As a friend or family member of a loved one suffering from infertility, it can be challenging to know how to handle the situation.
- Do you bring it up?
- What do you say if you do?
- How can you support them without sounding pushy?
These are common questions that friends and family face when trying to support their loved ones.
Admittedly, this can be a slippery slope!
Say too little and they may think you don’t care. Say to much and they feel like you’re being pushy or insensitive.
So, how can you best support someone going through fertility treatments or even just coming to terms with their own infertility.
First off, it’s important to understand that this is a very personal experience for people and that no two couples will handle in the exact same way. Not only does every couple have different circumstances, but also different treatment plans and outcomes.
Additionally, some people feel embarrassed or ashamed of their situation and like something is wrong with them, so pushing can only cause more hurt than providing the intended support. Much of this depends where they are in the process.
For example, if a couple is just starting their journey, it’s not uncommon to feel like it’s their fault, and to have some shame associated with the diagnosis. They look at everyone around them who doesn’t have any problem getting pregnant and feel like they’re somehow “broken”.
At this stage, there’s little, if anything that you can say to make them feel better about the situation. It’s important to just let them know you’re there to support them if and when they want to talk, but that you don’t want to push or pry because you know it’s a very personal experience.
Perhaps they’ve had a successful treatment plan and do get that positive pregnancy test, but then miscarry. In some cases, you may know of the positive pregnancy and miscarriage. In other cases you may only know part of the story.
The bottom line is that there are a lot of landmines to navigate and a lot of points that can cause deep pain and hurt. And everyone handles those situations differently. Some people shut down in order to cope. Others open up.
Even people that are open about other areas in their lives are often very private when it comes to matters of their fertility struggle.
For couples later in the journey, they may reach out to certain people but wish to keep things under wraps when it comes to other people. Just remember, it’s not personal. It’s just how they are coping with the situation and it’s how they need to handle it.
5 Do’s and Don’ts for Supporting Friends and Family Members with Fertility Issues
- Take the issue seriously
Under no circumstances should you EVER say:
- “You’re too stressed. You know, if you just relaxed a little, you’d probably get pregnant on your own”
- “Maybe you just need a vacation”
- “Don’t worry… all in God’s time”
- “Why don’t you adopt? There are lots of kids that need good parents anyways”
This is a very serious issue for your friend or loved one and in many cases, there is a medical reason for the infertility problem. It’s not simply solved with a 7 day cruise to the Carribean.
- Don’t take it personally
It’s easy to take it personally when someone you’re close to – and share all sorts of personal stuff with – suddenly shuts off a part of themselves from you.
But you have to remember that this is unlike anything they have ever experienced in the past. They don’t have a mechanism for putting this experience into a particular compartment. They don’t know what they feel, in many cases, let alone how to express it, if they even WANT to express it.
It has NOTHING to do with you or your relationship with the person. For this moment in time, it’s all about them (at least when it comes to this part of their life).
- Always be sensitive, ESPECIALLY with “baby news” and “baby events”
What may seem to be a harmless comment or an innocuous conversation can be devastating in the wrong moment. For instance, if another family member gets the news that they’re going to be adding to their family, it’s important to be very sensitive when sharing the news.
While the moment SHOULD be about the person that is pregnant, the couple struggling takes it very personally.
Try to start the conversation by saying something to the effect of “I know that things haven’t been easy for you and I’m sorry for what you’ve been going through. I wanted to tell you about XYZ first so that you could hear it for the first time from me so you weren’t surprised to hear it from someone else. I understand that you may need some time to process and I won’t take it personally if you need some distance.”
You may consider the conversation via email or phone the first time.
Let them process it in their own time and in their own way.
Understand that they WILL BE hurt, even if they are excited. It’s best to be brief and considerate and let your loved one come to you when they’re ready to share in the experience. If they need space, don’t take it personally.
The same goes for birthday and shower invitations. Always add an extra dose of sensitivity.
For instance, when sending an invitation, slip in a separate note that says something like “I absolutely understand that this might be painful for you. I wanted to share this with you so that you knew that we’re thinking of you and want you to be a part of this, but completely understand if you can’t make it”.
Obviously the tone and approach will depend on the relationship and how much has been shared with you.
The bottom line: always be considerate and take the softer approach.
- Ask how you can show support
Again, everyone handles fertility struggles differently. If you’re aware of the situation, then it’s perfectly fine to ask “How can I best support you during this time?”
Let them tell you…
And understand that different people in their lives will play different roles in the journey. For instance, your loved one may feel better sharing every stage of the process with a close friend and choose not to discuss it with family. Or vice versa.
The key is to ask what they need from you and follow through.
They may want to text you every time they have an appointment or they may wish to say nothing until they finally fall pregnant and make it into the second trimester.
- Don’t pry
This can be a tough one… When to ask and when to stay quiet.
The general rule of thumb is to let them bring it up. If they want to share something (and you’ve done #3 above), then know that they’ll reach out when they’re ready.
If they want to share certain details with you, they will!
For instance, if he/she tells you she’s going in for an egg retrieval tomorrow morning, simply wish them the best and tell them you’ll keep them in your thoughts and prayers (if appropriate). Let them know you’ll be around if they want to talk after.
But don’t start calling and texting an hour after the procedure is supposed to happen.
You don’t know their state of mind or what happened. For example, some possible scenarios:
- She may be tired. Often the procedures happen first thing in the morning AND they are put under with anesthesia. They may be “out of it” for much of the day and not in the mood to talk.
- The results may not be what they were hoping for. For example, they may have been expecting to retrieve 10 eggs, and only got 2. It can be deflating and downright depressing. They may not want to talk.
- The couple may simply want to take some time to be alone as a couple. This marks the end of this phase of the process (at least for now) and there are often some mixed emotions.
- Do some research on your own.
No! You’re not going to take the place of the doctor, but at least having some familiarity with the options, process, and experience can help you better play a supportive role.
NOTE: Be sure that your research is CURRENT. The field of fertility is changing SO fast that information can be outdated in the blink of an eye. Technology is advancing at such a pace and new medications, procedures, and techniques are being developed all the time.
Now don’t go telling him/her all about the latest research you found, but this will enable you to understand what the couple is going through and may help you engage in some of the conversations more easily.
- Offer a distraction
Often, SO much of the couple’s life is consumed by fertility. Whether it’s “what cycle day it is” to “remember to take this shot in the morning and that shot at night at 8pm,” so much of a couple’s life begins to revolve around cycles, doctors visits, and treatment protocols that sometimes a distraction is just what the doctor ordered.
Try to book a day at the spa (when they’re not in the middle of a cycle) or night out – or ballgame – with the guys (for the men that are struggling. Too often they’re not considered so much in this process, but they are equally affected by the inability to have a child).
Maybe book a mini getaway vacation or simply invite them to a movie to get their mind off things.
The truth is… this can be a tough place to be for a friend or family member. Infertility can cause distance in relationships that were otherwise very close. Most of the time it’s temporary and you can navigate the waters effectively if you just remember to always be sensitive and to support your friend or family member in the way that’s best for them.