What to Say/Do/Not Say to Loved Ones With Fertility Issues
// My friend/aunt/mom/co-worker was just diagnosed with breast cancer. What should I say/not say/buy/don’t buy?Reading this over at The Mom Edit, formerly Ain't No Mom Jeans, spurred me to want to talk about fertility-again. You'll remember, perhaps, that I don't use the word "infertility" or "infertile" for the following reasons: we, like many couples, don't (yet?) have human children. As far as we know, we've never conceived a child. However, so many women do get pregnant and miscarry early so can you call them infertile? What if one member of a couple could conceive but the other can't? Is the entire couple infertile? Of course, I know all too well the stats about what constitutes "infertility" in the medical world (trying for 1 year+ if the woman is under 35, 6 months+ if over 35 plus some other stats if you have medical issues), but I refuse to see us-or any other person-as infertile. Come tell that to my overflowing garden or my thriving, rambunctious dogs, or my blooming business.
This is worthy of a whole article, but in general I found cliched reassurances like, “It’ll all work out” or “you’re so strong, it’ll be OK” very discouraging. Cancer is scary, and the truth is that it may not “all work out”. I found frequent phone calls and notes from friends (a few sent letters before every treatment) to be the best possible gift. A good opener from a friend who called every week was, “Do you want to talk cancer, or just bullshit?” Gift cards for takeout restaurants were gold. And anything to make hospital/ doctors visits more comfortable were really helpful. (Hello, pretty scarves, slippers, cute hats.)
Now that we're on the same page, let's talk about what I want everyone to know. I have the most incredible friends and family members, and they've said beautiful, supportive things to me and to us. I've also had many uncomfortable-and even painful-moments with people who, I can only assume, meant well. I'd love to help spread the word about some of the selfless, supportive things that friends have done and said so that the positive moments increase around the world for women (and men) working to become parents.
As background, we are not some of the members of the fertility-challenged who have been trying to have a baby for 10 years with 15 IVF rounds under our belts. Phew! Im' so grateful for that! But, we've been married for nearly 3 years and would have happily gotten pregnant even before that. We have some firsthand knowledge of everything from fertility diets to ovulation strips to meditation to medical interventions to at-home options. We haven't done it all medically, but we could...we might...TBD.
Here's what I'd like you, who knows women and men who struggle to become parents even if you don't know that you do, to know because you often ask me, and I'm here to help.
Think Beyond the Cliché
Like Shauna says above, avoid Hallmark-esque assurances like "It will all work out" or even "I know you'll become a mom." I have some close friends who say the later, and I can take it from them because I know what they mean is "I so hope your dream of becoming a mom is realized SOON!" My advice? Just say that. It's hard to be vulnerable, I know, but I think it's worth it.
If you say "It will all work out," your friend will likely think "well, it might not" She's the one who knows the medical ins and outs, and you likely don't. And, as far as the dream she had of getting pregnant easily and early with that "Guess what, honey! I'm pregnant" moment, it hasn't worked out. Not like that. This comment feels dismissive, and she will say something like "Yeah..." instead of opening up like she might if you express your support for her dream.
Offer the Chance to Talk About It-or Not
Echoing Shauna again, the best thing you can say is "Do you want to talk about __________ (insert fertility-themed topic-of-the-moment here, like IVF, the failed adoption, the miscarriage, the test results, your next steps, how your partner is coping, etc.) or just chat?"
This shows that you're keeping her process in mind and that you respect her desire to talk about it sometimes and not other times. I love how open-ended this is, too, since it doesn't frame it in a small way like "How are you feeling?" This sometimes feels limited to physical symptoms, while a "do you want to talk about it" allows for a broader conversation if it's the right moment.
Keep an Ear Toward How She Might Be Feeling
As far as sharing news (good or bad) about your own children or pregnancy, a similar mindset may be wise. You could start by saying something like "I have fun news about my pregnancy! Is this a good time for me to share it with you?" or "I have some pregnancy lady complaints. Would you be open to listening to me vent for a few minutes?" or even "I got bad news. Can I talk with you about it now or would email be better?" This recognizes that it might be difficult for us to hear. Not because we aren't thrilled about your news (or worried about any hardships) and not because we're jealous of your ability to conceive (we might both have babies-it's not a limited supply!) but because hearing about how hard it is to be pregnant can be difficult for us when that's something we've dreamed of for so long. We long for the difficulties of pregnancy even while we know that they can be quite difficult, even debilitating. There comes a point when it's hard to hear about those things without some lead up or warning.
Don't Isolate, Invite!
On the other hand, please do invite us to baby showers and to come see your baby. We love babies, and we often love parties! There's nothing better than a handwritten invitation since it doesn't require a face-to-face reaction if it happens to arrive on an off day (think the day you find out the IVF didn't work and you aren't pregnant or the day the baby you were going to adopt or give birth to before a miscarriage would have been born). We can compose ourselves and decide whether we can attend in person or in spirit. You might even go beyond and write a personal note, something like "I'd love to have you here if it feels like the right timing for you."
Use the Magic Words Liberally
Here are two magic phrases that you can use liberally: How can I help? and Can I take you out for ___________ (dinner, mani/pedi, shopping for a friend's baby gift, a run, a yoga class)? If you're not local, send a gift card or make a plan to visit with the promise "we can talk as much or as little about it all as you want."
Send Sweet Things
A lot of my closest friends don't live close enough to take me out for a gluten free cupcake, and some of the most meaningful things they've done for me in the past few years have included: sending flowers (before a treatment began or in anticipation of a doctor's appointment or just because) to me with a card that said simply that they were thinking of me; going to buy secondhand baby clothes with me after we had been matched to adopt even if it might not (and ultimately did not) work out; sent me a sweet email on Mother's Day; and gave me a job in the kitchen during a baby shower in case I got choked up. You may never know how much these small things mean, but they are very much appreciated.
So many of us women have struggled with fertility-whether becoming mothers earlier than we had planned, losing little ones before ever holding them, or faced with months and months of nausea while pregnant. I'd love to hear in the comments other does and don'ts that you'd like to share.