One in six Canadian couples experience infertility, defined as being unable to achieve pregnancy despite 12 or more months of attempts to conceive.
Infertility is stressful. In fact, research tells us that distress levels among individuals with infertility are comparable to those of cancer patients. Rates of depression and anxiety are high, especially in women, who bear the greatest physical burden associated with fertility treatments: near-daily ultrasounds and self-injection of hormones, among other invasive and painful procedures.
As a clinical psychologist and researcher who specializes in women’s mental health, my focus has been on helping women with infertility cope with their condition.
In my work, it’s become clear that one huge source of stress is the barrage of unhelpful comments and suggestions made to individuals struggling with infertility. Supporting this idea, findings from our most recent study suggest that when women seek social support to cope with their infertility, they typically feel more, rather than less, distressed.
Clearly, some public education is needed. So, with the help of my team’s Infertility Research Advisory Panel — a group of six women who have personal experience with infertility — I’ve identified the following five things not to say to someone struggling with infertility.
1. Just relax and it will happen
This is by far the most highly cited zinger that people struggling with infertility hear but, in fact, there is a lack of clear evidence that stress contributes to infertility.
On the other hand, research is extremely clear in concluding that a diagnosis of infertility causes stress. So don’t assume that anxiety led to infertility — it’s likely the other way around. In the beginning, the person struggling to conceive likely felt excited and hopeful and it’s only as months (or years) crept by without a positive result that the stress you see now developed.
2. Have you tried standing on your head during sex? Cutting dairy? Etc, etc, etc.
Most of these old wives tales have no research backing them up whatsoever. Advice is also often doled out without any knowledge of the receiver’s situation.
Imagine you’ve been diagnosed with a medical condition that makes it very difficult to conceive; you’ve undergone three failed IVF cycles and have had multiple miscarriages. Now imagine how insulting and frustrating it would be to be told that if only you had cut out dairy, you would have been pregnant years ago.
If you don’t know the whole context, abstain from giving advice. And even if you do, let your loved one’s doctor decide what’s going to help them get pregnant.
3. Don’t worry; my friend so-and-so had infertility and IVF worked for them!
Infertility prognosis varies wildly according to a patient’s particular circumstances: their age, diagnosis, reproductive history and hormone levels are all strong predictors of treatment success. So, unfortunately, the fact that a friend of a friend of yours conceived through IVF (in vitro fertilization) means nothing for the person in front of you.
4. Are you sure you want kids? You can have mine!
Kids can be exhausting — feel free to vent about this to your other parent-friends. But when you’re with a friend struggling with infertility, be sensitive to the fact that they would give anything to have what you have. Though this is meant to be funny, it’s likely to be perceived as insensitive and ungrateful.
5. Maybe you should just adopt. There are lots of kids who need a good home.
There is no “just” adopt. Adoption can be incredibly expensive, time-consuming and emotionally draining. There may be a five- to 10-year waiting list, fees that can exceed $30,000 and multiple evaluations of your fitness to be a parent. Needless to say, it’s a very big decision that requires careful consideration.
So what should you say?
Infertility involves grieving the existence of a child you may never have. So think of how you might interact with people experiencing other kinds of grief — for example, a friend whose spouse has died. You would never say: “I know you just lost your husband but just try to relax” or “You can have mine!” You would say: “This must be so hard for you” or “Anytime you need to talk, I’m here for you.”
You can also ask the person how you can be most helpful. Some people like to talk about their infertility struggles blow-by-blow; others would prefer to be distracted from them. So it can never hurt to ask how you can be most supportive.
One final “don’t” that applies to anyone is to ask: “When are you having children?” You may be surprised at how many people in your life have struggled with infertility but kept it secret. This seemingly innocent question can be a knife to the heart of someone secretly struggling with infertility, so don’t ask it.