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.

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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. As much as I love this article I would like to point out that its not just for infertility. I have just had my second child unfortunately he was stillborn at almost 26 weeks gestation. I understand that people aren’t sure about what to say to me, however most of these responses would work in that aspect also. I don’t want to hear that “its for the best” or that I’m young and have plenty of time to try again! I like to use the general rule of asking myself if I were in situation X what would I want to hear? What would I need to hear? Considering that I understand about 75% of the population does not think before they speak I don’t expect anyone to make the situation better or comfort me. But if more people used that thing between their ears that keeps their heads from caving in we wouldn’t have so many people with problems in our society.

  2. For those women who are burdened by the cost of ovulation tests from drug stores, you can buy ovulation test strips in bulk at Amazon.com. They’re easy to read, and I used them effectively to get pregnant myself (and confirmed my pregnancy with their brand of pregnancy test strips.) Just a tip for those on a budget, I highly recommend them! <3

  3. This is such a great article, thank you. I have had so many of these comments said to me, and it makes me sad and furious at times. I am just so thankful I have my husband and my family’s support. I have been on hormones now for over 18months and just finished my first cycle on clomid, and everything seems so insane!I have way too many people telling me I am young and have plenty of time, when in actuality I don’t, and it is never any of their business why. Sometimes either keeping quiet or saying they are sorry and they hope it works out for us is the best thing to say.

  4. i kinda almost teared up when reading this. Two years ago my doctor said i may not be able to have children, or it would be very difficult. Right now I’m 20 years old, in the middle of getting a BFA amd in a loving commited relationship with my girlfriend, so i’m not really thinking of having kids anytime soon. But some friends around me are getting engaged, married, and getting pregnant so easily and i’m trying to fill up my time enough to not think about it much. Then i read something like this and it makes me cry because i’m probably never going to be a mommy.

  5. you forgot one… ” it’s all in due time or even… “just forget about it and it will happen”

  6. I have been fairly fortunate that the even my extended family has been understanding and non-intrusive in terms of our inability to conceive. We have been married for 6 years and have been trying for 4 – interrupted for 18 months because of some other health issues.

    Our biggest challenge has been with my OBGYN. As an obese woman with PCOS, I have very infrequent menses. The longest stretch I went without a period was 18 months, and it only came with direct medical intervention. My doctor, a rotund man with bad dandruff (I digress) has triend to talk me out of conceiving because of me weight. It is difficult to self-advocate as he as stated, and rightly so, that many doctors would refuse to treat me because of my BMI. It is their ethical imperative.

    The challenge is making people understand that I know my body. I know that we are in for the long haul in the escalating scale of fertility treatments, and that it could take years. Being told that I am young (at 32) is of little comfort, considering we might not conceive for several more years, and that youth is fleeting. We’ve started on the path, and I hope he will be a more compassionate OB once we conceive…unless we can find someone else to take us on!

    One thing is certain, however, that this life-long struggle with PCOS, and the more recent struggle with infertility has allowed me to know by body in a far more comprehensive way than many of my peers who got pregnant when a man sneezed on them!

  7. ‘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.’
    I get that you are over people unwittingly saying insensitive things. But you do realise that you’ve just basically said that if parents can’t get a night off, it’s because they don’t want it enough? That’s kind of insensitive too, to parents who might not live near family or have babysitters at their disposal, or might have children going through a clingy stage where they can’t really leave them behind, or who are sick and definitely can’t be left behind. And then if you do get a night out, if your babies/children are still at that age where they’re keeping you awake much of the night you’re probably so tired you don’t enjoy the night as much as you could have otherwise. I don’t even have children but I see this happen to my friends… they can’t necessarily have a night out by themselves ‘if they truly wanted to’.

    I would never dream of telling somebody struggling to conceive that they’re ‘lucky’ because they can still have date nights or travel or whatnot (lucky? Seriously? What a stupid thing to say); but similarly I’d never tell a parent “oh you can do that too if you really wanted to”. Parents can’t do everything a childless person can if they just “truly want to”. How would you like it if someone told you that if you’re not falling pregnant it’s because you’re not trying hard enough or don’t want it enough?

    I realise you have less control over what’s happening to you than the parents have over their circumstances (normally). But you can’t judge their circumstances without knowing them well, just like someone can’t judge your medical issues without knowing you well. So perhaps both parties need to make fewer assumptions about the other side and what they can/can’t do?

  8. After a devastating loss and trying to conceive for almost 2 years, some of the “advice” I was given was ” relax, dont stress, and it will happen when you least expect it.” Gee thanks! I know people were only trying to make me feel better but the things that they would say would sting.

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