April 22 - 27, 2020 marks Canadian Infertility Awareness Week, an initiative started by Fertility Matters Canada (FMC) in 2007 to help support those who are impacted by infertility.
As someone whose father is an infertility specialist, I’ve felt attached to individuals and couples diagnosed with infertility from an early age. Hearing about the emotional struggles of his profession, watching his patients excitedly introduce their child to him in public, and more made me feel like I was experiencing parts of their journey vicariously. Though I never took an interest in going to medical school, unlike my older sister, it’s interesting that my profession now somehow complements my father’s after all these years—something I certainly never expected!
In light of Canadian Infertility Awareness Week, this blog will hopefully act as a PSA of sorts for those of you who haven’t been diagnosed with infertility. You see, after working with so many people with this diagnosis, I can safely say that those who have been spared it say a ton of ignorant crap. My hope is that I can be an advocate in today’s post so that we can make life just that bit more tolerable for a population that has a hard enough time as it is.
So buckle your seatbelts, because here comes some unfiltered advice that y’all desperately need to hear…
Do NOT ask if/when someone’s going to have kids.
While I know this seems totally harmless up front—and while this has somehow become part of the small talk lexicon today—this is an utterly inappropriate question.
First of all, it’s none of your business in general if someone plans to start a family. Secondly, this seemingly innocent ask is incredibly emotionally charged for people struggling with infertility. Allow me to illustrate why:
John and Jan are a couple in their late thirties who thought having a child would be easy. After one year of trying to conceive naturally with no success, they’ve been put on a year-long waitlist at a fertility clinic, desperately awaiting their appointment. The day finally comes, at which point they’re told they’ll have to undergo a variety of tests to detect what could be the source of their infertility. Simultaneously, they’re doing everything they can to increase their odds of becoming pregnant, seeing nutritionists, acupuncturists, and other health professionals as a way of giving some semblance of control in their lives. The more time that passes without answers, the more hopeless they start to feel. They worry that their dreams of having a child will never come true and constantly ask themselves, “Are we ever going to be able to have children?” which, understandably, triggers intense feelings of anxiety, grief, and sadness. So, they decide that going to a party might lift their spirits, only to have the first person come up to them and say, “So when are you two going to give me a grandson?”
This would be akin to going up to someone undergoing chemotherapy and asking, “So, when are you going to grow all your hair back?” Thankfully, however, the solution is simple: mind your own business. Under no circumstances is it appropriate to ask someone this question. Ever.
2. Refrain from giving unsolicited advice.
Let’s return to our couple, John and Jan, who have now seen at least three healthcare professionals for insights on their infertility, including a team of doctors and nurses who have all obtained degrees to give their two cents on the matter.
But forget the doctors’ degrees! Forget the hours they’ve spent treating infertility or the knowledge they’ve accumulated over however many years. Have John and Jan tried drinking celery juice every morning? You should tell them about it, not just once, but every day via text. I mean, it took away your bloat for two seconds so surely it will be the cure for their infertility, right?
Reality check: John and Jan know way more about infertility than they ever wanted to because they’ve had to hear about it at 23095832098532 appointments. And even if you, personally, have been affected by infertility, your body is completely different from theirs. The factors that influence fertility are extremely complex, which is precisely why clinics exist in the first place.
Reminder: unless you have access to microscopic images of someone’s egg and sperm, please refrain from making suggestions about what they could do. If you must share some information with them, say it like this: “I’ve heard about what can be helpful in this case but I imagine you’ve received a ton of unsolicited advice and I don't want to be one of ‘those people.’ So let me know if you’re interested in hearing about it, but I also totally get if it would just seem like more noise.” A+.
3. Do not EVER let the words “at least” leave your lips when supporting someone with infertility.
These are true stories of responses that people have told me they’ve heard about their fertility journey:
“At least you only miscarried at three weeks.”
“Even though you’ve spent two years trying to become pregnant again, at least you have your son.”
“At least you have a partner to help you through your third miscarriage; imagine if you had to do this alone.”
Time for my favourite game of “Let’s Compare This to Literally Anything Else to Highlight How Inappropriate It Is”:
“At least you got cancer when you were 40 rather than 30.”
“At least you have one child who doesn't have autism.”
“At least you didn’t lose your right limb too in that car accident and only your left one.”
The phrase “at least” is immediately invalidating as it’s essentially highlighting the silver lining of a situation at a time when someone simply needs support. The alternative to “at least” talk is validation. Here are some awesome validating statements to have in your back pocket:
I can’t imagine how hard this must be.
It sounds like this has been so hard for you.
Your feelings are totally valid and understandable.
Life has been really hard on you lately.
It’s okay to feel sad and hopeless sometimes, as hard as it is.
I’m sure anyone else in your shoes would feel this way, too.
How can I support you?
When in doubt, swap judgements for questions, such as:
What has been the hardest part of this for you?
What impact has this had on you?
How could I help you feel more understood and supported?
What need of yours do you feel isn’t being met right now?
What extra burdens are you carrying these days?
Finally, never underestimate the power of making someone a cup of tea, rubbing their back, and just being present. This goes such a long way, even if it feels like you “aren’t doing enough.” Trust me, that does so much more than you know.
4. Do not ascribe meanings to others’ very personal experiences.
We human beings are meaning-making machines. We like to look at cause-and-effect, analyze what happened and why, and search for answers in the hopes that they’re an antidote to suffering. This is very normal and understandable.
However, this evolves from ‘understandable’ to ‘inappropriate’ when we start ascribing meaning to others’ experiences. I’ve been horrified to hear people tell me what others have told them in response to their involuntary childlessness. No lie, someone once told me that someone said their inability to conceive must be a “sign that they aren’t ready to have children.”
If you're the one going through a hardship, interpret it however you wish. Whether it’s a “sign from God,” an example of “karma,” or a case of “you win some, you lose some,” you do you. Just please, for the love of God, do not tell other people how to interpret their very personal experiences.
The antidote in this situation is to be curious rather than judgmental, as stated previously. You might consider asking questions like:
What has this meant to you?
What meanings have you made from this experience?
Have your views about yourself, others, and/or the world changed as a result of this?
From there, validate, validate, validate. Your feelings totally make sense. Your thoughts are completely valid. This sounds so hard. I can't imagine what it must be like to be in your shoes. Wow, this has really taken a toll on you.
The Bottom Line
It can be very difficult to see one of our loved ones in pain. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed and confused about how to support them. I know that the habits mentioned above are often well-intentioned. You want to make your friend feel better and giving advice or finding the silver lining seems to be the only way for you to do that. I really do get it.
That said, at some point, it’s not just about our intentions; sometimes, we have to realize that no matter how lovingly we mean for something to come across, it’s still extremely hurtful, even if we don’t fully understand why.
1 in 6 couples deal with infertility in this country according to the Government of Canada, and this number has doubled since the 1980s. Unfortunately, this diagnosis still comes with a cloud of stigma, shame, and embarrassment, meaning many people feel like they can’t be honest about what they’re going through. So, a good rule of thumb is to just assume that infertility affects way more people than you think. Stop asking when people are going to have kids. Keep your opinions to yourself, or at least ask for permission first. Validate and stay curious rather than being judgmental. And know that when you say, “I can’t imagine how hard this must be,” or refrain from asking them certain questions, you have thrown them a lifeline and shown them a glimmer of hope in a very difficult time.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with infertility right now, I invite you to check out my online course, “Food, Feelings and Fertility,” which consists of five, 75-minute modules delivered LIVE over the course of five weeks. It teaches skills like emotion regulation, boundary-setting, assertive communication, and more so that anyone going through a fertility journey feels like they have the tools in their toolbox to get through such a difficult time.
Be well, everyone.