and don’ts.
Let’s start with a few comments to avoid, because they’re such common – and well-intentioned – pitfalls. Before we begin, my apologies to the people who lovingly said these things to me; I know you meant well.
“You’re probably trying too hard.” This comment is a classic, and it comes in many forms, such as: “It’s just stress,” and “If you stop thinking about it, it’ll happen.” Everyone has a story of how her aunt or friend-of-a-friend tried for years to get pregnant and succeeded only after “giving up” (what that means varies widely). These anecdotes are compelling, but they’re not backed up by scientific evidence. I have to put on my statistician hat here and point out a few things. First, it’s human nature to selectively attend to the stories that confirm our preconceptions and that make for good storytelling. It’s hard – but important – to remember that there are many other stories you don’t hear, especially the ones that involve successful infertility treatment, which many women don’t openly discuss. Second, correlation does not equal causation. Just because some women go on to get pregnant after they stop actively trying does not mean that the problem was either caused by stress or alleviated by a lack of trying. And even more important than the lack of scientific evidence is the fact that telling your friend not to be stressed is only going to make her more stressed. Women who are going through infertility are often buried under a mountain of (unnecessary) guilt and embarrassment; suggesting that stress is causing the problem will only toss more dirt on top.
“Oh, I bet you’re going to have twins.” This is a surprisingly common reaction when women share that they’re undergoing infertility treatments. For some women, having multiple births sounds like a dream come true; for others, it’s scary. Either way, this comment is an attempt to predict the future, which is not usually a good idea, and definitely not a good idea when a loved one is in an uncertain period in her life. On the other hand, inquiring about your friend’s chances of having multiples, and more importantly, her feelings about that possibility, can make for a very helpful conversation, especially if you let her make the choice about whether to pursue the conversation and if you reserve your own opinions until you’ve heard hers.
“Maybe you just weren’t meant to have kids.” Thankfully, no one actually said this to me. But I know other women who have heard it. Your loved one may be thinking this exact thing right now, but she should be the one to bring it up. If she does, you might want to suggest some other ways that she can have a mother role: through nieces and nephews, through volunteering with children, through giving birth to something else like art or a scientific project. Even if she doesn’t bring it up, you could suggest these strategies as a way to cope with her current feelings of sadness and emptiness while she’s trying to get pregnant. The thing to avoid is making predictions or suggestions about the universe’s long-term plan for whether or not she will be a biological mother.
In addition to these specific comments, it’s best to avoid anything that sounds like a cliché, even if it is the easiest (or only) thing you can reach for. If you don’t know what to say, sometimes it’s best to offer something else instead: a hug, a laugh, some really good chocolate (but steer clear of alcohol and caffeine, which some fertility experts recommend avoiding and which therefore can be emotional triggers for your loved one).
So what can you say? Like so many of life’s important lessons, I learned this from my mother. I’m ashamed to admit that in my cranky teenage years, I complained, loudly and hurtfully, that my mom never knew the right thing to say. Fortunately, it didn’t take me too many years to realize how wrong I was. But it wasn’t until I was trying to get pregnant that I discovered the depth of my mom’s wisdom, compassion, and perfect timing.
My mom’s perfect words – which came in different phrases and images during the many, many tearful conversations we had about the subject – basically came down to this: your sadness and anxiety are completely understandable, but I have faith and optimism about your journey. It was the combination of the two parts that was so comforting: validating my negative feelings while also remaining unfailingly positive. She held my negative feelings without letting them get her down (or at least, without showing it). And she kept the faith when I couldn’t. It takes great strength to do this. But it also gives great strength – a gift for which my gratitude has no words.
Because no two women are the same, no friendship or family bond is the same, and no journey to motherhood is the same, there is no one perfect thing to say in every situation. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find the right thing in some situations. Finding that right thing might take a little bit of extra thought and time. But it’s worth the effort; you may never know what it means to the woman who hears it. My mom probably didn’t realize it when she said what I will remember for the rest of my life as the perfect thing said at the perfect time. During one late night phone conversation, I moaned “Everything takes me longer than everyone else.” And her response was this: “Yes, but then you do it so elegantly.” I thought of this through all the tests and treatments, I thought of it throughout my anxious pregnancy, I think of it when my precious son serves up a new challenge. And I think of it when I talk to other women who are trying to get pregnant. My hope is that I can find words for them that are half as elegant and meaningful as my mother’s words to me.
What's your story? Did someone ever say The Perfect Thing to you, just when you needed it -- or did someone ever say the absolute worst thing? How do/did you wish to be supported through infertility -- or any other difficult time? How do you support loved ones who are experiencing infertility? Share your stories, Pinkies, even the bad ones... we tend to learn best from both, don't we?
Wishing you the strength to give strength,
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