I should point out that this post stems from a collection of a lot of reading, so some of what is here isn’t necessarily our opinion—though we would agree with a lot of it. I will occasionally add a personal example along the way, but the basic information is a compilation of endless amounts of research. I will generally stick with first person pronouns, however, for the sake of consistency. Obviously, every infertile couple is different. What’s provided here is not some textbook way for you to deal with your infertile loved one. It’s meant as more of a guide. A way for you to better understand what they are emotionally dealing with, and how you can handle that.
*Note: You will not find any links or sources provided in this post because what’s written is literally a mixture of everything I’ve read. If I found a common thread from multiple sources, I included it. While I may use an exact line from one site every once in awhile, the overall idea of the statement was found in numerous places. If I stumbled across something unique to a specific site or author, it’s probably not here.
What Not To Do Or Say:
1) To start with, chit-chat questions like, “Do you have kids?” to someone you don’t know is okay. For us, it emotionally brings the issue front-and-center, but it’s an unavoidable question. I have begun answering with, “No, we can’t,” and then watching the awkwardness slide over to them. I’m evil that way. However, never ask someone, “Why don’t you have kids?” Even if the couple is fertile, that’s just rude.
2) Do not pity us. We do enough of that on our own, thank you.
3) Don’t judge us. I was talking with someone once who was unaware of our situation, and she was complaining about her sister, who was going through fertility treatments. The sister decided to stop after the injections, however, because she didn’t want to do in vitro fertilization (IVF). The woman I was talking to flipped her lid. She said things to me like, “Now she’s moping around the house because she can’t have a kid. I’m like, ‘Shut up!! You haven’t tried everything yet!!’” and “Now I’m never going to be an aunt because she’s ‘morally’ (Yes, she used air-quotes there) against IVF.” What this woman said sounds horrible—and it is—but understand that this is exactly what we fear you are thinking/saying behind our backs. This is why we are so terrified to say anything at all. Ever.
4) Don’t act like you know what we’re going through just because it took you five or six months to get pregnant. By definition, one is considered infertile after one year of consistent, unsuccessful attempts OR three consecutive miscarriages. I’m sorry that you didn’t get pregnant on your first attempt, but that doesn’t mean you have a clue what we’re going through. That’s like comparing your friend’s cancer to a time when you had a week-long bout of the flu.
5) Don’t give any form of advice. We know you’re trying to be helpful, but you’re not. Especially if you have children. Saying, “Just try to relax” makes us just want to slap you. Would you say to a cancer patient “just relax”? Would you say to someone who can’t see “just relax”? Of course you wouldn’t. Plus, you have to know that “just relaxing” will not change the medical diagnosis that is causing our infertility.
6) Know your audience. If you know the person you’re talking to is having problems, don’t say things like, “I got pregnant right away!!” That may seem like common sense, but you’d be surprised how many people say things like that. They don’t mean anything by it—they’re not even thinking about our infertility—but that’s just it. They’re not thinking about what they’re saying. Be smart in your off-hand comments if you know we are having problems.
7) No jokes. Period. “Maybe you’re not doing it right”…“Guess we know what isn’t happening in your house!!” Jokes like that are usually said when the person doesn’t know infertility is the issue for a lack of children, but because infertility is on the rise and most of us don’t discuss it openly, if you know a couple wants kids and they don’t have any—stay away from jokes to be safe.
8) Don’t tell us that we can adopt. We know what our options are.
9) Don’t act like our pet is our child. Slight pun intended, but while this was on most places I read, it is a pet peeve of mine as well (Steph thinks I’m over-reacting). We have a dog. Sadie is not our child, so please stop calling her our furry kid. I don’t like it when people call our nieces or nephew “Sadie’s cousins.” Referring to last week’s post—to me, it feels like you’re trying to include me in your club, but I’m walking around with an asterisk over my head. To be fair, most people in my family do it because we started it. To Sadie, I am “Dad” and Steph is “Mom.” It’s not something I wanted to do, but for some reason, she learned those words faster than Josh and Steph…so we went with what worked. Kim, Steph’s sister, has always called Sadie her “puppy-niece.” I don’t know why, but putting the word “puppy” in front of niece has always made it easier for me to swallow. That contradiction is probably why Steph rolls her eyes at me when I talk about this issue.
10) Don’t ignore us. We understand that your life is significantly busier than it used to be, but don’t stop calling us (or returning calls). Stop texting. Stop Facebooking. Stop going out with us. You have no idea how much that hurts. It’s the shut-out-of-the-club thing all over again.
11) I know this list is long and intimidating and will continue to grow, but don’t walk on glass around us. We can tell. Generally speaking, the elephant is only in the room if you put it there.
12) If we love you, we love your kids too. Don’t keep them from us. Share stories. Share pictures. While we occasionally want some childfree-time with you (as I’m sure you could use the occasional childfree time), we desperately want to be around your kids as well. We absolutely do not resent your child for coming between you and us, so don’t protect us or them by behaving that way. We’re happy for you. We love your child. We want to be part of both your lives. In fact, we crave that.
13) Saying “maybe you are not meant to have children” is an incredibly stupid thing to say. You wouldn’t say to a diabetic “maybe you weren’t meant to have insulin.” Infertility is a medical condition. Tread carefully with the whole idea of God’s will too. You don’t know where I am with my walk with Christ. If my faith is solid, it’s something I’m already praying fervently over. If my faith is rocky, you saying that my inability to have children might be God’s will could very easily make me angry at God and cause me to lose my faith altogether. If I am not a faithful person, this statement could ultimately cause me to stay away from God forever.
14) Please don’t tell me about your friend/cousin/co-worker who got pregnant naturally after eight years of trying. It doesn’t make me feel better, it depresses me. Good for her. It’s got nothing to do with my situation.
15) Announcing pregnancies, baby showers, and other kid things can be complicated. The best advice I can give here is trust us to know what we can or can’t handle. Don’t hide things from us, but respect it when we say, “I don’t think I am going to be able to handle that.” We know when our good days and bad days are, and what we can or can’t handle. But do invite us. Then respect whatever our decision is.
I did not include these next two in the above list because I wanted them to stand out. It’s not that they are necessarily more important than the others, but they do have a tendency to cause more anger in an infertile couple:
Never, ever look at your rowdy children and even jokingly say that we’re lucky. Or, “You can borrow mine anytime you want.” Or, “Are you sure you want kids?” No, I am spending thousands of dollars and enduring physical, emotional, and mental anguish just because I am obscenely stupid. I said this last week, but let me reiterate: Children are a blessing. They are not a burden. If you act or actually believe that they are a burden, you will piss us off to no end. That’s like eating a fillet mignon in front of someone who is literally starving and commenting on how disgusting it is…while continuing to eat it in front of him.
If you say “You don’t understand,” to someone that’s infertile, it’s a sure-fire way to lose a friend. I’ve actually experienced this in numerous ways:
A) I had a parent in my classroom once for a conference. I was explaining a particular practice of discipline I use. The parent didn’t approve and asked, “Do you have kids?” I said no. He gave me the typical, sympathetic/understanding look (head tilted with a brief nod and a slight sigh through the nose as the mouth stays closed and flattened), and said, “Oh…well, you’ll change your practices when you do.”
B) I’ve had people vent to me about their kids. The things they do or say that just drive the parent crazy. When I’ve offered some advice, they’ve given me a look that says, “Aww…how cute. You don’t know any better, but at least you’re trying.”
C) Same situation, different look. This one is nastier. It’s more of a “Who the crap are you to give me—an actual parent—advice?” look. Nevermind my years of training and years of teaching elementary and junior high students. Nevermind the numerous books, classes, conferences, and workshops on the psychology of children and teenagers I’ve poured myself into. Nevermind the thousands of children I have dealt with daily over the last ten years. I clearly don’t know what I’m talking about and/or doing.
What You Can Do Or Say:
1) “I’m sorry.” It’s simple, it’s basic, and sometimes…it’s all that’s needed.
2) “I’m here whenever you need to talk.” And you’d better mean that. Again—mean it. Do not say that you’re there for me, but then fail to answer the phone when I call. It’s okay if you simply can’t answer at that exact moment, but then you’d better return the call (prepared to talk…or more likely listen) as soon as you can. I normally turn off my cell phone at night when I go to bed. However, when Christen passed away, I told Joe that if he needed anything—ever—I would be there. I said that I didn’t care if it was three in the morning and all he wanted me to do was talk until he fell asleep…if he called, I would answer. Since then, I have never shut off my phone. I have checked text messages in the middle of class. If I receive one from Joe, I respond…in the middle of class. Occasionally, I’ve had some kids call me on it. All I’ve said is that it’s my brother. They either stop saying stuff, or they ask if everything is okay. (See—parents—kids are not a burden. They are beautiful, understanding, caring people…even as eighth graders.) There was a time a couple weeks ago when Joe fired off a few texts just after midnight. He didn’t know this, but I was in bed. I had already begun drifting off. His texts weren’t important in any kind of emotional way—they were about a TV show he was watching—but I responded to every text he sent. Gladly. And not (just) because I really enjoyed the program he was texting about, but because I wanted him to know that regardless of how big or small the topic was, regardless of the time, if he wanted to talk—I would be there (and it’s because of this that my relationship with Joe is closer than it has been in years). I’m not trying to brag, I’m just trying to show the importance of meaning something you pledge. If you tell me that you’ll be there but don’t mean it…I’ll stop coming to you.
3) “Is there anything I can do?” Once again, you have to mean it. Some women going through the infertility treatments want to go and be alone. Some want their husbands with them. Some want their mothers. Some want a friend. Just ask. And be prepared to act if needed.
4) That’s actually good advice right there. Don’t know how to act around us? Don’t know what to say? Just ask. We’ll tell you what we want or what we need.
5) Pray. Depending on our walk with Christ (as mentioned earlier), you may not want to tell us that you’re praying for us…but do pray. Pray for both us and you. Pray for patience. For understanding. For love. For strength. For knowledge of what to do next. For our health. For our marriage. Just pray.
6) If you truly love us and want to know what we’re dealing with, then educate yourself. Read up about infertility so that you know what’s going on. If there’s an actual diagnosis (like Steph’s PCOS), read up on that as well. The more you know on your own, the less we have to explain. The less we have to explain, the more we’ll talk about the emotional stuff. Sometimes, just explaining the process or the science of it all exhausts us to the point where we don’t have the energy or desire to discuss anything else. If we know that you already understand all of that, we would be more willing (and able) to dive into how we’re feeling. Plus…doing stuff like that really shows how much you care.
7) Recognize that titles take on a more significant meaning to us. A common feeling we experience is that we have all this love to give, but no child to give it to. Enter nieces and nephews. We love these kids. LOVE THEM. The problem (for Steph and I) is that we live so far away from all of them…which means limited time. Meanwhile, Audrey and Hudson call people from their church Aunt X or Uncle X (as the adults call each other Sister X or Brother X). For awhile, that hurt more than just about anything else we were going through. Due to geography, they were developing closer bonds to people who weren’t related to them. It felt like the title of Aunt and Uncle was not going to be as special and unique as they grew up because they had so many of them. They don’t call anyone else Mom or Dad. Since we couldn’t have kids, these kids are what we have…and even that felt like it was being kept from us. We will not ever own the beautiful titles of Mom and Dad, so the title of Aunt and Uncle mean just a little bit more to us…and hearing others called that stung a bit. This is selfish and completely irrational, but welcome to our world. To be fair, I was getting ready to say something to Joe and Christen last year when Steph noticed that the kids had begun to say Auntie X to those at church, but Aunt Steph to her…so it seemed they did truly know the difference…and that helped a lot. For the infertile couple, that title, that relationship takes an added significance. Please understand and respect that. As for friends—sometimes, when adults are really close, they’ll have their kids call the adults Aunt X or Uncle X. The way they see it, those adults are as close (or even closer) than the actual aunts and uncles. It’s like an honorary title. If your friends are infertile, ask before you start having your kids call them aunt or uncle. Some infertile couples love it. Some don’t (It ranks up there with the pet-as-your-child annoyance).
8) Be understanding. Be patient. If you’re a family member, you’re stuck with us. If you’re a friend and love us, then you’ll do these things and stay by our side throughout. However, regardless of how good of a friend you’ve been—if you manage to avoid all of the Don’ts in this post and successfully do all of the Dos in this post—some infertile couples/friends will still leave you. They will simply stop calling or hanging out with you. For some, it’s just too hard. It sucks, but you need to accept it. Don’t be angry with them…feel sad for them. They don’t want to stop being your friend, but the child-thing just emotionally cripples them. This doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. Please be understanding if it does. Sometimes, the infertile couple/friend just needs some space. Be patient. When they’re ready to be in your life again, they’ll come to you. Understand what they went through and welcome them back into your life.
9) A lot of the stuff in this post sounds contradicting. A lot of it is contradicting. Welcome to the struggle within that we battle. As a friend or family member, it is your burden to deal with it when you’re around us. If you love us, you’ll do just that—deal with it. See…you only have to deal with it for a brief time while we’re around. We battle it every day.
10) Just be yourself. Don’t act any differently around us then you normally do…we can tell. Acting differently is what makes things awkward. If your kids are driving you insane—it’s okay to vent (there’s a huge difference between venting about your children and acting like they’re a burden). If your child did something amazing—it’s okay to brag (we want to celebrate with you, believe it or not). Just. Be. You. Now…some of you are probably thinking, Easy for you to say…you don’t have to remember rule-after-rule that’s posted here. That’s fair. However, even before children, we loved you. You. We loved you for a reason. We considered you a friend for a reason. If the relationship has reached that beautifully special status of friend, then you won’t need to memorize this post. Be yourself and all of this will simply fall into place.
Just as before, I wanted the final Do to stand alone:
Some couples will carry this weight their whole lives. Others will heal over time. The two easiest things you can do for us—regardless of where we are in the hurting/healing stage—are to be yourself and let us talk. Let us talk. You don’t have to say anything. When we’re ready—if we ever are—we’ll talk. When we start talking, let us dictate the direction of the conversation. If it’s the first time we’re being open and up-front about everything, we generally just need to get it out. We don’t need advice. We don’t need you to say that you’re sorry. We just need to get it off our chest. Please let us. As we open up more and more, let us dictate the direction of the conversation, but get a feel for the mood. If it’s heavy and emotional, stay quiet. If it’s light and closer to the typical loquacious manner we have with you, feel free to ask questions. But tread lightly. Realize that at any second, an emotional thought could strike us, forcing us to shut down. (You’ll know it’s happening when more detailed responses to your questions turn into short, simple sentences or even just a couple of words.) If that happens, recognize that it’s nothing you did, but the conversation is probably over, and that needs to be okay with you.
I guess this series is my way of telling all of you that Steph and I are ready to talk. I think we’ve reached as much of a level of peace as we can hope to obtain right now, and we’re tired of carrying all the baggage. While these posts have contained intense, heavy material—and while it hasn’t always been easy to write—there is something very cathartic about putting it out there for loved ones (and strangers) to read. Do feel free to ask us anything…just understand that if we’re having a down day, we may not be up for talking. Rather than shutting down completely, we’ll try our best to politely say that we’re not up for talking. If we do, please leave it at that and move on to a different topic. If we fail to stop the conversation on our own, please try to read the signs, and switch gears on your own.
I’d like to close by saying what a great family and set of friends we have. Yes, nearly all of them at some point have done something on the Don’t list and have failed to do something on the Do list. It happens. You aren’t going to lose a friend because you slipped up. Now…if you consistently are doing the Don’ts and not doing the Dos, then you will likely see that friendship deteriorate. But don’t panic just because you accidentally did #7 on the Don’t list once.
Our family and friends have been awesome. When we were going through treatments, they asked a lot of questions. Nothing personal, they were just trying to understand what was happening and what the next step was. Once the treatments stopped and we had to admit that children was just not going to happen for us, our family asked two great questions: “What can we do?” and “How do you want us to deal with people who ask us questions?” We basically gave them permission to tell people whatever they wanted, but we weren’t ready to talk yet. When we were ready…we would open up. That was almost three years ago, and our family has been quiet the whole time. Now we’re opening up in a way that even our parents are seeing for the first time. You, dear Reader, are getting the deepest look into our emotional state, mindset, and marriage while our parents are also seeing this for the first time.
I imagine that they wish we would have (or could have) come to them with all of this first. Talked with them instead of having to read it on the internet along with any other stranger that stumbles across it. However, they haven’t said anything but positive, loving support. They recognize that the next time they see us, we’ll be more open for discussion—but right now, this is the best way to get it all out there. Uninterrupted. If a section is hard—I can leave mid-sentence for some quiet time, return the next day, and pick up where I left off. I can’t do that in a discussion. They’ve been patient.
Our friends are the same. Steph has a friend who, upon hearing the news, reacted as if Steph had just described what she ate for lunch. The friend didn’t over or under-react. She was the same friend to Steph post-infertility news as she was pre-news. She’s even asked Steph to babysit her kids a couple of times. We have a couple-friend. A few weeks ago, I was talking with the guy and mentioned that I was working on this series. He told me that it was good to get it all out there. That he and his wife had been worried for us—praying for us—but ultimately, they never brought it up because it was our burden. When we were ready to talk—we’d talk. So…they remained loyal friends, and patiently waited until we were ready.
For three years, our family and friends have been loving and patient with us. It hasn’t always been easy for them, but they loved us, so they waited. Could you have waited this long if it was your friend? If it was your sibling? If it was your child? You need to. You need to be willing to wait even longer if that’s what is required. I’ve written this before, but it bears repeating: In the infamous 1 Corinthians 13 in which love is defined, what comes first? Love is patient…
Next week, I’m going to wrap-up the series by returning to my marriage. Last week, I painted a fairly bleak picture of what infertility did to us, but the post finished with the hint of hope. If all of this nearly wrecked our marriage, how have we managed to stay together for ten years? Is it possible to have a happy marriage without children (keeping in mind that two-thirds of all childless marriages end in divorce)? I will tackle all of this and more next week.