Shame on me. I should have posted this before Mother's Day. In fact, I should have posted something on this blog LONG before Mother's Day, but I never felt eloquent enough to do the topic justice. But not posting because of a lack of eloquence is rather cowardly.
And Mother's Day would have been a perfect opportunity, because in spite of attempts to celebrate with their extended families and to celebrate their own mothers, many many women who are unable to have children dread the day as yet one more painful reminder of what they don't have. They'll put on a brave, smiling face on the outside but are often really hurting inside. So I'm posting this here now because I know there are a lot of people following this blog to keep up with our lives in the Netherlands and anxiously awaiting with us for the birth of our child. And it's important to me that I don't enter motherhood leaving behind this topic that in many ways has been at the forefront of my life for the past four years.
Anyway, the truth of the matter is that there's a lot of ignorance out there about how to react when a woman (or a man or a couple) tells you she's dealing with infertility. And the comments, almost always meant to be supportive or helpful, often have the opposite effect. And too often when these things are said to us (and I say "us" because even though I'm no longer in the trenches, I still consider myself among the ranks), we infertiles or subfertiles don't know how to react or what to say in response. Too often we don't say anything because we don't want to offend the offender. All too often we know that the person will become defensive and won't hear what we're trying to say. And so the person never even learns that they've hurt our feelings or made things worse.
The fact that I seem to have overcome my infertility doesn't mean that I no longer think about this. On the contrary, I'm now afraid that people will hold up Charles and I as an example -- poster children for overcoming infertility -- and have us in mind when they say some of these unintentionally insensitive things to other women or couples who are struggling.
And so I offer you:
What not to say to someone dealing with infertility:
1. "You just need to relax," or "Take a vacation."
This is probably the most frequent "advice" given to a friend, daughter or sister who says she's having trouble getting pregnant, but it's a falsehood. Infertility, even unexplained infertility, is a medical condition. Just like a lump in the breast, it will not go away on its own by trying to ignore it. A romantic getaway to Hawaii will not improve a husband's sperm count. A relaxing massage will not heal endometrial scar tissue in a uterus or fallopian tubes. Trying not to think about getting pregnant will not miraculously restore a hormone imbalance. By learning about how her body is supposed to work, charting cycles and/or seeing an OB/GYN or reproductive endocrinologist, a woman can diagnose the cause of the infertility and get treatment for it. This is much more useful in overcoming infertility than attempting to ignore it.
(Also, please don't ever say that someone just needs to move to the Netherlands! I know some people may believe that this change in our lives is the reason we were able to get pregnant. That focusing on something other than trying to conceive was able to relax us enough to make a difference. The fact of the matter is that moving here was one of the most stressful things we've ever done! Quitting our jobs (I'd only had mine for a couple months); trying to sell our house in a month without taking too big a loss; saying goodbye to friends and family; sorting through our belongings to decide what to ship, store or sell; figuring out how to relocate Maui; trying to learn Dutch; trying to find a place to live here; and all of this without even knowing whether our residency or work permits would be approved... And those were just the things that stressed us out before we got to the Netherlands! We conceived BabYun about a month after we arrived, and I can guarantee you that the "fresh Dutch air" could not have worked its magic in that amount of time!)
2. "Don't worry. It'll happen."
This is almost the same as #1, but with the added bonus of trying to reassure the woman that she will achieve pregnancy someday. But can you predict the future? The sad truth is that it might not happen. There's no such promise or guarantee, and the infertile woman already knows that.
3. "Have you considered adopting?" (May or may not be coupled with "There are a lot of children out there who need good homes.")
If a woman confides in you that she is struggling with infertility, trust me that she has already considered all options available, including adoption. If she doesn't say explicitly that she's considering it, then she has probably already ruled it out as an option for her personally - at least for now. She doesn't need you to point out all the options available to her.
As for suggesting she adopt because there are lots of kids out there who need good homes, consider for a moment whether or not you yourself have considered adoption or whether you prefer to have children of your own. Infertile women resent the suggestion that because they may not have the option of having biological children, that the responsibility for finding homes for orphans should fall on them.
4. "As soon as [insert couple's names here] adopted, they got pregnant."
First, consider how many adoptive parents out there haven't gotten pregnant on their own. Again there's no guarantee that anything will give a couple the biological child they so desperately want.
Second, what you are suggesting is that adoption should be used as a means to achieve the end of having one's own biological children. How fair is that to the adopted child?
5. "God has another plan for you."
This is a really tough one, because you're likely trying to be reassuring. But first consider that the woman you're trying to help may not believe in God or may not have the same beliefs that you do. (And religious beliefs are a conversation to be had completely separate from the one this woman wants to have with you about her infertility.) In that case she's likely to dismiss this suggestion, which makes it not a very helpful suggestion, so don't bother.
Second, a woman who is confiding in you because she is struggling with infertility obviously really wants to have a child of her own. She doesn't want to hear that her desire isn't a valid one or she somehow doesn't deserve to have her desires and dreams fulfilled. That's not very reassuring, so what's the point of saying it?
6. "This is God's way of saying you're not supposed to be a parent."
Congratulations, asshat, you've just insulted the friend or daughter who's come to you for help. (Yes, people who think they're trying to be helpful really say this with shocking frequency.) Do not EVER say this to a woman who's confiding in you about her infertility, or be prepared to defend yourself against a punch in the nose.
7. "Maybe you should lose some weight."
First, what the infertile woman hears is, "It's your own fault" or "You're broken and you're fat."
Second, she's probably already aware of the fact that her weight may be a factor in her infertility. (It might not!) Regardless, she has probably already discussed this with her doctor, so she doesn't need you to point it out. In fact, she may even be battling with a doctor who thinks that weight loss will be a magic bullet for her and will refuse to look at other causes that may be contributing to the infertility.
What SHOULD you say to a woman struggling with infertility?
1. "I'm so sorry you're going through this."
This is the best and most important response you can give!
2. "I'm here for you whenever you need to talk about it. Let me know if you want me to bring it up, or if you would rather bring it up yourself."
Your friend wants to know that she can turn to you when she needs to talk, but there will be bad days when you might catch her off-guard if you bring it up. (Her period might have just shown up, she might have gotten a negative result on a pregnancy test that morning, or perhaps she's gotten discouraging results on diagnostic tests, etc.) These are the days when she probably really won't want to talk about it. It's better to let her bring up the subject in her own time and on her own terms; let her know that you're there to listen when she wants to talk.
4. "What can I do for you?"
Your friend might just want to know whether or not she can talk to you when she's feeling frustrated or when she learns anything new about her condition. She may even need your help to drive her to or from appointments.
I didn't want this post to come off as a preachy lecture. But I've heard of some truly insulting and insensitive things said to infertile women and hope that this will help prevent even a few occasions of that happening.
Thanks for reading!!!
This post was written while listening to Michigan Radio streamed online. I love Morning Edition!