Just as a disclaimer before we begin: I know that at only a year and a half of conscious infertility, I am far from an expert in how all women feel. Please remember that every woman is different and needs to be loved and supported differently. But these are some good guidelines for the well-intentioned. These are things that I’d like the people around me to know. I welcome additional ideas or questions in the comments.
Dealing with infertility is hard. If a friend or co-worker bravely opens up to you about her own struggles with any form or stage of fertility struggles, here are some things not to say:
“You just have to believe! You need to pray.”
This one is a serious slap in the face. Please understand that she’s already praying and trying to abandon herself to God’s will with each and every moment of the day, most likely. The way this sounds to her ears is something like, “Obviously God hasn’t given you children yet because you don’t love Him enough. Your faith must be weak and it’s your fault this is happening.” Which is probably not what you meant. But it’s what she just heard, even if the rational part of her brain is trying to remain charitable. Women struggling with fertility issues are susceptible enough already to believing that it’s our fault. After all, it’s often our bodies that are suddenly failing us. She needs to hear that it’s not her fault.
“I guess it’s just not God’s will for you. Why don’t you just adopt?”
This one may be different for each woman depending upon where she is in the battle. But for women who haven’t had a very, very permanent diagnosis yet, it’s cruel. Remember that she’s fighting to keep hope alive in prayer that her treatments may work, her surgeries may heal her, and God may give her a miracle. To suggest with such certainty that you know God’s will can crush that small ember of hope that she’s fighting for. None of us knows His will, and she’s probably already well aware that it might not be His will for her to have biological children.
As to adoption, you can put money down that she and her husband have already been talking about it. Maybe they were already planning to adopt children at some point, regardless of whether they could have children naturally. But keep in mind that adoption is a big, long, and hard process. It’s expensive and stressful. It’s overwhelming. Assume the best of your friend and know that this is a highly emotional issue that’s already on her mind. You’re not the first one to think of it, despite your good intentions, and bringing it up might sound like an accusation or judgement to her.
“Don’t worry, you’ll get pregnant soon.” or “Your turn will come!”
I can see where this might seem really supportive to the person saying it, but the truth is that it’s an empty promise that you can’t make. And hearing it makes it harder for your friend to keep her heart focused on the will of God.
The fact is, she knows that it’s possible that God’s will for her isn’t to have biological children. And she’s reminding herself again and again and again all day, every day that while she can ask in prayer for what she hopes for, that ultimately her prayer needs to imitate both Our Lady’s fiat and Our Lord’s as they pray for God’s will above their own. Don’t make her stumble in this difficult resolve with things that aren’t yours to promise. (Trust me, if only we could will babies into existence, there’d be no issue.)
“Any news yet?”
No, friends. There is no news. She’ll tell you any good news she may be blessed with when she’s ready. Don’t be that kid asking, “Are we there yet?” to the mom who so desperately wants to be there already but isn’t really sure if she ever will be.
However, if you’re asking how a procedure or treatment she told you about earlier is going, feel free to ask how things went. But please ask in private. And if she’s vague, let it be. She may not have real news yet, or she may just not be ready to talk about it.
“Don’t obsess over this.” or “You just need to relax.”
I’m willing to bet that any mother out there can understand this one. If you’re blessed enough to already be a mother, you know that your children are your life. You think about them and their well-being all the time. Every moment of your life is centered around your vocation to motherhood: what will I feed them, how will I teach them today, how can I keep them safe, how can one child expel so many bodily fluids? Even when you take some “you time,” you know that you’re doing it so that you don’t burn out–so you can be a better mother to them. Everything is ultimately for them.
When a woman has a vocation to motherhood, these instincts can’t just be shut off, even if there isn’t a child to focus them on yet. What might look like an obsession from the outside is simply a woman’s maternal instincts looking for a place to land. She, too, is thinking constantly of her children.
Also, this is her real life and (often) her own health and body that are being affected. You wouldn’t tell a friend with cancer to stop praying so hard, stop looking for answers, and stop thinking about his or her next treatment. So don’t do it to her.
She knows that reducing stress is an important element in treating infertility. Trust me, she knows. But someone telling you to hurry up and relax has exactly the opposite effect. This includes any variation of the advice that if only the couple would just stop trying so hard, they’d get pregnant right away.
In fact, if you haven’t noticed, the word “just” should be eliminated from your vocabulary completely. There is no “just” in how she feels or in how hard this is for her. “Just” trivializes all of it.
Nothing at all. Especially if you’re pregnant yourself.
Yes, some women experiencing infertility have seasons where watching another woman achieve so easily what she herself is aching for is impossible to bear. But not all of us feel that way all of the time. And being left out (again,) or avoided because someone has good news is really much more painful. Because here’s the thing: if hearing about your pregnancy is going to make us cry, we were going to cry anyway. So tell her your good news. Don’t pity her (she wants your empathy anyway, not your sympathy.) Let her be happy for you. Let her be the one to ask about the details if she wants to know them. And make sure you let her love on that baby all she wants after it’s born. It’s not a replacement for her own child, but nothing on earth feels as good as a baby in your arms.
Things to say that do help:
“I know this must be so difficult. You’re not alone.”
“I’ll be praying for you every day and I’m here if you need to vent.”
“Keep persevering; you are stronger than you know.”
“It’s okay to cry. I’m here.” (If she’s already crying.)
“Let’s get a drink together this week and have some girl time.”
And the best one of all…”Would you like to hold my baby?” 😉
No seriously, let us hold your babies. They have the power to heal an aching soul better than any medicine or therapy does.
The trick is to acknowledge her struggles, her sacrifices, not to accidentally belittle them. As a friend, she knows that you want so badly to offer some comfort and that you would fix it if you could. Unfortunately, the only universal thing that you can do is to pray for her.
In some situations, bringing her family meals or helping out around their house after a medical procedure is amazing. Sometimes just getting her out for a glass of wine and a conversation that doesn’t turn to her health/fertility unless she wants it to is a God-send. Infertility can be so isolating; just let her know that she’s not alone. And let her snuggle your baby.
For advice on what to say or not to say to women who have experienced miscarriage, I highly recommend this post.