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 having 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.
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 story. 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 ever experience.
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” message isn’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
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 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
“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.
“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
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 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.
“Don’t give up. I know someone who had a baby when she was
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.
“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 — though 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.
“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?”
“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, best practice on this
kind of thing is: offer your expertise with caution and ideally only if
“Oh, your last IVF treatment didn’t work? When are you trying
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.
“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.
“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.
“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
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.