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I have never personally struggled with infertility but I have many friends that have. Unfortunately, I have been “that” friend that has tried to give advice because I just don’t know the reality. My friend Anna has struggled with infertility and has become an infertility advocate. As we enter into Infertility Awareness week I have asked for her to share some advice on how to respond when someone is dealing with infertility. Our intentions may be good but it may make someone feel even worse.
Guest post by Anna Hornbostel- Infertility Awareness Advocate
We live in a culture that is obsessed with babies. “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage” goes the infamous playground song. In the checkout aisle, there are magazine covers splashed with celebrity bump watches, pregnancies,
We make jokes (often painful ones) about the ticking of biological clocks. We see carefully constructed pregnancy announcements, elaborate gender
The Reality of Infertility
What we don’t talk about is when the baby does not come home. 1 in 8 couples in America will experience infertility. This is defined as the inability to get pregnant after 1 year of regular, unprotected intercourse if the woman is under age 35 or within 6 months if she is over age 35. There are multiple causes, both male and female, but the results are the same: months and even years of hope, waiting and disappointment like an emotional roller coaster.
Dr. Christopher Yancey describes infertility as being a loss before there’s ever been a found. Sometimes infertility journeys coincide with multiple losses in the form of miscarriages, stillbirths, early infant loss or embryo loss. All these losses generate grief, anxiety, depression, identity crises, relationship struggles, health,
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am NOT saying that we ought to stop pregnancy announcements or any of the other wonderful ways that we celebrate babies. I believe to the tips of my toes that every single baby is a precious miracle who ought to be welcomed with fanfare and love or remembered and honored with dignity and love. 11 years of my own infertility and 4 years leading an infertility support group has only deepened that belief. What I AM saying is that by acknowledging the difficulties and coming alongside the struggling, we can break down the walls of silence and stigma surrounding infertility and loss. We can provide care and comfort to our friends and loved ones in need.
You’re probably scratching your head and wondering how in the world we do THAT. Well, I’m glad you asked!
Step 1– Sensitivity towards Infertility
Be mindful of language.
- “Do you have kids?” “When are you/why don’t you have kids” questions are dreaded by most struggling couples. Instead, try curiosity, such as “Tell me about yourself” or “Tell me what’s been going on in your life”.
- “Starting a family” Babies don’t start families- they join or expand families. Committed couples are already a family and their traditions and values will serve as an important basis from which a family can be built or expanded.
- “Just…” “At least…” “Why don’t you….” Avoid giving advice or family building options. Most infertile couples have spent a lot of time agonizing over tough decisions regarding medical care and adoption. No family building option is a “just” or “at least.” They are all financially and/or emotionally costly, and there is no “one size fits all.” Better questions to ask: “What has this been like for you?” and “What family building options have you considered?”
- “Do you want my kids?” “You’re lucky you don’t have to parent!” The grass is always greener, and these statements are incredibly invalidating both of the pain that the struggling person endures and the precious cargo with which you have been entrusted. Parenting is hard- but it is also filled with moments of pure love and magic. Being child-free can be full of freedom- and also an aching longing for an unknown someone.
- “Whose fault is it?” Infertility is no one’s fault. It is a disease of the reproductive system, and it impacts both members of a couple, regardless of if it is male health or female
Step 2– Being supportive
Be an ally.
- Acknowledge events like National Infertility Awareness Week (in April each year) and National Pregnancy and Infant Loss month (every October). Even if you have never walked this hard path yourself someone you know has- regardless of if they have shared with you or not. By acknowledging these events you let your hurting friends know that you are a safe place for them should they want to share
- Get educated. You don’t need to become an expert but simple things such as knowing the differences between IVF and IUI, recognizing the different parts of grief, or knowing that infertility and loss has many different causes (even if you don’t know the specifics) can make you a safe person to talk to.
- Do tangible acts: bring food, plant a tree, wear a ribbon, attend a walk in support of a loved one, make a donation in a baby’s name… there are a ton of possibilities!
Step 3– It’s okay to grieve
Sit in the hurt.
- Don’t try to offer simple fixes or clichés. Some phrases to try instead: “Tell me more about that”, “I’m so sorry. That sounds so hard” and “What can I best do to support you right now?” Pastor Rick Warren often says, “The deeper the hurt the fewer the words” Simply sitting, listening and acknowledging the hurt can be a priceless gift.
- Ask what they need. It changes day to day- grief journeys can’t be predicted so please be patient and let them be who/where they are. Sometimes the fear is that bringing up the loss will remind the hurting person of their pain… but they’ve never once forgotten their loss.
- If their baby had a name, use that name, or find other ways to honor the loss. Their worst fear is that their baby will be forgotten.
- Don’t tell them they can have more children, or that if they adopt they’ll get pregnant. These phrases, while meant to offer hope, are actually quite dismissive of the unique value that each and every child has- not to mention there’s no way to predict the accuracy of these statements.
- Check in to see if they want a girl’s night out or a spa day or just send a text letting them know you’re thinking of them today. Let them know they don’t need to respond (it can be overwhelming to formulate responses) but that you’re there if they need you.
- Acknowledge the hard days like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, a due date or a loss anniversary, the first day of school… there are many days that can be difficult. A simple “Thinking of you today” will do amazing things to a hurting heart.
Step 4– Be in their shoes
Consider their feelings.
- Try to avoid ambushing them at a family event or on social media with pregnancy announcements… but also, don’t avoid telling them the news. A separate phone call or email ahead of the “big” announcement will be much appreciated… as will grace and understanding for their responses. Know that they are thrilled for you but hurt for themselves and sometimes will need time to process through that hurt before they can celebrate alongside.
- Some days they want to go to baby and kid-related events… and other days they want to hide under the covers. Ask your loved one how they want the delicate situations handled. Likely, they will say that they would love an invite that doesn’t come with expectations or strings attached. They may love watching Junior play baseball one weekend and then the next time, politely decline. They may be thrilled to have coffee with you, or take you to dinner, but unable to attend a baby shower or dedication.
- The key is to have open, non-judgmental communication on both sides. Extend invitations warmly but without expectation so they know they are valued but their hurt is understood. Nothing about infertility and loss is easy or simple, but with more awareness and care we can all work together to shatter silence, stigma, and shame. We can help bring healing and support to those walking this difficult road.
About the author
Anna Hornbostel leads the infertility awareness support group at Saddleback Church, Mission Viejo, CA. She is a Registered Associate Marriage and Family Therapist AMFT 104948 under the supervision of Dr. Amanda Wood PSY 20304. She is a wife, auntie and dog mama to 2 sweet shih tzu girls.
For more resources, you can check out the National Infertility Awareness Organization.
If one of your friends does get pregnant and you would like to throw them a baby shower, check out my post for tips on planning a baby shower.