So, there was something called “National Infertility Week” in late April and for some reason I didn’t hear about it at the time but this week am seeing infertility-related content all over the place.
I was kind of disappointed that I missed it because I struggled with infertility for a long time and I think we should talk about it more. So, I’ll just talk about it now. Or rather, I’m going to talk about how some of the talk around it bugs me. Specifically: some of the things you should never say to someone who is struggling with infertility.
Even though it got its own week, there’s still a pretty big silence around infertility. I never had any qualms about discussing my inability to conceive, but many women don’t want people to know. Maybe it’s because vaginas and uteruses are involved. Maybe it’s because it makes you feel like a failure as a woman. Maybe it’s at least partly because people say such dumb things to you when you’re having trouble conceiving that you just stop bringing it up.
I was lucky enough to conceive and deliver a live baby, who is now three years old, after nine fertility treatments (seven IUIs and two IVFs), one miscarriage, and two ectopic pregnancies. The whole experience cost tens of thousands of dollars and I can’t describe the emotional toll it took on me, but in the end we were happy. Not everyone is so lucky. And during that three-year period during which I was faced with failure after failure, people said some very strangely thoughtless things to me. It definitely got to the point where I didn’t want to talk about it. Because shut up.
Maybe if people didn’t say such doltish things, we’d be more willing to open up.
Here I am going to list the most common offfenses. So, you don’t ever say them.
“Everything happens for a reason.” Really? Like the holocaust? Did the holocaust happen for a reason? How about Syria? You should totally go tell the next woman who is about to be stoned to death in Raqqah that “everything happens for a reason.” That will make her feel better. Then pat yourself on the back because you are SO ENLIGHTENED. Not to compare infertility to the holocaust or the war in Syria. I’m really not. My point, rather, is that this makes you sounds like an insensitive, condescending twit and that shitty things don’t happen for a reason. They just happen. And the person with the problem should not be forced into your childish philosophical argument.
“You should adopt. I know someone who couldn’t get pregnant and then they adopted and as soon as they did she got pregnant!” I heard this a bizarre number of times. What exactly is the message supposed to be? That I should use adoption as a route to getting pregnant? What if I don’t want to adopt? What if I only want one kid? Also, do you know how unlikely this is to actually happen? I don’t even believe you. I think you heard this as a second hand anecdote and decided to cut out the middleman. Do you even listen to the stuff that comes out of your mouth?
“Maybe you just need to relax.” It felt like everyone said this. Do you understand how ridiculous it sounds? Women trying to conceive spend thousands of dollars and go through incredibly invasive and painful procedures. They have miscarriages and other forms of losses, often several. That plus the emotional roller coaster of waiting to find out each month if the procedure worked and the disappointment when it doesn’t – or does and then you lose the pregnancy – is STRESSFUL. And to suggest that it’s all somehow her fault because she just isn’t relaxed enough is basically just a terrible thing to do. Do you also tell people with cancer to eat kale and that if they just had a positive attitude they would beat it? Trust me. The problem is not that she is too tense.
“Really? I never had any problems getting pregnant. It was so easy!” Yes! This is exactly what every struggling and suffering person needs to hear. That YOU never had the same problem, that it’s just, for some reason, them. Come on. Do you not hear how bad this sounds? Try it with other subjects, just for fun: “Really? You lost your job? That’s funny. I didn’t lose MY job!” Or, “Wow? Someone you love died? Everyone I love is still alive. I guess I’m just lucky.”
“I know how you feel.” No. You don’t. Unless you have been through the exact same thing, you don’t know how the other person feels. So, don’t say that you do.
Look, I know that you want to be sympathetic and are just trying to say something comforting. But are you doing it to make yourself feel better or to make the other person feel better? If it’s the latter, which it should be, take a minute to think about what is coming out of your mouth and how it is going to sound to them. If it is a meaningless, empty platitude, unsolicited advice, or an outright slap in the face, then don’t say it.
Here are some better options:
“I’m so sorry this is happening to you.”
“Here. I bought you flowers/booze/chocolate/a private island.”
“Let me know if you need to talk.”
“Can I take you out to dinner and drinks?”
“No? OK. I understand.” (Don’t try to force anyone into seeing you or talking to you if they don’t feel like it. It’s not about you.)
Happy belated infertility week. And to those out there still working on it, good luck. I have some basic idea of how you feel.