Do not tell them that everything happens for a reason, or that you can’t imagine what they’re going through. And whatever you do, do not tell them they’re running out of time.
We have all found ourselves in situations in which something traumatic is revealed, and we have no idea what to say. Sometimes people are simply awkward, and open their traps when they really should be listening, rather than talking. So when someone expresses that they’ve experienced infertility, think before you speak. A good rule of thumb is to silently ask yourself: Would this make me feel better if I was the person on its receiving end, or am I simply trying to make myself feel better by filling the silence? If you aren’t sure, ask yourself: What would bring me comfort in this situation? You may still be at a loss for words, and that’s OK. It may be best to simply listen.
But when it’s time for you to respond, if you’re still at a loss for words, here are 10 things you should never say to someone experiencing infertility.
10. Some people just aren’t meant to have children.
It’s true. Some people are not meant to have children—sadists, child molesters, and the criminally insane are chief among these. Anyone who does not want children may also assign themselves to the “not meant to have children” category, at their own discretion. But biology is not destiny, and it does not follow that someone who has had difficulty conceiving is “not meant” for parenthood. And to suggest that a person experiencing infertility is “not meant” to have children is not only unhelpful, it is unkind, and it reflects a fundamental lack of empathy. However well-intentioned, this sentiment is misguided, and will almost always be read as hurtful.
9. Have you considered adoption?
Adoption is one path to family formation that parents pursue for lots of reasons, infertility among them. But adoption is like parenting via conception: a deeply personal decision, and one that is oftentimes politically fraught. It is not something to be brought up in casual conversations, as a means of resolving your conversation partner’s experience of infertility. This is true for several reasons. First, the person to whom you are speaking has almost certainly considered adoption, in one way or another. You are not providing any great insight here. Second, the person’s thoughts on adoption are personal and possibly complicated—if adoption is in the works or on the table as a possibility, they will tell you. And third, to call upon adoption in this way suggests that adoption is a last resort, delegitimizing adoption and implying that this is something that is second-rate and for the desperate, rather than an equally valid road to parenthood.
8. You’re so young, you have plenty of time!
This is never helpful. While some infertility may be age-related, infertility is infertility. And it is not necessarily in any way related to age. You do not know the factors, or the medical circumstances. Unless you’re the OB/GYN on the case (and frankly, even if you are the OB/GYN on the case), highlighting relative age and suggesting that someone has “all the time in the world” is in no way helpful. Depending on an individual’s medical condition (which, again, is none of your business), age may have no bearing on a person’s capacity to conceive. Also, even if your conversation mate is 22 and apparently healthy, you have no idea what factors she is up against, in terms of time or reproductive opportunity. And even assuming that the recipient of your comment is young, in good general health, and likely to conceive in time with treatment, when you want a baby now, and the process is a struggle, time laughs in your face.
7. Oh my god, you are running out of time!
Thank you, Captain Sensitivity, and Master of the Obvious. Certainly, your friend is aware of her age. Obviously, she has an abiding awareness of what it means to be, say, 40, and trying to conceive. There is no way around it: People know how old they are. There is no group more aware of their age than women of advanced maternal age who are trying to conceive in the face of infertility. So whether your friend is 25 or 45 or 105, calling attention to her age is not going to do anything to advance your discourse. And assuming that the person really is aging out of her “reproductive prime,” this sentiment is just mean.
6. I can’t imagine what you’re going through.
This is a distancing measure. The sentiment underlying the statement is often sincere; it is meant to convey “what you are experiencing is so awful that I do not know how you could possibly endure it.” The problem with this, in my opinion, is that is shows an utter lack of imagination: you can imagine what your friend is going through. You have empathy, and this is precisely what makes the experience so harrowing, even as a bystander. When we say “I can’t imagine what you’re going through,” what the listener hears is “I don’t want to imagine what you’re going through, and I’m going to do everything in my power to distance myself as far as possible from it, and by extension, from your experience.”
5. I know exactly what you’re going through.
This is often well-intentioned, but it is not helpful. Maybe it took you three months to get pregnant, or maybe you had a miscarriage before getting pregnant with healthy triplets. Maybe you have never had children, but want them, or maybe you had six children with no fertility issues. It’s possible, even, that you have experienced infertility yourself, and do, on some sense, have an understanding of what your friend is going through. Whatever your background, however close your experience, no matter how similar you believe your perspectives, you should never say this. You do not know what your friend is experiencing. To arrive at something resembling an understanding, you must never compare. Instead, you should listen.
4. Are you doing fertility treatment?
At the risk of being unnecessarily blunt, file this one under “none of your business.” If your friend is interested in discussing her fertility treatments with you, she will tell you. She is aware of the existence of fertility treatments; she may be in conversations with her partner and her doctor and her clergyperson about this prospect. She may be using fertility treatment, or she may have a moral objection to fertility treatment. She may have expended all possible options, or her insurance provider may have refused to cover fertility treatment, or she may have drained her bank account in the service of attempting treatments that have not worked. Do not ask about fertility treatments. If she wants to discuss this with you, she will.
3. God will not give you anything you can’t handle.
Maybe you are close enough to your friend to know that she is a person of faith, and that God talk generally brings her something resembling comfort. Maybe your friend is so religious that she goes to church five times per week, gives all of her money to her mosque, or is the President of her synagogue. I don’t care if your friend is so devout that she and her higher power are on a first name basis, I don’t care if you’re her godmother, I don’t care if she’s your rabbi, do not drag God into this, unless she does first. Infertility is the sort of thing that brings about a crisis of faith, even for the most dedicated believers. And however devout she might be, this is not the way to build her faith.
2. You might not realize it now, but everything happens for a reason.
This one really grinds my gears. However well intentioned, it’s designed to make the speaker feel better; it fills a silence, and it implies, in the broadest possible way, that the universe is unfolding as it should. It is vague and unhelpful, and so overbroad as to be meaningless. Again, even if your friend is a person of tremendous faith, do not say this. What is the reason? I always want to throw back anytime anyone offers this sentiment to me. Whatever the underlying biological explanation for the infertility, “everything happens for a reason” risks implying that there is some underlying spiritual deficiency that precludes the speaker from conceiving.
1. Everything is going to work out, I am sure.
Generally, I am of the mindset that there is nothing wrong with a little optimism, but whatever glimmer of hope you might envision in this situation, you do not want to go there. There is not necessarily any lemonade to be made from these lemons. If a solution was so easy, your friend would have found it already. Now, I realize, you say this with a pure and generous heart. You want everything to work out for your friend. You hope and perhaps pray that everything will turn out exactly as she wants it, but the reality is, you cannot know the outcome. And however well-intentioned your comment, the fact is: You don’t know how things are going to work out. It is an uncomfortable truth, but there it is.
What Can You Say?
You can say that you’re here as a support. You can ask How are you doing? What can I do for you? This must be exceptionally difficult. Let me know how I can help. I am always here to talk. And if your friend should take you up on this offer, what you say will be far less important than how you say it. Ultimately, though, the most important thing will not be what you said or even how you spoke, but that for all the challenges and the potential awkwardness, you took the time to speak, and you really listened.
A.L. Giannelli lives, writes, and teaches in Western Massachusetts. Her writing has been featured in publications including Babble, Feministing, Salon and the forthcoming Book Lovers and Three Minus One Equals Zero.