Friend of the sisters, Maggie Nilsson has shared this most amazing insight into infertility. Thank you for this, Maggie.
After (another) failed IVF Cycle, I received a series of texts from a friend:
1. I’m so so sorry Maggie. You guys will get through this. You two are amazing. Let me know if you need anything!
2. I hope that didn’t sound dismissive. I’m really really sad for you.
3. There just aren’t words. And that text sounded and looked super generic. I really just want to come and give you a hug.
For the record, I thought it was super endearing. But she was right. Everything sounded generic, and it wasn’t her fault. What words can possibly be adequate for someone who has experienced a loss?
As someone who has experience with infertility I still sometimes struggle to know what to say to a friend who is dealing with it. It’s hard! Especially if you haven’t experienced it directly. Or, in other words, if you’re not in the #Infertility club. There are many types of grief and loss, and in any given club only the members – people who have experienced the same thing – can understand it on a primally empathetic level. It’s good for club members to have each other, but just because you can’t speak from a place of understanding doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t speak at all.
Many times we DO say the wrong thing when we’re only trying our best to offer the right condolences for the circumstance. Luckily, we can all be part of the inclusive “What to Say” club. I’ve heard all the good and bad from close friends or acquaintances who are only trying to “help.” And hopefully I can “help” you to better understand the world of infertility so you can at least avoid saying all the things we hate 🙂
The first thing to know is that, you guys, infertility is HARD. If you don’t believe me, ask Jimmy Fallon.
Things we feel: isolated, confused, lost, helpless, unworthy, like there must be a reason (other than biology) we can’t get pregnant (like: am I a bad person?), devastated, hopeful.
We experience the most vulnerable, hopeful and heartbreaking moments all in a day. We research, we look at statistics, we avoid statistics, we crunch numbers, we spend our life savings, we invest everything from time to emotion to resources to faith into the process of having a child of our own. Some of us can’t get pregnant, some can’t stay pregnant, some have an explanation, some are unknown. All of us are exhausted.
Everyone is reaching for answers and there isn’t one magical solution for everyone.
Sometimes we’re on varying doses of hormones, which means approaching someone in their third month of fertility treatments can be a lot like approaching someone in their third trimester of pregnancy. In other words, tread lightly. Don’t poke the mama bear.
Infertility is a MASSIVE plot twist. Nobody thinks they won’t be able to get pregnant. People who do get pregnant don’t seem to understand why others can’t get pregnant (it’s so easy, right?) and people who can’t get pregnant can’t understand how anyone could possibly get pregnant (it’s a miracle).
At times I felt like I was going through it all by myself. Of course during those times someone always seemed to reach out and say all the right things. One of my all time favorites was:
“I can’t imagine how unbelievably difficult this has been for you.”
You guys, it fed my soul. It said all the right things. It acknowledged my pain and the difficulty of the situation without being presumptuous or dismissive.
I think that’s an ideal formula to follow when responding to an emotional or difficult moment. In other moments, how do we approach conversations, and what do we absolutely want to avoid saying?
Start with the light stuff. Work in the heavy stuff. Basically conversation 101.
Start with questions. Avoid making statements.
When asking prodding questions, for some reason it helps to qualify any question with, “You don’t have to say, but…”
Questions out of the blue can seem abrupt, especially via text. Try coupling things together: “Thinking of you. Any updates to share?”
Science questions are always welcome! The IVF process is fascinating and emotionally neutral.
If all else fails, give HUGS. Just be prepared for the lingering embrace and tears that might ensue. In the event of tears, just let it happen. Follow it up with calling Infertility a bad word. This usually gets a laugh, and laughter through tears is one of the best emotions right?
Things I Like Hearing:
“Infertility *thumbs down emoji*”
“Infertility is (any negative adjective).”
“Nobody deserves this.”
“You got this.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“I’m so so sorry.”
“I’m so so so sorry.”
Things That Are Always Safe to Say:
“Thinking of you.”
“Thoughts/prayers your way!”
“We love you guys.”
Things to avoid Saying 🙂
1. “I know exactly what you’re going through.”
For some reason this sounds dismissive to what I’m actually going through, even though it’s meant to be an empathetic statement. Not even club members always know exactly what someone else is going through. (Although we DO know it’s hard AF)
2. “You can try again right?”
This seems like a logical, hopeful or encouraging question, but to us it seems pointless and insensitive. Pointless because YES is always the answer. Insensitive because it seems dismissive to the devastation we are feeling over the freshly failed attempt. We need time to lick our wounds.
3. Your opinion.
Unless we ask for your opinion, it’s just not on the list of things we want to hear.
4. Your advice.
People have all kinds of wacky advice on what will work for my situation. Amusing as it may be, it’s best not to say it unless someone asks for it.
5. “It will happen if it’s God’s will.”
This is loaded with assumptions and negative implications. Plus it’s probably more complicated than that. Faith is personal, and not our place to insert.
6. “What is the success rate?”
It’s not great, and we are trying to focus on positivity and faith. Rule of thumb: we can talk about numbers; you can’t. 🙂
7. “You know what you should do…”
We’re already doing the thing we think we should do.
We already know our options.
9. “At least you can adopt.”
10. “What about adoption?”
11. “Are you interested in adoption?”
Guys. Just no to mentioning adoption. People who are at war with fertility are investing EVERY resource into having their own child. THAT is what they want. THAT is what they are focused on. THAT is what they are investing EVERYTHING in. We want it just as badly as you do. This question is loaded with implications, none of which are comforting, and including our worst fear that fertility treatments won’t work and our dreams will be shattered. I know it’s an innocent question, and I think people think it’s comforting?, but it can be toxic for someone who is dealing with infertility.
12. Anything that begins with “At least…” is probably best to rethink. Unless the comedic timing is right 😉
13. Regarding Surrogacy: often when people ask about surrogacy, they end up talking about a friend who gave a baby up for adoption. I understand the perceived similarity, but they are very different situations. The surrogate isn’t giving us a baby. She is carrying our child. It is 100% our genetics, and at no time during the process is it ever perceived as the carrier’s child, by the parents or the carrier. I think it’s normal to worry about the surrogate’s emotions re the moment of birth. I was worried about that when we first started this process. Then I learned that the moment the child is placed into the parents’ arms is the moment the surrogate is most excited about. She cannot wait to see the look on the parents’ faces the moment they first see and hold their child that she carried for them. When people talk about the heartache that can exist within adoption, it introduces an element that’s not relatable to our situation.
I know. We’re all face palming and hiding in shame because we’ve all said some or all of these things to someone in the #Infertility club. It’s ok. We know you mean well and we still love you. Your sincere efforts to acknowledge pain or offer words of solace are appreciated, even when those words fall short.