Member of the Forever Hopeful Club, and author of a column on The Spinoff Parents about her journey trying to conceive, Kat McKenzie shares her tips for supporting friends facing infertility.
Firstly, let me say that I know that navigating these issues with those you care about can seem like a minefield. It’s terrifying when someone reaches out to you and you don’t know how to respond in fear of saying the wrong thing. You want to support those struggling, and I appreciate that – I’m not here to point fingers.
Please also know this: we know that you care. But sometimes what you think may be helpful or kind comes off as insensitive or upsetting. The good intentions that you are approaching us with are just sometimes hard to see under many, many layers of hurt. We’re in that Parenting Waiting Room when you’re often already through the doors.
So, let’s begin knowing we are all trying our best to support our loved ones. Your friend or family member has told you that they are struggling with infertility or undergoing infertility investigations or they need some help to get pregnant. Their ways of coping will be different – some may seem fine, others may be on the brink of losing it. The best tactic is always to treat it like any other medical issue – they may have already been given horrendous news, or they may be terrified that when they do go to the doctor they’ll have all hope stripped from them.
It’s not often a simple fix.
As a start, an “I’m so sorry you’re going through this” goes a long way.
Once you’ve listened to them and offered a hug (and possibly a glass of wine), here are some important things to remember…
Please don’t give advice.
Whether you have no kids or seven kids, we know that there may be some things that you want to recommend. Please know that we probably have heard it all already. Most folks in the Forever Hopeful club who have been diagnosed with infertility have had to wait a year before they can even investigate whatever issue may be preventing them from conceiving. We’ve spent that time Googling, talking to people, posting on forums, and reading books. We have a medical issue that requires treatment, and what we want from you is your love and support, not sex tips or vitamin or essential oils recommendations. (Yes, people have tried to give me sex tips).
Please don’t tell us to “relax and it’ll happen”.
While high levels of cortisol from stress can affect fertility (and so can many other areas of your health), it is often the stress of trying itself that wears you out. No amount of relaxing will solve our genuine medical problem. Relaxing doesn’t fix a diabetic. Relaxing doesn’t make someone with PCOS ovulate. Your anecdotes about your sister’s co-worker’s cousin’s friend who “finally gave up on IVF after four years and then got pregnant on her own!” are sweet – but that outcome is very rare.
Also, please do not assume that it’s me, the potential mother, that needs to relax, or take lots of B6, or do a handstand after sex. Many couples seeking ART treatment (Assisted Reproductive Technology) are doing so because of male factor issues, and there’s nothing that can be done except ask medicine to step in. I could be super fertile, but it’s not going to help us.
Please don’t feel offended if we struggle to cope with your pregnancy news.
If you want to post pregnancy updates on social media, that’s totally fine (and quite lovely, in my opinion). Please don’t feel offended if we unfollow you on Facebook or Twitter, or stop opening your snapchat story. Please do not send us direct updates. If we want to see how you’re getting on, we will seek out your accounts, or we will ask you. We don’t want to take away your joy. We are genuinely SO DELIGHTED for you. But sometimes, your happiness is just sometimes a very painful reminder of what we can’t have and so desperately want.
Please carefully consider how you talk about your experiences trying to conceive.
When I asked my infertile friends what they hate hearing the most, it was this: “We’ve been trying for so long – it has been two months!”
The average healthy couple can take six months to conceive, because frankly, it’s just dumb luck. You have at max a 30% chance each cycle, and even if you do conceive, you may lose that pregnancy before it gets very far. If you are older or have any other health issues, it can take longer. We all have friends who got pregnant straight away, but please be sensitive in what you say about your experience trying to have a family. If you know that they are struggling or have been diagnosed infertile, this hasn’t been a short journey for them. If it didn’t happen for you straight away, you do have some idea of how much it sucked every time the second line on the stick didn’t appear. Multiply that disappointment. You start to doubt everything – your own thoughts turn against you. It’s all-consuming. Think about that before you talk about how “long” you’ve been trying.
Please don’t cut us out of your children’s lives and please understand when we can’t be part of their lives.
Please don’t cut communication with me because you have kids. Seeing your baby does hurt sometimes, but we love you and your baby. Just give us the opportunity and we will decline if we can’t cope with it on that particular day. Don’t take it to heart if we don’t come to baby showers or first birthday parties, but try and give us notice if you can, so that we can prepare ourselves. I always feel better when I’m ready for it.
Please don’t moan to us about your kids. We know how tough parenting can be and that getting a break from them is important for your sanity. But in the position we’re in, we’re just a little too sensitive for that right now. We’d still give everything we have to have the problems you do. Please release those feelings, but just not to us.
And please don’t say things like “just you wait until you have no time for yourself!” or “enjoy your sleep while you can!” because honestly, I’d give up all of my time and sleep right now to be a mum. Just tell me where to sign. I’ve been preparing for that for a long time. And eventually, hopefully, I’ll be there in the trenches with you.
Please talk to us – but let us guide the conversation.
Some days we will be all up in your business, asking you all about your pregnancy or kids, or talking about what stage we’re at in treatment. Other times we may want to talk about everything but. What you can do is let the infertile person guide the conversation. Ask an honest, “how are you feeling, is there anything you need from me?” and let them divulge how much they want. If they say they’re okay, then don’t press. Move on to something else. If they are a person who wants to talk to about it, and it’s a good day to let it all out, they will do that. If not, let them be fine and happy in that moment. Happy moments may be rare.
Acknowledge that this sucks.
You don’t have to always be positive and optimistic for us. You don’t have to tell us you’re sure it’ll work. Because maybe it won’t. We’re hopeful and you can be hopeful, but realism can be kind sometimes.
Please don’t text to ask all the details on how treatment went. If we’ve told you about the procedure then the update will follow when we feel up to it – sending out multiple messages to update your loved ones about another failure is crushing. Ask us how we are. Just check in. That means a lot.
I think we all have a tendency to want to fix things for each other; that’s just the way humans operate and connect. But I think simply listening and providing a little empathy when needed is all that needs to be done.
You don’t have to fix us.
We’ve got help in that department. And we’re not broken. Just support us, check in on us, listen to us. That’s what we need from you. We need you.
And maybe, hopefully, we’ll have some exciting news to tell you soon.
Kat McKenzie will be writing for The Spinoff Parents about trying to have a family the unconventional way. You can find her on Twitter at @koruandthistle, and on her blog at koruandthistle.com. When she’s not writing, Kat is a singer/songwriter, Netflix-binger, and talks to every baby and dog she sees.
This content is entirely funded by Flick, New Zealand’s fairest power deal. In the past year, their customers saved $417 on average, which would buy enough nappies for months… and months. Please support us by switching to them right now.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.