I’ve made no secret on this blog of the fact that John and I suffer from fertility issues. I’ve written quite extensively about it in the past, and here’s my post on PCOS and one on pregnancy envy.
This post is intended more for friends and family of someone suffering from fertility problems. In my experience, there are lots of people out there who panic at the rather uncomfortable topic of infertility. In a moment of panic (and occasionally in displays of stunning insensitivity and arrogance, but that’s far more rare) many people tend to blurt out the least helpful thing they can imagine. Here are some of the most common infertility gaffes, and a little guide as to what can be said instead:
Everyone’s fairytale looks different
“So, when are you going to have kids?”
Sometimes it’s a question, sometimes it’s a direct command, like “babies please!” While I get that everyone likes babies and that the old nursery rhyme about babies in a carriage advocates procreation as the next logical step to marriage, it’s also a bad move to ask anyone this ill-thought-out question.
For a start, it’s a dumb question. Even if there are no issues at all, nobody can predict when a baby is going to come along. And if someone’s already pregnant and they haven’t told you about it, there’s a reason – they’re probably high risk or not far along enough yet. Some people plain don’t want kids and rightfully resent the assumption that they do. Then there’s the potential for scraping open old wounds with rusty nails. No matter how much I’ve tried to make my peace with the infertility thing, the “SO when are you going to have a BABY?” question (or worse “something to tell us?” whenever I’m feeling off colour) stings like a bitch.
“You’ll have a baby when you’re ready”
Would you tell a cancer patient that they just aren’t ready to be healthy? Most causes of infertility are rooted in illness – some can be treated, some can’t – some people don’t respond to treatment. It’s not a question of how ready you are, and people’s insinuations can really rub salt into a wound. Not only is your body not working for you but you’re also doing something wrong psychologically.
“You can just adopt”
I’ve looked into adoption – a lot. It’s a wonderful, worthy way to take in a child that needs your love and support and to complete the family you so desire. However, it’s no walk in the park. The selection process can be extremely difficult, you’re rarely handed a freshly wrapped, newborn baby, often children have been severely traumatised, abandoned or taken from abusive or neglectful homes. They’re often older and much work must be done to build a relationship where the child feels safe and loved. I’m 100% sure that if that’s the route we go down, we’ll go down it with gusto and we will love the child we are given with all our hearts, but it’s hardly the easy alternative. And for many people, they must do the painful work of giving up any long-established dreams of having a biological family before they are ready to go down that route. Adoption is sensitive, difficult and brings up many other issues, there’s no “just” about it.
“You’re still young”
Being young has very little to do with it in some cases. Most people don’t go around advertising the cause of their infertility, and there are some medical conditions that don’t discriminate by age. For my friend whose partner’s sperm count is zero, her youth is no comfort or reassurance. For the women I know who’ve had hysterectomies, cancer, premature ovarian failure or any other devastating conditions, the thought that they would have had many childbearing years ahead of them had they been fertile is not particularly comforting. People assume that young = fertile. In many cases it’s just not true and not helpful to say so.
I’m sure relaxing helps. It probably won’t cure my PCOS though. And funnily enough, most of the time, I am pretty relaxed. There’s always someone with some anecdote or urban myth of infertile friends without a hope who “just relaxed” and went on holiday and came home with fifty babies or something. However, telling someone to relax is the least relaxing thing you can possibly say. It’s like saying “don’t think about oranges” – what are you thinking about right now?
So what CAN you say to help someone who’s struggling? The problem is that most people try to make it better. For some people it won’t get better, but they may just need to talk about it. It reminds me a little of when my dad was terminally ill and people, with the best intentions, would respond “well I’m sure you’ll get better soon”. It doesn’t help and it belittles what the person is going through. There’s no advice you can give that someone who’s infertile hasn’t heard a million times. Instead, offer your support, your ear, your arms and your heart – they’re much more valuable in this situation than your words.