Dealing with infertility: advice for family and friends

Most people know someone who is infertile. You may not know that they are, but with one in six couples seeking help to have a baby, there is a very good chance that a few of your family and friends are dealing with infertility. And yet there is little information available to friends and family who want to help.

Infertility is a very difficult and painful struggle. The research of Dr Alice Domar, professor at Harvard Medical School, suggests that the stress endured by infertility patients is comparable to those undergoing treatment for cancer and AIDS.

The emotional pain of infertility can be likened to that of a loved one dying. However, when a loved one dies there is usually a period of grief and anger, eventually followed by acceptance, during which time you can begin to get on with your life.

For an infertile couple, this pain is recurring and continues to rear its ugly head month after month, year after year, with no let up for a period of healing or acceptance. The couple must simply endure the loss of the baby they will not get to hold in eight months, every single time a cycle fails. No matter how many cycles have failed in the past, each month they get their hopes up, plan their future, only to be knocked down and kicked in the guts yet again. It is like having a loved one on life support, with the promise every month that they might come round.

Life gets even harder when the couple starts fertility treatment. In Ireland fertility treatments are very expensive and not covered by any medical insurers. The hormones involved can also be very hard on the woman’s body, which only adds to the huge amount of stress already felt by the couple for the treatment to succeed. The failure of a fertility treatment cycle is something that can take several months and even longer for a couple to come to terms with.

So how can you help?

There is not any one way in which you can help your loved ones deal with the pain of infertility. That is because different people deal with the strain in different ways, and also because the stress and emotions a couple goes through can vary depending on what stage of the journey they are at.

Nevertheless there are certain dos and don’ts that will help bring you closer to the friend or family member that is suffering infertility, and hopefully help you in the direction of helping them.

1. Listen and learn

Listen carefully to everything your loved one tells you about their infertility journey. Trust that what they tell you is the truth and that their feelings are valid. Don’t try and interpret them using a framework that you understand. Don’t say “You can’t possibly feel that bad” or “You don’t really mean that”. If your loved one tells you that the pain of infertility is worse than the pain they felt when they lost a parent, then you have to believe that it is true.

Pay attention if your loved one wants to discuss any investigations or treatment that they are having. If they are telling you then it is important to them that you know and understand what is going on. And the more that you understand about what they are going through, the more you can help make it easier for them.

2. Avoid platitudes

The most important piece of advice I can give you, is that it is better to say nothing at all than to say the wrong thing. You may not know what to say and feel like offering words of consolation such as “I just know it will happen for you soon”. Unless you can provide your loved one with a bona fide guarantee that it will indeed happen soon, then these words will mean nothing to them and may even upset them. If you feel awkward and you don’t know what to say, then the very best thing you can say is “Sorry”, and give a hug.

Don’t say “It could be worse”. You don’t know that it could be worse. If having a child is all the couple has ever dreamed of then maybe it couldn’t be worse.

Don’t say “Maybe you’re not meant to have children”. You wouldn’t say to a short-sighted person “Maybe you’re not meant to see further than your nose”. Infertility is a medical condition, and thankfully one that can be fixed in the majority of cases.

The worst thing of all that you can say is “just relax and it will happen”. I repeat, this is the very worst thing you can say to an infertile couple. Do not say this to your loved one. It is a widely believed myth that relaxing cures infertility. Infertility is a medical condition and can no more be cured by a bit of rest and relaxation than can diabetes. This 2002 article[1] by Annette Stanton et al explains that researchers have confirmed that biomedical causes account for most fertility problems. A study carried out in 2005[2] by Lisbeth Anderheim et al shows that the stress levels of IVF patients had no effect on pregnancy rates, while the 2000 study[3] by Baik Seok Kee et al shows that infertile women display significantly higher levels of stress than fertile women. So stress doesn’t cause infertility but infertility does cause stress.

3. Don’t offer unsolicited advice

By the time an infertile couple has decided to look for help, they probably already know more about trying to conceive than any fertile couple has ever needed to know. They will know all about timed intercourse, ovulation, fertility signs; they will have sought advice from magazines, books and websites about diet, vitamins and supplements. It is also likely that they have looked into possible problems that might be preventing them having a baby. Once they have started medical investigations, they will have talked through their treatment options with their doctor and will be as informed as they need to be.

Don’t say to your loved one “Have you thought about IVF?”; that is like saying to a cancer patient “Have you thought about chemotherapy?”. If it is the right option for the couple, then they will have thought long and hard about it and will have discussed it with their doctor. If it is not for them, they will also have discussed it and ruled it out or postponed it for a later date if necessary. If you have read an article on fertility treatment, don’t present your findings as new information that is bound to help. If it is on general release in the mainstream media, then the infertile couple has probably read up on it a long time ago.

Don’t offer inspirational stories about your friend’s aunt’s cousin who did eight IVFs, had five miscarriages and eventually went on to have a baby. There are three things wrong with this story. Firstly, your friend’s aunt’s cousin has a baby, good for her, your loved one does not. Secondly, your friend’s aunt’s cousin having a baby is not going to help your loved one. And finally, telling your loved one that they may have to endure that much loss and pain is not going to make them feel any better.

4. Educate yourself

One of the best things you can do to support your loved one is to read up as much as possible about what they are going through. That way you can talk to them on their level about the investigations they are having done, or the treatments they are enduring. Not only will it help you avoid offering them irritating platitudes and annoying unsolicited advice, they will also appreciate that you care enough to do this.

Ask questions about where you can find information and advice, and about any support groups that might be of use. Of course you should always ask your loved one first if this is something that they would like you to do.

5. If you’re not sure, ask

If you don’t know how to act or what to say, ask your loved one. Only they can tell you the best thing to do. It may be that they find things too hard to talk about at the moment, in which case you need to accept that they want some privacy or solitude. Be prepared for this response, as there will be times like these.

The rest of the time they will appreciate that you are looking for guidance instead of trying to push guidance upon them, something that uneducated friends of infertiles tend to do a lot.

This piece of advice is most important if you are pregnant or have children. Your children and your pregnancy will always be a source of pain for your loved one; sadly that is an unavoidable fact of life. Don’t treat your friend or family member as if they don’t exist by avoiding conversation about all things baby; do ask their advice on how they wish you to deal with pregnancy announcements, Christenings, birthday parties. Understand that it may be too painful for them to be there for you all the time, but do invite them to events and give them the option of coming or not.


 

[1] Stanton, Annette L. et al, “Psychosocial aspects of selected issues in women’s reproductive health: Current status and future directions”, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, June 2002, 70(3): pp. 751-770.

 

[2] Anderheim L. et al, “Does psychological stress affect the outcome of in vitro fertilization?”, Human Reproduction, 2005, 20(10): pp. 2969-2975.

 

[3] Baik Seok Kee et al, “A study on psychological strain in IVF patients”, Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics, 2000, 17(8): pp. 461-485 (10 ref.), pp. 445-448.

Other articles:

The Baby Battle

Recognising your fertility signs

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *