When a friend is going through a difficult time, we want to be there for them. But sometimes it’s hard to know what to say or do, especially if they are dealing with something we’ve never experienced. It’s likely that you know someone — a friend or family member — who is struggling with infertility.
Studies estimate that about one in eight couples will face infertility at some point in their lives, and that around 15% of babies are lost to miscarriage or stillbirth. Infertility can be incredibly painful to live through, a reality my husband and I know well. In our six-year journey of infertility, we were so appreciative of our friends and family members who loved us well, and we also learned what we wished to receive from friends who wanted to help us.
Recognize the ongoing, cyclical nature of infertility
For those living with infertility, every month is a roller-coaster ride of hope and disappointment, perhaps punctuated by various medical interventions, diet changes, or other life-affecting efforts to conceive. Daily life can become a minefield of “triggers,” and the emotions caused by infertility can at times feel all-consuming.
In addition, some days or times of the year are naturally harder than others: when a cycle ends, around the holidays, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, for example. And for those who have lost a child to miscarriage or stillbirth, due dates and loss dates can be especially difficult. We appreciated when friends honored the fact that infertility is an ongoing, daily cross and didn’t expect us to “get over” it quickly, but instead made space in their lives and hearts for us to share (again and again) what we were going through.
Announce pregnancies with sensitivity
It probably goes without saying that for a couple struggling with infertility, one of the most difficult experiences is hearing about another person’s pregnancy. Of course every new baby is a cause of joy, but for those who have been hoping month after month to have this good news to share, or who have lost a child before birth, a pregnancy announcement can instantly cue the waterworks. For us, we preferred people to share their pregnancy news privately — not in a big group, and not face to face either, but by text or email.
While that might sound impersonal, it gave us some time to grieve our own sadness before responding to our friends with congratulations and joy. The most difficult announcements have been those that caught us off-guard in public, making it extremely hard to master the sad emotions in time not to take away from the couples’ joy and excitement.
Offer lots of prayers and kindness, but go easy on advice and miracle stories
During our journey of infertility, it meant a lot when friends would tell us they were praying for us. And it meant even more when those prayers were made specific, such as friends who prayed for us while on pilgrimage to Our Lady of La Leche (a shrine in Florida known for helping couples to conceive), or who sent us a note around Mother’s Day saying they were keeping us in their thoughts and prayers. Infertility can feel very lonely and also very hidden, and friends who reached out in concrete ways made us feel truly supported.
On the flip side, what was less helpful was getting unsolicited advice from people with no experience with infertility, suggesting this or that supplement or this or that medical treatment. It’s better to follow a person’s lead on whether they are looking for advice or (more likely) a listening ear. In a similar vein, we understood that people who shared with us miracle conception stories were trying to give us hope, but it could feel like our own experience was minimized, or caused additional sadness that such and such a person received an answer to their prayers while we didn’t.
Be understanding if they opt out at times
For a long stretch of our years dealing with infertility, we often did not go to baby-centered events like baby showers, baptisms, or birthday parties. It was just too hard being surrounded by children and parents, which gave painful reminders of our own childlessness. We always reached out in other ways to show our support, but we were grateful for friends who understood our need to opt out. Some friends even offered an “out” in their invitation: “You know we’d love you to be there, but we also understand it might be too hard.” This helped alleviate the guilt we sometimes felt at not attending these events.
Find topics you can all talk about
It’s just basic courtesy to choose topics that all the persons in a conversation can participate in. And when it comes to infertility, being a childless woman stuck in a small group of moms with nothing to contribute is pretty awful. (My husband had fewer experiences of the sort, although it could certainly happen for non-fathers, too.) We always appreciated our friends who asked about our lives, and who made an effort not to talk exclusively about parenting or other topics we couldn’t contribute to.
Let them into your lives
This one is mainly for parents: along with allowing your infertile friends the freedom to “opt out” of child-focused events, find other ways for them to still be a part of your lives, and a part of your children’s lives. We were very grateful for friends who gave us a chance to get to know their kids, and even chose us as godparents for some of them. This made us feel less like outsiders and also soothed that part of our identities that wanted to do motherly and fatherly things. While it wasn’t always easy being immersed in kid-stuff, having the chance to read stories to little ones and become special to them went a long way in healing our hearts.
Friendship can be an incredible source of support when someone is suffering, and infertility is no exception. We were blessed to have friends and family members who walked alongside us during our years of infertility, and those experiences served to bond us together even more strongly.