We're continuing our focus on National Infertility Awareness Week with another guest post from Emerald Doulas Community Member, Anna Jefferson. Today she offers a gentle conversation guide for well-meaning friends and family, of what to say... and what NOT to say, if someone you know discloses their infertility experience. Read more of Anna's story here.
When someone discloses to people they’re struggling to build a family, a few people will become genuine Rocks of Support, and they are sparkling gems in a Shit Cave. Many others, though, will unknowingly enter that Shit Cave, where the infertile person is being held prisoner and suggest well-meaning but misguided things they think will get her out if she “just” does them.
People going through infertility--especially women on massive doses of hormones--are incredibly emotionally vulnerable, and at the same time they’re dealing with a complex medical, and extremely expensive, financial situation. Everyday the Shit Cave lobs new crap at them: a co-worker’s baby shower, getting her period, a niece with an unintended teen pregnancy, a devastatingly poor response to hormone stimulation she’s paid $8,000 for, or a thousand other variations.
Normal language has become booby trapped with emotional bombs.
For National Infertility Awareness Week, here’s a non-exhaustive list of “Just Do’s” I suggest you just don’t say to your loved one/co-worker/random stranger. (For a fuller version of this idea, visit Resolve’s wonderful resources for family and friends):
- Just take a vacation!
Just finish school/your book/that big work project!
Just give up running!
Just drink whole milk!
Just do IVF!
Just quit trying and it will happen!
Just take up loom weaving! (I am not kidding, a very well-meaning loved one suggested this to me.)
Just pray/leave it up to God!
Just take herbs!
Just get acupuncture!
Just have lots of sex!
Just stand on your head/prop up your hips after sex!
Just chart your temperature!
Just get over it (also: any variation on this--including, “Just be glad! You’re better off without kids!”)
And the grand marshal of all: Just relax!
From my own experience with infertility and talking with many other women, these kinds of suggestions make it seem like the person assumes this is the first conversation she’s ever had about infertility. They suggest that she is a moron who’s never heard of Google, read anything about infertility, or talked to a care provider about it. They undermine her research and decision-making process and her care providers’ expertise.
Those "Just Do's" also minimize the severity of her medical and emotional condition.
To increase your chances of moving from the "Hapless-But-Hurtful" crowd, toward "Sparkling Gem" status, here are some alternative phrasing ideas. Note: They won’t all work on your infertile interlocutor; each Shit Cave comes with its own unique set of booby traps:
- "I’m honored you shared that with me. If there’s anything else you want to share, I would be happy to listen."
"That sounds really hard."
"Do you want to talk about it?" (Make it easy for her to say no with no guilt.)
If she says yes: How are you feeling? (Proceed with caution on this one.) or What do your providers suggest? What do you think about that?
What could I do that would be helpful? (Offer suggestions like distracting outings, running errands, doing housework)
I brought you chocolate/a spa gift card/other favorite treat.
I’m thinking of you.
I don’t know what to say but I love you.
In addition to appreciating these kinds of statements and questions, I really appreciated the few people who gave me cards. If you don’t know what to say, let a card maker do it for you.
I don’t think it’s an accident that National Infertility Awareness Week is a few weeks before Mother’s Day, which can be an incredibly painful day during infertility. If you send a card (around Mother’s Day or not) acknowledging someone’s yearning and struggle for a child, you may provide enough light to get through a dark day in the cave.
If you’ve experienced infertility, what were your least favorite “helpful” phrases? If you’ve supported a loved one, what were some of the most appreciated things you did or said?