5 things not to say to an infertile woman (or risk a punch in the face)

things not to say to an infertile woman

Be aware that infertility is a big deal

Research has shown that infertility can be as stressful and depressing as dealing with cancer and a study found that half the women at a fertility clinic said that infertility was the most upsetting experience of their lives.  And this doesn't just apply to women, as infertility is painful for men too.  Given the distress and emotional angst that it causes, why are people so insensitive when talking about infertility to those who are suffering? 

I’m positive no harm is intended and that the authors of these comments may find it difficult to appreciate the inappropriateness.  In fact, they would probably be mortified to realise that their comments caused pain.  

So let me help you out.  For any readers who have never suffered with fertility problems and don’t know what to say,  steer away from the comments in Part A and focus on those in Part B. And if you forget, don't worry as we know you don't mean it.

Part A – What not to say to someone you know is suffering with fertility problems

The comments below are about as insensitive as my ovaries response to Clomid.  And it is a blessed relief that nobody uttered these words whilst I was on Clomid, as who knows the unpredictable response that may have invoked?  Saying something with good intentions unfortunately makes it no less moronic and when I engage in a conversation like this I feel that I’m being  bombarded with well-intentioned idiocy.  Like being attacked by a muppet.  This situation could learn much from the ‘Think before you speak’ campaign.  Is it True?  Is it Helpful? Is it Inspiring? Is it Necessary?  Is it Kind?  These oh so frequent comments fail on all THINK fronts.  So THINK before your speak muppets, think.  This would spare us our sanity and you the risk of a punch in the face, so really we will all be winners.

To put into context how the comments may feel to someone dealing with infertility I have taken the liberty of:

1)      Providing a similar example of the comment but in the context of it being said to a cancer patient.  I am in no way suggesting that infertility is the same as cancer, but studies have suggested that copying with infertility is as stressful.  It can be difficult to appreciate the impact of these comments if you have never experienced fertility issues.  So as a suggestion, if it would make your skin crawl to utter the first comment to a friend suffering with cancer, think twice about saying the second comment to someone suffering with infertility. For the recipient, it may feel similar.

2)      Providing my internal monologue, my mind's harsh and raw response to these comments, taking the communication strategy that my boss once taught me of ‘when you say X, I feel Y’.  It didn’t occur to me at the time why my boss felt the need to teach me this. Oh dear. No employee of the month award winging its way to me.

Inappropriate comments:

What not to say - infertility
What not to say infertility
What not to say to an infertile lady
What not to say to an infertile woman
What not to say infertility

Other punch worthy comments:

  • You already have two children, isn’t that enough?

Yes and no.  Mainly no.  In fact entirely NO. 
(Note: Nobody has said this one to me personally, given that I don't have kids)

  • Can’t you just adopt?  There are plenty of kids who need a caring home.

Yes there are, although there is no 'just' about adoption. And remind me again why you didn't adopt?

  • You don’t know how lucky you are.  My kids are so expensive and a nightmare. You can have mine if you like? Ha ha ha!

This is what I hear: “I have everything that your heart desires and I am jokingly moaning and dangling it in your face (you can’t actually have my precious children)." Ha ha ha haaaaa haaaaaaaa.

  • You’re still young. You have plenty of time to get pregnant.

Not really.  The medical world threatens that my fertility will drop off a cliff on my 35th birthday, never to be seen again.  And your comment downplays the fact that my youthful self has taken years to get this far, with no knowing how long I still have to go, so please don't tell me I have plenty of time.

Further tip bits of which to steer clear:

Giving advice

Unless you are: 
a) a qualified fertility specialist
b) have experienced infertility
c) specifically asked for it, or
d) prepared to back it up with credible medical research....

Don’t. Offer. Advice. 

Trying to relate with completely inappropriate ‘positive’ stories

I know that you are trying to empathise, to let me know that you understand, that the beast of infertility has touched your life too.  Relevant stories of people who have gone through infertility can make for a supportive contribution, but please note that tales best placed in the genre of science fiction are not comforting. Examples:

“Following an operation our family friend was told that she would never have a baby because both of her fallopian tubes had been removed, but she got accidentally pregnant a few months later.”

I’m pretty sure there are some factual inaccuracies lurking in that story, or completely incompetent medical advice, or both.  Either a woman without fallopian tubes got pregnant quicker than me or medical advice in this country is dramatically below par, neither of which are comforting, but thanks for trying. 

"My Mum’s next door neighbour’s dog had trouble breeding, but after a trip to the vets and some antibiotics for an ear infection, she got pregnant straight away."

WTF?  Seriously, what? Are you comparing me to a dog?  I know that I'm not wearing make up right now (did you know it contains toxins?) but I still think that's step too far.

When you DON'T know whether those around you are struggling with infertility - Beware of becoming a 'Baby Bore'

Granted it is difficult, if not impossible, to be sensitive to infertility when you have absolutely no bl**dy idea that anyone is suffering, because we haven't told you.  We are one in seven couples and we could be lurking anywhere.  In the office, in your friendship group, spotting you at the gym, next to you at yoga class.  It is a tricky situation, but bear in mind these wise words from my good friend’s mother, who is often unintentionally harsh in the way that only a mother can be: 

‘Aurelia, you must understand that nobody cares as much about this wedding as you, so try not to become a bore darling’. 

In my view this is equally applicable to pregnancy and babies. Having a child is an incredible and life changing experience that people are excited to share.  And even us infertile folk are pleased as punch for those who are expecting, or have just had children.  Please don't feel that you cannot talk about your bump or your baby to anyone and everyone you meet, just in case you upset someone accidentally.  That is not where I am going with this.  My plea is for balance.

My husband and I refer to them as ‘Baby Bores’ - people who talk incessantly about either their pregnancy or their children.  They talk continuously about every aspect of pregnancy, from what they ate that morning, how they slept the night before, to what baby kit they bought at the weekend, all the time rubbing their bump.   Baby bores are a rare breed and tend to be the same people who talk continuously and in deathly detail about other big life events – moving house, getting married, even training for an endurance event, so they are usually predictable.  But not always.  Sometimes the Baby Bores creep up on you when you least expect it and suddenly your fun friend or work colleague can no longer hold a conversation that does not entirely focus on themselves to the exclusion of all others.  I’m not advocating a ban on baby chat, far from it.   Instead I’m pleading for it to be talked about in the round so that it doesn't become socially exclusive.  Painful for those secret suffers of infertility (guaranteed to be at least one in every person's life) and plain boring to those who don't give two hoots.  My gentle ask is that after we have chatted about your toddler for half an hour and you’ve showed me all the cute photos from your phone, maybe ask me how my life is going.  Social etiquette involves taking an interest in the lives of others (not the film, although the film is excellent so I would happily discuss that). Otherwise, it makes me feel that my life is not worth discussing, because I don’t have children. 

If I am ever lucky enough to become pregnant I shall bear in mind that nobody cares as much about my pregnancy or children as me.  I could be accidentally making somebody else’s life a misery if I am non-stop with my pregnancy chatter.

Part B – Try these instead

Comments that are genuine, supportive and non-offensive.  Best stick with these:

  • Sorry to hear that you are going through this.  If you ever want to talk about it, just let me know.

  • I can't imagine how difficult that must be for you and I'm here for you if you need me.

  • I suffered with infertility too and I'm here for you.

Obviously only if you have actually suffered with infertility.  Otherwise the web of lies will unravel on first conversation and you will look like a fantasist.  No-one trusts a fantasist.  

  • I have a close friend going through IVF/adoption/surrogacy at the moment so I have some understanding of how emotionally difficult infertility can be. Let me know if you want to talk.

If words fail you in this difficult situation then a great alternative would be a big hug and a cup of tea.  That says 'I care' which is all that is needed.  It is OK that you don't fully understand what it is like, in the same way that I cannot fully appreciate all your troubles and how they feel.  Just listen, be sensitive, don't downplay the seriousness or dismiss the issue with a flippant 'you'll be ok' and we will all rub along perfectly.  No punches thrown or tears wept. Actually, no promises on the latter.