Actually everyone should read this post. But of course, I am a bit biased.
No. More than a bit.
Twelve percent of couples struggle with the inability to conceive naturally. That number may seem small. But even smaller is the number of women who break the silence on their sadness and frustration. So when someone has the courage to broach the painful topic of infertility, it can be an awkward conversation. For example, the course of three days I learned a new friend is expecting her first baby, another friend delivered her second baby, and yet another is facing…infertility. The words of congratulations and expressions of joy come so easily with the news of baby tidings. But even after a four-year struggle with infertility and the wisdom and emotional growth earned, I found myself struggling for words during the conversation that began with, “You had your twins by in-vitro…right?”
I felt ashamed for stammering through generic phrases that echoed off the walls, totally missing the mark. Not only should I know what to say (because I certainly know what not to say), but how to balance the offerings of hope and support with the sad reality that fertility treatment is no guarantee of conception. So there were a few minutes of uncomfortable topical exchange, mine from being tongue-tied, hers from the trepidation of revealing her “secret.” Then after reflecting on my own experience, so much a part of my psyche it simply hums in the back of my memory, I was able to articulate to her what I learned from living through four years of infertility. What follows is my end of our soul-bearing conversation, the words of advice can come only from being in the trenches. And if you and your partner are struggling with infertility, pass this post along to your loved ones who have not “been there.” This post is for them, too.
Be the rubber to others’ glue. People will say some incredibly stupid things to you, and even to your family. Some comments will seem hurtful beyond belief and some will be plain idiotic. As tough as it may seem it’s important to understand these verbal blunders, Hallmark-esque or otherwise, say more about the speaker than they do about you. It took me years to realize this and forgive those poorly-chosen words. But it is true. People who have no experience with infertility don’t know what to say and want the conversation to end as quickly as possible. So they might say, “You’ll get pregnant eventually!!!” and sound like they are blowing you off. But know this is their attempt to relieve their own discomfort but simultaneously sound supportive. It is not you.
Have a plan. Write it down. Infertility and the related treatment protocols are emotionally and financially draining, with no guaranteed return on all you have invested. When you are ready, and you will know when that is, establish your plan. This may mean an endpoint other than conceiving a baby. It may mean a calendar date, or a number of “cycles” of in-vitro or medication after which you cease your efforts. Or the time you decide to pursue adoption. I was gung-ho at the beginning of the in-vitro process, ready to do a cycle a month if that’s what it took to get pregnant. But after two failed IVF cycles and a heart-to-heart with our specialist, my husband and I took a recommended break from the protocols and set a several-month plan: we would do one more IVF cycle. If we did not become pregnant, we would take our savings for in-vitro and instead take a vacation, clear our heads and pursue adoption. Let me tell you, having a predetermined plan really took some of the stress, both emotional and financial, off our backs. It was liberating.
Don’t forget the hopeful father-to-be. No matter the reason for a couple’s infertility, it is the woman who is most often the focus of treatment, receiving most of the medications and injections, getting the ultrasounds and going through the invasive procedures. But her partner is as much invested as she, even though spared much of the doctor’s attention. He needs support as well. Movies manufacture comic relief out of the male contribution to insemination and in-vitro procedures but men are not cool or comfortable with the process. It can help the male partner tremendously to talk with another male about this and a fertility specialist’s office can help men connect. Yes, men do talk about “it.” The conversation my own husband had with a friend about “the room” is one for the books. It was therapeutic for the both of them.
The million-dollar phrase. I could fill a book with all the crazy stuff people said to my husband and me while we were fielding infertility. In lieu of sharing the ludicrous, I will tell you the one and only thing anyone ever said that was comforting. And it’s not “I’m sorry.” As a friend of mine from school said:
I know there is nothing I can say to take your hurt away but know I am thinking of you.
So simple and honest and heartfelt. If you are struggling with infertility, you need to hear someone with the courage to be honest and then throw their hat into your ring. Give your family and friends some help in avoiding foot-in-mouth syndrome by saying to them, “I know it is hard to find something to say but if you can be supportive and hear me out that would mean the world to me.” If you are family to a couple struggling with infertility, I pass my friend’s remarkable phrase on to you as well; feel free to modify to suit you. But if you feel tongue-tied (like I did with my friend), use her words verbatim. Or here’s my way of putting it:
I know there is nothing I can say to ease your pain but know I am on your side, hoping and wishing with you.