Sometimes it seems like the second you get married or hit a certain age, well-intentioned people start asking you some iteration of the inevitable question, When are you having a baby? Or, for the couples out there who do choose to have a little one, some of those same people just can’t help but ask, When are you having another one?
The thing is, you never know what a person is going through. Some people choose not to be parents, and constantly explaining that decision can be emotionally draining. Or, maybe that couple you’re hounding about getting pregnant has experienced pregnancy loss, and is privately devastated. And then there’s the large contingent of Canadians who are struggling to get pregnant in the first place.
Roughly 16 per cent of Canadian couples — that’s one in six — experience infertility, a term that generally refers to couples who haven’t gotten pregnant after a year of trying (this is for women under 35 years of age; for those over 35, that number shrinks to six months).
Infertility can be a dark, emotional and completely draining period as couples decide what approach to take, explore their options and contemplate their futures. If a friend or family member does open up to you about this time in their lives, they need support and love. What they don’t need is a slew of questions or tidbits of advice that may be well-intentioned, but are actually emotionally damaging. Here are a few examples of things to never say, and suggestions on what to say to someone struggling with infertility instead.
Don’t say: “You’re stressing too much”
Yes, there have been studies that show stress and infertility could be linked, but there are also studies showing the opposite to be true. The thing is that people don’t just check into the spa and come out pregnant. In fact, people have historically gotten pregnant through all kinds of truly awful — not to mention stressful — events (case in point: this pandemic). At the end of the day the science is unclear, and if a couple is experiencing infertility, the last thing they need to hear is that they should relax. If anything, hearing that is probably only going to stress them out even more.
What to say instead: “I’m sorry to hear you’re going through this. I’m here for you.”
Don’t say: “Whose fault is it?”
You may be curious or trying to express an interest, but unless someone offers up a reason as to why the doctors believe they aren’t getting pregnant, it’s never OK to ask. There are so many emotions that come with infertility, and guilt is right up there with fear and sadness. Asking whose fault it is or what condition is potentially causing infertility is like assigning blame. And speaking of blame, saying things like, “You shouldn’t have waited so long to try” or there’s still “lots of time” are equally hurtful. In other words, infertility is never a clear-cut issue, so try not to reduce it into one specific thing.
What to say instead: “I’m sorry you’re going through this. If you want to talk (or even not talk) I’m here.”
Don’t say: “Have you considered [insert suggestion here]”
Couples going through infertility have thought about all of their options, trust us. Not only are they speaking with their doctors and potentially their fertility doctors, but they’ve also scoured the internet and done their research. Odds are, they’re actually thinking of very little else these days. So asking them if they’ve considered IVF, or adoption, or extra vitamins, or any other form of solution may seem helpful, but it’s really not. In fact, it typically comes across like you’re simplifying or diminishing a very complicated thing in their lives, and that can feel incredibly hurtful.
What to say instead: “I’m sorry you’re going through this. Do you want to tell me more about it?”
Don’t say: “It only took us one try!”
Everyone seems to have one “miracle baby” story. And when you’re going through infertility it often feels like everyone you know wants to share that story with you. Look, it’s great that it only took you one try. Or that so and so just looked at each other and they were pregnant. Or that Bob and Jill from university went through IVF and then got pregnant naturally, twice. But this isn’t about you or that other couple. These stories may seem relatable and hopeful, but to someone experiencing infertility, they often only serve to highlight their own struggle to have a baby.
What to say instead: “I’m sorry you’re going through this. I love you.”
Don’t say: “Well I didn’t want to tell you this, but…”
On the flip side of miracle baby stories are new pregnancy announcements. It may feel awkward telling someone going through infertility about your own upcoming bundle of joy. Yes, it can be really hard dealing with infertility jealousy. And, of course, your pregnancy is going to cause some jealous feelings. In fact, prepare yourself for a bit of potential distance after you break the news, because your friend may need time to process his or her own feelings. But break the news, and don’t call even more attention to your friend’s current situation. At the end of the day they will be happy for you, and in some cases participating in your pregnancy and joy may even be healing for them.
What to say instead: “I’m really thankful you’re in my life and I’m grateful to share this news with you.”
See also: How much adoption actually costs in Canada.
Don’t say: “You’re lucky you don’t have kids”
Do new parents like to complain about a lack of sleep and energy or the fact that they’ve lost all semblance of themselves? Of course they do. Trust us when we say that no one going through infertility feels lucky about it. And they would gladly trade a lack of sleep for a baby, one thousand per cent. Also inconsiderate is telling someone going through infertility to take your kids instead. They don’t want your baby, they want their own. And joking about it isn’t going to make anyone feel any better.
What to say instead: “I’m sorry you’re going through this. Is there anything I can do?”
Don’t say: “Make sure they don’t mix up the sperm”
It may feel funny to make crass comments or jokes about infertility to lighten the mood, but they will never land the way you intend for them to. Skip anything about mixing up the donor, subbing in a better one, or a joke about using another woman’s uterus. They may laugh it off, but deep down it will just feel like you’re not taking your friend’s infertility struggle seriously, and cause hurt feelings.
What to say instead: “I’m sorry you’re going through this. What kind of support do you need?”
Don’t say: “It could be worse”
Yes, it could be cancer (and in some cases, this may be the reason for the couple not being able to have kids at present). Or there could be a sick child. Or sure, that couple doing everything to get pregnant again could not have one child already, at least. There are a zillion things that could happen that would be awful. But guess what? Infertility is also awful (and it doesn’t preclude any of the other things on this list), and it similarly isn’t something that any hopeful parent ever wants to have to go through. Telling someone how much worse it could be completely diminishes their feelings, and makes a person feel as though you’re not taking their struggle seriously.
What to say instead: “I’m so sorry you’re going through this. How are you holding up?”
Don’t say: “Maybe it wasn’t meant to be”
When someone has decided they want to be a parent and things aren’t working out the way they’d hoped, hearing that they just weren’t meant to be a parent is downright awful. And that’s definitely what your loved one is hearing when you tell them that maybe it wasn’t meant to be.
What to say instead: “I’m so sorry you’re going through this. It feels really unfair.”
Don’t say: “Don’t give up”
Telling someone not to give up may feel like the most helpful and natural thing to say, especially if they’ve opened up to you about some of the treatments they’ve gone through or how emotional it’s all been. But at the end of the day infertility treatments can take a toll on a person’s physical, mental, emotional and financial state. While everyone loves a happy ending, in life not all fertility journeys work out the way we want. Sometimes a couple may decide they can no longer go through the process of trying to have a baby, or be told they need to stop trying. That’s when they’ll need your support — and acceptance — more than ever, and a “don’t quit” pep talk definitely isn’t the way to go.
What to say instead: “I’m so sorry you’re going through this. You’re amazing, and I am here for you no matter what.”