How To Support A Friend Experiencing Infertility
Imagine for a minute that you have just received a life-altering diagnosis*. The plans for your future have been shattered. The treatments you choose can leave you with debilitating migraines, nausea, bruising, mood swings, and extreme fatigue. Your new reality consumes your every waking moment. No one knows how to respond, so they tiptoe around your diagnosis. You can’t concentrate at work. Your friendships and marriage start to suffer. You feel alone, grieving the life you thought you’d have. This is what your friend who is experiencing infertility is going through. And it’s not an exaggeration. According to the National Survey of Family Growth conducted by the CDC, 1 in 8 couples have trouble getting pregnant or sustaining a pregnancy. And 7.4 million women, or 11.9% of women, have received infertility services in their lifetime.
You want to be supportive and empathic. You want to help your struggling friend in any way possible. But you have no words. You have no experience. In fact, you may have children of your own already and feel slightly guilty to bring them around or talk about them now. Or you may be pregnant and afraid of being a constant reminder to your friend of what they don’t have yet. You’ve entered into a delicate predicament where you don’t know what to do or how to act.
First and foremost, kudos to you. For realizing that you may not have all the answers. For acknowledging that this situation is worth researching and putting the work into. Learning how to best support your friend during this time takes courage and vulnerability.
Talking about such an intimate detail of a relationship isn’t always something people feel comfortable doing in the first place. Everyone has a different comfort level with what they are willing to share. Your friend may tell you right away that they’re struggling to conceive, or they may choose to wait until they get a prognosis. They may be feeling embarrassed, ashamed, in denial or in disbelief. But once they do share, take it as a compliment that your friendship is a safe place for them.
Support Through Empathy
The complexities of infertility go beyond one person’s journey into parenthood. It’s an experience involving so many layers that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it looks and feels like. There are different diagnoses under the infertility umbrella with varying plans of treatment. There are various emotions that are experienced daily, different support systems, and different financial situations. In other words, everyone has a vastly unique infertility experience, leaving them feeling extremely isolated and lonely.
We often think of empathy as “walking in someone else’s shoes” because it’s an easy concept to teach. However, that logic buckles under the weight of assumptions. Brené Brown, researcher and author of Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, explains, “Empathy is not relating to an experience, it’s connecting to what someone is feeling about an experience.”
Even if you don’t have a clue about what the struggle of infertility entails, you can relate and empathize with the emotions your friend is feeling. And the only way to know what those feelings are (as opposed to assuming) is to ask them and actively listen to their response. “How are you feeling?” goes further than “How is it going?” When they do share what they’re feeling, acknowledge and validate it. Providing support through true empathy is essentially saying, “I hear you, and I believe you.” Period.
Things That Are Not Helpful
In our attempt to be helpful and supportive, we often default to societal norms or what has been modeled in our lives. We rarely even realize when we’ve offended a friend because most often, it is NOT our intention to do so.
Here are a few things that are definitely not helpful and why:
“At least you have/didn’t/can…”
Not helpful because: Any sentence that starts with this phrase immediately minimizes and invalidates their feelings. It’s toxic positivity at its worst.
“It’ll happen if it’s meant to be…”
Not helpful because: Although intended to be reassuring, this phrase ultimately brushes their feelings aside. It can imply that if it doesn’t happen, then they aren’t meant to be parents. This is quite hurtful.
“Have you tried…”
Not helpful because: They have tried. And tried. And tried. Unless you are a fertility doctor, you are not in a position to give them advice on what to try.
“You could always adopt!”
Not helpful because: Adoption is not right for everyone. Offering it as a comparable solution is not what they need.
“I know exactly what you’re feeling. We tried for months, then went on vacation and it happened! Just try to relax!”
Not helpful because: It makes it about you and your experience – not about them and theirs. No matter how similar you may think your situations are… any type of comparison just isn’t beneficial.
“You’re just so brave!”
Not helpful because: As encouraging as you try to be, toxic positivity can creep in, even with your best intentions. We often jump to positive statements like these before validating their experience, which ends up dismissing their sadness, despair, grief, anger and fears. Also, they may not feel the way you think they do, and insisting they are brave, strong, resilient, etc., adds more pressure on them to live up to those expectations.
Not helpful because: Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. Your friend is living with an ongoing, all-consuming, painful experience each and every day.
Things That Can Be Helpful
Supporting a friend through something as sensitive as infertility can feel like a big undertaking. You won’t always do or say the right things. However, if you devote time to doing even a few things listed here, you’ll develop a closer friendship through your genuine support.
Don’t rely on your friend to fill in all the details. To better support their journey, do some research to understand the terms and typical steps of infertility treatment options. Resolve: The National Infertility Association is a great place to start.
Ask Them What They Need
It’s simple, yet we rarely ask people what they need. Try: “Do you need me to listen? Give a distraction? Or give you space?” If they have trouble thinking of specifics, try brainstorming tangible ways you can be supportive such as attending appointments with them, babysitting (if they have older kids), or exercising together to get those endorphins flowing.
We are all human and make mistakes. If you accidentally say something offensive or insensitive to your friend, apologize. Let them know that you’re still learning but are trying to be as supportive as possible.
Check In Regularly
When your friend says, “I’m fine,” recognize that that’s not always the case. (I’m fine is usually code for: I just don’t have the energy to explain all the ways I’m NOT fine.) Sometimes a random care package or a “thinking about you” text can show you truly care and are there for them, no matter what.
Be a Shoulder to Cry On
Infertility is not a lighthearted discussion – it’s heavy. It’s emotional. Being a safe space for your friend to open up is a huge responsibility. How you react sets the tone for future interactions. Be gentle and understanding. Let them cry, and tell them their feelings are ok. It IS a big deal. It IS scary. And it IS painful. And if you can’t seem to find the right words in the moment, just say: “I’m here. I hear you. I believe you.”
Respect Them and Their Boundaries
Understand that certain social settings or holidays can be highly triggering for someone experiencing infertility. For instance, a baby shower or gender reveal party can just be too painful to attend. A birthday party or even a social gathering could cause extreme anxiety. Realize this is an incredibly difficult experience for them. Their boundaries are not meant to offend you, but to protect themselves. Reassuring them that you understand and respect their decisions can strengthen your friendship.
Encourage Professional Help
This is a huge life transition with a lot of complex emotions. Research has shown that women with infertility have the same levels of anxiety and depression as women with cancer. Sometimes confiding in a trusted friend just isn’t enough. Your friend may need the skills of a professional to help them through the journey. Remind them that it’s ok to ask for help and that reaching out to a professional doesn’t make them weak.
Support That Doesn’t Stop
So, does getting pregnant end your friend’s infertility journey? Unfortunately, no. A positive pregnancy test is not a guarantee. Breathing a sigh of relief that it finally happened isn’t in the cards for them because there is always the risk of miscarriage or genetic defects (just like any pregnancy). The difference is the stakes are higher. The anxiety and the fear of losing their “miracle” baby is greater. Your support shouldn’t end once they get a bump or have a baby. The experience of infertility is traumatic and life-changing. Your friendship might never be the same… but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Being a supportive, safe space can strengthen your friendship for a lifetime.
*There is division among medical professionals/global health experts over classifying infertility as a disease or a condition.
World Health Organization: Infertility
CDC Reproductive Health: Infertility
Resolve: The National Infertility Association
The Relationship Between Stress and Infertility
Coping With the Stress of Infertility | Alice Domar, PhD
Grieving Infertility and Miscarriages
Guide for Guys: Supporting a Friend Facing Infertility
What You Need to Know About Disenfranchised Grief
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