I talk a lot about families around here, and the many different forms families take. Some families have lots of children; some families are two people who don’t care to have children. Other families are two people who want so very badly to have children, but can’t. In honor of National Infertility Awareness Week (NIAW), we are spending today talking about the last type of families.
1 in 8 couples struggle with infertility (source). I didn’t have to look far to find people to interview for this article. I have family members who have struggled with it; I have friends, photographer colleagues, and clients who have experience with infertility. I reached out to some of them, and they graciously responded with tips on how family and friends can be supportive of those going through infertility struggles.
Overwhelmingly, everyone I talked to mentioned how isolating and lonely the infertility journey is. Because you see people all around you becoming and staying pregnant, birthing babies and growing their families, the tendency is to feel like you are the only one who can’t do those things. Feelings of failure, responsibility, and guilt are heavy and can make you withdraw even more, creating an isolation spiral, where your whole focus becomes about your perceived failures and inabilities.
If you know someone dealing with infertility, here are some ways you can help support them along the way:
- If you are a close friend or family, reach out to the person going through it on a regular basis. You don’t have to remember exactly what stage the person might be in if they’re going through treatments, but just checking in to say hi, or even just to ask how their day was is helpful. A quick check-in doesn’t take a lot of time to make the person feel connected to the outside world and less alone.
- If you are close enough to be receiving updates on their illness, ask questions when you know things are happening, but be prepared for the possibility to get short answers or vagueness in return. They may be tired of talking about it, or received bad news from the doctor, and might not be ready to process that with you.
- Attempt to understand what they’re going through. Infertility is an illness, and like most illnesses, you can do a quick read-up on the internet to be more in tune with your loved one’s treatments or diagnoses. Bill Nye’s new series on Netflix actually has a full episode on In Vitro Fertilization (IVF), called Designer Babies. Not every couple uses IVF as a way to combat infertility, but it is a common treatment for many families.
- If you’ve had kids through natural means, even if it took a few months to conceive, you should probably avoid complaining about your pregnancy or parenting experience with this person. If you birthed a healthy child, talking about how hard your pregnancy was is actually not encouraging for the person struggling with their inability to become pregnant. Consider listening instead of talking, if they choose to confide in you. Also, talking about something unrelated to children is also a welcome relief from the all-consuming world of this illness.
- If you don’t know the person very well, or if they haven’t shared this part of their life with you and you learned of it third-person, it is most appropriate to not bring it up. Don’t send a card expressing your sorrow for their trouble if you haven’t spoken to them in a while, particularly if they haven’t told you about it. Don’t start a conversation expecting them to open up just because you’re interested. If you converse with them on a regular basis and they haven’t shared their illness with you, you can be supportive simply by talking about those other, non-fertility-related topics. Otherwise, praying or thinking happy thoughts for them works, and is plenty supportive.
For more ideas on how to be supportive of people going through this and other types of bad things that happen to good people, this book is an excellent read.
Big thank yous to Mariam and Brannan for being so willing to help me with these tips and share your experiences.
If you know someone struggling with the illness of infertility, I hope this is helpful for you as you work to be supportive of them. If you have additional tips for others, please leave them in the comments! We all need tips on the best ways to help others.