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Talking About Infertility: How to Avoid Land Mines

Talking About Infertility: How to Avoid Land Mines

A short story from someone with a lot to say…

March 2012. That was when I first started thinking seriously about babies. I was thirty years old, and my new husband (we’d only been married about three months) thought I was rushing things.

I said: “But you don’t understand. I am anovulatory. That means I don’t ovulate.” No ovulation = no eggs get released = no pregnancy. That seemed like a simple calculation to me. I didn’t want to get pregnant right away, but the internet had led me to believe that insurance companies sometimes make you “try” for a whole year before they allow you to seek help from an infertility clinic. Oh yeah, and I wanted four kids. So at age thirty, with a condition I thought might lead to some fertility problems, and has been on birth control for years, I was eager to get started on what I expected to be a two-year journey to getting pregnant.

My husband had no idea how right I was to think we might have some trouble getting pregnant. I had no idea how wrong I was about how much harder this was going to be than I expected.

Clock in sand

April 2018. I am now thirty-six. I do not have any children. I am still going through fertility treatments. I’ve learned some things, though, and I’m feeling like enough of a veteran to think that it might be time to share some of my stories. My husband and I have held our experiences with this close to the vest for the last six years. The way we’ve viewed it, our efforts to reproduce are none of your business. But then again, 1 in 8 couples have trouble conceiving, and though we finally have brave women like Chrissy Teigen and Kim Kardashian West speaking out about their infertility struggles, there is still a lot to be said. Anyway, National Infertility Awareness Week is coming up, and I’m taking that as permission to add my two cents, too.

So if you are in that lucky 12.5%, then I’m writing this — and the articles that come after it — for you and your well-meaning friends, family members, neighbors, co-workers, yoga buddies, and random grocery store acquaintances, all of whom probably think they have something useful to tell you about getting pregnant. I hope that the slices of my experience that I share will help you as you deal with what might be the most difficult thing you have ever experienced.


Wisdom from a Veteran: If You Struggle With Infertility, People Are Going to Say Dumb Things to You

Even the smart people in your life will do it. They should know better, but they don’t, and frankly, the whole “my infertility is none of your business” messages aren’t for everyone. It can feel quite alienating when people you care about know you’re going through something really difficult, but never feel like it’s okay to say, “How are you doing?”


The truth is that infertility as a topic of conversation is a minefield. We all have different preferences for how much we are willing to talk. Our loved ones want to be there for us, but they often either say the wrong things or ignore the problem entirely because they are afraid they will say the wrong thing if they try to talk to you about it. And infertility is a very isolating problem, so never talking about it is bad for everyone.

To know how to talk about infertility, you have to know what not to say. To that end, I have written a not-so-short list of things no one should ever say to someone who is going through infertility. It’s based on my own personal experience, and everything you see below is something someone has said to me. But before we get there, I want to give some advice to those of you going through infertility:

Be explicit with your friends and family about how much you are willing to talk about your experience, and make sure they know this is a work in progress.

If you want to talk, tell them. If you want to keep quiet, tell them. You might change your mind about whether you want to talk later. Tell them that. If you aren’t sure what you want right now, tell them that.

Don’t assume people know what you want, or that they are always going to get it right. They aren’t. They want the best for you, and they aren’t trying to hurt you when they make mistakes. So forgive your friends and family when they say something that hurts. This could be a long road. You’re going to need those people who care about you as you travel down it. Get used to gently and proactively guiding the people you care about around the land mines of infertility conversations.

If you’re reading this because you know someone going through infertility treatments, and you want to avoid saying harmful things, then thank you for reading. As you go through the list below, you might find something that you’ve said. If that happens, don’t feel terrible. Most of the things listed here have been said to me by smart, educated people who I respect, and more than one person has said these things. It’s never just you. And keep in mind that this is always highly personal. What upset me may not upset your neighbor who’s going through infertility treatments at all. Pay attention and be a listener, and you’ll get it right more often than not.

Alright. Deep breath, and…here goes:

Things You Shouldn’t Say to Someone Struggling with Infertility

(1) “I Can’t Even Imagine What You’re Going Through. My Children Are My Whole Life.”

This is at the top of my list for worst things to say to someone struggling with infertility because it is something many many many people are guilty of saying, and they have no idea it’s wrong.

I don’t mean to be nasty or unfeeling about this, but if your children are your whole life, you need to keep that secret to yourself. Definitely don’t say something like that to someone struggling with infertility, but also consider dropping the statement entirely. You should especially not say it to your own children. Tell them they bring you joy. Tell them you love them more than anything. But do not tell them they are your whole life. Because every time you say that, you send the message that children are the most important thing that a person can possibly have, and if it turns out that your children cannot have children of their own, that’s going to be a very difficult internal belief to overcome.

When you go through infertility, your life perspective changes. You realize it is possible that you will not have children, and for a lot of people, that’s a major loss. But if I am not able to have kids, should I tell myself that there is no way for me to live a wonderful, joyful, fulfilling life? Of course not. I need to believe that my whole life does not have to revolve around my children. That’s the only way to get through this. I must think of myself as a whole person even if I never have kids, and it’s bad for me to hear messages that tell me the opposite of that.

As a side note, if you truly do feel like your children are your whole world, you might want to get out and do some other things. Love your kids like crazy, but for their sake, do not make them the only interesting thing you have going on. It will be better for everyone if you have more depth to your life.

(2) “When You Have Children, It Will Change Everything.”

Not being able to have children changes everything, too. See (1) above. It can make you totally reevaluate your life purpose and change the way you expect to experience happiness. It can also change your social circles and what rites of passage you are involved in. If you don’t have children, you may not be invited to kid birthday parties. You probably won’t ever face PTA politics. You’ll never have empty nest syndrome. You may have to pay a stranger to take care of you as you age. You will not die with your children by your side. For a couple struggling with infertility, that’s a lot to come to grips with. Infertility changes everything.

But, you know…life is full of things that transform us. Of course, having kids changes you, but it doesn’t mean that a childless person has never had a transformational life event or that a childless person doesn’t have the wisdom of their own. You have your experiences, I have mine. I know things you don’t know, and vice versa. There is no need for you to tell me that having children changed you. I get it.

(3) “Don’t Give Up. I Know Someone Who Had a Baby When She Was 46.”

Yep. I do, too. But the thing is, even though there are people who are infertile for years and go on to have lots of kids naturally when they are older, there are also people who are infertile and never go on to have kids. One of the cruelest things a doctor ever said to me was, “Children are not a guarantee.” It was also one of the truest things. Just because someone else was able to have kids at a later age, does not mean I will be able to. Also, I know that it is possible to have children at 46, but I’m struggling to have them at 36, so maybe it’s petty, but I don’t always want to hear about the person you know who got the miracle I want. It’s not helpful.

(4) “You Just Need to Relax, and It Will Happen. Stop Stressing!”

If you have been trying to get pregnant for less than a year, and you have a relatively normal cycle, and you’re younger than 35, then you really shouldn’t be stressed about not being pregnant yet. A year is nothing in the world of fertility. Still, there are no guarantees. Furthermore, stress does not cause infertility — through infertility can absolutely turn you into a stress ball — and being told that you’re the person who is at fault for your infertility definitely doesn’t cause any less stress.

Of all the things people say that they shouldn’t, this is the one that I’ve always found the most traumatic and difficult to forgive. It is so incredibly hurtful when someone says something like this because there is really no way to interpret it except as victim-blaming. There is no research that says that if I “just relax,” my ovaries will start functioning exactly like they’re supposed to. Unfortunately, that’s not how this works. Also, when your body isn’t doing what it’s supposed to be doing, it’s already hard not to feel guilt over that. No one going through infertility needs to be made to feel worse about their body malfunctioning. So please, don’t go there.

(5) “My Cousin’s Neighbor’s Best Friend’s Daughter’s Ballet Teacher’s Grandma’s Accountant Tried to Get Pregnant for Years. Then She Took Beeswax Mixed With Crushed Dried Wasp Wings and a Dab of Rubbing Alcohol, and She Got Pregnant Just Like That! Have You Thought of Going to Her Witch Doctor?”

No thanks.

(6) “Have You Tried Clomid? That Worked for Me. And Make Sure That You Talk to Your Doctor About Adding Progesterone Shots if Necessary.”

Okay, so in fairness, this isn’t really a “you should never say it” kind of thing. But it’s sort of a sibling to (5), and it can still be very hurtful because it can feel like someone telling you that she knows your body better than you do.

Fertility issues are difficult to diagnose, and there are a lot of reasons that someone might have trouble getting pregnant. Even if you have gone through this yourself and are on the other end, you don’t know my body and you aren’t my doctor. So it is possible that I’ll want to know about your experience, and if I do, I’ll appreciate as much information as you can tell me. However, the best practice on this kind of thing is: to offer your expertise with caution and ideally only if solicited.

(7) “Oh, Your Last IVF Treatment Didn’t Work? When Are You Trying Again?”

Infertility treatments are hard on the body, the mind, and the wallet. It is not always financially possible for a couple to try another cycle of in vitro fertilization, especially if they are balancing the cost of one more try against the cost of something like adoption or a surrogate. Even if it is financially possible, the couple might have some other reason not to try a given treatment again, including emotional exhaustion.

It’s difficult enough for someone with infertility to try to make the decision about where to stop. Don’t be the person who adds pressure.

(8) “Why Don’t You Just Adopt?” or “Why Don’t You Just Try a Surrogate?”

There are a lot of extreme ways that a person can try to get a baby. Almost all of them are expensive, emotionally draining, barely covered by insurance, and not a guarantee.

Adoption can be competitive. It is also not for everyone. It’s really great that there are wonderful parents out there adopting kids who need homes, but the person you are talking to may not have the financial resources to adopt or might simply not be ready to go there. It is not selfish to grieve the children that would have had your husband’s beautiful eyes and your sharp wit. It is not easy to give up the dream of having your own children, and not everyone is willing to adopt.

Surrogacy is complicated. There are a lot of legalities to consider. Even if you think it would have been nice to have your children without the pregnancy part, pregnancy is an experience that some women really want to have. It may be hard to give that up, too.

More importantly, there really is no “why don’t you just” when it comes to infertility. There is no “one size fits all” solution. And there’s much more out there than you likely realize if you’re not knee-deep in it yourself. For me, for example, a surrogate wouldn’t make sense because my uterus probably isn’t the problem. Donor embryos, on the other hand, might eventually be a solution. But I still don’t want someone saying something like: “Why don’t you just try a donor embryo?” Because just like adoption and surrogacy, donor embryos are expensive, emotionally draining, probably not covered by insurance, and not a guarantee.

Basically: “Why don’t you just try X?” is always a bad question. It’s never “just” that easy. But, I do get that people are also curious about these things. So consider this: if you are asking “why don’t you just try X?” because you’re making an assumption that “X” is easy, then don’t ask the question. If you’re asking because you’re curious and concerned — and the person you are talking to has made it clear that it is okay to talk to them about their infertility struggles — frame your question like this:

“Do you think X could ever be an option?”

That lets the other person know that you legitimately don’t know much about “X” and opens up a much better discussion with far less possibility for pain.

(9) “You’ll Regret It if You Give Up.”

Usually, this is said by someone who could have had children and regrets that they didn’t, not by someone who tried to have children but ultimately couldn’t have them. The difference is very very important. In the first case, the person now wishes they had chosen the option of having kids, but they do not know what it’s like to struggle to have them. They have never experienced getting to the point where you are physically, mentally, and financially incapable of doing more.

The person in the second case has experienced that point. They know it all too well, and they also know that everyone has a different tolerance for pain. I wish I could say I had unlimited resources, but I don’t. There have been times when I simply couldn’t do more. I don’t know where my ultimate stopping point will be, but I can tell you that no matter where that point is when you get to “enough is enough,” that decision has not been made lightly.

(10) “Have You Seen Jane the Virgin?”

No. I haven’t. Because that show is about a woman whose doctor mistakenly artificially inseminates her during a checkup. I know that’s supposed to be funny, but it’s really not funny to me. Furthermore, the fact that the show is about a woman who gets pregnant means that watching it is likely to involve watching a show about pregnancy and babies. That’s not something I’m dying to do. Hopefully, that explains why this one is on the list!

So What Can You Say to Someone Who’s Going Through Infertility Treatments?

Actually, the more important question is what can you do, and I’m going to try to follow this article with one on that subject. For right now, though, there is something you can say safely to someone struggling with infertility:

“I know you’re going through something difficult. I want you to know I’m here for you, but I’m going to take your lead on this. We can talk if you want to talk, or we don’t have to. All you need to do is tell me what you want.”

If you are one of the people in my life who has said something like that to me: thank you. And if you read all the way to this point, I am confident that whoever you are, you are better equipped now to handle infertility discussions. Have those conversations with caution and care, and you’ll probably be okay.


Sandy Vasher is a negotiation consultant by day and a writer by night, and she does not normally write articles about her personal life. But she has been going through infertility treatments for six years, so she hopes this article was helpful for other people going through the same thing.