Regardless of how much you care, if you’re not in the person’s shoes, or never have been, misplaced advice and comments can be construed as flippant and even hurtful. While love covers over a multitude of sins, here are some no-go areas to stay clear of when it comes to encouraging your friends battling infertility, as shared by those who’ve been on the receiving end…
1. “JUST RELAX!”
We all know of someone who knew someone who battled to fall pregnant and then, as soon as they stopped trying/adopted/got a new job etc…BAM! Naturally we want the same thing to happen to our friends, and it’s therefore tempting to encourage them to take their focus off falling pregnant. The problem is, explains Samantha*, 31, when someone says you should just relax, you hear: It’s your own fault this is happening, and completely under your control. “Plus, if there is a physiological reason why you are not conceiving – which there most often is – it makes you feel worlds apart from the person; they are giving you casual advice about something you spend so much time thinking about.” Samantha says that much research points to the fact that stress isn’t actually a factor causing fertility challenges. “If worry was a big obstruction, IVF would never work. Show me an unstressed IVF patient!”
2. “IT’LL HAPPEN…”
“The Bible makes it quite clear that children are a gift, not a guarantee, so no, it might not happen,” says Samantha of this commonly offered expression of support. A friend of hers, also struggling to conceive, recalls being told by friends making an annual visit back to South Africa that they were quite certain the following year they’d all be tiptoeing around their home, trying not to wake the baby. Clearly they did not possess clairvoyant talent – the cot is still empty, and her friend hurt and frustrated by those who continue to dangle the offer of false hope. Again, as infertility tends to evoke feelings of failure in women (and is generally attributed as being a female problem, regardless of the reality) these comments can create an unhelpful sense of performance pressure.
3. “IT’S IN GOD’s WILL, HE HAS A PLAN.”
“I really battled with this one,” says Rosa, who walked a five-year-road of infertility with her husband, resulting in the adoption of Raquel (now four) and Samuel (three). “Yes, absolutely, God is sovereign and I clung to Jeremiah 29:11 like crazy, to remind myself that He has plans for good, to prosper and not to harm. But I didn’t always find it encouraging when other people said it; particularly when it came from friends who had fallen pregnant easily. “I guess how a comment is received depends a lot on the context of how it is said and who it is from. And personally, I did wrestle with God on why He allowed the tikhead on the corner of our street to fall pregnant, when I was married, with three empty bedrooms waiting to be filled with children, and I couldn’t.”
Rosa recalls how highly sensitive she became – she felt isolated by those in the church who “glamourised pregnancy” by associating it with God pouring out His blessing on godly couples. “Which is exactly what it’s meant to be. But in a fallen world, the reality is less idyllic – when you’ve been through IVF, making a baby quickly becomes a scientific equation of an egg and a sperm connecting to form an embryo. I guess it’s just a case of bearing in mind that not everyone experiences pregnancy in the same way.”
4. “HAVE YOU WORKED ON YOUR IDOLATRY ISSUES?”
Everyone’s walk with the Lord is personal, and certainly, God can use struggles like infertility to mould and shape us. “But when Christian friends told me that God would not give me something I may have idolised above Him, I just felt like a failed Christian on top of everything else,” says Rosa. “And so, if I learn my spiritual lesson, will God give me a baby as my reward? The whole point of seeing you’re a sinner is the realisation that your heart naturally places other things ahead of God, and this is true for everyone, not just infertile women.” Of course this is not to say there is no room for spiritual encouragement – but be sure you’re acting on a conviction that has come from deep time with the Lord. And generally it’ll be to someone you’re in a close relationship with. “I didn’t enjoy it when people mirrored their life experiences and perceptions onto mine – when in fact my perspective was entirely different to theirs,” says Rosa.
5. “HAVE YOU TRIED…?”
Advice on practical solutions do have their place, but after a couple has been trying to fall pregnant for a few years chances are they’ve heard them all, in some shape or form. “You’ve also done thorough research, and when someone offers a tip on nutrition or holistic remedies or standing on your head (yes really) it makes you feel like they think you’re ignorant or not smart enough to have thought of the obvious,” she says. “People would ask me if I’d considered we might have a problem…yes, I think after five years the thought did possibly creep into my mind.”Rosa says in the end she just started reacting brashly: ‘Is three times a day enough?’ she’d respond to queries as to whether they were having sex regularly.
The reality is you are willing to try anything and everything. Rosa lost 20 kilograms of excess weight when her gynae suggested it might make her healthier for pregnancy. “But there comes a time when you need to accept that God might be saying no,” she says.
6. “GUESS WHAT…I’M PREGNANT!”
Save the baby-ultrasound-in-envelope method of communicating your good news to friends and family who haven’t struggled with infertility. Again, it’s all about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes – how would you feel if you had to react positively to a surprise closely related to your own personal emotional battle? When Rosa’s best friend told her that she’d fallen pregnant unexpectedly, she called her privately and asked if she could come visit her at home. “We sat on my bed and she said she didn’t know how to tell me, and how sorry she was for my pain. We both cried and I genuinely felt happy for her,” she says. “Later on in her pregnancy there were times when I told her how jealous I was feeling. By acknowledging the difficulty of the situation from the start, she allowed me to be open, which was healthy for our friendship.”
Samantha agrees that it’s all about giving some space to be sad. “You are not sad that they are pregnant, but just sad that you are not and may never be. I think that’s an important thing for friends to understand. You are happy for them but sad for yourself.”Rosa also cautions trying to hide the fact that you’re pregnant. “We’re women. We know these things immediately!”
7. “I’M NOT COPING WELL WITH THIS MORNING SICKNESS.”
Your infertile friends are not the people to complain to about pregnancy discomforts. Just being around pregnant women is painful enough, and those desperate for children would probably say they’d throw up for nine months straight for the privilege of carrying a baby. “A friend of mine used to complain to me that she couldn’t eat citrus or acidic fruit while she was pregnant. I’d think in my head: ‘Well I can’t have babies so boo-hoo for you getting reflux for three months when you eat oranges!’” says Samantha.
8. “YOU WANT KIDS? TAKE MINE!”
There is no logical connection between infertility and understanding the responsibilities of parenthood, but these kind of comments imply a sort of naivety on the part of the woman longing to fall pregnant; as if those without children don’t take advantage of their opportunities to travel or lie in late or whatever other comforts are put on hold when one has a baby. The truth is that no one can fully appreciate how tough having kids is until they themselves are parents – and this is true whether one conceives after one month or after ten years. These off-the-cuff, softly apologetic comments do not offer comfort, but instead make the person on the receiving end feel as if their pain is being minimised. You wouldn’t tell somebody whose dad has just passed away that they should be thankful that they don’t need to buy a Father’s Day card; losing one minor obligation doesn’t even begin to make up for the incredible loss. In the same way, being able to enjoy a leisurely breakfast does not console someone who desperately wants a child.
9. “HAVE YOU CONSIDERED ADOPTION?”
Adoption is a wonderful way for infertile couples to become pregnant. But there are many issues to work through before this becomes an appealing or viable option – including a grieving process for the loss of a biological child – so bringing it up before the time is right can be less encouraging than presumed. “In South Africa our reality is that you will adopt a child that looks nothing like you– there is zero chance that people won’t know your child is adopted,” says Rosa. “And you desperately want a baby that has mommy’s eyes and daddy’s nose – with adoption there is none of that heritage.” Rosa also makes the point that it’s fairly easy to have a baby naturally; you don’t have to fill in a ton of paperwork only to wait and face rejection. There probably will come a time when your friend is ready to walk the long road to adoption; but wait for her to take that first step.
WHAT CAN YOU SAY?
“To be honest there is absolutely nothing anyone can say that will help,” says Rosa. “You are so hurt, so disappointed, so sensitive and so angry that nothing and no one can console you. Perhaps if people acknowledged this, and said it was okay to not be okay, then that offered comfort.” Rosa also found it helpful when people asked how they could pray specifically for her. At some stages she needed help with wisdom and guidance, and then help with acceptance. “And be kind to us. Make gentle excuses for us when we don’t want to attend your baby shower or your child’s birthday party.” She also advises friends to show interest in other areas of the person’s life – perhaps if they’re succeeding in their job, or if they have a new hobby. “Remember that we were friends and had lots to talk about before babies even came into the picture.”
Rosa says it’s also important to not be too hard on yourself. “I didn’t go to Mother’s Day services for years; you don’t have to be strong all the time.” She also found it extremely beneficial to be honest and open about what she was going through, to selective people, rather than letting it fester inside. Samantha agrees that it really helped to speak to people, especially those who had been in the same situation. “I hope by talking about infertility, other people who are going through it will feel less abnormal, and like they can confide in me,” she says. “And remember that there’s nothing like a good series to drown out the world and make you feel better. Watch it all day long in your pj’s and eat lots of chocolate – whole slabs if you must!”
Most often our advice and comments stem from a genuine desire to help our friends. We don’t want to walk on eggshells around them, being too afraid to speak lest we cause hurt. But perhaps we need to realise that the best way we can help them is by pointing them to Jesus, our friend and counsellor, and the only one who can offer true comfort.
*Name has been changed.