What not to say to an infertile person (even if they're child-free!)

August 23 | Guest post by Minerva Siegel
You could just take a page from this card by Etsy seller constellationco, and say this instead.
You could just take a page from this card by Etsy seller constellationco, and say this instead.

I'm infertile. There are a lot of unexpected emotions that come up when you're infertile. I've been described as ultra-confident, and I still struggle with feelings of inadequacy for not being able to reproduce.

It can be tough to know what to say when you find out that someone is infertile. Here are a few common responses I've received, and why they're problematic…

"That's no big deal, you can foster or adopt kids"

Society puts so much pressure on women to have children. If they can't physically produce their own, they're expected to adopt or foster someone else's. If you want to adopt or foster, that's great! But it's also okay to just want kids of your own.

Also, duh? You think that an infertile person doesn't know that fostering/adoption is an option? I don't even understand why people bother to say this to me all the time when they find out I'm infertile, as if I'm going to respond with, "Adoption? What's that? Tell me more!"

"You don't want kids anyway, so your infertility doesn't matter, right?

Never assume that infertility isn't a big deal to someone. It likely is. Hormones are powerful, and, even though I don't want kids, I still feel an almost mourning sometimes when I'm reminded of my permanently barren womb. There's something about not having the option of carrying a child of my own that makes me feel empty inside, even if it's not an option I would choose. I also struggle with feeling like "less of a woman," or like I'm intrinsically broken because I can't carry out a biological function that our society places a huge amount of importance and value on.

I don't want kids for a huge number of reasons. But that doesn't mean that my infertility doesn't affect me emotionally, or that I don't get triggered by images of children or pregnancy sometimes and feel sad.

"Does your husband know you're infertile?"

This one always baffles me. People have asked me this several times, and each time I'm absolutely flabbergasted. It's like they want to know why my husband would bother marrying someone who can't give him children, and assume that my infertility must be a secret I kept from him to trick him into marrying me.

Asking me if my husband knows that I'm infertile just reaffirms society's widely-accepted, hugely problematic idea that the value in women lies in their ability to reproduce.

"Why did you get married if you can't have kids?"

Marriage and kids don't always go together. Obviously. You can have one without the other. There are tons of reasons to get married that have absolutely nothing to do with having children… I fell in love. I wanted to make it official with a wedding and all the accompanying hoopla. I wanted the tax breaks, his great insurance, and all the other financial benefits that come along with being married. The fact that people are so brainwashed into thinking that you can't possibly have any real purpose or value in your marriage beyond reproducing is sad.

So what should you say?

When someone reveals to you that they suffer from infertility, just accept it as a part of them, and move on. Don't try to give them life advice. Infertile people need your support, understanding, common sense, and compassion.

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  1. My great-great aunt and uncle chose to remain childfree because they couldn't have kids. (She was involved in a car accident that somehow damaged her ovaries.) IUI and IVF weren't around in those days and while they did have the chance to adopt, they ultimately decided that adoption wasn't for them. But they were extremely happy being childfree and fulfilled their lives by lots of traveling. I do wonder, though, if they sometimes had some "what if" moments like whenever my family paid them a visit or they went to family functions and weddings.

    I do agree with you, though, that there is SO MUCH pressure put on women to procreate. It's frankly no one's business what we do with our bodies.

    2 agree
  2. "Does your husband know?" …. WTF? No, no, my husband and I haven't discussed potentially life-altering biological conditions, but I'm having this conversation with YOU.
    Yikes.
    I don't know if I'm infertile. I suspect I'll have issues conceiving if nothing else, but we aren't trying yet so I really don't know for sure. It really isn't anyone's business.
    And the marriage thing? It makes me sad that people apparently can't get passed that. Almost like when my friend confided in me that after she got married, her family would expect her to stop taking birth control because apparently that's what you're supposed to do. I was floored when she told me that, but I guess more people assume marriage = immediate babies than I realized.

    10 agree
    • "I don't know if I'm infertile. I suspect I'll have issues conceiving if nothing else, but we aren't trying yet so I really don't know for sure. It really isn't anyone's business."

      I sooo could have written this word-for-word. Hubby and I are doing fertility awareness, which allows me to keep track of my cycles. While the charting has helped me feel a little more confident about potentially conceiving in the future, I now worry more about having male factor issues (though we are open to donor sperm/eggs). Everything is so uncertain when it comes to trying to conceive. Here's to hoping!

      2 agree
      • And I could have written this 🙂 I've started tracking with an eye to conception in the future, and figuring out how hard it's going to be. I am more confident about conceiving, even if I only get a couple of shots at it per year, but some of the stuff I've read since now makes me concerned about carrying to term, as well.

        We have one advantage that because the OH had cancer in his early twenties he had some sperm frozen then, and has been retested since to see if the chemo affected him (looks like it didn't, but we're keeping the sperm anyway).

        2 agree
        • Ugh, I worry about being able to carry to term as well. In fact, one of my biggest fears about trying to conceive is having to go through multiple losses in a row. But I'm also trying to rely more on my doctors to give me information on fertility and conception. Most importantly, using fertility awareness helps me to focus on MY OWN fertility and therefore MY OWN chances of conceiving. After all, fertility is such an individual thing. All of those Google searches have done just about nothing but make me worry even more. Besides, there's so much contradictory info out there that it's often hard to know who or what to believe!

          2 agree
          • My family have a history of struggling to conceive, struggling to carry to term, and struggling to give birth. The good news is almost all of my female relatives had children after thirty, and they've all managed to have at least two kids. At the end of the day, a lot of fertility issues are hereditary, and we're all here, aren't we? And we have the advantage of foreknowledge, so we can get appropriate medical support from the beginning.

            2 agree
  3. Ugh, the foster or adopt thing…

    I have fertility issues and may well never have children. For a brief (very brief) moment in time my husband and I were foster parents. Mostly I was at a low point and wanted a child so badly and my husband was ready to do anything to help fill that void. In hindsight it was a terrible idea.

    While fostering can be a wonderful thing and it does work for some it just didn't work for us. Both of us have anxiety and we like things to be scheduled and planned. Nothing about foster parenting is scheduled or planned and nothing is in your control. We loved the children we were placed with but after they were moved to their aunt's home (she already adopted their older brother) we decided that our emotions couldn't handle fostering again.

    A private adoption is expensive and given the age of my spouse and some of his health issues I don't believe we would be a realistic choice for a birth parent. And again the emotional toll of adoption is not one I think I can handle.

    As with choosing to have a child or not, how to have a child is a choice. I choose not to foster or adopt because it doesn't work for my family. I hope that I can give birth to a child but I know that is a gamble.

    5 agree
  4. I have a question and hope not to come across as rude. I promise it's just curiosity.
    If you'd rather not have children, why do you mention your infertility.
    If i were in your shoes i suppose I'd just say i don't want children. That's an easy way out. It can lead to more stupid questions, i know, but i think those wouldn't hurt as deeply.
    given my family history and my age i reckon I'd have problems conceiving, too. I'll probably never get the chance to even try thou. So yeah, i get the empty uterus thing.

    2 agree
    • I wanted to ask the same thing but didn't want to appear rude.

      Reproductive choices are very personal, and it's no one's business (regardless of the reason/backstory). I find an effective response to inappropriate questions is "why do you want to know?". It usually makes the questioner aware of the fact that their question is not appropriate, and if it doesn't, the next response is "that's a very personal question, and not something I want to share." Regardless, I'm sorry that you have had to encounter people without boundaries.

      7 agree
    • I can answer this. Unfortunately saying you don't want children is rarely the easy way out and usually provokes a long argument even more than admitting infertility does.
      Wanting to remain child free seems to be the greatest sin in many peoples eyes. We get a barrage of similarly offensive comments, I've also heard "then why did you get married?" "You'll regret it when you're older", "women are MEANT to have children, it's not right", "but you'd be an excellent mother!", "you'll change your mind", "but who is going to look after you when you get old?", "you'll never know what true love feels like" – the list goes on and on. I'm NOT infertile as far as I'm aware, but I sometimes tell the arrogant insisters that I am, because it usually shuts them up.

      7 agree
  5. Please don't make the person with infertility comfort you about their infertility, seriously this has been a theme for me. I even had to comfort the specialist who gave me the news, news I completely expected and had steeled myself to hear. When I didn't turn into a sobbing mess in front of him it completely derailed his usual spiel. I had to tell him that since I had so many severe symptoms of PCOS I was expecting what he had told me. He somehow felt he had failed me. Seeing my ovaries lit up like a very concentrated cluster of stars was difficult (internal sonogram).
    I've had to comfort; my dad, my mother in law, as well as several of my mother in laws sisters, my sisters in law, some of my friends, and so many random people.
    It goes something along the lines of, "I'm fine, no really I had plenty of clues and warning signs before I got the final verdict on the viability of my ovaries. I was expecting to be told I was infertile. No, I don't plan on adopting."
    That I had made my peace with it, doesn't mean I wanted to hash it over again and again.
    I kept getting people who wanted me to know that it was ok to cry (yes, I know) and wanted to hug/snuggle me (um ew). I'm the one who feels just a little defective every damn time someone brings it up. If I tell you I'm fine, stop trying to excavate the emotions you think I should be feeling.
    It could be that I don't emote for everyone, and I get to decide who sees that side of me.

    9 agree
    • Omg, yes, ew to hugging! Please don't try to hug someone, they will hug you if they need it! I have experienced at least two miscarriages when I was quite young and no position to become a mother. I definitely would have terminated the first pregnancy, and probably the 2nd. I dealt with my emotions over it a long time ago. Still, despite telling people all of this, some of them have the reaction to hug me. Please don't. I'm not a hugger to begin with and hugging you makes me feel false and icky inside.

      And let that be a lesson to younger people, multiple forms of birth control are never a bad thing. Especially if your bad at taking your pill.

      1 agrees
  6. And when you're offering advice, please don't say that biological kids are "kids of your own" with the clear implication that children who are fostered or adopted are not. My daughter is "my own." She would be deeply offended at the idea that she is less mine than a biological child would be. I'm used to it (although it still bothers me.) She's sixteen and still outraged when she runs into that attitude.

    I understand and agree with your objection to "just adopt." "Just adopt" is dismissive of both biological parenting and adoption; it minimizes the stress and chaos of the adoption process and the grief of infertility. Double whammy. For some people, the biological bond of pregnancy and birth is deeply important, and adoption is not their choice. I respect that. Please, in turn, respect the actual parenthood of adoptive families.

    As far as "why does it matter if you don't want kids anyway" – discovering that your body can't do what most people's bodies can do is disturbing. It takes away a choice that by rights should be your own.

    8 agree
    • Thanks for bringing up the 'kids of your own' thing. I always cringe when I hear people say that. I want to give the OP the benefit of the doubt; I think she means biological children. It comes down to choosing less-than-ideal words to convey that message. I think a lot of people are simply used to saying 'my own kids' rather than 'I want to create a kid biologically', even if they would call adoptive parents … well, *parents*.

      2 agree
      • I'm sure she does mean "biological kids." I'm all for giving people the benefit of the doubt, and at the same time alerting them as to the impact of their statements. The folks she's calling out probably meant well, too, and she is asking them to reconsider what they're saying. The irony is not lost on me.

        6 agree
  7. Thank you for this, I am not infertile but because of complications with my womb my body miscarries after 2-4 months. After having 15 pregnancies 13 of which ended in miscarriage I elected to have a hysterectomy, I have two kids who are both in their mid to late teens now and my daughter has elected to not have children because of what I and my mother went through with miscarrying.
    I have had the stupid questions as to why I got married too and it hurts so much that people do not think I just reply "well I have two teenagers from a previous relationship and its none of your business" and as for adoption I have nothing against adoption as my mum was adopted, and it was something we looked into but decided that two were enough for us and my husband likes being the cool step dad.I feel there is too much pressure on women to reproduce by society.

  8. For those who are infertile on the thread, I'd like to ask something…
    I've been doing years of research on adoption, mostly secretly from my friends, since I don't really like all the, "soooooo how is the adoption coming along??" when we just aren't ready yet.

    When I find out someone close to me is infertile, the first thing I do is ask how I can support that person (whether it's leaving it alone entirely, offering a shoulder, taking them out for a good night, whatever). However, I'd also like to say something to the effect of, "I know that some people with fertility issues choose to adopt. I want you to know that I have a ridiculous amount of resources available for how that can work, if that's something you're considering for yourselves".

    How can I offer this largely secret wealth of knowledge without sounding like I'm assuming they'd adopt, or sounding like I'm deflecting from the pain they're going through? I feel like it's really a balance of not wanting to bring it up too soon, or too directly, or maybe I shouldn't bring it up at all, and just let the people tell ME if they're planning to adopt? I just want them to avoid reinventing the wheel if they start looking quietly like I did. Is this advisable? Or is it truly offensive?

    • You don't offer unless they bring it up. If there's a second conversation, you can share your own journey, including "I've been doing this on the QT so I don't have to deal with a lot of questions" and leave the opening to them. I really didn't want to hear other people's opinions about adoption because I knew our choices would be different and I didn't want to get into an argument. We lost friends who had adopted internationally because they found out from my parents that we were in process (for a domestic adoption) and she was INCENSED that we hadn't told them first. Well, I'd heard go on ad nauseum about how stupid it was to adopt domestically and I didn't want to go there with her. Not that much of a loss, but it was annoying at the time…

      tl;dr: People have to walk their own path. Let them.

      2 agree
      • Uhm, I think Morgan's wording is respectful and helpful. Everyone has to walk their own path, sure. But it's nice to know someone can be there to help, should they choose that path.
        Saying "in case you considered that option, please know i have been researching this for myself and I'd be happy to share" is not like saying "just do this, here's how".
        I don't see how that could be offensive. That's what a real friend would say, imo.

        7 agree
    • I think the wording you used is perfect! It's letting them know that you can help, without assuming that it's automatically the route they will choose.

      2 agree
    • Your wording sounds really appropriate – caring and supportive but not presumptive about the intentions/feelings of your friend.

      1 agrees
  9. Great article. I too find the binary of child less/child free doesn’t fit my situation.

    I have spent most of my adult life dealing with terrible terrible periods which rendered me useless due to pain and which were horribly hard to predict. My main focus was getting them bearable but all along it was clear as the various gynaecological issues were diagnosed, PCOS, Endometriosis, Adenomyosis, backwards facing uterus, uterine and cervical polyps, over an agonisingly slow 28 years of menstrual misery that my fertility was looking more and more compromised. No one could ever say though whether all hope of every having a child was now lost at any particular stage, all they would say was that it was not impossible.

    For my own sanity I began to purposefully imagine myself a life without children and to concentrate on my own development. After many years and much therapy I arrived at a position where the thought of not having children was not tragic for me (it was once) and I with genuine relief and some happiness surrendered choice on the whole thing, it would happen if I ended up with a partner who did want them (as a lesbian I had the back up option that a partner could carry too). Any gynaecological healthcare choices that were between making things better now in terms of the horrific periods and preserving fertility came down on the side of making things better now.

    This is where I was in my thirties I finally met when I met my wonderful wife who was not so hot on kids. We made a lovely child free-life together in which I am genuinely happy and in which we are devoted aunts to a combined 4 nephews and 3 nieces. Unfortunately, the gynaecological issues got worse and worse and finally in 2014 I had a hysterectomy. This should have been easy decision for me, I was already resolved on not being a parent after all, but I was totally blindsided by a deep deep grief combined with a very unhelpful bout of babycrack which was really hard to explain to people. My wonderful wife was amazing though.

    A soon as I had the operation, literally when I came round from the anaesthetic, I knew it was the right decision. It was also huge and unbelievably freeing for me to finally have the uncertainty removed, I will definitely never have a pregnancy now and it’s really ok. Despite the fact that during my grief/babycrack stage my wife and I found ourselves thinking out the possibility of adoption (and my wife quite surprised herself that it had actually come into view as an option for her) our life now as childfree aunts is right for me, it really is. But this will never be a clear cut thing for me, I will always carry the grief for the children I didn’t have and the pregnancies I didn’t experience (I always so wanted to be pregnant).

    I know it would make life easier just to say to people I am childfree but that’s not totally my truth and I have to tell my truth. I also feel that because the thing which finally gave me the incontrovertible diagnosis of being infertile was my choice, ie the hysterectomy, that childless is not right either as a label although part of me is most definitely childless (I am also extremely sensitive to how some people who are in suffering with infertility might feel about someone who chose to get rid of their womb identifying, even if only in part, as childless).

    This whole thing is complicated enough for me to understand so I know that almost anyone I talk to will be confused and therefore I try and have patience when they come out with inappropriate responses (almost everyone except my wife tried to talk me out of the hysterectomy at one point or another, especially during the grief/babycrack stage and all out of love). I just try and keep explaining that yes there is a lot of conflicting stuff in there but where I am now feels right, it just does. Right is not always clear cut, it’s often deeply conflicted but you know it when you feel it, which of course makes it really hard to convey to someone else.

    2 agree
  10. I did see this addressed in a previous comment but as a person who was adopted, I feel like it's important for me to gently reiterate that calling biological children "kids of your own" is problematic. I hear this phrasing all the time and it's almost always from people who mean well and just haven't been introduced to the idea that it can be really hurtful to those who have been adopted. The same goes for terms like "real parents" (used when talking about biological parents) – that one is more hurtful toward adoptive parents than to their kids, usually, but it's just as problematic in its own way.

    I don't mean to distract from the main issue of this piece – I think it's a really important topic and am thankful that you honestly shared your thoughts and experiences!

    2 agree

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