What NOT to say to someone struggling with infertility

Guest post by jackie anderson
What NOT to say to someone struggling with infertility.

At the grocery store today, I was browsing the “family planning” section. Of course, there are the things that help prevent pregnancy, but I was obviously looking at the things to help promote pregnancy. As I was reading the back of every box of “ovulation predictors” and trying to decide which was the best one, a female employee that was probably in her later 30s came up to see if I needed any help. The conversation went like this:

Employee: “Ma’am, you need any help?”

Me: Oh, no, I am just reading the back of each one of these ovulation predictors… my doctor recommended doing these as well as the ultrasounds over the next few days to ensure we catch the egg as quick as possible for doctor-assisted insemination.

E: Trying to get pregnant, huh?

Me: Yea, unfortunately, it isn’t as easy as I would have hoped… and definitely not cheap. (With ovulation predictors, you have to buy digital because the lines are too hard to read on the others, so for a week supply it can cost upwards of $25-35)

E: Never had that problem… my husband would look at me and I would get pregnant. Had to get him fixed since I refused to have any more kids after 6 little rugrats running around, all under the age 9. You can have some of mine if you want!

Me: Lucky you. Thanks for your help. Have a great day.

I threw my predictors in the cart and walked away slightly fuming. I know she was trying to be polite. I know she was trying to make conversation. I have had people say the same things that were trying to be encouraging or provide empathy. I just kept telling myself that the woman didn’t realize what she was saying and didn’t know any better.

Over the past three years of trying to unsuccessfully conceive, I have heard many phrases that *irk* me. Here goes my ranting:

Just relax!

Oh thanks! I can certainly relax on command now that you told me to!

…Just never say this. Ever.

Why don’t you just adopt?

I really want to turn the question around on them and ask them “Why didn’t you adopt instead of having your own biological children?” If you can’t answer that without the answer involving the kid being yours biologically, creating a mini-me version of you and your spouse, or wanting to experience pregnancy, why do you expect me to? Especially since I am still in the first few years of trying to conceive and just now doing our first round of intrauterine insemination, why are you suggesting we give up and start the just as long and equally hard road to adoption? We still have options for conceiving our child.

I knew this one couple that adopted and right after they got their adopted kid, they got pregnant!

So you are saying I should adopt just in the hopes that I will become pregnant… and ignore the fact that I have labwork, ultrasound results and countless doctors telling me that I have a slim to none chance of getting pregnant without medical help? I am pretty sure that 100% of infertile couples that adopt will not go on to have their own biological child (with or without medical assistance). Do not throw that in my face. EVERYONE *knows* a couple that had that happen.

You want kids? You can have mine!

I hate this comment for a couple different reasons. I don’t want to be a babysitter, I want to be a MOTHER. I don’t want YOUR kids. I want MY kids. Don’t offer your kids up to me like they are a cup of sugar. I have been trying so hard to have kids that when someone else seems willing to just give theirs away it tugs at the heartstrings a little bit — even if it’s a joke. I get that raising kids is hard and that you would never actually give your kids away, but with this phrase you are just trying to be funny or amusing, and it isn’t working.

Image from page 40 of "On sterility in the male and female, its causes and treatment" (1844)

Everytime my husband even sneezes/breathes/touches/looks at me, I get pregnant.

Gee, thanks for pointing out your hyperfertility. Thank you for pointing out how easy this process should be if we could do it naturally. Would I have loved to magically take a pregnancy test one month and have two little pink lines come up instead of one? OF COURSE. Would I rather be able to enjoy the baby-making process instead of having to be impregnanted by a turkey baster? Duh! Yes, please! I didn’t choose to have these issues, but thank you for informing how easy it was for you and how difficult it is for me.

Oh, you are still young! You have plenty of time!

While I may be 27, I have to have a full hysterectomy by the time I am 35 and they want me done having kids by 34. So, in baby-making years, I am mid-30s. My actual age doesn’t mean anything to my uterus or ovaries. Do not point out how young I am because you are actually doing the opposite. You are pointing out how old I am, how much closer I am to needing that hysterectomy, and forever losing my chance at biological motherhood. Basically: never point out someone’s “young age” as positive because you never know their full medical issues.

You are so lucky… you can sleep in/have date nights/travel/etc.

Yeah… but I can’t just pick up and jet off to an island. My schedule is all around doctor appointments and testing. I can, if I choose, to have a date night on Saturday or whatever day with my husband — but so can you. You may have to find a babysitter, but you can do everything I can do if you truly wanted to. Guess what I can’t do as easily as you? Be a biological mother.

Happy uterus #amigurumi #crochet #craft #igersmelbourne #instameet #iphonography #iphoneonly #ig #igers  #instagood #melbourne #mobilephotography

At least you are having fun trying!

Yes, having our romantic encounters scheduled is fantastic. Ever have to pee on a stick to find out if it is time to have sex? On top of that, the hormones I am on make me feel ubersexy with hot flashes, moodswings, and even weightgain. Trying to conceive with fertility issues is a completely different ballgame that isn’t near as fun as any infertile couple would like.

The main reason I actually wrote this is because I know the people that have said these things have only meant well — I’m hoping to enlighten. While someone that has never experienced infertility may view these comments as completely harmless, helpful or even funny, the person experiencing the infertility issues may not.

To me, this is the best thing you can say to anyone going through infertility issues:

Try this instead: “I am here if you ever need to talk. I can only imagine how hard it must be.”

With this, you are not saying that you “understand,” — you are empathizing. The only people that can understand what infertility feels like are infertile people. For instance, I would never tell someone that has reached the point of IVF that I understand… because I don’t. I have not reached that point. I hope I don’t need to get to that point. But if I were talking to another person that has experienced several miscarriages or not being able to conceive again for the past four years, then I would be able to say “I understand” because I have been through that.

Empathize without downplaying their problem — offer support and comfort.

If you struggled with trying to conceive, what were the MOST HELPFUL things people said to you?

Comments on What NOT to say to someone struggling with infertility

  1. I’m just noticing that a lot of people are commenting because they really don’t know what to say when someone’s experiencing infertility struggles and don’t want to screw up. I know firsthand how hard it is to maintain equilibrium when people are saying/doing things that rub salt in the infertility wound – it completely sucks. And sometimes, like this store clerk, people are just idiots.

    But I wanted to say that I’ve been an idiot too, said and done things that I immediately regretted when trying to connect with someone who is going through something I don’t fully understand or know about. My husband and I didn’t tell many people about our fertility struggles but were a lot more public about trying to adopt and I eventually developed a mantra reminding myself that the people saying the stupid things that hurt my feelings were mostly people who 1. cared about me and 2. were trying, however clumsily, to connect to my experience.

    I put so much time/effort/research into educating myself on fertility treatments and then adoption options. It was hard to remember that most of the people I care about and interact with on a daily basis hadn’t had reasons to self-educate and really were ignorant about a lot of what I now knew.

  2. I’ll repeat my reply to Sarah — things TO say to someone who is struggling to get pregnant or is infertile:

    Offer hugs. Listen if they’re comfortable enough to talk about the challenges with you, or let them know you’re there if they need someone to talk to. Send them a card that says you’re thinking about them. Invite them out for tea. Send them a card or flowers if their attempts aren’t successful. Honour them when you can for being an awesome person. Ask them how you can help or support them.

    And one of the biggest: “I’m so sorry you’re going through this.”

    Those are all things that really comforted and helped me through two failed IVF cycles.

  3. It took us five years to get pregnant with our daughter – four years of paying a total of $40K out of pocket on 16 cycles (11 IUI, 3 IVFs, and 2 FETs), and multiple surgeries each for my husband and I, and yet I STILL got a snarky comment from a fellow infertile who said that our daughter was a SURPRISE because we had begun the very first steps of the adoption process when our 3rd IVF finally worked. She’s a surprise in that I finally got pregnant after so many tries, but not a surprise if you consider the fact that the cycle I got pregnant I had multiple ultrasounds, 40+ shots administered by either me or my husband, and got knocked out in order to have my eggs removed with a long needle stuck into my vagina. An awesome kiddo, but NOT a surprise, thank you very much.

  4. Thank you so much. I didn’t realize how desperately I needed to hear other voices out there until I read this, and all of the comments.
    We’re into our 2nd year of trying, and our first IUI attempt will be this month. It could very well go wonderfully, but I’ve spent so much time trying to keep my hopes in check that I don’t even thing about the positive “what ifs” any more. It is a lonely process, but this post has really relieved a lot of that for me. Best of luck to you.

  5. I totally don’t get whey anyone would ask you why don’t you “just” adopt! Like, do they have no sense? They must know that adoption is a long, expensive, frustrating process. It’s like, hey, why don’t you “just” pop by the baby corner store and pick up a few babies on your way home from work?

    • You said it! We spent years and a small fortune trying to adopt, to no avail. Then more fertility treatments, to no avail. “Just” adopting is a myth of epic proportions – it doesn’t always work out.

    • Yeah, they really don’t have any idea how hard it is. I really did think it was a pop-on-over-to-the-baby-store type deal until I started looking into it, because the only thing I’d ever seen about adoption was orphan stories. I knew Annie and Stuart Little weren’t terribly realistic, but I honestly had no other reference point.

      Oh, and the thing that finally got me to look into it was a friend of mine getting really angry at me for wondering why infertile people don’t just adopt. She told me I obviously didn’t know anything about adoption. It shut me up pretty fast.

  6. Also infuriating:
    -“it’ll happen when it’s meant to happen”
    -“my little one really helped me through my miscarriage” (to someone with no children yet)

    Hugs, silence, and “I’m so sorry you guys are going through this” or “that really fucking blows” (depending on relationship!) are all good things.

    And hey, if you said something and realize it wasn’t the best, feel free to say “ah, that was not very helpful”.

    A simple, “I don’t know what to say” also works wonders (good for deaths or illness, too). Because admitting you don’t quite know how to handle it or what to do with the info is ok too. 🙂

  7. This is slightly off-topic, but related to what to say to people who struggle with infertility, and I would really appreciate some advice on this:

    My fiance’s groomsman is a great guy, and has been friends with my fiance since they were in the army together, about 20 years ago. There is quite an age gap between my fiance and I,and until recently my fiance had thought he had missed his chance to be a father, and would talk about how much he regretted this, with his friend who is also childless.

    Now his friend and his friend’s lovely wife have been trying to concieve for 7 years.
    They have gone through two rounds of IVF and done many other things, like losing weight, etc. They went through their last round in December, and unfortunately it was still not successful. They don’t have enough money to try for another round and by the time they do she will most likely be too old. Which is really heart breaking, and I feel so sad for them.

    This is especially poignant since he broke up with his former partner because she was child-free and he decided having children was really important to him, important enough to leave a 10 year relationship for.

    I got pregnant to my fiance in January, complete surprise, we were using 2 types of birth control at the time. Although we are pretty happy about it, we are concerned about how to tell them, I will be 5 months at our wedding, and we want to let them know before then. Is there any way we could tell them that could soften the blow for them?

    • First, congratulations. What an exciting time for you. 🙂

      Now, it’s different for everyone but my advice would be to tell them in person and be straight forward with them. It might be hard for them to hear right now and it might mean they need a little space for a while, but for me, after 7 years myself, I’m in a place where I can be nothing but happy & excited for my friends. That you’re thinking about their feelings and trying to be sensitive is all that matters really.

      • I’m in a totally different place, full of too much angry and bitter, and I would also prefer people to be straight up with me.

        I would only add that it’s likely best not to say that it was accidental, just say you’re pregnant and how far along you’ll be for the wedding.

        Everyone reacts differently, and on the extreme end they may feel too overwhelmed to attend the wedding. If so still love them, let them know you hope they change their minds, but that if not you are disappointed but understand.

  8. Jeez, these posts always make me hope that no one ever shares anything personal with me, ever, because there are apparently so many “wrong” things to say, and it varies so much person to person. Hearing the same unhelpful phrases over and over can absolutely be annoying or frustrating, but if the speaker is obviously trying to be kind or supportive and just doesn’t have a frame of reference, they can’t really be faulted for that. We all have our own battles and no one really knows what to say about anyone else’s struggles – we’re all just flailing around in the dark, too.

    • I think you can choose to read this article two ways. defensively, like it’s a complaint or attack, or helpfully. I would hope most people read this and think “hey, I’ve just been flailing in the dark on this, these are great tips to help me out next time”.

      Personally, I’ve found the post people aren’t really trying to be supportive. They just feel the need to say something, and they want to make themselves feel better. And hey, I know I’ve done that in the past for other scenarios! As I get older though I’ve learned to squelch that first instinct to just comment, and I take a moment before commenting, and that pause gives me enough time to make it about actually being helpful vs. Wanting to make any uncomfortable feelings go away. I’m not saying that’s you, I’m just saying that’s my experience.

      “and no one really knows what to say about anyone else’s struggles”. I guess this is what prompted me to comment, because that’s the entire point of this article, to assist you in knowing what to say.

      • I totally agree with Kiki.

        I think that most people haven’t encountered these struggles, either personally or with people they are close to, so they respond with little thought. I think this post may prompt some of those folks to think about this for a few minutes, and maybe next time they won’t respond unthinkingly in hurtful ways.

        I know that most of the time people don’t intend to hurt each other. But, when you are struggling with what, for many of us, is the dissolution of what you thought your life would be, even the most unintentional but thoughtless comment can be really painful.

  9. Great article!

    My pet hate was “just relax and it’ll happen” as if I’m too highly strung and if I did some yoga I’d magically get pregnant! Helpfully this came from my mother-in-law who had two kids ten years apart, something she’s not telling me??

    As it happened the problem was on my bloke’s side so relatively easily fixed with icsi/ivf and we fell pregnant first go. My girl is now 9 months old.

    Now at some parties we have to endure the “where was your baby conceived?” romantic stories. Our response is the address of the ivf clinic!

    • People really ask that? My heavens, folks are clods. I can think of few things I would want to talk about _less_ at parties then where my friends had sex 7 years ago. Sheesh.

    • The funny part is that most kids aren’t “conceived” (i.e. sperm meets egg) during sex, but within the next couple of days while you’re doing something mundane like waiting in line at the check-out or picking your nose. So it’s nice to have a story to tell for some, the reality is that your situation isn’t any less romantic than someone who conceives without assistance. You could very truthfully say “we’re not really sure” which could imply that you have so much sex there’s no way to know or that you’re not sure what the exact moment was when the egg was fertilized.

  10. I’ve found the “Oh, it’ll happen” comment to be REALLY frustrating. Also the “you just need to relax and let it happen” (which is hysterical, because I’m queer and married to another woman, which makes the whole “relax and let it happen” kind of impossible).

  11. A few years ago, my boyfriend and I desperately wanted to have a baby but I was on the down slope of 44, which meant it was extremely unlikely to happen for us. To make things more awkward, he is nine years younger than me so, behind our backs, many people encouraged him to dump me as a result. One day, sitting in a parking lot, his mother pulled up next to us and rolled down her window. We exchanged pleasantries and then, out-of-the-blue, she leaned forward and said, “Don’t worry about trying to have a baby. Linda (his sister) is really good at it. She can have one for you.” Nice.

  12. Ive found that when I am not in the mood for less than well thought out commentary from the general public that I just don’t offer up any information.
    While lusting after carseats and strollers and baby stuff in a store a little while ago a mom (with her baby in the cart in front of her) asked how old our child was, I think probably angling to give us some carseat advice lol. I was already feeling a little touchy that day, so rather than dive into “Welllll.. we can’t get pregnant, or have any chance of having our own kids, the medical options are too expensive and my health is too dangerous to carry a child anyway, so we we are trying to adopt or foster or both and even tho it might be 6 months or a year or more before we even know IF we can adopt we still like to come look at carseats.” Instead I just smiled and said “Oh, were just looking at options, were not quite there yet.” and walked off.
    People are generally, in my experience, pretty receptive to a polite “I dont want to talk about it.” but once you start divulging information they feel more comfortable sharing their experiences.

  13. Ha. As I read through this list I thought I could write a similar list of “What NOT to say to someone who would like to find a spouse but hasn’t”…

    My general rule with all folks is to NEVER ask them their baby plans. If they want me to know, they’ll tell me. But more often than not it’s either “Not now / don’t want, so stop with the pressure!” or “I want, but it’s not happening and thanks for the painful reminder”. If they bring it up (particularly the latter), I try to be supportive in any way I can – primarily shut up and listen. I can’t understand or imagine their situation, but just providing an outlet for them to have someone to talk to can be a good thing.

    • Please more people take this advice! I’m stuck in the awkward position of having loudly, angrily protested for years that I’m not having children, but really I was on the fence the whole time–I just didn’t want to talk about it. So now, if I do end up with a baby, it’s going to be equal parts joyful and humiliating. Hurrah.

  14. Thanks for the article. What many people don’t realize is that somewhere during the trip on the baby train, some couples decide that five years or whatever is long enough and they want to exit. There’s no shame in this. There’s no shame in wanting to reclaim your life from the doctors and drugs and timed romps in the sack. That’s the only advice I offer to people who are trying, that they are open with their partner about the possible destinations and on the same page about where they might exit the train because the stress of being on an endless train trip can undo a lot of really good relationships.

    We left the train two years ago (after five years) and haven’t looked back. When people ask us why we don’t have children, I just say, it wasn’t in the cards for us. I don’t get mean unless they press beyond that. 🙂

  15. Thank you for the great article. My husband and I decided not to tell that many people about our miscarriage and one weirdly helpful thing my ob/gyn said was that she was “you’ll have a baby.” She said it kind of flippantly but she had seen tons of her patients have a baby after a miscarriage.

    We had to go straight to IVF after another year of trying timed intercourse. I had been doing weekly acupuncture and chinese herbs during this time and my acupuncturist told me in a nutshell that I had to commit 100% to having a baby. If I did this, then it would happen. I needed to have a very positive mindframe and be willing to go the distance if this is what I wanted.

    So I did. I got a great fertility acupuncturist who put me on a very extensive Traditional Chinese Medicine protocol (abdominal massage, herbs, twice weekly acupuncture, moxa), I found the best IVF clinic out there with a REI doc who was extremely positive and a risk-taker, got a job that paid for a portion of the IVF, and did a whole mind-body stress reduction program (lots of guided imagery and cheapo chinese foot massages).

    Now I am 39 weeks pregnant on the first IVF try. I feel so lucky *and* I know that all the things I did contributed to its success. I think this is my one and only child because we used all 5 of our embryos for this round. My husband of course thinks we will conceive naturally after this baby… hahahah!

  16. One thing I’ve noticed from both real-life friends and baby stories online is how many people throw in the fact that they got pregnant on the first try, or by happy accident.

    I cringe every time I hear it – unless you’re having a conversation specifically about conception there’s really no reason to mention it. To the people who are having trouble conceiving it can be really painful to hear about your boundless fertility.

  17. I HATED when people said to me “just think positive” or told me their friend’s success stories. But the think positive comments got me riled up to the point where I wanted to slap people.

    But do you know what was the worse bit? Not the comments, not the fact that I didn’t have a child, but the fact that when I decided to accept that I was never going to have children, I tried looking up information on the Internet on acceptance and moving on – there was nothing. It was either depressing stories about how the women who never had children couldn’t bear to be around their friends who had children and railed at the world for not having kids, or pushed the IVF/adoption/etc envelope the whole way. There was no, ok you’re not going to have kids, lets reframe this positively and help guide you along into this new journey.

    I’ll never forget the time when I spoke with an acquaintance and we found out that both of us were infertile. She told me what she had done, and what she was still doing and asked me about myself. When I explained that I had decided not to pursue further testing or to try IVF or whatever, her face shut down and she made her excuses and walked off. I got the impression that she thought that because I didn’t not try long or hard enough, my pain was not worthy or appropriate.

    How I got through this? I read on some obscure forum a mother saying “child free women have excellent reasons for not being mothers, mothers usually have some lame time-worn reasons for having children. What are your reasons?” and this made me think long and hard and allowed me to accept that I wouldn’t ever be having a child. This was 6 years ago, I’m now 27 and very happy with my life.

    • There’s only two places I’ve seen talking about life without children after infertility. Pamela Tsigdinos has a blog & a book called Silent Sorority. I know others have found it really helpful, for me it’s a bit more complicated because I’m a freak – childless stay at home wife in my 20’s V career woman in her 40’s. But if you’re still looking you might want to check her out. She is a really lovely person if you want to send her an email and have a chat. There’s also a site called More To Life which is about supporting people who are still coming to terms with the loss of their chance to be a parent. I haven’t used it myself, I was past that point when I heard about it, but thought I’d share incase there are others out there looking for something like that.

      I’m really glad you’ve been able to come to a good place with it. I agree there’s not enough out there for people dealing with this. It’s been especially hard on my husband who still very much wants to be a Dad. Though I must say looking at the group I joined when trying to conceive, I wonder if we’re the lucky ones in our little group. So many have divorced or discovered that parenting wasn’t what they thought it would be.

  18. My partner and I kept our attempts at conceiving a secret until we actually had news to share. I am an incredibly sensitive person who could not stand to share bad news month after month with friends and family. We always just seemed very aloof about having children, which did encourage unfortunate comments from family and acquaintances like ‘When are you going to have kids?’ ‘You don’t want to leave it too late,’ ‘It’s the best thing I ever did,’ including pestering comments from parents about giving them grandchildren. It hurt a lot, and getting disappointed month after month for two years in secret was so much easier than having to share that pain with other people.

    If we had shared it, the most helpful kind things would be just empathy ‘I don’t know how difficult that must be,’ ‘I’m sorry to hear how difficult it is,’ ‘I hope everything works out for you,’ because really there’s nothing much more to say.

    Now I am hypersensitive about other people’s reproductive plans or even whether or not they have children. If someone does ask if I have children I feel the need to reciprocate for polite conversation, but I only ask ‘do you have children,’ and if they don’t, I never ask if they plan to have children. It’s the most personal question with a myriad of complexity.

  19. When my bestie of years and years and years told me she was struggling with infertility issues (they came out, so to speak, when I announced my own pregnancy), I felt at such a loss for words that I just hugged her. For about fifteen minutes.

  20. Ugh. My husband and I have been trying for our second for over 6 months now, and it’s SO frustrating because we conceived our daughter after one unprotected time.

    My friend tried to be helpful the other day by telling me her aunt had 7-8 miscarriages before she finally had a successful pregnancy. Well thanks. How is THAT helpful?!

    Regardless, my best friend always makes me feel better by suggesting things I wouldn’t have thought of and by supporting me when I find new information about acupuncture or whatever. That’s what I find more helpful than anything.

  21. thank you for this essay.

    my husband and i just passed our 1 year mark of trying – after we ditched the nuvaring a year ago, i never got a period, so went to see my ob/gyn, found out i just wasn’t ovulating. lots of testing later, still no explanation for it. he’s just fine, swimmer-wise. maybe my 34yo eggs just aren’t up for the task? anyway, tomorrow is our first visit with a reproductive endocrinologist … we aren’t quite sure yet how far down the assisted-reproductive technology road we want to travel, but just want to see about our options and chances.

    we’re both pretty private people, so the only 2 other people who know about our struggle are my two closest friends – one of whom announced her surprise, on-birth-control pregnancy about 6 months into our journey of trying. that was a rough conversation.

    it’s so difficult – feeling really alone in the journey, not having anyone to talk through it with me … but at the same time, i’m not sure i want to share much of what we’re going through. it’s an odd dichotomy.

    • well if you ever need a place to vent without having it be someone that will see you every day, you are more than welcome to use me.

      When we first started, I was really private about it. Then, after so long and so many roller coaster rides of emotions, I actually did find that it helped talking more to strangers than it did those I was closest to (minus the hubby of course!)…through talking to strangers, even face to face, I have found several other women locally that are going through the same thing. I have someone that I can call or meet for a coffee when it is just a rough day. You can contact me through my blog if you would like. (I am the writer of this post)

  22. And those well meaning relatives who always manage to ask any news yet on the first day of your period. Those were the worst especially when one was on the same day as sil 2nd child’s first birthday when I had been ttc for 3 years.

  23. I went to the dr. the other day and the receptionist asked me how far along I was? I wanted to reach over and slap her and then get her fired! I just smiled and said we are still just trying and left.

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