On Monday, we paid for our IVF cycle to the tune of approximately $11,000 (not including medication). That same night, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed before bed and happened upon a pregnancy announcement. All the feelings hit me at once: the punch to your gut, the feeling of a rug being pulled out from beneath your feet, the sickening dread that you can’t quite put a name to. I usually do a pretty good job of making myself numb to these kind of surprises, but I was feeling particularly vulnerable as we had just nearly emptied our savings account in the name of having the chance to complete our family.
And then, like an idiot, I posted a Facebook status update about my feelings.
As you can probably imagine, I got a wide range of replies. All of them were trying to be supportive, which I really do appreciate. I’m glad I have people in my life who care enough to try and comfort me when I’m going through something awful and physically and emotionally draining. Many of these comments completely missed the mark and offered no comfort whatsoever. In fact, a few of them left me feeling even worse, though I’m sure that was not their intention.
This is largely because infertility is a subject that makes people uncomfortable. No one really knows what to say to someone who is facing the very real possibility of having their dreams of a family forcibly ripped away from them.
But here’s the thing. Infertility is a disease. Just like the many different types of cancer, just like diabetes, like heart disease, liver disease. The way to comfort someone going through infertility is the same as how you would comfort anyone else experiencing health problems.
Now, you might say, “Wait a minute, Stacey! Cancer is life-threatening. Infertility isn’t. Can you really compare them?” Yes. Yes, you can. While infertility might not carry a potential death sentence, the emotional toll it takes is every bit as comparable. Throughout my years in the infertility community, I have met some amazing women, some of whom have had to end their journey with no living children at all. I mean, can you even imagine? I have heard these women say that there were times they wished that they were dead.
The medications and procedures required for ART (Advanced Reproductive Technology, like IVF) put a large strain on the body and can result in things like Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome (OHSS for short) which can in turn lead to ovarian torsion and the loss of an ovary. Can you really compare the suffering of a cancer patient undergoing chemo and radiation to someone undertaking ART? I very much think you can. At least in many cases, your cancer treatments will be covered by insurance. There are only 15 states in the U.S. that mandate any form of infertility coverage, and even then, the coverage is often very limited.
In any case, research has shown that women suffering with infertility have the same levels of anxiety and depression as women with cancer and other major health concerns (source).
The death of any dream is very hard to handle for anyone, but the death of the dream of your own family can be downright cruel. It’s something that so many people take for granted every day. Now, I can only speak for myself as a woman who always dreamed of having a family, but I always just assumed it would happen. I mean, who dreams as a child of growing up and facing multiple miscarriages, or not being able to get pregnant at all? That’s right, no one. In a way, facing infertility was one of my biggest fears. That’s how much I wanted to be a mother… that not being able to have children was ranked above an untimely death.
Most people don’t have to think about this, but for the approximately 1 in 8 couples in America, this is their reality.
If you’re still reading this, it’s probably because you’re part of the infertility community, too. I’m sorry you can relate to any of this. Or, you might be someone who loves someone who can relate to all of this. In which case, I applaud you for trying to educate yourself!
Read on for a list of things you should absolutely not ever say to someone going through infertility. I will explain why these phrases/platitudes are hurtful (or just generally not helpful or comforting), and things you can say instead.
“It’s God’s plan/God’s will/in God’s time, etc.”
First of all, not everyone believes in God. So it pretty much goes without saying that not everyone would find these sentiments comforting. Second, even those who are religious don’t necessarily find comfort in this. Who wants to be reminded that God is making them wait, or go through this terrible ordeal in order to get pregnant (or sustain a pregnancy), when many (seemingly) undeserving women get pregnant all the time without any trouble? It’s simply not a good thing to say, even if you really believe it.
Many people seem to have a lot of misconceptions about how the adoption process works. They seem to think it goes something like this:
- Go to Baby Store
- Pick out your baby
- Pay a small sum of money
- Go home and live happily ever after
That could not be further from the truth. The adoption process (at least here in the U.S.) is a very long and expensive process that does not guarantee happiness at the end of it. The average domestic infant adoption in the U.S. costs anywhere from $35,000 to $40,000 when everything is all said and done (source). That is an expense that MANY people cannot pay, and for obvious reasons. And even when you’re finally home with your new baby, there can be heartache caused by the birth parents changing their minds. Many couples walk away from the adoption process with empty bank accounts, empty arms and broken hearts. So, there is no “just” adopting. Even for people who can afford it, adoption may just not be for them, for whatever reason. Anyone faced with the heartbreaking decisions required to build their family does not come to their resolution lightly. So have a little respect, yeah?
“Have you tried XYZ?”
Look, I’m not going to mince words on this one. Yes, I’ve tried that. And that, too. And also that. It didn’t work. So now I’m under the care of a fertility specialist (Reproductive Endocrinologist, or RE for short) who has the knowledge and means to figure out what’s wrong and get me pregnant. It’s nice that you want to help… but trust us. WE HAVE TRIED IT ALL.
“Just relax/Stop trying so hard/It will happen when you least expect it/Go on vacation/Get drunk/etc”
This is particularly unhelpful because it places blame for the infertility on something the couple is doing wrong. Infertility is diagnosed after 12 months of unprotected sex, with no pregnancies. Recurrent pregnancy loss (RPL for short) is diagnosed after 3 miscarriages (they do not have to be consecutive). That’s just science, OK? There is also virtually no credible or substantial relationship between stress and infertility. I’m not infertile because I stress over it too much. That’s not how it works. Normal, day-to-day stress also cannot cause a miscarriage. “Relaxing” does not cure infertility, no matter the form.
“I’m so fertile! I can’t understand what you’re going through, but I’m glad it isn’t me!”
Does this one even need an explanation? This is just absolutely NOT the right thing to say, at all, under and circumstances. EVER. Even if you’re saying it in a supporting manner, or worded differently. Just… no. Your fertility has literally nothing to do with me, but thanks for rubbing it in that you can get pregnant on demand and I can’t. That’s super helpful and comforting. (I really need a sarcasm font)
“At least you have one child/be thankful for the child(ren) you have/etc.”
I don’t think there is a single person going through secondary infertility that is not thankful for the child(ren) that they have. However, having X number of children does not make the pain of being able to finish your family any less real or painful. I look at my daughter (who is herself a product of fertility treatments) and while I am so, so grateful to have the opportunity to be a mother, the thought that she will maybe have to grow up as an only child because I can’t get pregnant again is sometimes more than I can bear.
“Take my kids!/Borrow my kids and you won’t want any anymore!”
Does this one need an explanation, either? I mean, come on. OBVIOUSLY I don’t want your brats, I want my own brats! I want the experience that comes with being pregnant, giving birth, having a newborn. Creating a person who has never existed before. Someone who looks like me and my husband. Offering me your children is an insult, plain and simple. I know you mean it in a joking way, but it’s a really shitty joke to make. It’s insensitive and honestly, tactless.
“At least you know you can get pregnant!”
To any woman who has ever had a miscarriage, this is probably one of the worst things you could possibly say. Yes, I can get pregnant, but my body seems to take joy in killing my babies. I am so very happy about that! NOT. Please, please don’t say this. It is not comforting in the least to know that you can get pregnant, but not stay pregnant.
“Enjoy life without kids/Travel/You get to sleep in/etc”
While life without children definitely has some perks, those of us working on building our family are well aware of what we would be giving up. And to us, it is worth it. Many of us are spending tens of thousands of dollars trying to become parents, I think we are quite ready for it, and have enjoyed our childless days enough. This is definitely not a helpful thing to say, because it just evokes the feelings of a life we are yearning to move on from but are being prevented from doing so by powers outside of our control.
“Stay positive/Have faith/Don’t be so bitter/etc”
While staying positive and keeping faith might be easy for some people, even in the face of the worst shit that life can throw at you, it is not for others. We will all invariably have our down days, and harbor feelings that we aren’t necessarily proud of. But that’s the thing about grief, and the strain of a stressful situation: everyone handles it differently. You don’t get to decide how someone else grieves. You don’t get to decide how someone else deals with the pain, bitterness, and sometimes aching loneliness of infertility. I can guarantee that whether I am happy, cheerful, sad, angry, bitter or any other emotion… I will STILL be infertile.
So, yeah. There are quite a few terrible things you can say to someone in your attempt to comfort or offer support. I’ve hopefully done a decent job of rounding up the most common ones and offering reasons why they aren’t helpful or OK to say.
Think about infertility again in the context of a disease like cancer: Would you tell a cancer patient to “just relax” and their cancer will resolve itself? No! You wouldn’t, that’s bizarre. So don’t say it to someone suffering with infertility.
When it comes down to it, my infertility isn’t about you. I don’t need you to try and fix me, I have doctors for that. If you’re my friend, or someone I care about, all I need is for you to be there. To listen if I need it, to have some compassion and empathy even if you don’t or can’t understand on a personal level. If you can’t say anything else, say you’re sorry. Don’t offer an asinine platitude just because you’re uncomfortable.
What else would you add? Tell me in the comments!
Thanks for reading.