The other moms and I chatted while watching our kids’ gymnastics practice through the glass. The small talk grew deep, and then awkward, as one mom shared with sadness that she wanted another child, but so far, it hadn’t worked out. “At least you don’t have to worry about birth control,” another mom offered.
I cringed. I wasn’t sure what the right response was but I was pretty certain the birth control comment wasn’t it. Given the fact that one in eight couples experience infertility, if you haven’t been on the receiving end of insensitive comments, you’ve probably struggled to find the right words to say to a friend who has been trying to conceive for months or even years.
There are, in fact, at least seven important ways you can support a friend dealing with infertility. The following tips came from conversations with experts: a dozen women who have experienced infertility and a clinical social worker.
Acknowledge the loss
Abby MacDonald, LICSW, an infertility specialist in private practice in Cambridge, MA, says a vital part of helping a friend with infertility is understanding that they’re grieving a loss. While it may not be as concrete as a miscarriage or a death, the intangible losses are many – privacy, autonomy, and the loss of the narrative when pregnancy just naturally happens. Your friend may also be struggling to reconcile her relationship with her own body, which she may perceive as having failed her. Even if you’re not sure what to say, your friend will appreciate your sensitivity to the fact that she’s grieving.
Remember it’s not about you
Especially if infertility isn’t something you’ve personally experienced, it’s not helpful when you project your own feelings onto the situation. For example, one friend cringed as another friend would ponder the possibility of multiples as a result of fertility treatments, and “be either excited by or terrified of it.” As a new parent, I have no idea what having multiples would be like. I might feel excited or terrified. Either way, I don’t give a shit how you feel about it. Nor do I care that you think I’m misguided for being excited or terrified. I’m allowed to feel how I feel about it.
Sharing the fact that you would never be willing to go through IVF is also not helpful. As my friend said, “It’s personal. People feeling so free to comment on what they would do in my situation was unsettling.”
Unless you’ve been there, avoid giving advice
If you take nothing else from this post, take this: friends don’t tell friends who are dealing with infertility to just have a bottle of wine and relax. Nor do they give any variation on this. That includes telling the story of the couple who adopted only to find themselves pregnant immediately.
“Tips” from people who’ve never personally been through infertility are not tips at all. At best, they are annoying. At worst, they are cruel and insensitive, no matter the intention. No one who has given hours of her life to scheduling doctors’ appointments and carefully timed shots wants to hear about the position you heard was effective, or your sister’s friend’s cousin’s brother’s wife who got pregnant when she ate pineapple.
One woman recalled feeling insulted by a friend’s suggestion that she supplement IVF with herbs. “The implication is ‘You could do more.’ And my response is, ‘No, I couldn’t. I’m at my limit. I took three injections a day for the past week and a half, my stomach is purple, I woke up early and went to the clinic four of the past six days, and I am done.”
On the other hand, advice from someone who has been through it is comforting. One woman said she was grateful to hear her best friend, who’d also struggled to conceive, break things down in a very matter-of-fact way. She recalled her best friend’s warning, “There are only 24 to 48 hours a month that you’re likely to get pregnant. Time your ovulation and time sex. Don’t leave it to chance.”
Leave the wise sayings to the greeting cards
Perhaps even less helpful than advice from the uninitiated are their theories on why this is happening. As MacDonald explains, “Comments like ‘God has a plan,’ while often offered with good intentions and seemingly supportive of allowing faith to take a front seat during this difficult time, can reinforce questions someone has about why this bad thing is happening to an otherwise good person.”
Another cliché many women told me they did not appreciate: if it’s meant to be, it will be. Let Hallmark handle the “encouraging” remarks. All you need to do is be there if your friend wants to talk.
This can be easier said than done. In a culture obsessed with doing, staying quiet can feel like inaction. However, the opposite is true. Giving someone space to talk (or not talk) is among the most powerful gifts you have to offer.
MacDonald says that it is key to simply listen and offer reflections based on what your friend says. For example, if she says she feels hopeless, an appropriate response might be, “Given all you’ve been through, it’s hard to expect anything will go to plan.” MacDonald emphasizes the importance of stopping at that point to give your friend a chance to talk about her feelings, rather than filling any silence with a stock line about hope or positive thinking.
Be curious (but not nosy)
If you have to ask when or if someone is planning to have a baby, that’s a pretty clear sign that it’s none of your business. Nothing is more awkward or painful than having an acquaintance put their hand on your belly and ask why you’re not pregnant yet, when you’re privately tortured over that very same question.
But if your friend has been open about her struggles, make sure she knows you want to support her, even if you’re not sure how. Said one woman, “Even if awkward things were said, I appreciated getting to have the conversation rather than nothing being said at all.”
MacDonald says one way to show that you’re curious and that you care is by taking the time to educate yourself. She and several other women I spoke with recommended connecting with Resolve, a non-profit dedicated to providing support, advocacy, education, and community for people facing challenges in their journey to create a family.
Offer genuine support
Avoid offering vague support, e.g. “Let me know if you need anything.” If you’re compelled to offer more than a listening ear (which is plenty), give something specific (exceptions: advice, platitudes). Women who’ve battled infertility recalled being grateful when friends:
- called or texted just to say they were thinking of them
- reached out to see if they wanted to get a drink
- sent a copy of the book “When Things Fall Apart” by Perna Chodron
- educated themselves on infertility
- left flowers on the porch when they knew her period came
Another gift you can give is a pass when it comes to attending baby showers or kids’ birthday parties. MacDonald encourages people to be sensitive to the fact that holidays (including Mother’s Day and Father’s Day) can be triggers. One woman expressed gratitude for a friend who only called when she was away from her kids so the woman wouldn’t hear the sound of babies in the background.
Supporting a friend through infertility is showing up, listening, and being sensitive. It’s letting your friend feel her feelings. It’s sharing a long pause instead of filling it with anecdotes or adages. It’s asking, “How are you doing” and giving space for your friend to answer or a shoulder to cry on. It’s saying, “I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know I care.” It’s simply being a friend.