Like many women, I have always wanted a family. I dreamed about being a mom when I was younger and snuggling a sweet baby. As an adult, I held on to that dream and imagined going to soccer games, school plays and dance lessons. I would tear up thinking about my baby’s first steps, first words or even their senior prom. I couldn’t wait to experience it all.
But, also like many women, the pathway to parenthood wasn’t a smooth one for me and my husband. We started trying as soon as we were married and from there it took years to finally have a living, breathing child. While there wasn’t much of a struggle to get pregnant, staying pregnant was my infertility challenge. According to www.infertilityawareness.org 1 in 8 couples struggle to have a family and according to the CDC 15 percent of American couples deal with infertility when trying to have a family.
My seven pregnancies all started the same, with hope. The majority of them had heartbreaking outcomes. They call it reoccurring miscarriage, or the medical term “habitual abortioner.” Our journey was filled with sorrow, a weird sort of desperation and pain, and we were given all sorts of “advice” from people who thought they understood. With this week being National Infertility Awareness Week, I thought I would share some of the things that people said to us along the way that made the journey a bit rougher and the way we felt the most supported.
Don’t say this if someone is struggling with infertility
1. Just relax and it will happen.
This statement is usually the first thing people say when they find out you’re trying to have a child and have not been able to conceive. Whether it’s at the beginning of the journey or somewhere further down the road, this is a crappy thing for people to say. To start, it minimizes the actual problem(s) a person may be having while they are trying to conceive, and let’s face it, there could be thousands of different, physical issues that are preventing pregnancy. This statement also implies that trying to conceive should be fun, when in reality trying, actually trying, to get pregnant is stressful. Let’s not pretend this isn’t true. When you really want a child and several months have gone by, there is a sense of anxiety that comes along with trying to conceive month after month and waiting for two lines to appear on a stick that you dipped into a cup of your own pee. Telling someone to relax is not helpful. They cannot “just relax.”
2. Maybe you should take a break.
Similar to the first statement, this also implies that taking a break will make something magical happen. This isn’t true. In a lot of cases, taking a break only delays figuring out the cause of the infertility. While it can be helpful to reduce the stress and anxiety of the situation, all of that will come flooding back after the “break” is over because the problem hasn’t gone away. If there is actually a medical condition preventing pregnancy or causing reoccurring miscarriages, a break doesn’t make it better.
3. Just adopt.
This comment would always infuriate me. People who say this not only have no idea what it’s like to be dealing with infertility, but they also have no idea what it’s like to adopt. The comment assumes that adoption is easy. It’s like they think you can go down to the local superstore and pick out a child. The reality is, adoption is just as hard and it can also be a very, long process. My husband and I sat through several meetings with different adoption agencies. During one meeting with a large agency, I looked around the room and saw women just like me – women who wanted to be a mother more than anything. The speakers explained that it would probably take two years, disclosed different hurdles for adopting domestically and abroad and discussed how the process would start over if a birth mother decided to keep the baby. I saw the glimmer of hope disappear from everyone’s eyes. Just adopt is not an easy way out. It’s just a different, difficult journey to travel.
4. Have you talked to your doctor about it?
Most women will have had a conversation with a doctor if it has actively taken more than six months to one year to get pregnant. That is the timeline in place at most OB offices before doctors will begin digging a bit deeper to see if there is something preventing a person from getting pregnant. Usually, you need to have two or three miscarriages before they will start looking for a cause behind them since miscarriage happens in 1 out of 4 pregnancies. Miscarriage after miscarriage, people would ask if I had talked to my doctor. I would look at them like they were crazy, but this was one of the easier comments to deal with. Of course I had talked to my doctor. My doctors (plural) and I had many, many conversations. But just talking to a doctor is not a cure. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t know everything, especially about fertility. After my son was stillborn (my third pregnancy) I even had one doctor at Maternal Fetal Medicine tell me they were going to put me on another medication the next time I became pregnant because, “We don’t know why, but people just seem to do better on this.”
5. Have you thought about IVF?
Like adoption, in vitro fertilization (IVF) isn’t something to be taken lightly. IVF is costly (usually totaling about $20,000 per cycle) and it’s emotionally and physically draining. According to Resolve, The National Infertility Association, the most successful IVF candidates have about a 40 percent chance of success, but the majority of women have a success rate between 20 – 35 percent. That’s not even 50/50 so you have to prepare yourself for it to go either way. IVF is a good option if there are medical problems preventing pregnancy and has helped a lot of women. But the decision to go this route takes real consideration because it will be a drain physically, mentally, emotionally and financially.
6. If it’s meant to be, it will happen.
This is just an awful thing to say. Acting like fate, or even worse God, is somehow controlling your chances of becoming a parent is just wrong. After our son was stillborn, someone said to me, “Well, God just knew there was something wrong with him.” Infertility is a very real medical condition and saying something like this diminishes that fact. While I believe there is power in prayer and positive thinking, there is a very real science to infertility that cannot be ignored. “Meant to be” statements only make people feel worse than they already do.
7. Are you sure you want to do this (have kids)?
I heard this several times as we walked down the infertility road, usually in jest. Someone’s kids would be running around acting crazy, as kids often do, and a parent would be yelling at them for one reason or another. They would look over at my husband and I and make this comment. I remember it so vividly happening one summer afternoon as we were experiencing our second miscarriage. The thing is, it’s not funny. Infertility is not funny. Miscarriage is not funny. And, acting like someone hasn’t thought through the impact of having children is insulting.
8. You’re so lucky you get to sleep.
Someone mentioned this to me after I told them my son had been stillborn. I honestly was paralyzed by the insensitivity. She had a 1-year-old and was going through something that almost every parent goes through – waking up multiple times a night and living on coffee. Again, I’m sure this comment was supposed to be some sort of humorous way of dealing with the situation of infant death. But again, it’s not funny. I would have given up ever sleeping again to have our son with us as opposed to making decisions about what words I wanted on his headstone.
9. I did everything wrong and I still got pregnant.
A friend of mine who was pregnant very early in life said this to me after our son died. She didn’t mean it to sting. In fact, she said it through tears. The thing is, telling a woman who is already filled with anxiety over trying to get pregnant that you did everything wrong and were still able to have babies, just feels like a slap in the face. Women who are cutting out alcohol, caffeine, eating right and peeing on ovulation sticks multiple times per month do not want to hear about how you were drunk, high or having a one-night stand when you conceived.
10. At least you can get pregnant.
This one hurts all around. I heard it from people who had no idea what it was like to struggle with infertility and from people struggling. Because I could get pregnant, I guess this statement was somehow supposed to lessen the pain of miscarrying again and again and having a stillborn child? I promise, the last thing I wanted to do after those experiences was to think about needing to get pregnant AGAIN. Being able to get pregnant was not the desired end result, it is just the first step. For people struggling to take that first step, I can see how being able to get pregnant seems like some kind of achievement. The reality is, people struggling with reoccurring losses from some type of infertility still don’t get to have that baby in their arms. They aren’t winning.
11. It was so easy for me.
Stab me in the heart. I know a lot of people day this out of a sort of confusion about the situation, but this statement is not helpful and it only reinforces the fact that their body isn’t working like they (or society) thought it would. If someone is struggling, don’t rub their face in it.
So, what can you say?
How do you help? Honestly, the best thing people did for me as I walked down this road was to just listen when I needed to talk and not push me to accept their belief of the situation. They showed empathy and that’s what’s needed when someone is struggling with a situation you don’t understand. I know it may feel like the elephant in the room. You may feel like you need to say something, but you don’t. To be a good support system, you only need to listen and be a shoulder to lean on when they get tired and frustrated from the journey.